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Four reasons why people think Iran wants the bomb

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In the wake of the potentially historic nuclear agreement of 14 July 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries, those opposed to the deal – in the US and elsewhere – continue to assume that Iran has been working to acquire nuclear weapons for years, and still wants to do so. Our Middle East analyst Nigel Pearce investigates the reasoning.


1. Secrecy and deception

Almost nothing is as effective as secrecy at encouraging people to adopt worst-case scenarios about their adversaries. The only thing more effective is exposure of a secretive party’s deception. Iran has been caught out several times building secret nuclear facilities or clandestinely acquiring sanctioned technology, which has confirmed the worst-case assumption and prevented questioning of it.

"The existing nuclear-armed powers have all carried out secret military programmes, and therefore find it hard to believe that Iran will have acted differently."

To see how self-destructive secrecy can be, one need only look at Saddam Hussein’s deceptive policies in Iraq and the missing weapons of mass destruction that led to the US-led invasion of 2003. So Hassan Rouhani’s early commitment on his appointment as President of Iran in 2013 to greater transparency of the Iranian nuclear programme was a welcome development.

Taken together with Iran’s fulfilment of its commitments during the interim Joint Plan of Action before the final 14 July agreement, it could, and maybe should, have prompted the hardliners opposing the deal to open the lid of their assumption and take another look.

2. Doing what we did

The existing nuclear-armed powers have all carried out secret military programmes, and therefore find it hard to believe that Iran will have acted differently. This is despite Iran’s repeated assertions about the non-military nature of its programme and Supreme Leader Khamenei’s frequently cited religious ruling (fatwa) that nuclear weapons are “un-Islamic”.

Hassan Rouhani speaking at the UN headquarters in 2013. Photo: UN Photo | Sarah Fretwell

Of course, the Iranians could have been lying all along. A concept in Shi’a discourse known as ‘taqiyya’ allows religious dissimulation in order to save one’s life. This concept could have been extended to the nuclear issue, since admitting the existence of a military programme might conceivably have led to a bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But that is stretching it a bit, and hardliners could at least have kept an open, if watchful, mind on the veracity of Iran's assertions.

It must also have been extremely galling for the Iranians to endure the blatant hypocrisy of nuclear-armed states telling them what nuclear technology they could and could not have, on the basis that Iran might be secretly developing a bomb.

3. A military-industrial complex

Iran is a highly securitised society. And in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it has an only partially accountable “state-within-a-state”, with pervasive military, political and economic power and resources.

Furthermore, since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the leadership, perceiving itself under siege by a hostile world, has doggedly pursued the goal of economic, technological and military self-sufficiency. It is therefore inconceivable that, in developing a nuclear programme, Iran has not at the very least explored its military applications. The shenanigans around the IAEA inspectors’ inability to access the Parchin military site give ample reason for outsiders to deduce that it was part of a weapons programme.

This does not necessarily mean that Iran has had a full-blown, uninterrupted nuclear bomb programme. Indeed, US intelligence believed it was halted in 2003, although others disagree.

"AQ Khan is the father of the Pakistani bomb who went on to sell his nuclear “recipe” to any takers, among them Libya, which was caught out by intelligence and agreed to abandon its WMD programmes, and Iran."

The Iranians traditionally like to keep all their options open. So it is more likely that up until 2013 they were hedging their nuclear bets, than plumping unequivocally for bomb manufacture, with all the attendant risks of exposure.

The real test will be a separate part of the nuclear agreement which has attracted less attention. This is the road-map signed by Iran and the IAEA, whereby the “past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme”, including Parchin and “possible military dimensions,” are due to be clarified by the end of December 2015. Assumptions about Iran’s military intentions, past and future, should be suspended until this process is complete.

4. The wrong recipe

A major problem with Iran’s nuclear programme is where, at one point around the turn of the century, it sourced its nuclear technology: from Abdul Qader (AQ) Khan. AQ Khan is the father of the Pakistani bomb who went on to sell his nuclear “recipe” to any takers, among them Libya, which was caught out by intelligence and agreed to abandon its WMD programmes, and Iran.

When Iran acquired the AQ Khan recipe, and began to assemble its nuclear ingredients, it made little sense as a civilian programme because it looked exactly like a military one.

Paradoxically, as Iran has mastered all the elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, it has been able to diverge from the original recipe and increasingly create the civilian applications that it has always claimed to be its intention.

Iran has gone on to produce, of late quite openly, far more centrifuges than it needs. This looks suspicious but may reflect the symbolic importance of centrifuge development and manufacture to national pride rather than military intent. However, the nuclear agreement will drastically reduce this number of operational centrifuges.

Beyond verification and suspicion?

The European Union’s senior diplomat Federica Mogherini wrote in The Guardian newspaper, “In the end, we agreed on a deal that is not based on trust, but on precise commitments, on transparency and verification.”

Iran’s nuclear programme will be subjected to an unprecedented inspection regime. As Professor Stephen M Walt pointed out in Foreign Policy:

“In theory, Iran could try to cheat in various small ways, but it couldn’t do enough to get it across the nuclear weapons threshold without being caught well in advance of weaponisation.”

Representatives, including Federica Mogherini, in negotiations for an Iran nuclear deal, 2015

The goal in future should be to move from verification to trust. This may come about if the nuclear agreement lasts and leads to cooperation, rather than competition, on regional security issues in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, if the agreement is ratified and the pragmatic trend in Tehran is strengthened, the prevailing current of opinion in Iran today is likely to have no interest in developing a nuclear bomb for the foreseeable future. As President Obama pointed out on 5 August:

“Every nation in the world that has commented publicly, with the exception of the Israeli government, has expressed support [for the nuclear deal.”

Iran has little incentive to undermine that consensus.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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