For all the details over which nuclear negotiators have tussled for almost 20 months, there has been one overarching goal: to lengthen how long it might take for Iran to break out from its Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments and actually assemble a nuclear explosive device. But while Tehran has carefully crafted a program to build almost all the components it would need to break out, intelligence analysts and diplomats both may have erred in assuming Iran would want to break out sooner rather than later.
Instead, there is much to suggest that Iran’s leadership has a longer-term strategic plan that envisions no immediate breakout. After all, a country that is in a race to build and test a nuke doesn’t need to invest in multiple facilities and double down on advanced enrichment. Both Iranian procurement and International Atomic Energy Agency reporting indicate Iran is game to wait until it has both the means and the materiel to break out — like Pakistan, Israel or India — with an arsenal of nuclear weapons, rather than a single bomb. And if that is the case, the deal inked early Tuesday will not stop it.
Since the early 1990s, and against the backdrop of growing evidence that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions went beyond generating electricity, American and Israeli officials have been warning about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran, they said, was years or months away from the bomb. In 1993, for example, the CIA predicted Iran was “ten years away.” But in describing the clock ticking down to an Iranian nuclear capability, Iran’s opponents set a trap for themselves: Breakout, rather than breakout ability, became the focus of prevention.
Intense focus on Iran’s breakout timeline also meant that the question became a political football. During the George W. Bush administration, the intelligence community, which has missed every major nuclear development in the world, embraced a hyper-cautiousness in assessing the Iranian nuclear program, fearing to create a pretext for a military strike on Iran. Having gotten it wrong on Iraq, few were willing to go out on a limb regarding Iran.
Israel, too, focused intently on Iran’s nuclear timeline, and on persuading the world of the imminence of an Iranian nuclear threat. In 2005, then-Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned Iran was on the verge of a “point of no return.” In 2012, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset that Iran was fast approaching what he called a “zone of immunity,” the moment when a military strike would no longer be sufficient to disrupt nuclear work in hardened facilities. That same year, President Barack Obama warned that the “United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” cautioning Tehran that the time for diplomacy was “not unlimited.”
Were all those warnings simply fear-mongering? Laying the groundwork for exercising the military option? Or were they accurate assessments of Iran’s capabilities and intentions? Here lies the key trouble: Capabilities do not reveal intentions. Experts have little doubt that were Iran to throw caution to the wind, oust the IAEA and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it could have a bomb in hand within weeks. But does the Supreme Leader want “a bomb”? Some bombs? An arsenal of bombs? Or merely the capacity, like Japan, to have weapons at a time of its choosing?
Only the facts of the program are clear: secret fortified nuclear facilities, undeclared work on centrifuge advances, concealment of enrichment activities, plutonium and uranium experimentation, nuclear component casting documentation, a heavy water facility unnecessary to any peaceful nuclear program, high-power explosives testing facility, destruction of suspect sites, plans for a nuclear missile payload. And that’s little more than an outline.
But what about Iran’s intentions? The answer is unknowable for as long as the current regime is in place. The Islamic republic is opaque, its decision-making processes veiled to the outside world. Iranian nuclear doctrine — if it even has one — is unclear, as is the final shape of its nuclear ambitions.
None of this is to suggest that somehow the Iranian nuclear weapons program is less dangerous than world leaders have argued. To the contrary, the program is more dangerous, more serious and ultimately more lethal than supposed. Perhaps Iran does not wish to erase Israel from the map this year. But the reality is that, down the road, should it so choose, the world will not be able to stop it, let alone retaliate without sparking far more carnage.
The nuclear deal of which Obama is so proud does nothing to limit nuclear weapons research, nothing to limit enrichment research, nothing to limit miniaturization or delivery work and nothing to investigate or shed light on past Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, the agreement will reportedly allow cooperation between Iran and other nuclear powers that will only enhance its efforts.
It is often said that the Iranians are canny negotiators. Consider that as a reward for signing a deal that does little to constrain their ultimate ambition, they are on the verge of securing more than a $100 billion windfall. Canny indeed.
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