When Nuclear Weapons Programs Fail to Ripen

One can’t help but suspect that a key reason the public and even many policymakers believe that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons is the sheer length of time that the words “Iran” and “nuclear” have been uttered in the same sentence by the media. Way back in 1957 Iran signed an agreement to participate President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. But Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini temporarily halted Iran’s nuclear efforts, both peaceful and weapons.

In the late eighties and early nineties, AQ Khan, lord of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program as well as the nuclear black market, shared know-how and components with Iran. Then, in late 2002, it was learned that Iran had built a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak. It appears, though, that in 2003 all but vestigial research toward an Iranian nuclear-weapons program ended.

For better or worse, that’s 55 years, off and on, that Iran’s name has been linked with the word nuclear and 25 years since Iran initiated actual work on developing nuclear weapons. By contrast, the United States developed nuclear weapons from scratch in four years during what, compared to today, was the technological dark ages. In the interim, many other states have also succeeded in relatively short timeframes. Thus, it doesn’t strike most in the West as plausible that a developed state like Iran has yet to bring its program — if you’re among those who believe that, in fact, it exists — to fruition.

Jacques E. C. Hymans of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California addresses Iran’s inability (again, if you accept that it’s trying) to close the nuclear circle in an article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs titled “Botching the Bomb: Why Nuclear Weapons Programs Often Fail on Their Own — and Why Iran’s Might, Too” (behind a pay wall). He begins by providing an example of an official skeptical of how long it’s taking Iran to close the circle (again, assuming you’re among those who believe that’s what it seeks). [Emphasis added.]

“Today, almost any industrialized country can produce a nuclear weapon in four to five years,” a former chief of Israeli military intelligence recently wrote in The New York Times, echoing a widely held belief. Indeed, the more nuclear technology and know-how have diffused around the world, the more the timeline for building a bomb should have shrunk. But in fact, rather than speeding up over the past four decades, proliferation has gone into slow motion. … Seven countries launched dedicated nuclear weapons projects before 1970, and all seven succeeded in relatively short order. By contrast, of the ten countries that have launched dedicated nuclear weapons projects since 1970, only three have achieved a bomb.

In Iran’s case — and I’ll issue this disclaimer just once more: assuming you believe that they’re trying to develop nuclear weapons — a number of factors have contributed to the delay. Foremost among them is that because Iran signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it’s subject to monitoring and verification. Other reasons include imported nuclear components that the West has sabotaged and killing of scientists, the reduction of the nuclear black market to but a shadow of itself, and sanctions. But here, according to Hymans, is the essential reason in Iran as well as other states:

The great proliferation slowdown. … is mostly the result of the dysfunctional management tendencies of the states that have sought the bomb in recent decades. Weak institutions in those states have permitted political leaders to unintentionally undermine the performance of their nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians.

In fact, according to Hymans,

… most rulers of recent would-be nuclear states have tended to rely on a coercive, authoritarian management approach to advance their quest for the bomb, using appeals to scientists’ greed and fear as the primary motivators. That coercive approach is a major mistake, because it produces a sense of alienation in the workers by removing their sense of professionalism. As a result, nuclear programs lose their way. Moreover, underneath these bad management choices lie bad management cultures. In developing states with inadequate civil service protections, every decision tends to become politicized, and state bureaucrats quickly learn to keep their heads down. Not even the highly technical matters faced by nuclear scientific and technical workers are safe from meddling politicians. The result is precisely the reverse of what the politicians intend: not heightened efficiency but rather a mixture of bureaucratic sloth, corruption, and endless blame shifting.

He uses Iraq as an example. On the other hand, Hymans writes:

… military attacks by foreign powers have tended to unite politicians and scientists in a common cause to build the bomb. Therefore, taking radical steps to rein in Iran would be not only risky but also potentially counterproductive, and much less likely to succeed than the simplest policy of all: getting out of the way and allowing the Iranian nuclear program’s worst enemies — Iran’s political leaders — to hinder the country’s nuclear progress all by themselves. … The world is lucky that during the past few decades, the leaders of would-be nuclear weapons states have been so good at frustrating and alienating their scientists. The United States and its partners must take care not to adopt policies that resolve those leaders’ management problems for them.

Unfortunately policymakers vulnerable to the conventional wisdom that Iran is developing nuclear weapons may well be too susceptible to pressure from hawks to exhibit that degree of patience and restraint.