What Does “Getting the Bomb” Mean?

By October 14, 2013

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 216

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: It seems that the West is headed towards an agreement with Iran, whereby Tehran will commit to not produce nuclear weapons, while expanding its supply of enriched uranium and plutonium. Iran will officially be treated as if it does not “have the bomb.” But Israel will not feel safe, because in the future there will be no way to be sure that Iran will not be able to produce a number of bombs – within a few months or less – too quickly for Israel or the West to stop them.

It now seems likely that most of the public discussion of how or whether to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons misses the point of the current stage of the conflict. The practical question now seems to be the definition of the stage at which “Iran has the bomb.” And it is pretty clear what is likely to happen.

Of course there still is a lot of uncertainty. But the direction in which events are now heading seems to indicate that there will an agreement between the US (or the UN) and Iran, which will commit Iran to not produce nuclear weapons that could be used as weapons to threaten or attack another country. However, the agreement will not prevent Iran from finishing its program of building a large supply of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which are the key ingredients needed to produce nuclear weapons.

It is probable that the coming agreements will deny Iran the right to do the research and development necessary to design practical nuclear weapons, or to produce the components of nuclear weapons once they have the necessary designs. But Iran says that they have no program to produce nuclear weapons, and that everything they are doing is for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. So it is not much of a concession for them to say they will not produce nuclear weapons. The problem is that the research and development to design a nuclear weapon, and the manufacturing of actual weapon components, are difficult to detect. Thus, no outsider will be able to know whether Iran actually has any nuclear weapons, so long as Iran wishes to keep it secret and is able to prevent leaks.

The accepted diplomatic understanding will be that Iran does not have a bomb and has agreed not to obtain one. This will be seen by most as a great victory for Obama, though there will be skeptics who warn about what Iran will do secretly and in the future.

The design and production of nuclear weapons for one who has the necessary enriched uranium or plutonium probably requires at least a year. Yet nobody will know at any given time how much of that work Iran has already done. Thus, after the likely agreement, Iran will be anywhere from a month to several years from having physical nuclear weapons in their hands, depending on how much work they are able to do clandestinely before the clock starts ticking. It is even possible that they already have, or will have in the next year or so, actual concealed nuclear weapons, regardless of likely potential agreements.

It seems likely that the US would be willing to accept an agreement having the effects described above. In return Iran would get a reduction or elimination of sanctions, reinforcement of the US policy not to support internal opposition to the Iranian revolutionary regime, and protection against an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear weapons facilities.

As far as the US is concerned, such an agreement would mean that the US, its allies, and the UN were successful in preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. But as far as Israel is concerned, such an agreement would be at least a partial failure to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. Because Israel would not have a reliable ability to detect whether Iran had a bomb at any time, and Iran quite possibly would have a “breakout capability,” that is, an ability to produce actual bombs too quickly for it to be reliably possible to prevent it. Although the US says it believes that its intelligence would provide early warning. But experience shows that Israel cannot be confident of either the CIA’s ability to find covert Iranian weapons programs or of US political willingness to communicate intelligence reports that are diplomatically inconvenient. Of course Israel is safer if Iran has only a breakout capability, rather than actual physical bombs that desperate Iranians might use in a crisis.

The clear gain from such an agreement would be at least temporary protection against one of the main reasons many countries are trying to stop the Iranian nuclear program: an Iranian ability to use nuclear threats to support diplomatic or terrorist actions against countries of the region. So long as such an agreement is in force, and Iran denies that it has nuclear weapons – or any program to actually produce them from the uranium and plutonium they have – Iran cannot threaten to use nuclear weapons to cover aggression against its neighbors, and there is less pressure on others in the region to get their own nuclear weapons.

It’s not quite true that Iran can’t at the same time deny that it has nuclear weapons and use nuclear weapons to frighten its neighbors. When countries decide what they have to do to protect their security, and which side they should join, they don’t think only about what the situation is today. They ask which way things are going, and who will be able to protect them in coming years. After likely agreements of the kind discussed here, Iran’s neighbors may think that, although Iran probably does not currently have nuclear weapons, there is a good chance that it will soon get them, and that it is not too soon to start to move under Iran’s umbrella. And there will still be some pressure for Saudi Arabia and Turkey to move towards getting their own nuclear weapons.

Although the plausible agreements with Iran would not meet Israel’s definition of “preventing Iran from getting the bomb,” if such agreements are signed it is very unlikely that Israel would take military action against the Iranian nuclear program. The case for such an attack would be much weaker. And there would be much less potential international support for an attack, and much stronger opposition from the US.

It is hard to see why Iran would not want to make the kind of deal discussed here. Even if they are determined eventually to get actual overt nuclear weapons that are ready to use, and which can be used to make threats, they would benefit for at least a year or so by promising not to do so. It would provide protection against Israel, weaken internal opposition, and provide relief from the sanctions while overtly producing more bomb material and covertly doing the work needed to produce actual bombs.

In brief, it seems likely that Iran will agree not to produce any nuclear weapons and that for a time it will officially be treated as if it does not have any actual nuclear bombs. But Israel will not feel safe, because there will be no way to be sure that Iran will not be able to produce a number of bombs – within a few months or less – from when Israel finds that its fears are coming true, and Iran is producing actual bombs.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Click here for a PDF version of this article

(Photo Credit: Flickr/Hamed Saber)

Dr. Max Singer
Dr. Max Singer

Dr. Max Singer, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a founder of the Hudson Institute. He specializes in US defense policy, US-Israel relations, and long-term strategic planning. Email: [email protected]