Does Iran really want the bomb?

Perhaps what Iran wants is the ability to produce a nuclear weapon fast, rather than have a standing arsenal

Published October 7, 2009 1:08PM (EDT)

When you tool around the blogosphere and the news sites, the discourse about Iran's nuclear program is maddeningly contradictory. But I think a single hypothesis can account for all the known facts. These are:

  1. Iran is making a drive to close the fuel cycle and to be capable of independently enriching uranium to at least the 5 percent or so needed for energy reactors and also to the 20 percent needed for its medical reactor.
  2. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a fatwa in 2005 that no Islamic state may possess or use atomic weapons because they willy nilly kill masses of innocent civilians when used, which is contrary to the Islamic law of war (which forbids killing innocent non-combatants).
  3. Iranian officials have repeatedly denied that they are working on a nuclear bomb or that they aspire to have one.
  4. US intelligence agencies are convinced that Iran has done no weapons-related experiments since 2003, and that it currently has no nuclear weapons program.
  5. Israel forcefully maintains that Iran's nuclear program is for weapons and has repeatedly threatened to bomb the Natanz enrichment facilities.
  6. Iran recently announced a new nuclear enrichment facility near Qom.

Those who insist that Iran is trying to get a bomb have a difficult time explaining why Khamenei forbids it as un-Islamic and why the president and others all deny it. It is possible that they are lying, but their denials at least have to be noted and analyzed. The skeptics also have to explain away why the 16 US intelligence agencies say after exhaustive espionage and investigation that there is no weapons program now and that there hasn't been one for some time.

Those who agree with the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, as well as with the International Atomic Energy Agency, that there is no evidence for Iran having a nuclear weapons program have to explain Iran's insistence on closing the fuel cycle and being able to enrich uranium itself.

The answer I propose, which explains all the anomalies elegantly and concisely, is that Iran is seeking nuclear latency. Latency is the possession of a nuclear energy program and of reactors, which would allow the production of an atomic bomb on short notice if an extreme danger to national autonomy reared its ugly head. Nuclear latency is sometimes called the 'Japan option,' because given its sophisticated scientific establishment and enormous economy, Japan could clearly produce a nuclear weapon on short notice if its government decided to mount a crash program.

The reason for the construction of the Qom facility, in this reading, would be that the Natanz facility is too easily bombed or struck with missiles. Moreover, the Israelis and some Americans have repeatedly threatened to strike it. A nuclear enrichment program such as that at Natanz, which is subject to being wiped out by a military strike, cannot truly provide nuclear latency. The Qom facility was necessary in the regime's eyes if the latency strategy was to be preserved.

The regime has every reason to maintain latency and no reasons to go further and construct a nuclear device. The latter step would attract severe international sanctions.

I was on an email list where someone expressed suspicion of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's 2005 fatwa against the possession and use of nuclear weapons by an Islamic state.

One suggestion was that Khamenei is not a real Shiite jurisprudent and has eschewed having followers inside Iran. But, no, Khamenei is a mujtahid or independent jurist and has the standing to issue a fatwa or considered ruling on the law.. A mujtahid may always decline to accept muqallidun or followers, which Khamenei appears to have done for Iranian nationals, without that affecting his legitimate right to issue fatwas. The theory of ijtihad or independent jurisprudential reasoning holds that the law inheres in the reasoning processes of the jurisprudent; whether the jurisprudent has followers or not is irrelevant to the discovery of the law in a particular instance. Moreover, as rahbar or supreme leader,, Khamenei's pronouncements on such matters might even be seen as a hukm or standing command. Finally, since he sets policy on such matters, what difference, in any case, would it make what exact jurisprudential standing his fatwas enjoy?

The only real question is whether he is lying and insincere. That would be a dangerous ploy on his part, in a state premised on Islamic jurisprudence, as Fareed Zakaria has pointed out.

As for the general Islamic law of war, it forbids killing innocent non-combatants such as women, children and unarmed men; ipso facto it forbids deploying nuclear weapons. It was suggested that Iran has chemical weapons and that these would as much violate the stricture above as nuclear warheads. I do not agree that Iran has a chemical weapons program, but in any case chemical weapons have for the most part been battlefield weapons used against massed troops or in trenches. Having such a program does not imply intent to kill innocent civilians. Whereas making a bomb does imply such intent and is therefore considered by most Muslim jurisprudents incompatible with Islamic law.

Khamenei seems to me to have decided some time ago on a policy of nuclear latency, for two reasons. Nuclear reactors lend Iran a hope of energy independence. Iran produces 3.8 million barrels per day of petroleum and uses about 2 mn. b/d itself. It is likely that soon Iran will use up all of its daily petroleum production, leaving it without the petroleum income windfall upon which its government depends. At that point, Khamenei fears, Iran would be dragooned back into the neo-liberal, America-centric order that had dominated Iran under the shah. Second, nuclear latency would help fend off aggressive attempts at regime change by the Western powers or Israel.

Nuclear latency has all the advantages of actual possession of a bomb without any of the unpleasant consequences, of the sort North Korea is suffering.

Even if my thesis that Iran seeks nuclear latency were accepted, isn't there a chance that in the future the leaders of the Islamic Republic might seek a weapon?

Scott Sagan noted in one of his essays that one impetus to seek an actual bomb is regime and national pride in the country's modernity. But this motivation does not exist in the case of Iran, since the Islamic Republic is a critic of the alleged horrors of modernity and because it defines nuclear bombs as shameful, rather than something to boast about.

Moreover, latent nuclear states sometimes give up their latency and foreswear even a nuclear option. Brazil and Argentina mothballed their programs in the 1980s, either because they saw each other as insufficiently threatening or because their move to democratic rule lessed the power of the military-industrial complex in each country that had been plumping for nukes (Sagan thinks it is the latter).

The problem for the West is that nuclear latency is not illegal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And conveniently for Khamenei, nuclear latency is not incompatible with Islamic law. That is why the US and its close allies have to pretend that Iran is actually going for a bomb, despite the lack of good evidence for serious weaponization; they are using this pretense as a way to attempt to forestall a Japan option, which is what they really object to, since it is a geostrategic game changer for the region in and of itself. Unfortunately for them, the General Assembly is unconvinced, and China and Russia are reluctant.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Middle East Nuclear Power Nuclear Weapons