As we enter 2013, we enter a year in which the true nature of Iran’s nuclear program may come to light. Although Iran has had a nuclear program that it swears is meant for peaceful purposes since the days of the Shah, the true nature of its possibly covert designs has baffled every presidential administration in recent memory.
While the most recent declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) as well as reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency have sounded the alarm louder and louder since 5 years ago – when the last NIE stated with high confidence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 – they have still yet to determine whether Iran plans to stuff its uranium into the tip of a ballistic missile.
If one thing is for sure, there is no silver bullet; time and again, Iran hawks have tried to twist the words of the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence community to try and show proof that Iran is indeed working towards a nuclear weapon. However, the IAEA’s most recent report still clears Iran of having taken the road towards militarization, but with troubling evidence that it may be working on certain other technologies that are instrumental to the delivery and detonation of a nuclear device. While the IAEA cannot clear Iran of malevolent intent, it cannot charge them with it either.
Many have come to the consensus that Iran desires to have a breakout nuclear capability; in other words, enough enriched uranium to build a few bombs and a delivery system ready to be assembled and operational within a month’s time. This theoretically protects Iran from allegations of possessing nuclear weapons while at the same time allowing them the ability to deter serious aggression from Israel and the U.S. if push comes to shove.
Ayatollah Khamenei was not born yesterday. He knows that a declaration of their existence, or testing a nuclear weapon, would rain down hellfire – literally – on his country. Given Iran’s machinations to be the guiding light of all Muslims throughout the region and the regime’s desire for a Persian version of manifest destiny, completely isolating itself from the international community is not in its national interest.
Iran is already hurting from some of the most brutal sanctions it has ever endured – complete with a brand new, highly destructive round enacted last week – sending prices through the roof and decimating the worth of the Iranian Rial against the dollar. Further, Iran is being dealt a serious blow with the looming finale of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, arguably Iran’s only ally and gateway to meddling in the Israel/Palestine quagmire. Iran needs to keep this conflict intractable at all costs if it is to maintain its thin veil of legitimacy to Sunni Arabs who see Iran as a viable opponent to Israel, lest Iran become even less legitimate in an increasingly hostile neighborhood.
The regime can look at these enormous challenges with regard to its nuclear program in two ways: it can calculate that engaging in a nuclear weapons program is too politically, economically, and existentially costly, as the United States is hoping to make clear, or it can surmise that a nuclear device is a worthwhile, last ditch attempt to shore up power and get the international community off its back out of fear of mutually assured destruction.
Although many like to paint the regime as brash, hostile, and all too eager to become martyrs before Allah in the face of Western hubris, the regime has proven time and time again that it prefers to stick around to see if the hidden Imam ever returns. The revolutionary regime has consistently gone out of its way for the last 34 years to avoid overt hostility between itself and its more powerful adversaries. Whether during the tanker war of the 1980s, the Iran-Iraq war, the Afghan war, or both Iraq wars, Iran has used measured violence against the U.S. so as not to allow hostilities to get out of hand while working towards its long-term foreign policy goals.
It is highly unlikely that Iran will be proven to be working on or possess a nuclear weapon in the coming year: not because they aren’t working on one, but because regardless of what they’re doing, the veil of secrecy is a commodity Iran simply cannot afford to give up. Iran’s elusively pragmatic leadership knows that the existence of a nuclear weapon within its borders will be its end, and will seek to avoid that end at all costs.