It seems that every year, there’s a breathless report that Iran is a year ortwo away from having nuclear weapons. Once again:
Two of the nation’s top military officials said Wednesday that Iran could produce bomb-grade fuel for at least one nuclear weapon within a year, but would most likely need two to five years to manufacture a workable atomic bomb.
The time frame … was roughly in line with the finding of a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. That document, which is about to be updated, said that Iran would probably be able to produce a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015, while cautioning that there was no evidence that the Iranian government had decided to do so.
(…) The generals offered a number of significant caveats about their assessment of Iran’s capabilities. When asked, for example, how long it would take Iran to convert its current supplies of low-enriched uranium into bomb-grade material, General Burgess said, “The general consensus – not knowing again the exact number of centrifuges that we actually have visibility into – is we’re talking one year.”
(…) Even if Iran produced a weapon’s worth of material in a year, it would not necessarily mean the country was ready for what experts call “breakout” – renouncing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and declaring, as North Korea did, that the country was now a nuclear power.
I am not a foreign policy or nonproliferation expert, so take this post as purely speculative. But it occurs to me after reading the above that Iran’s nuclear strategy may be inspired by Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity” – to neither confirm nor deny that they possess nuclear weapons, and thus remain free of pressure to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. This gives Israel (and thus, potentially, Iran) all the benefits of nuclear deterrence against its hostile neighbors, but avoids the legal and diplomatic pressures on a nuclear state that come with being a non-signatory to the NNPT (such as India and Pakistan).
Israel’s argument for this is that it is uniquely isolated as a small nation surrounded by “enemies” and thus must rely on any strategic advantage it can. The same argument, however, applies to Iran, which is surrounded on both sides by US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, has hostile relations with a nuclear-armed Israel, and is also facing serious Arab nation hostility and fear (which currently manifests as anti-Shi’a policies, but is also spurring an Arab nuclear arms race.
At Talk Islam, a commenter observed that “the middle east has Israel to bind them together.” While true, the same could be said of Iran – Israel already has diplomatic relations with Egypt, and Saudi Arabia shares Israel’s paranoia about Iran. There’s even reason to be optimistic about Syrian-Israeli relations. Ultimately, Iran is competing with Israel for regional hegemony, Persian Shi’a and Jews in a predominantly Sunni Arab milieu. And while the ignorant masses may hate Israel, their cynical leaders fear Iran more.
Nuclear ambiguity also gives Iran a useful loophole with respect to President Obama’s new nuclear posture. That policy was written with Iran and North Korea in mind, stating that any state that is either (a) non-nuclear or (b) nuclear, but signs the NNPT will be exempt from American nuclear attack, but makes specific exception for any nuclear state that does not sign the NNPT. If Iran’s nuclear status is ambiguous, however, then Iran can legally argue that it should qualify as exempt. This gives Iran additional diplomatic and legal cover.
Ultimately, Iran has as many enemies as Israel does – with the significant difference being that Israel calls the world’s remaining superpower an ally. Therefore all the logic of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity fully applies.
Related: Nuclear policy blogger Page van der Linden has two excellent summary articles at DailyKos, providing a recap of the START treaty and the revised nuclear posture, and a wrap-up analysis of the nuclear security summit. Both are must-read “big picture” briefing articles that really give you a great overview of how momentous and significant the progress made towards a nuclear-free world over these last two weeks.