How to Keep the Bomb From Iran

Excerpted from Foreign Affairs, September/October 2006

Preventing the unthinkable ongoing crisis with Tehran is not the first time Washington has faced a hostile government attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Nor is it likely to be the last. Yet the reasoning of U.S. officials now struggling to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions is clouded by a kind of historical amnesia, which leads to both creeping fatalism about the United States’ ability to keep Iran from getting the bomb and excessive optimism about the United States’ ability to contain Iran if it does become a nuclear power.

A U.S. official in the executive branch anonymously told the New York Times in March 2006, “The reality is that most of us think the Iranians are probably going to get a weapon, or the technology to make one, sooner or later.” Military planners and intelligence officers have reportedly been tasked with developing strategies to deter Tehran if negotiations fail.

Both proliferation fatalism and deterrence optimism are wrong-headed, and they reinforce each other in a disturbing way. As nuclear proliferation comes to be seen as inevitable, wishful thinking can make its consequences seem less severe, and if faith in deterrence grows, incentives to combat proliferation diminish.

Deterrence optimism is based on mistaken nostalgia and a faulty analogy. Although deterrence did work with the Soviet Union and China, there were many close calls; maintaining nuclear peace during the Cold War was far more difficult and uncertain than U.S. officials and the American public seem to remember today. Furthermore, a nuclear Iran would look a lot less like the totalitarian Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China and a lot more like Pakistan, Iran’s unstable neighbor—a far more frightening prospect.

Fatalism about nuclear proliferation is equally unwarranted. Although the United States did fail to prevent its major Cold War rivals from developing nuclear arsenals, many other countries—including Japan, West Germany, South Korea, and more recently Libya—curbed their own nuclear ambitions.


The way for Washington to move forward on Iran is to give Tehran good reason to relinquish its pursuit of nuclear weapons. That, in turn, requires understanding why Tehran wants them in the first place.

Iran’s nuclear energy program began in the 1960s under the shah, but even he wanted to create a breakout option to get the bomb quickly if necessary. One of his senior energy advisers recalled, “The shah told me that he does not want the bomb yet, but if anyone in the neighborhood has it, we must be ready to have it.” At first, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini objected to nuclear weapons on religious grounds, but the mullahs abandoned such restraint after Saddam Hussein ordered chemical attacks on Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War.

The end of Saddam’s rule in 2003 significantly reduced the security threat to Tehran. But by then the United States had taken Iraq’s place. In his January 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush had denounced the governments of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as members of an “axis of evil” with ties to international terrorism. After the fall of Baghdad, an unidentified senior U.S. official told a Los Angeles Times reporter that Tehran should “take a number,” hinting that it was next in line for regime change.

Increasingly, Bush administration spokespeople advocated “preemption” to counter proliferation. When asked, in April 2006, whether the Pentagon was considering a potential preventive nuclear strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, President Bush pointedly replied, “All options are on the table.”


A source of inspiration for handling Iran is the 1994 Agreed Framework that the United States struck with North Korea. The Bush administration has severely criticized the deal, but it contained several elements that could prove useful in the Iranian nuclear crisis.

After the North Koreans were caught violating their NPT commitments in early 1993, they threatened to withdraw from the treaty. Declaring that “North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb,” President Clinton threatened an air strike on the Yongbyon reactor site if the North Koreans took further steps to reprocess plutonium. In June 1994, as the Pentagon was reinforcing military units on the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang froze its plutonium production, agreed to let IAEA inspectors monitor the reactor site, and entered into bilateral negotiations.

The talks produced the October 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to eventually dismantle its reactors, remain in the NPT, and implement full IAEA safeguards. In exchange, the United States promised to provide it with limited oil supplies, construct two peaceful light-water reactors for energy production, “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations,” and extend “formal assurances to [North Korea] against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.”

“The way for Washington to move forward on Iran is to give Tehran good reason to relinquish its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”By 2002, the Agreed Framework had broken down, not only because Pyongyang was suspected of cheating but also because it believed that the United States, by delaying construction of the light-water reactors and failing to start normalizing relations, had not honored its side of the bargain. When confronted with evidence of its secret uranium program, in November 2002, Pyongyang took advantage of the fact that the U.S. military was tied down in preparations for the invasion of Iraq and withdrew from the NPT, kicked out the inspectors, and started reprocessing plutonium.

President Bush famously promised, in his 2002 State of the Union address, that the United States “will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” Yet when North Korea kicked out the IAEA inspectors, Secretary of State Colin Powell proclaimed that the situation was “not a crisis.” Bush repeatedly declared that the United States had “no intention of invading North Korea.” The point was not lost on Tehran.

If Washington is to offer security assurances to Tehran, it should do so soon (making the assurances contingent on Tehran’s not developing nuclear weapons), rather than offering them too late, as it did with North Korea (and thus making them contingent on Tehran’s getting rid of any existing nuclear weapons). As with North Korea, any deal with Iran must be structured in a series of steps, each offering a package of economic benefits (light-water reactors, aircraft parts, or status at the World Trade Organization) in exchange for constraints placed on Iran’s future nuclear development.

Most important, however, would be a reduction in the security threat that the United States poses to Iran. Given the need for Washington to have a credible deterrent against, say, terrorist attacks sponsored by Iran, a blanket security guarantee would be ill advised. But more limited guarantees, such as a commitment not to use nuclear weapons, could be effective. They would reassure Tehran and pave the way toward the eventual normalization of U.S.–Iranian relations while signaling to other states that nuclear weapons are not the be all and end all of security.

Peaceful coexistence does not require friendly relations, but it does mean exercising mutual restraint. Relinquishing the threat of regime change by force is a necessary and acceptable price for the United States to pay to stop Tehran from getting the bomb.