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NIAC Issue Brief: Influencing Iran's Nuclear Options

By looking at the complete list of Iranian options and interests, the US can identify the best course of action to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear issue

With the Security Council's decision to grant Iran a August 31 deadline to respond to a proposal from the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany (P5 + 1), the public discussion of U.S. policy toward the issue of Iran's nuclear program continues to focus largely on whether diplomatic pressures on Iran will succeed, and if not, whether other pressures should be brought to bear or military force used against Iranian nuclear sites.

Prospects for finding a peaceful resolution would be enhanced by broadening the debate in two significant ways. The first is to thoroughly examine whether Iran has actually decided on production of a nuclear weapon and consider the full range of options and interests Iran has in regard to that question. The second is to examine what factors are most likely to affect Iran’s choices and whether these factors can be influenced by the United States and the international community.

By looking at the complete list of Iranian options and interests, the United States can identify the most optimal course of action in order to attain a peaceful solution. This issue brief addresses this issue.

Iranian Interests and Options on Weaponization

In discussing the P5 + 1 Proposal, it has been generally assumed that Iran is enriching uranium with the intention of producing nuclear weapons, and that only the threat of punishment – whether economic sanctions or military action – accompanied by some combination of economic and technological benefits, could prevent it from going ahead. As it stands, the characteristics of Iran’s projected enrichment program would provide it with the “break out” capability for nuclear weapons production if carried out fully. Despite Tehran’s consistent claim that it is only pursuing peaceful nuclear power, its program choices thus far have certainly suggested that it is on a path of at least keeping a nuclear weapons option open.

However, that does not mean that a decision to weaponize has been made, or will be made for that matter. The evidence cited by the Bush Administration as indications of an intent to produce weapons – the possession of a 1987 “hemispheres” document from the Pakistani nuclear proliferation network and designs of a missile reentry vehicle – show nothing more than potential interest in a weapons option. After several years of inspections, the IAEA has found no evidence that a decision to weaponize has been made. Such a decision will depend on Iranian threat perceptions, the associated costs and the impact on Iran’s broader strategic objectives, and any incentives provided for other options.

Assuming that the IAEA’s conclusion is correct, the choices open to Iran are more complex than simply becoming another open nuclear power, like India or Pakistan, or accepting the P5 + 1 deal. In fact there are at least five options that Iran could adopt, starting from the one the P5 + 1 Coalition would most prefer: 

  1. Acceptance of a no enrichment agreement with full IAEA monitoring and surveillance.
  2. Agreement to limits on enrichment short of what is required for weaponization and foregoing weaponization indefinitely but without giving up the option of weaponization.
  3. Weaponization in secrecy accompanied by a continued declaration of a non-nuclear weapons policy.
  4. Weaponization in secrecy followed by a policy of ambiguity regarding possession of nuclear weapons – neither denial nor confirmation – such as that followed by Israel.
  5. Weaponization followed by public declaration of its capability.

Existing evidence indicates that Iran has thus far chosen option two. Jim Walsh of the Security Studies Program at MIT has been told directly by Iranian officials that they have made a “capability decision” but not a “weapons decision.”[3] IAEA Executive Director Mohammad ElBaradei, who has had more conversations with Iranian officials about their program than any other outsider, has suggested that Iran’s preferred option is to have the capability to make weapons without having to do so. Speaking in Washington, D.C. in March 2004, ElBaradei said the Iranians know that mastering uranium enrichment is “a deterrent” in and of itself and that “they don't need a weapon, it sends a message." Asked to explain the remark on the Lehrer News Hour, he replied:

Well, what I mean is…if you have an enrichment program or a reprocessing program, which means that you can produce uranium … you are really sending a message that we know how to do it, should we decide to make a weapon. We don't need…to develop a weapon, but I am telling you--you know, the world, my neighbors, that I can do it.[4]

Actual Iranian diplomatic proposals over the past year also support the premise that Iran’s current policy is indeed option two rather than any explicit decision to weaponize. In a letter to the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) in July 2005, for example, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani indicated that Iran would agree to operate a lower number of centrifuges, limiting the uranium-235 content of the enriched uranium and “allowing continuous on-site presence of IAEA inspectors” at Iran’s centrifuge and conversion facilities.[5]

The option of maintaining the capability for weapons production without exercising it is obviously a less desirable situation for non-proliferation than a decision to suspend or end completely uranium enrichment. However, it does indicate that Iran believes that becoming a nuclear power brings with it significant costs and risks which it would prefer to avoid if possible.

One critical factor pushing Iran away from a decision to weaponize is the very national pride and regional ambition that analysts in the West often times believe is preventing Iran from renouncing enrichment altogether.

Both Monarchial and Islamic Iran believe that the country’s resources, size and potential destine it to enjoy a position of preeminence in the region. Indeed, as long as the Middle East is kept nuclear free, Iran will enjoy a conventional superiority vis-à-vis its neighbors. However, if Iran weaponizes, it will risk sparking a nuclear arms race that may lead to small states such as Bahrain and Kuwait to opt for a nuclear capability as well. In such a Middle East, Iran would lose its conventional superiority and find itself at strategic parity with states less than one twentieth its size. The Iranian government is well aware of the negative repercussions a weaponization decision would have for Iran’s prestige and ability to maintain a position of primacy in the region.

Most students of Iran’s nuclear program point out that the major factor that could override Iran's natural hesitation about weaponization is the emergence of a major national security threat from a nation against which Iran lacks a credible deterrence, such as the United States. The absence of such a threat may enable Iran's regional ambitions and strategic outlook to continue to create natural disincentives for weaponization.

It is noteworthy that the two major factors motivating Iran from renouncing enrichment –national pride and an unwillingness to give away the nuclear option without getting some tangible security benefits in return – can both be satisfied without Iran actually manufacturing weapons.

Iran appears to believe that there is an advantage in continuing to try to convince the United States and other major powers that it will remain a non-nuclear power, provided there is no acute military threat to its security. That belief could coexist, in theory, with a covert nuclear weapons program. But it would still suggest that Iran is interested in not appearing unnecessarily aggressive to the rest of the world. The motivations for avoiding an overt weapons program may include the hope of being able to coexist with the United States and maintaining support among Islamic states which identify with Iran’s right to its own nuclear fuel cycle but would not approve of nuclear weapons.

The circumstances surrounding Iran’s nuclear options thus put the United States in a very strong position to influence Iran’s choice. However, the direction of that influence may either reduce or increase Iran’s incentive to weaponize depending on the combination of threats and positive incentives the policy offers.

In particular, the United States is acutely aware of the effect its military dominance has on Iran’s nuclear policy. If its policy of implicit threat to attack Iran merely on the suspicion that it has a future intention to acquire nuclear weapons persists, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing Iran past option two toward option three or four.

If, on the other hand, the United States confines the threat of force against Iran to the contingency of a genuine military aggression by Iran, and offers to respect Iran’s legitimate security and status interests, it could reduce the potential demand in Tehran for nuclear weapons. Such a policy would entail offering assurances of non-aggressive intent toward Iran as well as assisting Iran's integration into a new Persian Gulf security architecture – provided that Iran agrees to the most stringent safeguards against nuclear weapons production that can be devised.

The offer of positive incentives in the form of security guarantees and a new regional status for Iran are likely to have a significant impact on the choice Iran ultimately makes among its nuclear options precisely because it negates Iran’s demand for a nuclear deterrence. While the current P5+1 proposal offers economic incentives, it fails to address Iran’s threat perceptions and sense of insecurity.

The prospect of losing potential economic opportunities with European states and of having new financial and travel restrictions placed on the Islamic Republic is unlikely to win Iranian concessions on enrichment in the short-term. It is even less likely to prompt Iran to relinquish the weaponization option. Tehran has already signaled that it is readying itself for economic sanctions and that it will enlarge its enrichment program.

It is by reinforcing the factors that already cause Iranian leaders to hesitate about weaponization – among other things, its negative strategic implications for Iran – that the United States has best chance of persuading them to forego that option and to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

[1] The National Iranian American Council is a Washington, DC-based non-partisan, non-profit educational 501 c(3) organization promoting Iranian-American participation in American civic and political life. This document is a product of NIAC’s US-Iran Media Resource Project, funded by Connect US and the Ploughshares Fund. For more information, please visit, email at or send a fax to 202-719-8071.

[2] Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Triangle - The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007.) Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005 by University of California Press.

[3] Interview by telephone, June 13, 2006.

[4] Transcript of Online Newshour, March 18, 2004,

[5] Paul Kerr, “Behind Iran’s Diplomatic Behavior,” Arms Control Today, June 2006.


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