Home > News > Iranian scientists and the nuclear deal
174 views 13 min 0 Comment

Iranian scientists and the nuclear deal

- April 6, 2015

A poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is seen next to bank of centrifuges in what is described by Iranian state television as a facility in Natanz, in this still image taken from video released Feb. 15, 2012. (IRIB Iranian TV/Reuters)
This post is part of the “Iran and the Nuclear Deal” symposium.
The framework deal announced last week over Iran’s nuclear program has sparked a wide-ranging discussion that has focused on its security and geostrategic ramifications. But it is important to recognize that for Iran, the nuclear program must be understood not just as a security issue or as an attempt at “street-legal proliferation” but also as a prestigious and scientific enterprise. From this vantage point, the face-saving parts of the deal are precisely what make it possible for Iran to accept it. Less obviously, the deal could keep key scientific constituencies within Iran not just satisfied but also potentially invested in nonproliferation. Such a scientific investment in the new framework will allow for much more transparency, minimizing the risk of “sneak-out.” This would be far better for regional and international security than military attacks, which tend to accelerate and drive programs underground.
The face-saving dimensions of the deal – including maintaining a set of centrifuges at the Fordow enrichment center, continuing research and development on advanced centrifuges and international collaboration in some areas of research – may be politically problematic, but they are crucial for its acceptance in Tehran. Scott Sagan has pointed out that the nuclear literature typically focuses on security rather than prestige; as I have argued, providing an alternate way to gain prestige other than developing nuclear weapons is crucial to counterproliferation. For example, prestige substitution was necessary for the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s plutonium production for at least eight years. North Korea insisted on being provided with light-water reactors as a substitute, having refused faster and more appropriate fossil fuel replacements, so that they could save face and still be able to claim that they were a nuclear state. Similarly, the U.S. 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities recognized the importance of prestige, arguing that “…opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.”
Iran’s focus on face-saving measures is clear from the conditions of the deal. Indeed, the New York Times reported that “…[U.S.] administration officials were struck by the fact that Iran was willing to waste 1,000 centrifuges, essentially spinning uselessly, to preserve national pride.” Iran’s fact sheet frames the deal as an advancement in its nuclear capabilities assisted by others, since “in cooperation with some of the countries of the P5+1,” the Fordow facility will be “converted to an advanced nuclear and physics research center.” This rhetorical sleight of hand elevates Iran to an advanced nuclear power working side-by-side with the most prestigious nuclear states in the world, allowing Iran to accept severe limitations on its nuclear program.
The scientific communities involved in nuclear programs are too often treated as “black boxes,” simple agents of the political authorities. Yet they represent significant constituencies in their own right, and Iran’s must be satisfied with the outcome of a deal. In other cases, we have seen nuclear programs created and maintained by strategic enclaves that resist nonproliferation and keep programs alive even when they are out of favor with a country’s leadership. For example, George Perkovich has detailed how scientists in India consistently kept their program alive despite the disinterest of politicians. The potential for such an enclave in Iran already exists. The Washington Post reported that the “high confidence” of the 2007 NIE that Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon had ended in 2003 was based, in part, on “intercepted calls between Iranian military commanders,” who were “complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered.” Indeed, satirical takes on the deal serve to remind us that we should not underestimate scientists and others inside Iran who may have an interest in scuppering in such a deal. As Cheryl Rofer points out at the Nuclear Diner, keeping Fordow open will help to “[keep] the scientists busy in the same way the International Science and Technology Center kept former Soviet weapons scientists employed when the Soviet Union collapsed.”
There are some inherent risks in keeping scientists busy. Indeed, tacit knowledge is one of the most important aspects of any nuclear weapons program, and keeping scientists together in the same teams helps to preserve that knowledge. But as former U.S. deputy secretary of state William J. Burns pointed out in an interview with Politico, “they [Iranians] know their way around basic enrichment technology, and you can’t wish that away, you can’t dismantle it away, you can’t bomb it away.” Fortunately, as I have argued, enrichment technology is only one of the multiple hurdles that any nuclear proliferator must overcome, and attempting to gain expertise, materials and technology from foreign sources can be counterproductive. Among other problems, Iran’s approach of outsourcing components has left it vulnerable to sabotage, which continues to be an important unstated factor in the Iran talks. Consequently, allowing for teams to continue enrichment is a risk worth taking, especially if, as Jacques E. C. Hymans argues, the key to an agreement is to befriend the scientists in order to help to strengthen domestic Iranian stakeholders against proliferation. The key is to connect scientists to civilian industries and reinforce non-military uses of nuclear technologies such as medical isotope research; as Stephen Flank has posited, it was failures in India’s civilian nuclear power program that led scientists to align instead with military programs, speeding up Indian nuclear weapons development.
The scientific community offers a very significant potential strategic opportunity, as well. Their support for the deal will allow for improved transparency through its monitoring of practically every aspect of Iran’s nuclear program. Despite the emphasis in these negotiations on calculations of Iran’s ability to “break out,” the main concern should be whether Iran can overcome the remaining tacit knowledge hurdles to a nuclear weapons capability covertly and, as James Acton pithily put it, “sneak out.” As Jeffrey Lewis has argued, we should be thinking in terms of “…maximizing our ability to detect covert facilities, not limiting the breakout time.” Even skeptical commentators such as Kori Schake have supported the deal due in part to its solid inspection provisions. Can this be done effectively? Charles Duelfer has argued that the Iran deal won’t work without tough inspections and enforcement similar to the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) established in the aftermath of the Gulf War. At first glance, the U.S. intelligence community’s poor record for assessing the status of foreign nuclear programs could be problematic.
Fortunately for the Iran deal, although Adam Mount and I found that the U.S. intelligence community has tended to err in a direction that is favorable to those who remain skeptical of a deal, since it has generally tended to overestimate progress toward a nuclear capability. Moreover, our study indicates that the intelligence community had consistently overestimated Iran’s progress prior to 2007. It has become a running joke that Iran has been two years away from a nuclear weapon for three decades. Mount and I also noted that it is quite rare for the U.S. intelligence community to underestimate a nuclear program; our list shows that it hasn’t done so since Iraq in 1991 (although Hymans disputes that Iraq was anywhere close to a weapon even then). This bias works in favor of a deal; indeed, the more likely danger is that overestimation will lead to overreaction. Moreover, the extensive monitoring agreed to in the deal, including allowing for inspections of non-nuclear facilities under the Additional Protocol, will produce much more valuable information and allow for better assessments. Iran’s acquiescence to strict limits on its centrifuge research, re-engineering of its heavy water reactor and extensive monitoring of its entire domestic and (remarkably) foreign supply chain clearly indicate that it is willing to credibly commit to transparency. This will keep Iran dependent on foreign suppliers for many of its key components, thus still leaving it vulnerable to sabotage and short of knowledge on how to indigenously produce those parts if the deal were ever to be broken.
As Austin Long has argued, this is, in fact, a good deal even for “hawks” who wish to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. It should provide new degrees of transparency and information, even if Iran ultimately reneges. Similar to Victor Cha’s arguments on “hawk engagement,” it is important to seriously attempt engagement in order to demonstrate the United States’ willingness to bargain and to test whether Iran is serious about the deal. Indeed, the key issue for Iran has been whether the Obama administration was willing to take yes for an answer. Fortunately, it now appears to be the case that the United States is willing to attempt to not shoot first and ask questions later.This is not the best of all possible deals, and many important parts of it still need to be ironed out, as seen in the gaps between the Joint Statement, the U.S. fact sheet and the Iranian version. But the framework offers a solid plan that is in line with an understanding of nuclear weapons programs as sources of pride and as complex scientific organizations.
Alexander H. Montgomery is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Reed College.