International negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have resumed this week in Kazakhstan. Initial reporting suggests that Iran will be offered some limited sanctions relief in return for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities. However, these talks have a troubled history and experienced observers are quick to tamp down any expectations of a major breakthrough. As any number of foreign policy pundits will be debating the significance of these outcomes over the next several days, it would be prudent to dispel some of the most popular (and misguided) myths surrounding the Iran policy debate.
Myth 1: Iran is an irrational actor. This myth is especially popular among those pushing the case for immediate military action to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Their argument is that Iranian leaders are crazed, hot-headed, and messianic actors who do not respond to logic or reason and therefore cannot be trusted with such destructive weapons. These claims are based on cultural ignorance and prejudices that would be routinely dismissed as out of bounds in just about any context outside of US policy debates on Iran. Fortunately, senior US and Israeli officials have publicly dismissed this myth as false. America’s senior military officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey asserted in a television interview that “we are of the opinion that the [Iranian] regime is a rational actor.” Israel’s retired Mossad director Meir Dagan similarly opined that “the regime in Iran is a very rational one.” Moreover, Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, elaborated on this basic point saying that “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, [would] drop it in the neighborhood…They are radical but not totally crazy…They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality.”
Myth 2: Iran has vowed to wipe Israel off the map. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Meridor has admitted that President Ahmadinejad “didn’t say ‘we’ll wipe it [Israel] out.’” The more accurate translation according to Middle East expert Juan Cole is that Ahmadinejad was instead quoting Ayatollah Khomeini who said that “this Occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” This then is roughly the rhetorical equivalent of Trotsky’s condemnation of the Bolsheviks to the “dustbin of history” and Ronald Reagan’s reprisal of this phrase anticipating that “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history.” Now to be clear, Ahmadinejad has said plenty of vial, disgusting, reprehensive, and idiotic things. But making a direct threat to militarily destroy Israel is not among them. In fact, both Ahmadinejad and Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei subsequently sought to reassure the international community that “there won’t be any war in the future” and that “the Islamic Republic has never threatened and will never threaten any country.”
Myth 3: Iran is an existential threat to Israel. This is a claim routinely accepted at face value in American political circles, but is vigorously debated in Israel. Israel is widely assessed to have several hundred nuclear bombs with the capability to deliver them anywhere in the region and is demonstrably the region’s strongest and most capable military. Admitting to this basic reality, Ephraim Halevy, former Mossad Director, noted that “I think Israel is strong enough to protect itself, to take care of itself. I think ultimately it is not in the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel.” Similarly, Dan Halutz, former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff, concludes that “Iran poses a serious threat but not an existential one.”
Myth 4: Iran is in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The latest formal International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran never uses the word ‘violate’ in assessing Iran’s compliance with the NPT. In fact, this recent report explains specifically that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared material.” In other words, there is absolutely no evidence that Iran is diverting enriched uranium for a weapons program. Moreover, Iran repeatedly reminds international audiences that as signatory to the NPT (unlike other nuclear-armed countries with which US has managed to establish effective relationships such as Israel, India, and to a much more questionable degree with Pakistan), Article IV grants Tehran “the inalienable right… to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” To be sure, Iran’s failures to provide full transparency justifiably concern US leaders, render the IAEA “unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material,” and have provided the basis for UN Security Council Resolutions sanctioning Iran. However, it is precisely the extent of cooperation required of Iran that has been and will continue to be the focus of ongoing negotiations with the IAEA & P5+1. Nonetheless, Iran is absolutely entitled to enrich uranium for civilian purposes and there is no evidence that current Iranian nuclear activities constitute a formal breech of its basic obligations under the NPT.
Myth 5: Iranian civilian nuclear activities are a cover for nuclear weapons development. This charge has been repeatedly dismissed by the best available US intelligence assessments. The 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate assessed that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Secretary of Defense Panetta confirmed the continued validity of this assessment in February 2013 saying that “the intelligence we have is they [Iranian leaders] have not made the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.” Instead, the ultimate objective for Iran’s civilian nuclear program, according to US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, may be to develop “various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so.” He went on, however, to emphasize that “we do not know…if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” In other words, Iran like many other countries may be seeking a latent nuclear weapons capability or pursuing what is referred to as the ‘Japan option’ – the ability to produce a nuclear weapon on a relatively compressed timeline should the security situation warrant a nuclear deterrent. Of course, constant US and Israeli threats to attack Iran’s existing civilian nuclear facilities are counterproductive and underscore the potential need for just such a deterrent. Finally, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has formally and publicly renounced nuclear weapons in a fatwa that “considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin.” Reversing such a pledge is, of course, not impossible. However, all available evidence (see above) confirms that Khamenei has thus far made good on his pledge to “never pursue nuclear weapons.”
Myth 6: Iran has sufficient nuclear fuel to make a bomb. This claim has been advanced by sloppy analysts and others interested in hyping the Iranian threat. However, there is no evidence that Iran has any weapons-grade fissile material (see Myth 4 above regarding the IAEA confirmations that there is no evidence that Tehran is diverting enriched uranium). All evidence suggests that Iran is producing low enriched uranium at roughly the 5% and 20% levels (for energy production & medical treatments), but not to the 90% level required for weapons-grade fissile material. Moreover, while Iran is openly increasing its capacity to produce more of this low enriched uranium, the IAEA just this month noted that Iran is simultaneously reducing its nuclear stockpiles thereby reducing nonproliferation concerns.
Myth 7: A nuclear-armed Iran will lead to regional proliferation. Recent analysis by the Center for New American Security dismisses “conventional wisdom that Iranian nuclearization will spark region-wide proliferation” and concludes that “neither Egypt nor Turkey, [nor Saudi Arabia] is likely to respond…by pursuing the bomb.” A recent study from the War Studies Department of King’s College London draws similar conclusions noting that Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia “have little to gain and much to lose by embarking down such a route.” Moreover, there is ample historical evidence both inside and outside the Middle East that one nation’s possession of nuclear weapons does not necessarily lead to further proliferation. China conducted its first nuclear tests in 1964 and yet nearly 50 years later neither Japan nor South Korea have opted to ‘go-nuclear’. Ironically, the most powerful incentive for nuclear proliferation among Arab nations has been Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons capability since the late 1960’s. And yet, despite several Arab-Israeli wars this has not yet been sufficient incentive to spur further regional proliferation.
Myth 8: A nuclear-armed Iran will destabilize the region. A prominent American international relations scholar Kenneth Waltz in a Foreign Affairs article last summer makes precisely the opposite argument. He makes the case that the preponderance of historical evidence suggests that nuclear weapons have been a stabilizing influence on international politics imposing a tremendous degree of rationality and caution on the part of nuclear powers. Most Obvious Case in Point: The US-USSR nuclear arsenals contributed to what diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed ‘The Long Peace’ marked by the absence of violent conflict between the major powers. Indeed since the advent of nuclear weapons there has not been a single major armed confrontation between any of the nuclear powers. The same logic would likely apply to Israel and Iran (see myth #1).
Myth 9: Iran is on the brink of producing a nuclear weapon. US, Israeli, and other western intelligence agencies have falsely been predicting an imminent Iranian nuclear bomb since 1979. A Christian Science Monitor article details the history of these errant assessments:
“Breathless predictions that the Islamic Republic will soon be at the brink of nuclear capability, or – worse – acquire an actual nuclear bomb, are not new. For more than a quarter of a century Western officials have claimed repeatedly that Iran is close to joining the nuclear club. Such a result is always declared ‘unacceptable’ and a possible reason for military action, with ‘all options on the table’ to prevent upsetting the Mideast strategic balance dominated by the US and Israel. And yet, those predictions have time and again come and gone.”
The failure to uncover any militarily significant quantities of WMD after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 should only add to one’s skepticism about similar claims regarding Iran.
Myth 10: The global non-proliferation regime is on the brink of collapse. In fact, by any reasonable historic measure, international non-proliferation efforts have been wildly successful. In his third presidential debate with Nixon in 1960, John F. Kennedy predicted that “10, 15, or 20 nations will have a nuclear capacity….by the end of the Presidential office in 1964.” Yet despite this alarming prediction, only 9 nations currently possess a nuclear weapons arsenal (Britain, China, France, Russia, & US; plus Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea). Not a perfect record over the span of more than 50 years, but a substantial record of accomplishment nonetheless.
The author is a professor of national security studies at The U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government or the Department of Defense.