By David Isenberg
Apart from death and taxes, one other thing has also appeared inevitable, at least for the past two decades: Iran will acquire a nuclear weapons capability.
Yet, despite all the near frantic demands for sanctions, clandestine action, sabotage, and outright military strikes to prevent Iran’s presumed inexorable march towards that capability, one thing keeps getting overlooked: Iran has not managed to develop a nuclear weapon.
How is that possible? As states go, Iran has a reasonably well-developed scientific and industrial infrastructure, an educated workforce capable of working with advanced technologies, and lots of money. If Pakistan, starting from a much lower level, could develop nuclear weapons, why hasn’t Iran?
That overlooked question was the subject of an important but largely ignored past article, “Botching the Bomb: Why Nuclear Weapons Programs Often Fail on Their Own — and Why Iran’s Might, Too” in Foreign Affairs journal.
In the May/June 2012 issue, Jacques E. C. Hymans, an International Relations Associate Professor at the University of Southern California and author of the book Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation (from which his article was adapted) wrote:
The Iranians had to work for 25 years just to start accumulating uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is not even weapons grade. The slow pace of Iranian nuclear progress to date strongly suggests that Iran could still need a very long time to actually build a bomb — or could even ultimately fail to do so. Indeed, global trends in proliferation suggest that either of those outcomes might be more likely than Iranian success in the near future. Despite regular warnings that proliferation is spinning out of control, the fact is that since the 1970s, there has been a persistent slowdown in the pace of technical progress on nuclear weapons projects and an equally dramatic decline in their ultimate success rate.
To paraphrase Sherlock Homes, Iran is an example of a nuclear dog that has not barked. In Hyman’s view, Iran’s lack of progress can only partly be attributed to US and international nonproliferation efforts.
But the primary reason is:
…mostly the result of the dysfunctional management tendencies of the states that have sought the bomb in recent decades. Weak institutions in those states have permitted political leaders to unintentionally undermine the performance of their nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians. The harder politicians have pushed to achieve their nuclear ambitions, the less productive their nuclear programs have become.
Conversely, US and Israeli efforts may actually be helping Iran to someday achieve a nuclear weapons capability.
Meanwhile, military attacks by foreign powers have tended to unite politicians and scientists in a common cause to build the bomb. Therefore, taking radical steps to rein in Iran would be not only risky but also potentially counterproductive, and much less likely to succeed than the simplest policy of all: getting out of the way and allowing the Iranian nuclear program’s worst enemies — Iran’s political leaders — to hinder the country’s nuclear progress all by themselves.
Generally examining the progress of contemporary aspiring nuclear weapons states, Hymans notes that seven countries launched dedicated nuclear weapons projects before 1970, and all of them succeeded in relatively short order. By contrast, of the ten countries that have launched dedicated nuclear weapons projects since 1970, only three have achieved a bomb. And only one of the six states that failed — Iraq — had made much progress toward its ultimate goal by the time it gave up trying. (The jury is still out on Iran’s program.) What’s more, even the successful projects of recent decades have required a long time to achieve their goals. The average timeline to the bomb for successful projects launched before 1970 was about seven years; the average timeline to the bomb for successful projects launched after 1970 has been about 17 years.
In the case of Iran, Hymans notes:
Iran’s nuclear scientists and engineers may well find a way to inoculate themselves against Israeli bombs and computer hackers. But they face a potentially far greater obstacle in the form of Iran’s long-standing authoritarian management culture. In a study of Iranian human-resource practices, the management analysts Pari Namazie and Monir Tayeb concluded that the Iranian regime has historically shown a marked preference for political loyalty over professional qualifications. “The belief,” they wrote, “is that a loyal person can learn new skills, but it is much more difficult to teach loyalty to a skilled person.” This is the classic attitude of authoritarian managers. And according to the Iranian political scientist Hossein Bashiriyeh, in recent years, Iran’s “irregular and erratic economic policies and practices, political nepotism and general mismanagement” have greatly accelerated. It is hard to imagine that the politically charged Iranian nuclear program is sheltered from these tendencies.
Hymans accordingly derived four lessons.
- The first is to be wary of narrow, technocentric analyses of a state’s nuclear weapons potential. Recent alarming estimates of Iran’s timeline to the bomb have been based on the same assumptions that have led Israel and the United States to consistently overestimate Iran’s rate of nuclear progress for the last 20 years. The majority of official US and Israeli estimates during the 1990s predicted that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons by 2000. After that date passed with no Iranian bomb in sight, the estimate was simply bumped back to 2005, then to 2010, and most recently to 2015. The point is not that the most recent estimates are necessarily wrong, but that they lack credibility. In particular, policymakers should heavily discount any intelligence assessments that do not explicitly account for the impact of management quality on Iran’s proliferation timeline.
- The second is that policymakers should reject analyses based on assumptions about a state’s capacity to build nuclear programs in secret. Ever since the mid-1990s, official proliferation assessments have freely extrapolated from minimal data, a practice that led US intelligence analysts to wrongly conclude that Iraq had reconstituted its weapons of mass destruction programs after the Gulf War. The US must guard against the possibility of an equivalent intelligence failure over Iran. This is not to deny that Tehran may be keeping some of its nuclear work secret. But it is simply unreasonable to assume, for example, that Iran has compensated for the problems it has faced with centrifuges at the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility by hiding better-working centrifuges at some unknown facility. Indeed, when Iran has tried to hide weapons-related activities in the past, it has often been precisely because the work was at the very early stages or was going badly.
- The third is that states that poorly manage their nuclear programs can bungle even the supposedly easy steps of the process. For instance, based on estimates of the size of North Korea’s plutonium stockpile and the presumed ease of weapons fabrication, US intelligence agencies thought that by the 1990s, North Korea had built one or two nuclear weapons. But in 2006, North Korea’s first nuclear test essentially fizzled, making it clear that the “hermit kingdom” did not have any working weapons at all. Even its second try, in 2009, did not work properly. Similarly, if Iran eventually does acquire a significant quantity of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium, this should not be equated with the possession of a nuclear weapon.
- The fourth lesson is to avoid acting in a way that might motivate scientific and technical workers to commit themselves more firmly to the nuclear weapons project. Nationalist fervor can partially compensate for poor organization. Accordingly, violent actions, such as aerial bombardments or assassinations of scientists, are a loser’s bet. As shown by the consequences of the Israeli attack on Osiraq, such strikes are liable to unite the state’s scientific and technical workers behind their otherwise illegitimate political leadership. Acts of sabotage, such as the Stuxnet computer worm, which damaged Iranian nuclear equipment in 2010, stand at the extreme boundary between sanctions and violent attacks, and should therefore only be undertaken after extremely thorough consideration.
- David Isenberg runs the Isenberg Institute of Strategic Satire (Motto: Let’s stop war by making fun of it.). He is author of the book Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq and blogs at The PMSC Observer and the Huffington Post. He is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, an adjunct scholar at the CATO Institute, and a Navy veteran.
Photo: Iran’s first nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran, on August 21, 2010. UPI/Maryam Rahmanianon.