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Michael Eisenstadt is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of its Military and Security Studies Program. His books on Iran include Iran Under Khatami (1998) and Iranian Military Power (1996). Mr. Eisenstadt has published several articles and monographs on Persian Gulf affairs and U.S. strategy in the Middle East. He addressed the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on March 16, 2005.

The Iranian nuclear program is not unique to the current Islamist regime. Iran's nuclear program predates the Islamic Republic. It commenced under Shah Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the ruler overthrown in the revolution of 1978-79 that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. There is a strong nationalist strain on both the left and right of Iranian politics that sees membership of the nuclear club as proper to Iran's place in the world. In short, Iranian nuclear ambitions are not regime-dependent. An array of geo-political factors would probably push a successor regime in the same direction, although it would probably be easier to manage the implications of proliferation if the country was headed by a more democratic regime.

Iran's motivations for developing nuclear weapons are diverse and varied. Firstly, it seeks what most powers seek by acquiring nuclear weapons: power, prestige, and influence; also deterrence and a sense of self-reliance. Accordingly, the policy implication is that Iran is not motivated exclusively or even primarily by security concerns, but by a variety of factors. It follows that U.S. security guarantees are unlikely to be sufficient to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.

The Nuclear Timeline

How long it will take Iran to become a nuclear power will depend on the route it takes in its development program. There are three broad possibilities. Iran might seek to complete a uranium enrichment program within 3-5 years. Alternatively, it could seek to conclude a program of plutonium separation some 15-18 months after the start up of its reactor at Bushehr. Or it could seek fissile material from abroad (Pakistan or North Korea), which would mean that weaponization could take place within a few months, providing Iranian scientists have the know-how and means to build a weapon. This means that within a few years at most, Iran will be a de facto nuclear weapons state, or be perceived to be a nuclear weapons state.

Implications of a Nuclear Iran

If Iran goes nuclear there will be a number of political consequences. First, it will further demoralize those seeking political change, and strengthen the regime hard-liners – at least in the short term. Long-term pressure for internal reform will of course remain but those pushing reform will have been set back. This in turn will result in Iran's neighbors becoming increasingly solicitous of Iranian opinion. Some, like Saudi Arabia and various oil-rich Gulf states, might seek an independent WMD capability, and some will seek to strengthen security cooperation with the U.S. Israel would probably further reduce the thin veneer of ambiguity surrounding its own nuclear program. Such developments, if they came to pass, might have second- and third-order consequences.

For example, Turkey is unlikely to develop nuclear weapons, is a NATO member and hopes for EU membership, but it would be hard to believe that such a major change in its threat environment will not have an impact on its defense policy and military doctrine.

The Lebanese terrorist group Hizbullah is perhaps the only group Tehran would probably entrust with nuclear weapons. Deniability will be crucial to Tehran in arming this group without involving consequences for its own security. Of more immediate concern is potential for Iranian support for Hizbullah and Palestinian terrorist groups to one day draw Iran into a confrontation with Israel, which could assume a nuclear dimension. Certainly there was just such a type of risk when the crisis between India and Pakistan in early 2002 nearly lead to war, deriving from a terror attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001.

Policy Options

There are a number of important considerations in framing a U.S. response to possible developments such as these. Delaying the day Iran becomes a nuclear power is still important, but the U.S. is reaching a point of diminishing returns, because Iran is becoming increasingly self-sufficient in the nuclear realm. A diplomatic deal that sees Iran relinquish its quest for a nuclear capability is unlikely, because Iran refuses to compromise over enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and also because the most potent lever – the possibility of an oil embargo – is off the table due to already high oil prices.

Preventive military action is not the attractive option it might be thought to be, because the U.S. may not have sufficiently detailed intelligence required for success, due to the immense secrecy surrounding the program and its strategic dispersal across the country.

However the possibility of military action must remain on the table as a spur to diplomacy, and because the necessary conditions for success might be fulfilled, as a result of dogged intelligence work, or dumb luck. A combination of deterrence and containment might eventually be what the U.S. is forced to do, since it seems unlikely that the U.S. will succeed in dissuading Iran from going nuclear.

The current Iranian leadership would probably prefer to be isolated with the bomb, than on warm terms with the international community without the bomb. But the Iranian leadership probably does not see the choice in this way; it might well believe that it can have its cake and eat it too. There are major challenges in creating a stable deterrent relationship with Iran. But Iran's leadership does not have a martyrdom complex, and does not seek to destroy itself. It wants to survive and continue enjoying its life of privilege and will not take steps that could lead to destruction of the Islamic Republic.

So we will need skill and luck.