Crying Wolf About an Iranian Nuclear Bomb
By Jacques E. C. Hymans
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
17 January 2012
The United States and Israel's fear of an Iranian
nuclear bomb is bringing the countries closer to
war. American and Israeli policymakers, however,
have consistently exaggerated Iran's near- to
medium-term nuclear potential. To date, Iran's pace
of progress has been incredibly slow, and there is
no reason to expect that this will suddenly change.
The long-simmering international crisis over Iran's
nuclear ambitions may now have reached a boiling point.
Washington is imposing sanctions on Iranian oil exports,
the heart of the Iranian economy. And Tehran, in turn,
is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, through
which nearly a fifth of the world's oil trade passes on
a daily basis. The potential for outright war between
the United States and Iran has never seemed more
On the one hand, Iran is largely to blame for the
ongoing nuclear crisis. The country's top leaders have
ardently embraced the "oppositional nationalist"
mentality that tends to give rise to nuclear weapons
ambitions. Although they have consistently denied
having such goals, their denials ring hollow in light of
how fast and loose they have played with the rules of
the international nuclear nonproliferation regime --
obligations that the Iranians, themselves, agreed to
On the other hand, top policymakers in the United States
and Israel have also done their part to stir the pot.
They have heightened the crisis not just by their
belligerent rhetoric and aggressive covert actions, but
also -- and indeed, more fundamentally -- by endorsing
highly generous assessments of Iranian nuclear technical
capacities, which make it seem as if the birth of an
Iranian nuclear bomb is just around the corner.
In fact, those assessments are extreme, worst-case
scenarios that invite a replay of the tragic preemptive
war that the United States launched against Iraq's
phantom nuclear program in 2003.
It is one thing for Iran to want nuclear weapons; it is
an entirely different matter for it to actually build
them. Even taking the darkest possible view of Iranian
nuclear intentions, the historical record provides ample
reason to doubt that Iran is on the verge of entering
the nuclear weapons club.
Crying wolf. As strategic analysts Anthony Cordesman and
Khalil al-Rodhan remind us, in the 1990s, high-level
American and Israeli policymakers repeatedly warned of
an Iranian bomb by the year 2000. When that did not come
to pass, policymakers warned of an Iranian bomb by the
year 2005. Then they said it would happen by 2010. Now
the talk puts Iran's nuclear debut in the 2013-2015 time
frame, if not sooner.
The story of the boy who cried wolf comes to mind.
This is not to deny that the Iranian regime has made
some progress toward the bomb during its quarter-century
of intensive nuclear efforts. Most notably, Iran has
accumulated a decent amount of low-enriched uranium,
enriched to about 3 percent, and a small amount enriched
to around 20 percent. The country has recently embarked
on a major campaign to build up its stockpile of 20
percent enriched uranium, and once this is accomplished,
Iran will be well-positioned to amass a significant
quantity of bomb-grade, 90 percent enriched uranium.
Bottom line: Today, Iran is about halfway to its
putative goal; not many countries have been able to make
it even this far.
That being said, however, it is crucial to recognize
that the quality of Iran's nuclear workmanship has been
consistently poor, so it has been able to progress at no
more than a snail's pace.
For instance, Iran imported powerful Pakistani P2
centrifuge models in the mid-1990s, but it was not until
2011 that it finally began using a version of them in
its enrichment drive. Even now, the vast majority of the
Iranian enrichment effort relies on the very inefficient
Pakistani P1 centrifuge design.
Indeed, in recent years -- despite the headlines about
Iranian nuclear progress -- its number of working gas
centrifuges has actually been declining, due to wear and
tear, poor maintenance, a lack of spare parts, and
impure feedstock. (As of 2005, Iran's uranium
hexafluoride gas feedstock was still not much better
than "garbage.") As a result, even before the
devastating 2010 Stuxnet virus attacks, the Iranian
program was already experiencing a "tremendous slowing
down," in the words of former IAEA safeguards chief Olli
Is it really reasonable to expect such low-quality,
brittle technical infrastructure to create a single,
Hiroshima-size nuclear device -- let alone a bona fide
nuclear weapons arsenal?
Dangerous speculation. Admittedly, Iran may not be
showing the world the full extent of its nuclear
efforts. Anti-Iran hawks often conjure up images of a
secret cave with a highly efficient nuclear complex,
like that of a James Bond villain.
But even though Iran's claims that it is open and honest
with international nuclear inspectors are unbelievable,
that does not mean it is hiding a sophisticated weapons
program. In fact, the record shows that Iran's distinct
tendency is to exaggerate its nuclear accomplishments.
The typical Iranian pattern has been to hold a grand
celebration to announce a big technological
breakthrough, and then to spend many subsequent years
trying to live up to their own hype. For instance, in
2006 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triumphantly
announced the forthcoming deployment of the above-
mentioned second-generation centrifuges -- yet more than
five years later, Iran is just beginning to fulfill that
promise. This is not the kind of regime that can be
expected to keep quiet about the successful production
of highly enriched uranium.
Moreover, if Iran eventually does build up a significant
stockpile of highly enriched uranium, it should not be
considered even a virtual member of the nuclear weapons
club until it has carried out a successful nuclear test.
(And note that Iran's geopolitical position and past
history provide every reason to expect that it will try
to carry out a test, when it is ready to do so.)
The problem with the virtual nuclear weapon state
designation is that there is a major difference between
a stockpile of fissile material and an actual, reliable,
deliverable nuclear weapon. By way of comparison, recall
that starting in the early 1990s, the United States
credited North Korea for having one or two bombs, based
simply on the country's estimated plutonium stockpile.
That assumption had a major impact on Washington's
policy toward Pyongyang. But Kim Jong Il's miserable
little fizzle of a nuclear test in 2006 set the record
straight. It was only with its second nuclear test, in
2009, that North Korea finally limped across the finish
line, and even now it is doubtful whether Pyongyang can
detonate a nuclear device anywhere other than at a fixed
position on its own territory. Iran's nuclear home
stretch run is likely to be just as long and winding as
North Korea's has been.
Not a special case. The persistent tendency to
overestimate Iran's nuclear capacities reflects the
broader conventional wisdom that today, more than six
decades after Hiroshima, it just isn't that hard to
build the bomb anymore. That belief, however, is
fundamentally mistaken. Nuclear weapons are
extraordinarily complicated technical instruments, and
nuclear weapons projects require the full-hearted
cooperation of thousands of scientific and technical
workers for many years. The task is enormous, and many
states have fallen short.
Historically, the key driver of an efficient nuclear
weapons project has not been a country's funding levels,
political will, or access to hardware. Rather, the key
has been managerial competence. Nuclear weapons projects
require a hands-off, facilitative management approach,
one that permits scientific and technical professionals
to exercise their vocation. But states such as Iran tend
to feature a highly invasive, authoritarian management
approach that smothers scientific and technical
Thus, it is very likely that Iran's political leadership
-- with its strong tendency toward invasive,
authoritarian mismanagement -- has been its own worst
enemy in its quest for the bomb. But it can partially
overcome these self-imposed hurdles by appealing to
Iranian nationalism, and such appeals are much more
effective when stimulated by violent threats and actions
from the United States and Israel.
Iran's nuclear ambitions are surely a cause for concern.
But the current climate of hysteria is unjustified and
counterproductive, a major impediment to the sober
pursuit of a diplomatic solution.
Pakistan and the FMCT
Arms Control Wonk
26 February 2012
Pakistan is blocking the start of negotiations of a
global halt to the production of highly-enriched Uranium
and Plutonium for nuclear weapons. The Fissile Material
Cutoff Treaty can't begin, Pakistani diplomats say,
because existing stockpiles won't be covered. But
Pakistan would be loath to reveal its existing stocks,
and no one in any position of authority would permit
foreign inspectors to verify their locations and extent.
And if, by some miraculous event, existing stocks were
covered in the treaty, an absolutely necessary first
step would be to verify a freeze on existing production
- the very agreement that Pakistan wholeheartedly
Another problem with an FMCT, Pakistani officials say,
is the civil nuclear deal offered to India by the United
States. This deal, they assert, will allow Indian
authorities many new sources of fissile material to make
bombs. But foreign companies aren't rushing into the
Indian nuclear power market. Instead, they are keeping
their distance because of meager liability protections
passed by the Indian Parliament. Even if, in the future,
Indian liability laws are changed and foreign companies
build dozens of new power plants, the diversion of
electricity into bombs is very unlikely. India has
facilities dedicated to military production, and no
longer needs to poach on power plants to make weapons.
A related Pakistani argument used to block the start-up
of FMCT negotiations is that India's breeder reactor
program will provide an open-ended source of fissile
material for weapons. This presumes that India's breeder
program, unlike that of the United States, Great
Britain, Germany, France, Japan and Russia, will
actually prove to be worth its considerable investment.
Even if New Delhi continues to subsidize the breeder
program, there will be severe domestic political
penalties for diverting electricity into bombs.
Pakistani analysts who warn of this outcome are
projecting their own civil-military relations onto
Pakistani officials have suggested that they will lift
their veto on FMCT negotiations if they are offered a
similar civil nuclear deal to the one granted India.
This argument undercuts all others against the FMCT: if
status trumps security, then the security-related
arguments against the FMCT can't be very serious.
Besides, calling for a similar civil-nuclear deal is
wishful thinking. Pakistan can't afford nuclear power
plants unless they are offered at concessionary rates,
as China has done. Everyone else will invest only with
profit in mind, and Pakistan now figures to be a very
risky place for large investments. Foreign investment
can become more attractive with greater domestic
tranquility, sustained economic growth and normal ties
with neighbors, but even then, nuclear power will not be
an attractive sector for investment. If Pakistan's stand
on the FMCT is about foreign investment, status and
pique about India's civil nuclear deal, blocking the
FMCT negotiations is an especially unwise strategy,
since it confirms Pakistan's diplomatic isolation.
Another argument against the FMCT is that Pakistan can
better resist outside pressures - especially Indian
adventurism - by having more nuclear weapons. But
Pakistan's susceptibility to pressure comes from its
domestic and economic weaknesses, not from the number of
nuclear weapons it possesses. For the last two decades,
Indian governments have concluded that sustained
economic growth is more important than fighting with
Pakistan. Attempts to seize and hold Pakistani territory
would result in severe trials. Pakistan's nuclear
inventory has also helped dissuade Indian leaders from
engaging in military adventurism. If this has been the
case when Pakistan possessed fewer weapons, why would a
larger inventory be required - especially if an FMCT
would constrain a parallel Indian build-up? Besides, the
threat of an Indian conventional offensive would only be
prompted by spectacular attacks on Indian soil carried
out by individuals trained and based in Pakistan.
Preventing the groups that engage in these tactics would
also prevent unwanted Indian military responses.
Yet another argument against the FMCT is that nuclear
weapons are not that big a drain on the Pakistani
treasury. But Pakistan has so many unmet needs that any
opportunity to meet some of them would appear to be
worthwhile. The clinching argument against the FMCT in
Pakistan is that it is a thinly disguised attempt by
outsiders to take away Pakistan's nuclear deterrent. In
actuality, Pakistan's current position on the FMCT,
calling for the inclusion of existing stockpiles, would
pose a greater threat to Pakistan's nuclear deterrent
than the negotiating mandate Pakistan is resisting,
which would leave current stocks untouched.
With or without the FMCT, Pakistan will retain nuclear
weapons. So, too, will India. Pakistan can compete with
India to increase its nuclear stockpile. But the country
with a weak economy loses this competition.
Pakistani arguments against the FMCT are weak. The
primary reason for Pakistan's nuclear build-up is
instinctual rather than analytical: India is forging
ahead while Pakistan is in a downward spiral. The great
disparity in Indian and Pakistani economic fortunes
clarifies why Pakistan's military leadership continues
to increase its nuclear stockpile - and why this means
of compensation further diminishes Pakistan's prospects.
krepon | February 26, 2012
A slightly different version of this essay was published
in Dawn, an estimable Pakistani newspaper. Shortly
afterwards, a colleague from Pakistan e-mailed a
rebuttal, which he has permitted me to reproduce below.
I am posting his unabridged response in the hope that it
will stimulate further analysis and discussion.
Reference our e-mail exchange regarding your article on
FMCT. Following are my thoughts:
1. You have selectively referred to our position on FMCT
without dealing with the whole picture. This needs to be
exposed by presenting the comprehensive argument
regarding our position on FMCT. Essentially it is not
driven by status and pique but by our legitimate
security concerns which require full spectrum deterrence
as long as discrimination against Pakistan continues in
the strategic arena.
2. If the negotiations were about a Fissile Material
Treaty and not just FMCT Pakistan would be willing to
accept reduction of stocks and verified freeze on
existing production as this would apply to all nuclear
weapon states including India as a result of which
Pakistan would not be at a disadvantage. But a freeze on
production without reduction of stocks will put Pakistan
at a disadvantage vis-a-vis India.
3. The danger of the civil nuclear deals offered to
India is not because American companies are not rushing
into the Indian nuclear power market but because the
deal not only rewards India for its proliferation
activities but provides India with the potential to use
fissile material from these deals for civilian uses and
its indigenous stocks exclusively for weapons purposes.
Even worse India can divert this imported nuclear
material for its weapons use because the monitoring
arrangements involved are insufficient to prevent this.
Besides, while US companies may not have concluded any
deals with India, French and Russian companies have
already done so and these deals are without any
effective controls on the end use of the fissile
material in India.
4. The argument that India will not divert fissile
material from civilian to military use as it no longer
needs to poach on power plants to make weapons is
unsustainable because if this was the case then India
would have agreed to the tighter monitoring controls
that were being insisted upon by some NSG members before
it was given a waiver. Moreover, India's track record of
cheating is already well known (You should know this as
you have written an article criticizing the absence of
effective monitoring controls in the NSG arrangements
5. India's fast breeder reactor programme may not be
working efficiently at this stage but we cannot make our
security decisions on the basis of anticipated Indian
inefficiency. India's fast breeder reactors as well as
its growing stocks of reactor grade Plutonium which can
be used in crude nuclear bombs needs to be taken into
account by Pakistan.
6. Pakistan's demand to be treated at par with India is
not driven by the search for equal status but by
security considerations. Civilian nuclear agreements as
permitted for India will enable Pakistan to develop its
civilian nuclear capabilities for power generation
needed to meet its energy requirements. At the same
time, Pakistan's nuclear capabilities would be then more
capable of focusing on ensuring our deterrence
requirements. This approach also does not undercut
Pakistan's stance on a fissile material treaty because
Pakistan, like India would be at par in terms of
acquiring civilian nuclear cooperation for power
generation and ability to then focus indigenous
resources on upgrading its nuclear deterrence till an
FMT is concluded.
7. As regards the alleged diplomatic isolation, for
Pakistan it is far more important to guarantee its
security than be concerned about diplomatic isolation.
Moreover, Pakistan is not isolated on this issue in the
CD or in the UN as a large number of countries belonging
to the Non Aligned Movement recognize that FMCT
negotiations must take into account the security
concerns of states - in this case Pakistan - and that it
is due to political considerations that the FMCT
negotiations have made no progress.
8. Pakistan does face economic challenges which
incidentally are largely due to the role it has played
in helping the US in the war on terror which has cost
Pakistan over 40 billion dollars over the last ten years
apart from indirect costs which are even higher. Due to
these economic constraints, Pakistan's security has come
to rely on strategic and tactical nuclear weapons
especially given India's advantage in terms of both
conventional and strategic capabilities - which are
being further enhanced through American, Russian, French
and other sources.
9. It is also true that Pakistan has many unmet needs
but it must also be recognized that the highest need for
Pakistan as for any other country is to guarantee its
security and territorial integrity.
10. Besides, without ensuring its own security,
Pakistan's economic future cannot be guaranteed because
it is only when a country is secure and can focus on
promoting its economic fortunes.
11. The argument that inclusion of existing stocks would
pose a greater threat to Pakistan's deterrence
capability ignores a obvious reality that there is an
asymmetry in the stockpiles of fissile material between
India and Pakistan despite American propaganda claims to
the contrary. Therefore an FMCT without reduction of
stocks would freeze asymmetry between India and
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