It has become the conventional wisdom in Washington and the capitals of Europe that Iran is hellbent on building a nuclear weapon. This may very well be true, despite the nonproliferation efforts by the international community. However, getting its hands on a nuke at all costs may not be the game that Iran is playing. Iran may continue to develop its nuclear weapons capability but stop just short of actually putting together a bomb.
If we assume that Iran’s primary motivation for its nuclear weapons program is regime security, then this would be the best place, strategically speaking, for Iran to be. It would also put the rest of the world, particularly the United States, in an awkward position.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently stated that “by gaining just the capability to build a nuke, Iran can get 95 percent of the benefit with only 5 percent of the blowback.”
Indeed, if Iran tested a nuclear weapon tomorrow, what would be the international reaction? Perhaps just a strongly worded condemnation by the Security Council or perhaps Israel or the United States would attack it. Saudi Arabia might buy a few nukes from Pakistan, sparking a regional nuclear arms race. Russia and China may or may not come to Iran’s diplomatic defense. Maybe nothing would happen at all. Or maybe Iran would be pushed into even greater isolation and economic ruin. It’s hard to say.
It is precisely this uncertainty and unpredictability that gives American foreign policymakers nightmares about a nuclear armed Iran and it is this same uncertainty that may give Iran second thoughts about tightening those last few bolts as well.
In fact, many of the worst case scenarios, such as the ignition of a regional nuclear arms race, are just as worrisome for Iran as they are to the rest of us. After all, how would a nuclear armed Saudi Arabia benefit Iran’s strategic position?
Now let’s imagine a different scenario. Iran continues to develop its nuclear capability but only to the point where it could acquire a bomb within eight to ten weeks after choosing to do so. Doing this would put Iran in a strategically advantageous position, without suffering the unpredictable fallout (no pun intended) of a full nuclear acquisition. Additionally, by that time Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would so diversified and fortified enough to be nearly impervious to attack, making a quiet mockery of Israel’s “red line.”
Furthermore, doing this is perfectly legal under international law. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, despite its nobility of purpose, is seriously flawed. The most difficult part of nuclear weapons development is the acquisition of fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium). Weapons grade fissile material is hard to come by and difficult to produce both technically and financially. Constructing the actual bomb or warhead, however, is often described as a graduate school level physics project.
That being said, there is no article of the NPT to which Iran is a party that says a country cannot produce weapons grade fissile material. The only actions explicitly forbidden in the treaty are “to receive, from any source, nuclear weapons, or other nuclear explosive devices; not to manufacture or acquire such weapons or devices; and not to receive any assistance in their manufacture.” In other words, you can get all the bits and pieces; you just can’t put them together.
By threading this needle, Iran can become a de facto nuclear power while technically adhering to international law. By keeping full nuclear weapons acquisition within easy reach, Iran would enjoy much of the same benefits of an actual nuclear deterrent and be able to move forward with its agenda with far greater predictability and security.
Israel and the United States would be very hesitant in taking action that threatens the Iranian regime’s survival, fearing that it may push them into taking the final step. After all, if the objective of the Western powers is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Iran’s leverage would be greatest when it was on the cusp of nuclear acquisition while there still may be hope of preventing it from doing so.
This scenario would also give Iran backers such as China and Russia political cover to continue their support of Iran and, in China’s case, to continue buying Iranian oil.
If this situation became the new normal, even American allies such as Japan and South Korea would likely start increasing their Iranian oil imports as sanction fatigue sets in. Embarrassingly, the United States have already had to renew sanction waivers three times for these countries. Make no mistake, Asian economies need more oil and they are getting less picky about where it comes from. If the growth in Asian oil demand continues apace, Iran may soon need no other markets for its crude.
In short, pursuing this strategy would allow Iran to enjoy the increased regime security that comes from possessing a nuclear deterrent without sparking an unpredictable torrent of events that could blunt its growing regional influence. Regional rivals would be less likely to acquire their own deterrents and it would have an avenue to begin reintegrating into the global economy.
Nevertheless, this outcome would have dangerous repercussions for international security. The gaping hole in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would be ripped open for all the world to see. Iran could become a model for other nuclear aspirant nations that desire to reap the benefits of a nuclear capability while remaining untouchable under international law. The world could see a new wave of nuclear fuel cycle proliferation, along with an emergent class of de facto nuclear powers just a few screwdriver turns away from their own doomsday arsenals.
This article was published as the winning entry in an internship competition at Wikistrat, the world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy.