Wolfthsal on Uncovering Iran’s Nuclear Past

I was just reading a new piece by Jon Wolfsthal in the National Interest entitled “Uncovering Iran’s Nuclear Past: Where to Start? Where to Stop?” Overall I think this piece is part of a welcome movement of pragmatism regarding the PMD issue in Iran. However, I was struck by this passage in the piece, which I think does express a common view in DC policymaking circles:

Iran has yet to provide adequate answers to most of these questions, in part because it continues to publicly deny it ever pursued nuclear weapons. This, in the minds of officials, experts and long-time observers is proof that Iran harbors long-term nuclear weapon ambitions and cannot be trusted to implement any new agreement.

I don’t see the logical connection between these two assertions: 1) Iran doesnt want to talk about nuclear weaponization research and development activities that may have gone on in the increasingly distant past in Iran; and 2) that means Iran wants to build nuclear weapons in the future.

As I’ve been researching my new book, I’ve been surprised by just how many states have at some point since the end of World War II pursued nuclear weapons programs, to varying degrees of development, and then have at some point stopped them.  At this link you can find a really interesting and useful brief run-down of some of these programs.

Each case is of course different, but on the whole I think you could make a few generalizations about them.  In by far most of these cases, state officials in later years were not keen to talk about the former programs, and definitely would not have welcomed attempts by other states or international organizations to pry into that history, and force them to “come clean” about all the details concerning them. Also, in by far most of these cases, once the nuclear weapons program was stopped, it remained stopped, at least in an active, development sense. A number of these states now possess mature civilian nuclear energy programs, and are advanced industrial states with defense industries, and therefore have all the necessary capabilities to seriously re-start a nuclear weapons program if they chose to do so. But again, they have not.

So I would say that overall, history does not support the connection that Wolfsthal makes in this piece, and that I think underlies efforts to pressure Iran to make an accounting of its past nuclear weaponization R&D.



4 Comments on “Wolfthsal on Uncovering Iran’s Nuclear Past”

  1. pugwashtest says:

    Dan, I would say that my over-all reaction to Jon Wolfsthal’s article in the National Interest is very similar to yours. Like you I cannot but welcome the call for a pragmatic approach to PMD (POSSIBLE MILITARY DIMENSIONS), and, like you, I feel uneasy about Jon’s rather categorical assertion that those dimensions were not possible, but very real. But hear is a nuance: as someone who started following the Iranian file in early 1987, I am not in a position to assert (or accept) that there have been no MD (military dimensions), especially in early years.

    The real question is how relevant is all that today, and here I would think that probably not much. And I do not think that detailed mapping, including the names of scientists and engineers, organizational and logistical details are key for excluding potential Iran’s rush to a nuclear bomb in the future. Furthermore, Jon is saying that “…the experts advising the U.S. government and the IAEA can and have determined what information must be uncovered and eliminated to hinder Iran’s nuclear future,..” This is really strange. To start with, it is simply unrealistic to expect that some knowledge and know-how, even if uncovered, can be eliminated – unless, of course, you assassinate all the scientists, participating in the program (which is not a sinister joke, since we have witnessed attempts to do so).

    Another point is that if the idea is to push Iran into making embarrassing confessions, then it would only be fair to scrutinize and grill some other countries for concocting false allegations – say in order to prevent them from doing the same on future occasions.

    To some it up, I think Jon’s appeal for restraining ones investigative appetite in order to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis makes a lot of sense, and he should be thanked for introducing this theme. But some of his points and arguments make me think that he is still relying on a pretty mechanistic approach to non-proliferation, which is at odds with with the first objective.


  2. Don Bacon says:

    Jon Wolfsthal is a former US government apparatchik, close to Joe Biden, so of course he’s going to parrot the government line that Iran can’t be trusted because as Wendy Sherman so famously said: “deception is part of the DNA.” He would not be invited to any more parties in Washington if he acted otherwise.

    Then of course this political bias is dressed up in Sunday best as: “This, in the minds of officials, experts and long-time observers is proof that Iran harbors long-term nuclear weapon ambitions..blah blah.” Officials, experts and long-time observers, all anonymous of course. It’s just something that everybody knows, the story goes, and Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions has to be mentioned. It’s an essential part of the dogma, those pesky unconfirmed nuclear ambitions.

    In the minds of officials, really, is to present high-enough hurdles for Iran to ensure that no agreement is ever reached. The US is currently undergoing a massive increase in its military presence in the Gulf — which the US calls the Arabian Gulf — based entirely upon that supposition. The world-leading US sales of expensive military machines to the Gulf States doesn’t hurt, either.

  3. yousaf says:

    Jon abuses the English language by saying: “Iran has yet to provide adequate answers to most of these questions, in part because it continues to publicly deny it ever pursued nuclear weapons. ”

    Iran has said that the accusations it has been presented with are false/forged, which may be the truth.


    Pursuing nuclear weapons RESEARCH is permitted under the CSA and NPT.

    Sweden and Switzerland also pursued nuclear weapons research — where is the IAEA on them?

    Another beltway piece, this time from CA.


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