A Nuclear Iran Could Upend the World

“The Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” Those blunt words by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) leave no doubt about the Islamic Republic of Iran’s true nuclear intentions—the development of weapons of mass destruction.

To quote IAEA’s findings directly:

42. The information comes from a wide variety of independent sources, including from a number of Member States, from the Agency’s own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself. It is consistent in terms of technical content, individuals and organizations involved, and time frames.

43. The information indicates that Iran has carried out the following activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device:

• Efforts, some successful, to procure nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities (Annex, Sections C.1 and C.2);

• Efforts to develop undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material (Annex, Section C.3);

• The acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network (Annex, Section C.4); and

• Work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components (Annex, Sections C.5–C.12).

An annex titled “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme” provides concise details about the “program management structure,” technology “procurement activities,” “nuclear material acquisition,” “nuclear components for an explosive device,” “detonator development,” “initiation of high explosives and associated experiments,” “hydrodynamic experiments” where conventional materials substitute for nuclear ones in explosion simulations, computer “modeling and calculation” studies, “neutron initiator” manufacturing, preparatory experimentation for “conducting a test” of a nuclear explosion, studies on integration of a nuclear warhead “into a missile delivery system,” and the “firing system” for an atom bomb. A final attachment graphs the IAEA information, making clear that a nuclear payload is the most likely end product of Iran’s activities.

The IAEA’s reports since 2003 have progressively become more indicative that Tehran is developing atomic weapons in tandem with a civilian nuclear energy program. This week’s report emphasizes that considerable progress continues not only in uranium enrichment but also on warhead detonation sequences, missile delivery systems, and computer-controlled simulation and guidance. Iran’s Foreign Ministry characterized the report as “invalid,” “fake,” and “politically motivated”—a customary response to such findings. Yet IAEA officials are systematic in their investigations and cautious when drawing conclusions. So the nuclear watchdog agency’s findings must be taken seriously.

The US and its allies, who bear the brunt of Iran’s adversity, have been unable to halt the rise of nuclear mullahs. Iran has persisted on its path toward nuclearization despite economic sanctions steadily crippling its economy. Problems created for centrifuges by the Stuxnet computer virus merely slowed the program. Even growing isolation from regional nations, as revealed by WikiLeaks and recent polls, has not dissuaded Tehran’s leaders. Estimates place the time needed to cross the threshold of nuclear weapons capacity at between one to four years. Ultimately it is just a matter of time before Iran achieves all necessary technical capabilities


So exactly what would Iran gain from eventually assembling atomic weapons that it does not already have and why is it worth such a heavy price? In a nutshell, much more of everything it already has and seeks. Atomic weapons–capable Iran would have greatly enhanced ability to project power and influence around the world.

Across the Middle East, Iran will stand out as the only Muslim country possessing nuclear capability (Pakistan, after all, is in South Asia). With atomic warheads, Iran would challenge more forcefully US influence in Iraq, Bahrain (where the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet anchors), the United Arab Emirates, Qatar (home base for US Central Command), Yemen, and Lebanon. The ayatollahs’ dream of an Iranian military shield for Muslim nations that are united against the US, EU, Israel, and Western policies could come true.

In Asia, a nuclear-powered Iran will rival India and overshadow Pakistan. For Central Asians in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan who traditionally are influenced by Persian culture, Iran would become an ultimate (and armed) beacon for anti-Western and anti-Russian agitation. It could project itself as the new superpower whose favor other Asian Muslim nations, such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia, must curry.

Tehran’s anti-Western actions will gain more support among other rogue states with which it collaborates on nuclear-related issues. A strong connection exists with Syria via suspected Iranian collaboration at the Israeli-destroyed al-Kibar nuclear facility and Tehran’s abetting Bashar al-Assad against his own citizens. Likewise, Pyongyang and Tehran are assumed to be trading atomic warhead designs. Venezuela has become part of that axis because Tehran needs uranium and other rare elements while Caracas benefits from subverting the Monroe Doctrine.

Essentially, a nuclearized Iran would have no fear of military actions and retaliations by the five nuclear-weaponized permanent members of the UN Security Council—namely, the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—let alone worry about Israeli first strikes. Tehran could behave just as nuclear Pyongyang does now by disregarding the world’s wishes and becoming more militarily adventurous.

Iran’s nuclear program is especially troubling because its bombs will likely be controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the same Iranian agency US officials recently linked to a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and blow up Saudi Arabian and Israeli embassies there and in Buenos Aires. The IRGC has also been implicated repeatedly in other draconian acts around the world, and while it reports to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it occasionally seems to act independent of Iran’s political hierarchy in its illicit adventures. This bodes ill for a future in which it might control fission weapons.

Iran’s political hierarchy appears to still be divided about crossing the nuclear weapons’ threshold. To sway opinion, in June 2011 the IRGC produced a scenario called “The Day After” (Persian link), about the benefits of Iran testing a nuclear weapon. That public push by the IRGC for weaponization of nuclear materials came on the heels of two other atom bomb–related Iranian propaganda programs—a “Chariots of Fire” themed aerial detonation graphic in early 2008 and a “Reappearance is Very Near” messianic video in March 2011 (more here, video here).


So far, Iran’s ayatollahs have not been maniacs. They are shrewd autocrats who hold on to power through force and faith. But they also relish upsetting Western nations. Having nuclear capability may grant those demagogues a freer hand to let surrogates like Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Houthis, and Bolivarians do more dirty work.

Tehran’s civilian cover has been blown by the IAEA this week. There can be no escaping the new reality of “the existence or development of processes associated with nuclear-related activities, including weaponization.” Yet even without detonating a single warhead, Iran’s atomic capability will project its shadow upon the whole world by demonstrating that it can continue to undermine the UN Security Council, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the role of the US in upholding the current global order. Tehran’s leaders speak boldly of “correcting the world’s political balance.” Nuclear muscle would indeed facilitate their championing of a new, Persian-led global system. Tehran’s hard-liners seem convinced no nation will dare step forward decisively to halt Iran’s ambitions. So far, their gamble is paying off.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian studies, senior fellow of the Center on American and Global Security, and former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the US National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed are his own.

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