Is It a Mistake to Draw Solace From the Iran Bomb’s Long Gestation Period?

At Arms Control NOW, the Arms Control Association blog, Greg Theilman writes that since “we have every reason to believe that an Iranian bomb is neither imminent nor inevitable. … alarmist estimates provided earlier this month require a response regarding timelines.”

Thielman quotes Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of Nonproliferation and Disarmament at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London to the effect that Iran “‘won’t have [a nuclear weapon] tomorrow or next week or next month or a year from now.’ To predict otherwise, he added, ‘borders on the irresponsible.’”

Among the “worst case assumptions” Thielman quotes Fitzpatrick as singling out are:

That Iran would be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium before the IAEA inspectors would catch onto it. … there’s a built-in assumption that somehow Iran would be able to game the IAEA. It would be a big gamble.

… That Iran would be so foolish as to go for broke to produce just one weapon. … But what country in [its] right mind would just go for one weapon, take all of the risks of being bombed … They’d need a handful … the way North Korea did.

Thielman also cites David Albright (no friend to Iran), et al, at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which “found no reason to change its earlier breakout estimate of six months at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. The ISIS analysis included a reminder that the U.S. Governments breakout projection is even longer (as is Fitzpatrick’s)” because of the process the United States assumes Iran would use.

As for whether or not Iran would actually build nuclear weapons, Thielman reminds us:

As recently as February of this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assessed that Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. … The ultimate outcome is a question of Iranian political will, not technical capacity.

Whether six months or a year or more, the timeline divests those who believe the worst about Iran of little ammunition in their calls for an airstrike. Furthermore, it makes disarmament advocates look like they’ve jammed their heads in the sand, even if they’re committed to the path Thielman prescribes:

With continued enforcement of targeted sanctions, a willingness to forego making military threats, and increased readiness to exploit opportunities for opening up a diplomatic pathway, there is ample time to solve the Iranian nuclear challenge.

Sanctions aside, paths two and three haven’t necessarily been tried in earnest. But, if we disarmament advocates wish to salvage any credibility with the bomb-Iran crowed, we need to assume the worst too. Left as well as right needs to acknowledge that Iran seems content in its reluctance to disabuse the world of the notion that it might be close to developing nuclear weapons.

We disarmament advocates cling to the belief that disarmament leadership on the part of the United States might help dissuade Iran and other states that aspire to develop nuclear weapons from actually proliferating. (Though with the United States committing at least $80 billion — subject to the cost-cutting whims of the Republicans these days — over the next decade, true disarmament leadership on the part of the United States looks like a non-starter.) In fact, while demonstrating disarmament leadership has the advantage of being the only honest response, especially since it’s called for by the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, conservatives may be correct in assuming that such initiatives would have little impact on states such as Iran.

On the other hand, it’s conceivable that Israel owning up to its nuclear program and subjecting it to monitoring and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency would have some impact on the proliferation plans of Iran. Of course, Israel is even less likely to take substantive disarmament measures than the United States. As the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Global Security Newswire reports:

Any Middle Eastern nuclear weapon-free zone must be preceded by robust nonproliferation measures and an enduring absence of armed conflict from the area, Israel told the International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference on Tuesday. . . . The Israeli official faulted Syria and Iran over lingering international concerns that they might have pursued atomic activities with military implications.

An “enduring absence of armed conflict from the area” more or less much guarantees that Israel won’t be soon acknowledging its nuclear weapons program soon and thus helping to make of the Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone.