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Shadowboxing: The Imminent Risk of Non-Nuclear States
by Kamyar Arasteh
February 17, 2005

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Recent months have witnessed a flurry of news regarding Iran’s nuclear energy program and the Western reactions to it.  Once again the specter of weapons of mass destruction is raised, as it was in the run-up to the war on Iraq.  Talks of military strikes, invasion, and regime change have come up.  Bunker-busting missiles changed hands between U.S. and Israel ostentatiously, giving credence to the reported plans for destroying putative underground facilities.

These developments are extremely alarming. The historically unstable region has been pushed to the limit by the additional chaos ensuing the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Aggressive action, such as a military strike, against Iran could have tremendous, unforeseen consequences.  It can further destabilize the region and easily spill over to other parts of the world.  Yet, Iran and the U.S. seem locked-in, helplessly observing the growing tension spiral out of control.

To be sure, some adventurists who enjoy war and mayhem welcome the prospects of another blood bath.  Some Iranian expatriates, certainly, would be as willing to annihilate their ancient land as the Iraqi exiles who laid waste to theirs.  Some U.S. peddlers of influence and power, too, will unflinchingly shed the blood of their soldiers to test the finer points of their ever-fallacious theories against those of other obtuse politicians and ideologues.  Nevertheless, those who are still holding on to some crumbs of sanity are searching frantically for a peaceful solution. 

International mediation is one way to de-escalate the tension.  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as an integral part of safeguarding against nuclear proliferation, is a natural choice for overseeing the issue.  However, so far, the process has shown that a decision by the IAEA would not be acceptable to both parties in the dispute.  For instance, in the early 1990s, the fact that IAEA inspections found no violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) did not allay the U.S. worries.  As a result, major European powers (France, Germany, and the UK) have been recruited to provide an alternative vehicle to reaching a negotiated settlement.  The latter method seems to have met with some success, including the suspension of uranium enrichment.  Still, the most recent comments from the U.S. officials promise that they are intent on sabotaging, rather than facilitating the negotiations.  Therefore, the key to a peaceful settlement of the row is exorcising irrationality out of U.S. policy.

Nuclear Energy vs. Nuclear War

Irrationality leads the U.S. to equate Iran’s nuclear energy program with nuclear war. Starting from this erroneous equation, it is no wonder that the U.S. reaches the conclusion that it should conduct military strikes.  Most people prefer a conventional war to a nuclear one.

In fact, however, fewer than one in three countries with nuclear energy programs have ever produced nuclear weapons.  Some countries have even given up nuclear weapons after producing (South Africa) or possessing them (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine), or have abandoned programs with the capability of producing such weapons (e.g., Argentina and Brazil).  Only one country (the U.S.) has ever used nuclear weapons, and that at a time when no deterrence in the form of nuclear retaliation by adversaries existed.  Therefore U.S.’s picture of a nuclear holocaust misrepresents a highly improbable event as a foregone conclusion.

Iran characterizes the program as peaceful and says it is developing it to supply power for the growing domestic energy needs without having to forego the foreign income form sales of its oil and gas reserves.  It complains that the U.S., in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which they are both signatories, has actively interfered to prevent it from co-operating with other countries in building its nuclear energy program.  The U.S. and Israel, on the other hand, accuse Iran of harboring ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.

Harnessing nuclear energy for the peaceful purpose of providing power has been acknowledged as an alternative to the rapidly depleting supplies of fossil fuel.  According to IAEA, as of August 2003, 439 nuclear power plants were in operation around the world. [1]  The list of the 30 countries with operational nuclear power plants included Armenia, Bulgaria, India, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine; which are either unstable, ruled by tyrannical governments, or in dangerous regions of the world.  Many countries that already rely on nuclear energy are adding nuclear capacity.  Others plan to build them.  In short, reliance on nuclear energy is growing globally accompanied by wide dissemination of nuclear technology.  It is unrealistic to expect Iran to buck this trend.

Iran has not exploited the nuclear technology for its energy needs in the past, but has begun to construct the necessary facilities for doing so.  Whereas, the U.S. and its allies have viewed nuclear energy development in other countries as natural, since Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech [2], they view Iran’s plan with suspicion.  They argue that Iran has vast oil resources and believe that fact should preclude the country from seeking nuclear energy. [3] However, Iran points out that its oil resources are not endless.  Economic development and population growth exert pressure on the limited energy resources and sustainable sources of energy will be needed.  Furthermore, Iran needs oil exports to generate foreign income.  For its growing domestic needs, it asserts, it needs to develop alternative sources of energy.  In support of the genuineness of its intentions it reminds its detractors that nuclear energy has not been the only alternative source of energy it has sought.  It has also pursued geothermal, hydro, wind, and solar power in the past decade.  The renewable energies have already begun to be harvested in Iran.  Several small hydro and wind power plants are generating electricity for local consumption.  Nevertheless, the geographic diversity of Iran does not allow uniform and widespread utilization of these technologies.  Frequent droughts, which occur more often and with greater severity every year, also reduce the amount of energy that can be derived from hydropower.  Energy production from hydro power plants has dropped by about 50% in the past 10 years. [4]  The fact is that nuclear energy remains Iran’s most reliable alternative source of energy.

Recognizing the need for developing nuclear power, the United Nations created the IAEA to safeguarding the peaceful use of this technology.  The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was ratified in 1970 as an agreement to cease dissemination of nuclear weapons, while facilitating the transfer of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes through the co-operation of member states.  Iran states that, since 1992, the U.S. has acted illegally—in contravention of the Treaty—to block its nuclear energy program.  Part 1 of Article IV of the Treaty considers it the “inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”  Part 2 of the same Article goes even further.  It requires that “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy… with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.”  Contrary to these provisions, the U.S. prevented China from selling research nuclear reactors to Iran, kept Argentina from supplying facilities, and made Ukraine abandon its co-operation in providing turbines for the reactors.

Assessing the Risk

The rational assessment of the likelihood of a nuclear conflict with Iran must be based on estimating the probabilities of all necessary prior steps.  Such an event does not emerge out of a vacuum, but as a consequence of a combination of technological and political factors, including the capacity to produce nuclear weapons—and to do so undetected by the IAEA and the international community—and the intention to engage in armed conflict, in which the use of nuclear weapons can be considered a viable option.  Why such an event is highly improbable becomes clear when we consider each probability.

The most subjectively determined—and, therefore, the most vulnerable to interpretive bias—of the probabilities we need to state is whether Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons.  The estimates range from 0 % (Iranian officials) to 100% (U.S. officials).  The Iranian officials give two reasons why they are not interested in developing these weapons.  One is moral opposition to weapons of mass destruction.  The fact that the religious leader of Iran has issued a decree prohibiting the production and use of nuclear weapons, calling them immoral [5], supports this notion.  The decree has been repeated during recent Friday Prayer sermons. [6] The other reason Iranians give is that they see no security benefit from possessing nuclear armament.  The West has also contended that possessing such weapons is not in Iran’s security interest.  There is no reason to assume that Iran would not come to the same conclusion.  The Iranian President, Khatami, has stated, “we are not after nuclear weapons…we don't believe that atomic weapons can bring security to a nation against countries possessing this kind of weapons.” [7] In spite of these indications, let us err on the side of caution and estimate the probability that Iran intends to possess nuclear weapons at 100%.

The chances that Iran can manufacture nuclear weapons can be assessed more objectively on the basis of its technical capabilities.  Manufacturing nuclear weapons requires producing sufficient amounts of fissile material.  The IAEA puts the required amount of highly enriched uranium (containing 90% Uranium-235) that is needed at 25 kg.  In turn, producing such an amount of uranium calls for thousands of centrifuges and requires a large space for housing them.   If Iran’s planned facility, in Natanz, succeeds to operate at full capacity and utilizes the 5000 centrifuges that are designed to be implemented there, it will be able to make 10 kg of highly enriched uranium per year.  But, Iran only needs to produce lowly enriched uranium (containing 2% Uranium-235) for energy needs.  The only way for Iran to make 25 kg of the highly enriched uranium required for making a weapon, is to forego its energy production—a very public and observable event—and, instead, accumulate and conceal all of its enriched uranium for at least two years.  This makes it easy for the IAEA Safeguards, through its inspection regime, to provide assurance that the enriched uranium will not be diverted for a purpose other than energy production.  Iran has already agreed to implement the inspection regime’s intrusive measures, including frequent and surprise visits encompassing the whole range of nuclear activities, which can provide this assurance.  The objection that the inspections may fail to catch some clandestine activity is without merit.  In fact, most of the observations that have raised concerns in the West have resulted from discrepancies and irregularities uncovered by IAEA inspections.  None of the irregularities, however, have been so great as to suggest Iran has attempted to make weapons.  Further, if enrichment activity can take place without being detected by the IAEA no “preventive” action will be possible.  For instance, if clandestine facilities for processing uranium are constructed apart from the declared sites, then, even military strikes would have no reliable target.  In any case, the chance of discovering irregularities would be incomparably greater under an inspection regime than in the absence of one.  Interestingly, the only countries that have succeeded in developing clandestine nuclear weapons program are those that have not been party the NPT (Israel, India, and Pakistan) or have withdrawn from the treaty (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea).  Since none of the 189 countries that are party to NPT have ever developed a nuclear weapons program without being detected, the probability that Iran can do so is close to 0%.

Even after uranium enrichment, fissile material would be useless without the sophisticated technology required for turning it into a warhead.  Iran’s industrial and technological development is not sufficiently advanced to provide for designing and building the critical components of warheads.  Machining ability is needed to produce unique precision equipment for testing, producing and inspecting.  The U.S. Department of Defense’s assessment of Iran’s critical technologies needed for producing nuclear weapons classifies the country as having limited capabilities—less than Iraq, which we now know did not have the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. [8]  It is possible, however, that within the foreseeable future Iran’s technological development will allow for manufacturing the necessary equipment.

Still, a warhead would require a reliable delivery system. The overwhelming military power of the U.S. makes the delivery of a warhead by Iran, in the event of a war, a practical impossibility.  As has been demonstrated by the case of Iraq, the vastly superior U.S. airpower can essentially shoot down and shut down all flights. Therefore, delivery of a nuclear weapon by air can be easily ruled out.  Only a missile system may be expected to have any practical use for the delivery of such a device.  The longest range of Iran’s missiles is below 1,300 miles, not long enough to reach Europe.  Even within their range, the existence of air defense systems like the Patriot missile make it unlikely that such a delivery system can threaten U.S. interests.

Finally, we have to consider whether a nuclear weapon can represent a viable option for Iran.  Iran does not face any military threat within the region.  A nuclear weapon would, therefore, not afford it any advantage. Against the official nuclear states, with their formidable arsenals, the use of a nuclear weapon would only assure Iran’s annihilation.  The current U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has promised new proliferators that the use of a nuclear weapon will bring them “national obliteration.” [9]

When all of these probabilities are taken into account in concert, it becomes clear that there is no imminent risk of nuclear weapons in Iran. The relentless barrage of doomsday warnings are not the result of any new technological development in Iran, but the continuation of the political attitude toward the country. Indeed, as far back as a decade before Iran had shown any interest in fuel cycle technology, the CIA director, Robert Gates, warned that Iran was going to acquire nuclear weapons. [10] This concern was echoed, later, by his successor, James Woolsey [11], the U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Perry, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. [12] Inexplicably, the imminent risk of a nuclear Iran keeps receding as the years pass.

Kamyar Arasteh is the author of The American Reichstag: A Psychopolitical Analysis of 9/11 and Its Aftermaths. His website is:

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[1] International Atomic Energy Agency.  United Nations. Available at:

[2] Eisenhower, D. (1953).  Speech delivered to the United Nations General Assembly on December 8, 1953. 

[3] Press briefing by Ari Fleischer on June 18, 2003.  Available at:

[4] Department of Energy Planning, Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Energy.  Available at:

[5] Zarif, J. (2004).  “Iran’s nuclear program is about energy, not weapons.”  The Houston Chronicle, November 8, 2004.

[6] Sciolino, E.  (2004).  “Iran and Europe locked in nuclear talks.”   The New York Times, November 6, 2004.

[7] Reported by the Associated Press and CNN.  Available at:

[8] United States Department of Defense  (1998).  The military critical technologies list.  Part II:  Weapons of mass destruction technologies.  Available at:

[9] Rice, C. (2000).  Promoting the national interest.  Foreign Affairs, 79, Jan/Feb 2000.

[10] Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, March 27,1992, cited in "Gates Warns of Iranian Arms Drive," Washington Post, March 28, 1992.

[11] Testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, in Federal News Service, 24 February 1993.

[12] Haberman, C. (1995).  Israel eyes Iran in the fog of nuclear politics.  The New York Times, January 15, 1995.