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What Is Iran’s Nuclear Program For?

Bobby Ghosh makes some assertions about Iran and its nuclear program:

The Iranians will likely remain—or at least give the impression of remaining—within enrichment levels that allow them to claim they’re not actually trying to make nuclear weapons. But remember: there is no other reason for them to have a nuclear program.

There are more than a few countries that have have considerable amounts of oil and natural gas under their soil that nonetheless have nuclear programs for energy production and other legitimate civilian uses. The idea that an oil-rich government would invest in a nuclear program only for the sake of building weapons is belied by the example of Iran’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates. Ghosh asserts that Iran’s reason for developing a nuclear program has always been “to menace its neighbors,” but if that were the case why hasn’t Iran ever pressed ahead and built the weapons with which to menace them? Even supposing that Iran built a few nuclear weapons, the main value in having a small arsenal would be for deterring attacks and not for threatening other states.

If Iran were interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, it is much more likely that they would be acquiring them for the purpose of ensuring the survival of the regime. There is a certain logic to the idea that Iran has an incentive to acquire nuclear weapons, as John Mearsheimer points out in an op-ed today:

It makes much more sense for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons rather than gamble on the possibility that America’s Iran policy will radically shift once again. Surely many Iranian policymakers — and especially the hard-liners among them — now recognize that if they had acquired a survivable nuclear arsenal in the early 2000s, the Trump administration would not be threatening their survival today.

I agree with Mearsheimer that it does seem to make sense. North Korea became a nuclear weapons state, and it has all but guaranteed its security against external attack. It should be very tempting for Iran to do the same thing, especially when they are going to be sanctioned into the ground no matter what. The striking thing is that Iran not only hasn’t been seeking such weapons for all this time, but it has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that it has no intention of ever building them. If the only reason Iran has for having a nuclear program is to “menace its neighbors,” it doesn’t make much sense to agree to extensive restrictions and intrusive inspections that prove that the program poses no threat to anyone. If Iran doesn’t want the nuclear program for any other reason except to “menace its neighbors,” it might as well abandon it, but the fact that Iran insists on keeping a limited, constrained version of the program suggests that they value it for other reasons. That tells us that Ghosh’s lazy assumption is unfounded.

The debate over Iran’s nuclear program in this country has always taken for granted that the Iranian government was “hell-bent” on acquiring nukes, but the evidence of the last twenty years tells a very different story. After briefly flirting with research into developing such weapons for a few years around the turn of the century, Iran stopped and has never resumed that work. Iran built up its nuclear capabilities during the 2000s and early 2010s, but it never worked on developing nuclear weapons. Much of that buildup was in direct response to the increasing sanctions imposed on Iran over the nuclear issue. What if our irrational, exaggerated fear of the Iranian government has caused us to perceive a danger from Iran’s nuclear program that hasn’t existed in at least 16 years? What if the preoccupation with the nuclear issue has just been a pretext for hawks and regional clients to have an excuse to isolate and punish Iran no matter what? If that’s right, the danger from the potential collapse of the nuclear is not the development of an Iranian bomb but the ready-made excuse to attack Iran that many hawks here and in the region will be eager to use.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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