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A Nuclear Iran

Is it a question or "if," or "when"?

11:00 PM, Nov 28, 2004 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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IRAN'S RECENT PUBLIC DECISION to halt its uranium enrichment program could be the first move in a gradual opening of its society and an attempt by Iran's moderate factions to integrate Tehran into the world's economy. Could the pursuit of nuclear weapons be merely a bargaining chip for greater concessions by the Europeans and the United States to take pressure off the Islamic regime? Should Iran's agreement to halt its nuclear weapons program and open its research facilities to U.N. inspectors be taken at face value? The prospects for success are not encouraging, one expert writes. And based on Tehran's latest attempt to maintain some of its uranium enrichment capability despite its earlier pledge to abandon it, it seems that Iran is still unwilling to forego the nuclear option.

Iran's history of waging war through terrorist proxy forces, its decrepit military, the growing strength of the United States in the region, and lessons learned from a host of regimes who developed covert nuclear programs lead to the suspicion that Iran will likely forge ahead with its nuclear weapons program despite its recent pledge not to. In the August 2004 edition of the U.S. Army War College's professional journal, Parameters, Richard Russell contends that Iran's mullahs believe that the path to security is paved with the bomb.

Russell--a professor of Near-East and South-Asian security studies at Washington's National Defense University and an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University--believes that a confrontation with Iran is more than likely.

"The good news is that assertive multilateral diplomacy still has some running room for negotiating a stall or derailment of Iran's nuclear weapons program," Russell writes in his article titled Iran in Iraq's Shadow: Dealing with Tehran's Nuclear Weapons Bid. "The bad news is that the prospects are dim for achieving this end without the resort to force over the coming years."

Not only does Iran have "geopolitical aspirations" to be a major player in the Middle East, as Iraq did under Saddam Hussein, but it has also invested billions in its covert nuclear weapons program. The further deterioration of the regime's armed forces--which Russell contends are weaker now than at any time since the 1979 revolution--combined with the U.S. victory in Iraq "have fueled Iran's insecurity and geopolitical sense of encirclement." Nuclear weapons, therefore, are "a means to fill the void in military and deterrent capabilities," Russell writes.

Don't take Iran's latest pledge at face value, Russell adds. The mullahs in Tehran have been developing their nuclear weapons program in secret for years and have seen how Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea have developed theirs clandestinely and with little firm protest or reprisal from word powers. Iran will likely continue to develop its bomb secretly and deny it publicly until the project is complete--despite U.N. controls and inspections. "Iran has had plenty of opportunity to learn lessons on beating the IAEA inspection regime from watching Iraq and North Korea, which both cheated successfully against IAEA inspectors. . . . The Iranians would be foolhardy to undermine their civilian nuclear power cover story and announce their quest for nuclear weapons, only to increase their vulnerability to American and Israeli preventative action," Russell writes.

THE KIND OF DIPLOMACY spearheaded by Germany, France, and Britain is unlikely to lead to a successful dismantling of Iran's nuclear weapons programs, Russell contends. Sanctions would hurt the Iranian people more than the Islamic regime and could undermine U.S. efforts for regime change. America could offer formal diplomatic relations, economic aid to modernize Iran's oil industry and the release of frozen Iranian assets, but making sure Tehran was using the aid for its intended purpose would be nearly impossible, Russell contends. Likewise, the military option is not without significant risk. An airstrike would involve hundreds of targets; invasion would require more forces than the U.S. has to commit: "The United States now has a significant portion of its total ground forces committed to Iraq and would be hard-pressed to mount a comparable or larger operation simultaneously against Iran."