Iran’s Nuclear Threshold Game

Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian-born independent journalist whose column is published in more than 175 papers in 45 countries.

By Gwynne Dyer


“A glance at the history of nuclear weapons manufacture shows that all 11 countries that wished to build bombs did so within three to 10 years,” wrote Yossi Melman, intelligence and strategic affairs correspondent for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, on Sunday. So why, he asked, has Iran failed to do it in over thirty years of trying?
Maybe, Melman suggested, it’s because Iran doesn’t really want to build nuclear weapons. Maybe it just wants to be a ‘threshold’ nuclear power, always able to finish the job quickly if it really needs to.
This is not exactly a new thought, but it’s the first time I have seen it in the Israeli media. It’s also the first time I’ve seen the obvious question put so plainly: how could any country possibly spin the job out that long?
Iran is a country of 80 million people with adequate scientific and technological skills. At any point in the past fifty years it could certainly have built nuclear weapons in less than ten years if it had gone all out. It didn’t. Why not?
The only country in the Middle East that does have nuclear weapons is Israel, and the Iranian assessment has always been that it won’t be reckless with them. The only thing that really gets the Iranians going is nuclear threats from OTHER countries.
The first time that happened was when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. Iraq really did have a nuclear weapons programme, Iraqi ballistic missiles were already falling on Iranian cities, and so the Iranian revolutionary regime restarted the Shah’s defunct nuclear weapons project.
Saddam’s invasion of Iran failed, however, and the 1990-91 Gulf war ended with the dismantling of Iraq’s nuclear facilities under UN supervision. So Iran’s nuclear weapons programme went back into hibernation.
The next panic was in 1998, when India and Pakistan each tested half a dozen nuclear weapons. Pakistan is a powerful Sunni Muslim state (220 million people) right next-door to Iran, the world’s only major Shia country, so Iran panicked again. In 1999 it secretly restarted its nuclear weapons programme.
That only ran until 2002, however, when the programme was discovered, sanctions were imposed on Iran, and work on nuclear weapons once again ceased. So the ‘mystery’ is solved. The Iranian nuclear weapons programme has not been active for ten years total, let alone ten continuous years.
 However, it is already close enough to nuclear weapons to be a ‘threshold state’, thanks to the work it did, so it was willing to sign the internationally guaranteed ten-year deal to stop all potentially nuclear weapons-related work in 2015.
There is the same constant tug-of-war between the rational actors and the ultra-hawks in Tehran as there is in Washington, Moscow and Beijing. If the grown-ups lose the argument to the extremists in next year’s Iranian election, it will be because Donald Trump pulled out of that deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions in Iran.
Why did he do that when even his own intelligence services were saying there was no problem? Because the deal was part of Barack Obama’s legacy, which Trump is determined to destroy, and for no better reason.
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does have a rational reason for wanting to destroy the deal, however. His intelligence services also told him that Iran was fulfilling its commitments under the deal, but he needs the Iranian nuclear ‘threat’ in order to win Israeli elections.
Does the phrase ‘rogue states’ spring to mind?

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