PMD Thoughts

With the latest round of talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna, there has been another resurgence of writing on the PMD issue. Some good. Most uninformed and/or agenda-driven.

One theme that I’ve noticed running throughout a lot of the commentary on the PMD issue is speculation about the intentions behind whatever nuclear weapons related R&D work went on in Iran up until 2003. And this speculation is often presented more as a statement of fact than as speculation.

For example, Jeffrey Lewis in a piece in Foreign Policy a while ago said:

Left to its own devices, the 2007 NIE suggests, Iran would likely have acquired a nuclear weapon.

Similarly, in his piece just posted yesterday over at Arms Control Wonk, Aaron Stein said:

According to my research, Iran made the decision to proliferate sometime after March 1984, but before the end of 1985.

Here and elsewhere, observers are speculating about Iran’s intention in doing whatever weapons related R&D they were doing. They’re speculating that Iran’s intention was linear – i.e. to progress linearly from R&D straight onward to building and fielding a nuclear weapon.

I think it’s fallacious, and possibly specious to assume that this was or is Iran’s intention. And more to the point, it is pure, unevidenced speculation.

Don’t the facts of Iran’s R&D work with nuclear weapons – even accepting as facts those allegations that are controversial and that Iran has denied – equally or more persuasively support the hypothesis that Iran’s intent or purpose in carrying out that R&D work was to reach a level of technical and industrial capacity and knowledge at which Iran would be capable of producing a nuclear weapon, without necessarily taking the decision to build a nuclear weapon?

This is the concept of “nuclear hedging,” as introduced by Ariel Levite in his groundbreaking article in International Security in 2002. As Levite explained:

Nuclear hedging refers to a national strategy of maintaining, or at least appearing to maintain, a viable option for the relatively rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons, based on an indigenous technical capacity to produce them within a relatively short time frame ranging from several weeks to a few years.

In its most advanced form, nuclear hedging involves nuclear fuel–cycle facilities capable of producing fissionable materials (by way of uranium enrichment and/or plutonium separation), as well as the scientific and engineering expertise both to support them and to package their final product into a nuclear explosive charge.

Nuclear hedging is a strategy that may be adopted either during the process of developing a bomb or as part of the rollback process, as a way of retaining the option of restarting a weapons program that has been halted or reversed.

So again, don’t the facts of Iran’s R&D work on nuclear weapons pre-2003 better fit a nuclear hedging policy, than a policy of a linear march to a bomb? I mean it’s fairly clear that Iran’s impetus for doing the nuclear weapons R&D that it did during this period was its traumatic war with Iraq, which had included the use of chemical weapons against Iran, and the continued threat that Saddam Hussein posed to Iran. Doesn’t it make sense that, faced with this very real threat and history, Iran would want to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons to defend itself in the case of another war with Iraq? But again, just because it makes sense that they might want the capability to do this, does not mean that they would have ever exercised the option to build a nuclear weapon.

It’s also fairly clear that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons R&D work around 2003, due to the invasion of Iraq by the West – effectively removing the Iraqi threat – and to concerns that if its own weaponization R&D work were discovered, it might be next on the US hit list. To me, this is a persuasive narrative with bookends, and again fits perfectly with the idea that Iran achieved capability in some aspects of weaponization, and overall is keeping its options open with regard to the future, but has not made a decision to build a nuclear weapon. In short, that Iran’s case is perfectly described by the concept of nuclear hedging.

It is well known that there are a number of states in the world today who are nuclear weapons threshold states – who have all the necessary knowledge and the technical and industrial capabilities to build a nuclear weapon in short order. And the fact that they have not yet exercised that option, is proof of the prudence that a number of states see in achieving and maintain the capability to build a nuclear weapon, but choosing not to exercise that option.

So again, whatever nuclear weapons R&D work Iran did in the past, we do not know and should not speculate about their intent in doing that work and obtaining that knowledge and capability. Nor should we speculate, as so many do, what Iran’s intent is regarding the future. There is absolutely no evidence, and this conclusion is borne out by the conclusions of the US intelligence community, that Iran is currently seeking to build a nuclear bomb, or that they will seek to do so in the future.

Another thing that you always hear when particularly US government officials, but also IAEA officials, talk about the PMD issue, is that it’s necessary to include the resolution of the PMD issue in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1/IAEA, because only through Iran’s transparency about this work, and admission of its having been done, can the international community begin to build trust with Iran, and confidence that Iran is not currently engaged in nuclear weapons related work.

But have you ever stopped to really think about that rationale, and whether it makes sense?  How, in practical terms, will knowing the details about what Iran did in the past regarding weaponization R&D, give other states or the IAEA any meaningful confidence about what Iran is or is not doing now regarding weaponization R&D?

How will knowing the details of what Iran did in the past, and having Iran admit to them, actually increase other states’ ability to trust Iran now?

I confess I don’t see a real, practical connection between the propositions in either of these questions.

Don’t we already have the conclusions of the US intelligence community that, whatever weaponization R&D work was going on in Iran pre-2003, it has been halted since then, and that there is no evidence that Iran has made or will make a decision to re-start it or to build a nuclear weapon?

Isn’t that exactly what this rationale says we need to know about Iran’s current program?

So how does knowing more about the details of what happened 15-20 years ago increase our confidence about what is going on now, or our trust in Iran about the future? To me it doesn’t make sense logically.

To me it appears that IAEA/Western insistence on having the PMD issue as part of the P5+1/IAEA negotiations with Iran, is more persuasively explained as a witch hunt for past truth and a concession of embarrassment for Iran which, while perhaps cathartic and a moral victory for the West, really serves no practical purpose for the present or future. It strikes me as more of a truth and reconciliation mission, which I think Iran understandably has no interest in. As Mark Hibbs has explained:

On February 3, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, visited the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin. Zarif explained to us that Iran has no aim or interest in having nuclear weapons. In fact, he said that the credibility of Iran’s regime was founded upon Iran not having such an ambition or interest. That’s the crux. If the credibility of Iran’s regime rests on its disavowal of nuclear arms, then any admission by Iran to the IAEA that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been engaged in nuclear weapons-related research or experiments–which prima facie would have to be reported to the Board of Governors– would severely damage the regime’s reputation. Shia theology might imply that nuclear weapons are sinful, but the IAEA’s dossier poses a potential major credibility problem. For Iran at any point to admit that it worked on nuclear weapons would be orders or magnitude more significant than Iran admitting, as it did in 2003, to having failed to declare to the IAEA a flurry of nuclear activities which could be justified by Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.

So there is zero likelihood that Iran will ever sign a confession detailing nuclear weapons related R&D that may have gone on pre-2003, and for the West and the IAEA to insist on such a confession is a sure way to guarantee the failure of the current diplomatic effort with Iran.

I was having a conversation earlier today with a colleague, and he raised an insightful question about the purpose of international law, and how it might shed some light on how this issue should be dealt with in the context of the current negotiations between Iran and the West.

Most of the corpus of international law, including the sources of nuclear nonproliferation law such as the NPT and IAEA safeguards agreements, is most analogous to domestic tort and contract law, which focus on identifying breaches of law as between parties, and ensuring that the party responsible for the breach makes the damaged party whole. As long as an extra-judicial settlement of the issue can be reached among the parties, in these areas the law is generally happy to approve of that settlement, and allow the parties to move forward on the basis of that settlement. If that settlement can be reached – and it is often necessary or at least useful in order for such a settlement to be reached – without dragging into public view all of the sins of the parties against each other, and requiring a confession of guilt by the party responsible for the breach, the law will recognize the settlement in the interest of moving forward.

The exception to this paradigm occurs in criminal law, which is purposed in a clear explication of the facts of the breach of law, in order to establish the guilt of the responsible party, and to mete out an appropriate punishment for that party. Revelation of the facts of the case is also considered necessary both for the sake of the victim, as well as for the sake of broader society. In criminal law there typically is no such thing as a non-judicial settlement between the perpetrator and the victim that the law will recognize. A judicial finding of guilt or innocence is necessary for the disposition of the case.

In the context of negotiations between Iran and the West/IAEA over Iran’s nuclear program, I think it is clear that we are and should remain within the first, contract/tort law paradigm, and that we should not allow considerations more fitting for a criminal law paradigm to interfere – and they will interfere – in the peaceful resolution of this dispute, which can then allow the parties to move forward.


11 Comments on “PMD Thoughts”

  1. Don Bacon says:

    ….observers are speculating about Iran’s intention in doing whatever weapons related R&D they were doing.

    Intentions are another word for the commonly used “ambitions” — as in the following from George Jahn in an AP article:

    Iran and six world powers ended the opening round of nuclear talks on an upbeat note Thursday, with both sides saying they had agreed on a plan for further negotiations meant to produce a comprehensive deal to set limits on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

    So we have not only the questions about Iran’s past intentions/ambitions but also its current and future intentions/ambitions, none of which lend themselves to diplomatic or legal remedy, I’m afraid.
    Has anyone ever been punished for having illegal intentions or ambitions? Perhaps in a conspiratorial sense, i.e. working actively with others. But Iran has not been charged with conspiring to build a nuke, has it? It’s only intentions and ambitions.
    The whole thing is surreal to me, a further indication that the real issue is not nuclear but regime change.

    • Nick says:

      Sure, one can get punished for illegal intentions, but not in real life, only in movies. Here is a brief description of the movie Minority Report:

      “In a future where a special police unit is able to arrest murderers before they commit their crimes, an officer from that unit is himself accused of a future murder.”

      Iran’s case has been nothing more than a fiction paid for and plotted by the West.

    • Don Bacon says:

      A thoughtcrime is an occurrence or instance of controversial or socially unacceptable thoughts. The term is also used to describe some theological concepts such as disbelief or idolatry,[1] or a rejection of strong social or philosophical principles.[2]

      The term was popularized in the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, wherein thoughtcrime is the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the ruling party. In the book, the government attempts to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects. To entertain unacceptable thought is known as crimethink in Newspeak, the ideologically purified dialect of the party.

  2. yousaf says:

    Iran may as well ask the IAEA:

    “When will Amano come clean about beating his wife?”

    [Some adversaries of Amano might have secret evidence on that — too bad he cannot be allowed to see it]

    The IAEA and various pundits cannot presume something to be true when you don’t know whether it is true.

    All the public evidence that has come out re. PMD is that it is (poorly) forged or trumped up or dual-use stuff.

    Is there any publicly available (unforged) PMD issue that is a meaningful issue not explicable by non-nuclear weapons uses?

    • Don Bacon says:

      Speaking of Yukiya Amano perhaps he ought to take a closer look at his home country Japan.
      The Diplomat, Oct 22, 2012
      Japan: Joining the Nuclear Weapons Club? It Could.
      “…the prospect no longer appears unthinkable.”

      Just kidding. I’m sure that Japan’s new nationalistic government doesn’t have nuclear ambitions like Iran supposedly does so Amano doesn’t have to worry. Much.

  3. Jaideep A. Prabhu says:

    I have much sympathy for the nuclear hedging concept. This fits well with India’s experience leading up to the 1974 Pokhran nuclear tests; there was genuine ambivalence in Delhi about procuring nuclear weapons but the geopolitical shifts finally made them decide around February-August 1972 that they needed a weapon. Nehru was always keen on being a screwdriver’s turn away from the bomb…just in case. That is exactly what Tehran seems to be thinking now – genuine ambivalence which may shift to desire if the geopolitical hectoring gets worse.

  4. Cyrus says:

    Weapons “related” research is ‘prima facie’ reportable to the IAEA Board? When as Elbaradei said , there isnt a shred of evidence to show a diversion of a microgram of nuclear material for nonpeaceful uses innvolved nor the construction of any components of nukes?

    ,We cant just assume something is the case because it makes for a pretty, bookended narrative.

    The cooked-up Alleged Studies/PMD files were until now used as a justification to prevent the resolution of the nuclear standoff in the hopes of imposing regime-change. The files were made partially available to the IAEA just before the IAEA was set to issue a report stating that all of the pat activities in Iran had been resolved to Iran’s favor and giving Iran a clean bill of health, despite the fact that the US had been shopping bits and pieces of the allegations to the media for years before.

    The current talks are happening not because of the sanctions and not because of th election of Rouhani in Iran as the US media claim, but because the US abandoned the “zero enrichment” precondition to talks, the deliberate obstacle all along. So assumung — and that’s just an assumption — that the US is now genuinely interested in resolving this standoff, the US needs a face-sving way out of the PMD mess of its own creation, something that will let it portray the PMD issue as having been valid all along but now convenientlly resolved. This will let the US maintain the legitimacy of the claims and justify not havingmade a deal with Iran until now under the same or better terms offered by Iran, while also pretending that Iran has only now finally “come clean” as a result of sanctionetc etc.

    The Iranians may play along with this false but useful narrative because they know the US needs a way to climb down from its PMD claims, and letting thhe US have that bone worth removing sanctions.

    • Cyrus says:

      BTW there was ambivalence in Iran about the decision to not make nukes, especially due to Irq chemical weapons use unrestrained by international law or the UN. Even now polls show that a growing percentage of Iranians are more hardline on this point than the regime, with a growing portion calling for the manufacture of nukes. This should not come as a surprise

      But still, the question is, is there any actual evidence of the Allged Studies claims? Thus far, nope.

  5. Nick says:

    Just an observation on how negatively biased NYT and WP (among many others) are on Iran’s nuclear dossier. Usually after Amano’s quarterly report on IRI’s open file, NYT designated Iran’s nuclear file followers, Broad and Sanger, write their piece, spinning the report with their own juicy interpretations, bending the truth. But we have not seen one yet, since the report came out almost two days ago. I guess it is hard to spin it as usual when Iran has stopped the 20% enrichment voluntarily and capped the LEU production centrifuges.

    I think they still have a story here that they have used in the past. IRI’s 7 tons of LEU is roughly equivalent to 7 bombs 🙂 I am still waiting.

  6. yousaf says:

    I explain some of what is going on over at Reuters:

    comments welcome, here or on the site.

    Or both.

    Or sent to Vienna in addition.

    • Don Bacon says:

      I explain some of what is going on over at Reuters:

      I’m trying to think of something you DIDN’T explain — perhaps I shall.
      But as for the possibility of your common sense prevailing in this issue, I’m unfortunately reminded of some lines from my favorite film, “My Cousin Vinny.”

      Vinny Gambini: I object to this witness being called at this time. We’ve been given no prior notice he’d testify. No discovery of any tests he’s conducted or reports he’s prepared. And as the court is aware, the defense is entitled to advance notice of any witness who will testify, particularly to those who will give scientific evidence, so that we can properly prepare for cross-examination, as well as to give the defense an opportunity to have the witness’s reports reviewed by a defense expert, who might then be in a position to contradict the veracity of his conclusions.
      [there is a short pause as Judge Haller appears caught off-guard by Vinny’s sudden competence with knowledge of the law]
      Judge Chamberlain Haller: Mr. Gambini?
      Vinny Gambini: Yes, sir?
      Judge Chamberlain Haller: That is a lucid, intelligent, well thought-out objection.
      Vinny Gambini: Thank you, Your Honor.
      Judge Chamberlain Haller: [firm tone] Overruled.

      Which shouldn’t detract from your excellent exposition of the facts in this matter.

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