Sorry, Folks, Nuclear Weapons Are Passé

by Peter Jenkins

Two lines of attack on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, finalized on Bastille Day this week, are that constraints on Iran expanding its uranium enrichment capacity will lapse after 10 years and that, in the meantime, Iranian cheating will be inevitable and hard to detect.

It is true that from 2025 Iran will be free to start deploying large numbers of highly efficient centrifuges. And, in theory, a significant quantity of these centrifuges could produce enough weapon-grade enriched uranium for several bombs in a matter of months.

It does not follow logically, however, that producing weapons is the intention of those who have insisted on having this freedom (which is also a right under international law). Nor does it follow that those in power in Tehran 10 years from now will decide to abuse such freedom.

It has been a recurrent theme of US national intelligence estimates (NIEs) that Iranian nuclear decision-makers are “rational actors.” They are not the “mad mullahs” of Benjamin Netanyahu’s nightmares. They are not bloodthirsty psychopaths. They are not suicidal depressives. They are not ruthless empire-builders.

What is the probability that 10 years from now Iran’s decision-makers will decide that Iran needs nuclear weapons (NWs)? The authors of the NIEs have pointed the way to an answer by reminding us repeatedly that cost/benefit calculations will determine Iran’s nuclear decision-making.

No Nukes Is a No-brainer

Producing, or trying to produce NWs—in contravention of the legally binding Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and of solemn assurances given, often, to the international community (see, for example, paragraph III of the Preamble of to the Plan of Action)—would cost Iran’s decision-makers a lot:

  • Iran would be excluded from the community of nations for many years. This is not a fate that would hold any attraction for the leaders of the Islamic Republic. As President Hassan Rouhani’s speeches at the last two UN General Assemblies have shown, Iranian leaders want their country respected by its peers. They want Iran to enjoy the influence and “soft power” that come from being respected. They do not want Iran to be cast out, reviled, isolated;
  • The economic and financial consequences would almost certainly prove deeply destabilizing. They would have far greater impact on Iranian living standards than the current sanctions have had. The Islamic Republic would be exposed to the risk of revolution.
  • The risk of a military confrontation that could endanger the decision-makers’ lives, and the lives of their families, could not be excluded.

And the benefits? Nugatory. The only value of nuclear weapons is to deter the use of NWs by others. Rational actors cannot inject NWs into a conventional confrontation without risking annihilation. It is, or at least has become in recent decades, a myth that possessing NWs confers prestige and influence. As awareness of the humanitarian consequences of NW use has spread, most of mankind has condemned, not admired, possessor states.

So the probability of Iran seeking to acquire NWs 10 years from now is low.

It can become lower if the P5+1 follow through on their promises of nuclear cooperation and bring Iran’s nuclear program in from the cold. Cooperation will create opportunities to influence Iranian nuclear thinking, including on enrichment. It will also create legitimate long-term confidence-building options, such as multilateral involvement in Iran’s enrichment program, possibly as part of a global move toward multilateral enrichment facilities.

The probability can be lower still if the United States throws its weight behind the push for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East—one of the last regions to be without such a zone. That will mean abandoning the pretense that American officials do not know whether Israel possesses NWs and embarking on the arduous task of persuading Israeli politicians that NWs are a liability, not an asset. It will also mean keeping a watchful eye on Saudi Arabia and ensuring that the Kingdom respects its obligations as an NPT non-nuclear-weapon state.

US politicians are inclined to like mechanical fixes. Their instinct is to deny other states the physical capacity to do things that the US does but does not want other states to do.

It is time that these politicians understood that some foreign policy problems are not susceptible to mechanical fixes, not least because other states are sovereign and have rights under international law. Instead, the US must learn to rely for its security, as other states do, on intangibles: on deterring, on creating disincentives, and on developing relationships that increase the cost that others incur if they ignore the wishes of the world’s greatest power.

The Cheating Fallacy

Much of the argument above is relevant to the allegation that Iran will be looking for opportunities to “non-perform” its Plan of Action obligations. Iranian decision-makers are not just rational actors. They are, by and large, very smart human beings. Those who want to spread panic by pretending that Iran will ignore its commitments should be asked why they think any smart human being would see utility in undermining an agreement that is fully compatible with what Iran proposed to the UK, France and Germany 10 years ago, and that a great majority of Iranians has now acclaimed with jubilation..

It is not as though these smart Iranians can imagine that cheating will go undetected. The verification provisions of the Plan of Action are unprecedented. The US negotiators have covered every conceivable angle. Never before has a theoretical temptation to cheat on a nuclear agreement been so effectively deterred.

Of course some Americans believe that the first thing an Iranian asks himself in the morning is: “who can I cheat today?” Presumably Wendy Sherman now regrets her earlier claim that Iranians have deception in their DNA. But her lapse revealed an unfortunate strain in US thinking about Iranians, which many Iranian Americans have condemned. Such racial stereotyping is unworthy of an American nation that prides itself—somewhat sickeningly for the rest of us—on its virtue, on being a beacon for mankind, or whatever.

Is the underlying problem that some Americans believe that NWs are the must-have accessory for any state? If so, other Americans, while there is still time—while the fate of the Vienna Plan of Action hangs in the congressional balance—must help them to understand the error of that judgment.

Since 1945 acquiring NWs has ceased to pose enormous technical problems. Yet only nine states, less than 5% of the total, have chosen to become nuclear-armed. Sorry, folks, but nowadays nukes are an accessory that only old fogies prize.


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Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. Is calling for the “annihilation” of another “rational”?

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