While the world focuses its attention on battling the Coronavirus, Iran has made several provocative moves, including a threat to pull out of the NPT and build-up of low-enriched uranium. Many analysts have interpreted these actions as the opening moves in a sprint toward the bomb. Others interpret Iran as a state desperate for sanctions relief.
Which view is correct? This desperate. As John Spacapan argues in the attached The National Interest piece, "Why America Should Believe Iran When It Says It Doesn't Want Nuclear Weapons", Iran learned a lesson from the Arab Spring, and particularly the case of Libya, that contradicts the conventional wisdom on why enemies of the United States pursue, or don't pursue nuclear arms proliferation. In particular, the last decade has taught Tehran that dictators in the Middle East are far more likely to be killed or overthrown by their own people than by the United States. This suggests that when Iranian officials say they do not want to get a bomb, maybe we should listen.
By John C. Spacapan
If the news reports are right, Iran wants the bomb. But in the two months since its muted response to the American strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran seems intent on signaling rather than proliferating. In January, Iran’s foreign minister threatened to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), but has since indicated no further intent to do so. Last week, Tehran invited the IAEA to observe that it had tripled its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, an initial step toward restarting a nuclear weapons program, but a move short of qualifying as a renewed weapons program.
At first glance, Iran’s hesitance flies in the face of conventional wisdom. North Korea, Putin, and American neo-realist scholars alike assert that enemies of the United States pursue nuclear weapons because it’s the obvious and rational choice to make. Just look at Colonel Qaddafi, they say. He gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003, and within a decade fell victim to a Western-backed revolution that left him at the mercy of his own people, and on the wrong side of a gun. But Iran may understand the lessons of Libya and the Arab Spring far better than the Russians, the North Koreans, or many American academics.
The last decade has taught Tehran that dictators in the Middle East are far more likely to be killed or overthrown by their own people than by the United States. In the last nine years, all three of Libya’s Arab neighbors have succumbed to regime change. In many ways these regimes were the lucky ones, they weren’t murdered like Saleh in Yemen or engaged in a decade of civil war like Assad in Syria. In none of these cases would nuclear weapons have deterred uprising from within.
With this reality in mind, spending more resources on a nuclear weapons program may not seem any more attractive to Iran now than it did to Libya 17 years ago. Nuclear arms proliferation experts have noted that financials weighed heavily on the mind of Qaddafi during the late 90’s and early 2000’s. While Iran is much closer to acquiring a weapon today than Qaddafi was then, to cross the finish line and then maintain a relevant nuclear arsenal requires Tehran to spend vital resources it needs to bolster its domestic economy.
Iran, like Qaddafi in the early 2000’s, may fear a future under international isolation more than a future without nuclear weapons. Iran, like Libya, has an economy dependent on energy export and advanced technology and machinery import, making it particularly vulnerable to sanctions. With oil prices plummeting to a shocking $34 barrel for Brent crude, the regime’s future will depend on foreign investment put toward economic diversification. It also has a population hungry for change, just like Libyans and the broader Arab street in 2011. For Iran, further economic isolation would eventually make an already tenuous domestic situation explode.
Tehran certainly knows, looking at Israel’s experience, that nuclear weapons don’t always prevent conventional conflict. In the lead up to Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was well aware of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. But it did not deter him. In fact, the early days of Egypt’s operation were so successful that Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was said to have told Prime Minister Golda Meir that he feared “The destruction of the Third Temple”.
Nor is Iran laboring under any delusion that the final steps in acquiring nuclear weapons is militarily risk-free. In the early 1980s, both Israel and Iran attacked Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, effectively eliminating his program before he could achieve a weapon. In 2007, Israel destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor in the Deir Ez-Zor region. It’s unclear whether even the US has the capability to destroy Iran’s well-buried enrichment facility at Fordow, but it could certainly hit other critical facilities, perhaps even non-nuclear targets like Iran’s power grid.
All of this suggests that when Iranian officials say they do not want to get a bomb, maybe we should listen. If we did, it would make sense to double down by reminding them of all the good reasons to hold off.
John Spacapan is the Wohlstetter Public Affairs Fellow at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, in Arlington, VA.