By Rajeev Agarwal
The interim nuclear deal signed with Iran and the final resolutions are likely to focus on the core issue of Iran and the possibility of it developing nuclear weapons. Other issues could then form concentric circles around this core issue. While the core issue focuses on eliminating the threat of Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, it is important to also understand how Iran would see it in its overall interests. Two critical questions must be answered: would Iran have waited until now if it wanted a nuclear bomb? Does the bomb help Iran in securing its security and strategic interests?
Iran and its Capability to Develop the Bomb
The Iranian nuclear programme owes its origins to the Atoms for Peace programme launched by the United States in the 1950s. It was shelved after the Iranian revolution in 1979 but acquired relevance again during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980s which led to the revival of the programme. However, it assumed significance only after the sensational disclosure of the existence of undeclared nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak by an exiled dissident Iranian group in 2002. The issue has thereafter witnessed a roller coaster ride in the past decade oscillating between possible resolutions and increasing international economic sanctions. In the midst of all this, however, Iran has continued to enrich uranium to higher levels and in increased quantities.
While Iran had stocks of 1,763 kg of uranium enriched up to 5 per cent and no uranium enriched indigenously up to 20 per cent as per the IAEA report on Iran of November 2009, it now has 10,357 kg of uranium enriched up to 5 per cent and 410 Kg of uranium enriched up to 20 per cent indigenously as per the IAEA report of November 2013. Of the 410 kg of 20 per cent enrichment, only 196 kg is kept in storage as 20 per cent enriched uranium while the rest has been converted into fuel rods. Iran would require approximate 220-240 kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium to further enrich it to levels of 90 per cent and above to get one nuclear warhead. It is however interesting that Iran has consistently kept the levels of 20 per cent enriched uranium stocks to well below 200 kg since it commenced enrichment up to 20 per cent in December 2009, thus refraining from crossing the red line. Also, the number of centrifuges enriching uranium in Iran has increased from around 7,000 in November 2009 to around 17,000 in November 2013. The increase in numbers has been equally complemented with increase in quality, with some centrifuges now ranging to IR-4, 5 and 6 from merely first generation IR-1 centrifuges in 2009.
The IAEA has also expressed concern in its various reports that Iran already may have the design information for a nuclear warhead. Various intelligence estimates including from the US and Israel have been suggesting that Iran may be getting to the ‘break out stage’ in a matter of a few months to a year. It has not yet happened and the timelines in each intelligence estimate keep getting stretched with every new report. With its known ties with the Pakistani nuclear programme architects and possibly North Korea, it would not be difficult for Iran to get the design parameters if it does not have it already. It would thus seem amply clear that Iran could have had the bomb if it wanted. Iran’s decision to not have the bomb at this time possibly has other dimensions than mere technical expertise.
Iran’s Security and Strategic Interests
With the exception of Israel, which keeps calling for military strikes on Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons programme, there is little threat to Iran in the region. Iraq is well and truly under the Iranian sphere of influence after the second Gulf War. Afghanistan and Pakistan have too many of their own internal problems. Syria and Lebanon (under the influence of Iran-sponsored Hezbollah) have long been Iranian allies. Iran has enjoyed improved relations with Turkey despite the current Syrian crisis being a temporary dampener. The Saudi Arabia-led GCC has been Iran’s rivals but never demonstrated the capability or intention of taking any unilateral offensive action against Iran. The only potent military threat to Iran emanates from the US which too has been calling for dialogue with Iran instead of military strikes for the past few years. Thus Iran, in present circumstances, does not seem to be unduly threatened by any external military threat except possibly Israel.
Geographically, of all the countries in the West Asian region, Iran is the only country which has a direct interface with the regions of Central Asia, West Asia and South Asia. Iran’s centrality, its suitability as an energy hub for oil and gas pipelines from the Central Asian Republics towards Turkey and Europe in the West and the Persian Gulf in the South, and its strategic location in the Strait of Hormuz, makes it a fulcrum of the region. This position gives Iran a chance to carve out a bigger sphere of influence in the region. Developments in the region in the past decade too have helped Iran. Withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and its alignment with Iran helped to extend Iran’s sphere of direct influence up to Syria; effectively bringing Iran to the borders of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, extending borders with Turkey, and placing it in close proximity to its major adversary in the region; Israel.
As regards Afghanistan, the US is determined to pull out its combat mission by the end of 2014. Iran, with its historical and cultural ties in Afghanistan, could then increase its influence. The Hazara population in Afghanistan swears allegiance to Iran and with a history of supporting the Northern Alliance in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, Iran could play a major role in post 2014 Afghanistan. Given its historical links from the times of the Persian Empire and the significant Shiite Muslim population, Iran enjoys significant support in some of the Central Asian countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In addition, Iran enjoys good relations with Russia and China. Both have stood by Iran on the nuclear issue in the past as also the present Syrian crisis. Also, despite its adversarial relationship with the GCC, Iran enjoys cordial relations with Oman and Bahrain. It would thus seem that Iran has expanded its sphere of influence without any major use of coercion. The choice of acquiring nuclear weapons for regional influence would thus seem unfounded.
On the contrary, Iran, gains very little from possessing nuclear weapons. In case Iran get nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and possibly Egypt could be forced to do the same, thus dramatically altering the regional security calculus. In a region infested by terrorism, the chances of a rogue group getting hold of a nuclear weapon could endanger existing regimes including Iran. Being a theological state, Iran has very few friends. Possession of nuclear weapons could further alienate it as also force nations neutral about Iran to look at Iran with fear and suspicion. Also, the international community including the US and Israel could seek the legitimate right to bomb Iran. With very few friends and possible lack of retaliatory capability, Iran could face a major challenge.
Domestically, the nuclear programme has been a huge rallying point for the regime and has become a major source of nationalism. Iran and its people have endured economic sanctions over the nuclear programme and discrimination by the international community despite its legitimate right to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme as a member of the NPT. The Supreme Leader too has frequently said that getting a nuclear bomb is un-Islamic and that Iran is not in pursuit of nuclear weapons. For Iran to acquire nuclear weapons unilaterally would go against this public discourse and discredit the regime, threatening its security.
It would thus seem that Iran does not require nuclear weapons to increase its regional influence or ensure continued regime stability domestically. In fact, as mentioned, acquiring nuclear weapons alters the equations dramatically against Iran.
Also, the empirical history of nuclear weapons clearly proves two facts; firstly, no nation has yet been prevented from becoming a nuclear weapons state if it sets its sights on it, whether it was India, Pakistan, North Korea or Israel. Secondly, there has yet been no case of a nuclear weapon power using its nuclear weapons in a conflict. Iran has conducted itself with restraint and is yet to be directly involved in any military conflict (after the war with Iraq in 1980s) in a conflict-ridden region. It would therefore not be in Iran’s interests to declare a nuclear weapons programme unilaterally even if it has the capability. Maintaining a state of ‘nuclear latency’ would be the best option which would leave the window open for a ‘quick breakout’ to assemble a bomb if and when it is either attacked or is threatened militarily.
Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi
About the author: IPCS
IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.