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Iran’s Nuclear Aberration

Headlines about a recent International Atomic Energy Agency report on alleged past nuclear weapons work by Iran have been needlessly alarming.

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It was inevitable that some of the headlines greeting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) final assessment of military nuclear research in Iran would be variations on the theme of “Iran’s nuclear weapon program confirmed.”

In reality the picture that emerges from the assessment, distributed to IAEA members on December 2, is more complex—and less alarming.

The IAEA is confident that Iran’s scientists have looked into what would need to be done to detonate a nuclear warhead and fit a warhead into the nose cone of a medium-range delivery vehicle. But they have found no evidence that this knowhow has ever been applied to the construction of a prototype, or that any nuclear material has ever been used for research into making the core of a uranium- (or plutonium-) based device.

Adding the IAEA’s findings to a recent statement by a former president of Iran and to the contents of recent US national intelligence estimates can produce a description of Iran’s “nuclear weapon program” that goes something like this.

In 1984, Iran’s leaders woke up to the fact that Saddam Hussein of Iraq, with whom they were at war, had tasked his nuclear scientists with producing a uranium-based bomb, the sooner the better. This prompted the Iranians to go onto the black market to acquire a uranium enrichment capability and possibly—though this is just an inference—design information for a uranium-based device. Their motive was to keep pace with, or even steal a march on Saddam, to deter him from threatening or using nuclear weapons to strike Iranian targets.

In 1988, hostilities between Iran and Iraq ceased, and in 1991 the UN forced Saddam to declare and dismantle all aspects of his nuclear weapon program. At that point his scientists still had a long way to go.

Why Iran’s leaders decided to call a halt to their program only in 2003, and not in the early 1990s, is a puzzle. What is now clear, however, is that prior to the 2003 halt, Iran’s scientists were still engaged in basic research. There are no signs of a “crash program” in the years following the unravelling of Saddam’s nuclear weapon ambitions.

We can also say with confidence, thanks to the IAEA, that Iranian weapon-related activities never reached the point of entailing any breach of Iran’s core non-proliferation commitment to refrain from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons.

A Controversial Process

The distribution of this assessment marks the end of a controversial process. In early 2008, the IAEA elevated a two-year “concern” about the alleged study of a uranium-conversion process, warhead-detonation techniques, and missile nose-cone design work into an investigation into a “possible military dimension” (PMD). It is not clear from Agency reports why it decided on this change of tack.

Nor is it clear what led the IAEA to put to one side initial doubts about the authenticity of the documents that constitute the original “alleged studies.” The documents came from a laptop smuggled out of Iran in 2004. Supposedly the documents were initiated within the confines of Iran’s nuclear weapon program. Yet they contain “deficiencies of form and format,” to quote from an IAEA report—puzzling inaccuracies and anomalies that led Iran to allege that the documents are forgeries—and these have never been explained away.

Of course over the last decade the IAEA has acquired a lot of additional information, some from open sources, some through their own investigations, and some from member states. This additional material has likely raised their confidence in the authenticity of the laptop information, despite its deficiencies, by corroborating aspects of it.

That, though, takes one into the murky world of intelligence collection. The reliability of human intelligence (HUMINT) can be notoriously hard to assess—witness the 2002 CURVEBALL case that featured false allegations of mobile biological weapon laboratories in Iraq. Perhaps very little of the “information from member states” to which reference is made passim in the December 2 assessment took the form of HUMINT. But no such assurance has been offered.

Then there is the question of the legal basis for investigating the PMD allegations. The mandate that the UN Security Council gave to the IAEA was clear. But after a while the IAEA started to claim that additional authority came from Iran’s nuclear safeguards agreement. That was controversial because the safeguards authority relates to the completeness and correctness of nuclear material declarations. It was hard to conceive how some of the PMD allegations, e.g. the design of a missile nose cone, could have involved nuclear material.

Looking to the Future

These controversies now lie in the past. After the December 2 assessment the IAEA will likely concentrate on the broader question of whether Iran is harbouring any undeclared nuclear activities or material – the same question that arises in every Non-Nuclear Weapon State subject to the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, as Iran will be shortly.

This question is a lot more important than whether Iran is in possession of knowhow relevant to the making of a nuclear device. That knowhow is much less rare in 2015 than it was in 1945. What has saved the world from rampant nuclear proliferation is not the absence of knowhow but the absence of the inclination to make use of it.

Since 1945 only eight states have acquired nuclear weapons. This is mainly, though not entirely, because most states have preferred the collective security of adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to the costs and risks of becoming nuclear-armed.

Iran’s leaders may not have been fully aware of those costs in 1984 or may have seen Saddam’s nuclear weapon program as force majeure. But they are aware now. The last 12 years of gruelling diplomacy and economic sanctions have seen to that.

So they have good reason to make a success of the July 14 Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). By implementing the confidence-building measures detailed in the Plan and complying scrupulously with its verification and transparency commitments, Iran can persuade the NPT community to view its “nuclear weapons program” as an aberration that its leaders do not intend to repeat.

And if US leaders are wise, they will encourage Iranian implementation by fulfilling their side of the July 14 bargain. That means lifting secondary sanctions and giving European and Asian banks and enterprises confidence about re-engaging with Iran. It also means adopting a less Manichaean view of the Middle East and recognizing the potential cost of exaggerating Iranian responsibility for regional instability and conflict. When nuclear non-proliferation is at stake, the ethical emotions on which politicians thrive must give way to sober judgement.

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