New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Iran’s Coming “Nuclear Opacity”


These remarks were presented at the Capitol Hill Club on June 22, 2010, at an event sponsored by the National Defense University Foundation.

Let me begin by thanking Peter Huessy and the National Defense University Foundation for sponsoring this speakers series, of which I’m pleased to be part.  In the wake of Bruce Klingner’s comments about the problems presented by North Korea, let me  offer some remarks on the challenges confronting the nonproliferation regime by focusing my attention upon Iran.

While no serious observer today doubts that the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program is to feed the clerical regime’s nuclear weapons ambitions, there remains at least some debate in the expert community as to whether Tehran intends to move straightaway into the business of building nuclear weapons.  Most seem to assume that Iran’s effort is indeed aimed at achieving weaponization as soon as possible, but some have suggested that the clerical regime might opt, at least for now, for lingering as a “virtual” nuclear weapons state – that is, on the edge of a weapons capability, only a brief sprint away from building such devices whenever desired.

There seems to me to be little or no direct evidence either way.  Iran’s various fairly obvious preparations for weaponization – as indicated, for instance, by the missile re-entry vehicle engineering documented in the so-called “laptop” documents a few years ago, or Iran’s more recent program to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for the first time – could be explained by either approach.  Tehran either intends to put such capabilities to use in weaponization as soon as they are technologically available, or it intends to hold them available for quick implementation on demand.  Conclusions about the most likely answer depend upon one’s assumptions about the motives and character of the regime in Tehran.

Many observers – especially these days, with the government in Tehran as defiant as ever, and seemingly again in heavy-handed control at home after the upwelling of “green” unrest following the widespread electoral fraud of last summer’s presidential election – find it hard to imagine the radicalized Pasdaran (a.k.a. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC) clique around President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khameni not rapidly and openly weaponizing as soon as this option becomes available to them.  (That is, moreover, a course of action for which North Korea could be regarded as having blazed the way, a path made all the more attractive for Iran because Pyongyang has not suffered dramatic consequences for having taken it.)  Others, however,still wonder whether Iran might seek or accept some kind of a “grand bargain” that could entice it to hang on indefinitely, just short of weaponization.

Most commentary and even official analyses seem to assume a binary choice, between overt weaponization and non-weaponization.  Defense Secretary Bob Gates, for example, has reportedly warned, in a secret memorandum leaked to the press not long ago, that – in the words of the New York Times’ summary of the document – the United States lacks “an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many governments and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon – fuel, designs and detonators – but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.”

If Gates believes that, he’s not wrong.  But the universe of possibilities for which the United States still seem woefully unprepared is probably broader than he is reported to have outlined.  Too little discussion has been given to another possibility, one about which a number of commentators, including myself, now more openly worry.  What if Iran chooses self-consciously to ape – or, more accurately, to adapt and twist to its own purposes – the approach that most analysts believe Israel has taken to nuclear weaponry?

But let’s stop here for a moment, because I want to prevent possible confusion.  I think that despite Tehran’s protestations, the nuclear arsenal most observers feel Israel to possess – but which its government has never confirmed, and about which U.S. officials still never publicly speculate – likely has little or nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, except insofar as officials in Tehran will undoubtedly cite Israel as their excuse for overt weaponization if and when they take such a step.  In my view, Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions grow primarily out of its internal politics, the lessons it drew from Iraqi chemical weapons use against it during the 1980s, and the Islamic Republic’s aspirations for some sort of Shi’ite-ized neo-Persian regional hegemony.  These ambitions likely have little, if anything, to do with any actual or presumed nuclear weapons capability in any other country, including Israel.  Israel would no doubt feature prominently in Iran’s proffered excuse for open possession, but it would not actually be the reason.

That said, even though I don’t think the Iranians’ nuclear weapons ambitions are driven by the Israeli nuclear situation, how these ambitions manifest themselves may yet be shaped by it.  In fact, Iran seems well positioned to play a very poisonous game in this respect.  I fear that the Iranians will choose to try to do – and from inside the NPT – what most observers claim Israel has done since the late 1960s.

Beyond two basic alternatives most analysts seem to assume Iran faces, there is a third possibility.  Iran, moreover, has some reason to find this third way attractive, for both the “overt weaponization” and “virtual nuclear weapons state” options entail costs.  Hovering on the edge of weaponization, after all, is not without risk – especially from the perspective of a radicalized regime displaying the sort of paranoia so often suggested by Iranian pronouncements.  How comfortable would the current government really be that it could count upon having days or weeks of time in a period of crisis in which to rush across the final threshold by completing the final steps?

One might think Iran could probably get away with much of this quickly, and in secret, but is “probably” good enough from Tehran’s perspective?  It is easy to imagine that if Iran were capable of building nuclear weapons, its ruling clerics and Pasdaran praetorians would not be content with half-measures that presume Iran will have some weeks’ notice of a crisis.  They would, perhaps, want to have actual nuclear weapons in hand.

Yet overt weaponization has costs too, even without assuming that the international community would suddenly discover the compliance enforcement spine that has hitherto eluded it.  Iran remains far more tied to and dependent upon the outside world than the North Koreans were at the point of their withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and subsequent nuclear tests.  There would surely be at least some pain for Iran, and perhaps a considerable amount of it, in overtly repudiating the NPT and following the North Korean path to open nuclear weapons possession.

To navigate between these counterpoised sets of drawbacks, Iran might choose to follow what its apologists would presumably quietly let people know was the “Israeli model.”  The mullahs would actually build their nuclear weapons, but they would do so secretly, and while carefully avoiding either confirming or denying public rumors of such steps – whispers which they might themselves deliberately encourage.  If challenged, Iran would self-consciously parrot, and mock, Israeli pronouncements going back to Prime Ministers David Ben Gurion and Levi Eshkol about Israel’s own nuclear posture.  Iran, we would be told with a knowing smirk, “will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.”

Observers would not, however, be discouraged from remembering the somewhat idiosyncratic Israeli definition of “introduction,” as then-Ambassador to the United States Yitzhak Rabin reportedly explained it to Nixon Administration officials years ago.  By this formulation, “introducing” nuclear weapons means openly testing and admitting the possession of such devices.  (In modern terms, in other words, “introduction” would thus mean following the North Korean model.)   As Avner Cohen has recounted of Rabin’s reported discussions with Pentagon official Paul Warnke in November 1968, however, simply quietly having nuclear weapons – and taking advantage of the deterrent effect of one’s widely-credited but never-confirmed possession – was said to be something that could be done without “introducing” them.  Such an approach might suit Iran very well today.  One imagines that the clerical regime would be happy to invoke Israeli comparisons while never quite admitting possession.

In sharp contrast with Israel, however – which had the honesty never to sign the NPT and thus would not violate any rules were it to develop or possess nuclear weapons – Iran would presumably try to do all this while pretending (as it does today) to be a Treaty party in good standing.  Through such gamesmanship, Tehran might hope to preserve for itself the best of both worlds.  By being generally believed to have nuclear weapons ready for use, it would be able to eke considerable value out of its hidden arsenal: as a deterrent to outside intervention, as a tool to facilitate the intimidation of its neighbors, as a way to bolster its insecure regime’s self-important strutting on the world stage, and as a means to destroy Israel or a source of catastrophic weapons for terrorist proxies if push really came to shove.  Yet Iran would remain notionally within the NPT, and pretend that nothing was amiss.

Such a strategy would strike an even more serious blow to the credibility of the NPT than would withdrawal and overt weaponization.  Everyone knows that the Treaty has a withdrawal clause, and North Korea has shown how a violator can use it.  This danger, however, was always inherent in the Treaty, for countries can withdraw.  An Iranian attempt to mimic Israeli-style “non-introduction” while remaining within the Treaty, however, would be even more corrosive than the blow of Pyongyang’s 2003 withdrawal.  After all, if an NPT non-nuclear weapons state can weaponize and remain within the Treaty, what could be said to remain of that instrument at all?

So the danger is very great.  Yet an Iranian strategy of “bomb-in-the-basement” nuclear ambiguity – or, in Cohen’s phrasing, nuclear opacity – could greatly complicate the politics of countervailing diplomatic mobilization in the rest of the world.  Without the clear provocation of overt Iranian possession, and in light of painful memories of analytical failures by the U.S. Intelligence Community and allied intelligence services with regard to Iraqi WMD, it could be difficult to mobilize  nonproliferation partners against what would be a merely presumably nuclear-empowered Iran.  Complicating things further, Iran’s brazenly self-conscious mimicry of Israel’s non-declaratory policy, as it were, would also inescapably entangle any discussion of the Iranian threat in the usual ugly web of reflexively anti-Israel global politics.  Under such circumstances, it could prove troublingly difficult to elicit serious multilateral responses.

This third possibility is therefore arguably the worst of all, short of the biggest nightmare scenario of some Yazdite eschatological fire-breather  in Tehran giving nuclear weapons technology to terrorists.  An Iranian decision to pursue an Israel-mocking policy of nuclear opacity while remaining within the NPT would present terrible problems for the United States, for Israel, and for the nonproliferation regime as a whole.   Secretary Gates is quite right that the United States is worryingly unprepared for Iran’s possible choices, but he seems to have understated the problem.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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