Expert observers of Iran hang on the latest reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency of how many centrifuges are running, how far the country must go to build a bomb, the latest inflammatory remarks from President Ahmedinejad, speculation about a lame-duck Bush administration military strike, or the same from Olmert’s Israel.
Iran’s decision on nuclear weapons was made at least two decades ago. Despite its professed peaceful intentions, nobody in their right mind would disagree with the notion that Iran maximises its room for manoeuvre by all possible means, with nuclear arms or without.
Tehran doesn’t mind foreign suspicions at all; rather, its strategic interest is to encourage them, if only to achieve the effect of nuclear deterrence before possessing a nuclear device. Iran’s policy has created a virtual deterrent, and its policies across the board, from the mullahs’ point of view, amount to “constructive irresponsibility”. Iran wants us to spend time guessing its next step.
The current conflict in Gaza provides an example of Iran’s strategic ambitions. Iran has long used Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies in pursuit of its interests. At arm’s length, these organisations support Iran’s long-term goals: tie down Israel’s actions in the short term, and frustrate all efforts at Middle East peace. Israel’s 2006 failure in Lebanon, chasing down Hezbollah, only served to embolden the mullahs in Tehran. The assault on Gaza, while it may stop rocket attacks on civilians, could be expected to achieve much the same result.
There’s no plausible peaceful explanation for Iran’s uranium enrichment program: The fuel for its first nuclear reactor at Bushehr will be provided by Russia, with a requirement that spent fuel, full of weapons-usable plutonium, will be returned to Russia. Plans for future reactor construction are well in the distance. So the non-bomb uranium Iran has produced to date has no purpose besides that of a nuclear “breakout” option: kick out the inspectors, run the uranium through the centrifuges several more times, work on missiles and other delivery means, and finish up with a couple of bombs. In the view of Iranian leaders, this posture improves Iran’s strategic military perspective.
Put yourself in Ahmedinejad’s, or more important, Khamenei’s, position. How could you not pursue the nuclear option? A proud and ancient nation, subject to a long history of Western meddling, a Persian oasis in a multitude of Arabs and others, a combatant in many bloody wars, must have insecurities that far outweigh the prospects of UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions. The flood of diplomats into Tehran over the last several years only increased the value that Iran’s leaders, and much of its public, place on the virtual deterrent option that’s a stockpile of uranium sufficient for a bomb.
Consider the current environment and the history that informs Iran's leaders. Iran has declared the United States its principal strategic threat for three decades; indeed, this enmity has been a central organising principle for the government.
Flirtations with more normal relations with the US have been frequent, from the end of the Carter Administration through Iran-Contra to the present consideration of opening an American Interests Section in Tehran. But the government of Iran has been divided in important ways since the revolution, with many observers noting its conflicting signals to the major powers, simultaneously conciliatory and defiant. This behaviour only increased during the term of fiery Ahmadinejad.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, Israel has had nuclear-capable missiles since 1966 - perhaps the most significant political driver of Iran's national policy. But there are many others as well: Saddam Hussein's Iraq, using chemical weapons and pursuing nuclear ones, waged a punishing war against Iran for a decade after the 1979 revolution. The US has had a considerable military presence on Iran's land borders since 2001, a continuous and significant naval presence in the Gulf for longer, and it shot down an Iranian airliner during the Reagan administration.
In Kenneth Pollack's excellent book, The Persian Puzzle, he relates the tension among Iranian policymakers between transparency and concealment regarding the nuclear option.
Concealment was the policy for 20 years until the revelations of 2002. Once revealed, the public face of Iran’s policy changed to one of declarations of capability and denials of intent to build a nuclear weapon. On this question, Iran has many models to consider. Israel, as late as 2006, famously stated it would not be the first country to "introduce" nuclear weapons into the Middle East, a contrived ambiguity that has served its national interests, but leaves no confusion about its intent. Ironically, this Israeli policy is perhaps most consistent with Iran's current posture. The mere possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon approximates its actual possession.
Another mature nuclear power in the neighbourhood, India, has pursued a similar approach to Iran’s. After its first nuclear test in 1974, India tried to persuade the world that the test was for peaceful purposes, with little success and few penalties. North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006, in the midst of the Six-Party talks on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, another virtual deterrent.