Analysis & Opinions

Case Study: Blocking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

| Updated September 2007



The world is the same as it is today.  All conditions relevant to the case are materially the same as they are today, except for the hypotheticals introduced specifically in the case. 

As the conditions in Iraq deteriorate and the Bush Administration awaits General Petraeus’s Iraq report due on September 15, 2007, the rise of Iran becomes more vivid.  Elimination of the Taliban to the East and Saddam to the West has left Iran as the major power in the region.  After fighting Israel to a standstill last summer, Iran’s client, Hezbollah, has emerged as the dominant political force in Lebanon.  Many now foresee the rise of Shiite power across the Arab crescent.  With the wind at its back, Iran’s nuclear program is on track to cross the point of no return this year. 

The official U.S. intelligence estimate predicts that Iran is unlikely to acquire a bomb until 2015. On August 21, 2007, Iran and the IAEA finally agreed to a timeline for Iran to answer unresolved questions about its nuclear program. Although IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei called the work plan “a significant step forward,” other analysts and U.S. officials criticized the agreement for its “limitations.” Indeed, the report ElBaradei issued to IAEA Board of Governors on August 30, 2007 acknowledged that Iran was continuing to defy the Security Council by enriching uranium at Natanz, running twelve 164-machine cascades (1,968 centrifuges). On September 2, 2007, Iranian President Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran was actually operating 3,000 centrifuges. 3,000 fully-functioning centrifuges can produce a bombs worth for highly enriched uranium (HEU) in 271 days.  

This possibility has motivated President Bush’s new urgency in addressing the Iranian challenge. Visible in the President’s State of the Union and his August 28, 2007 speech to the American Legion, the administration is deliberately taking a more confrontational approach to Iran. Vice President Cheney’s national security adviser John Hannah has declared 2007 “the year of Iran.” Critics are now worrying that the administration’s approach risks provoking an escalation that could lead to war. The President’s view is that “rattling Iran’s cage” in ways that remind Iran’s leaders of America’s military power should make them more willing to deal.

Secretary Rice sees Iran’s nuclear challenge as a “Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.” The administration has identified two bright lines of special concern: (1) technical independence, that is, knowledge of how to construct and operate a cascade of centrifuges so that, if interrupted, Natanz could be replicated; and (2) operation of 3,000+ centrifuges in a cascade continuously for nine months to produce the first bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium.

The President is clearly frustrated.  In private, he recognizes that his administration’s approach to North Korea failed to prevent North Korea producing a stockpile of plutonium—indeed, testing a nuclear bomb.  He is determined not to allow Iran to become the second new nuclear state on his watch.  As he has said, the U.S. “will not allow the regime in Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons.”  But the more he and others in the administration examine the military attack option, the less attractive it appears.  He is convinced that the U.S. can destroy all the targets it can identify (and that Israel can do so as well).  But a military attack is unlikely to erase knowledge from the heads of people who acquire technical competence in constructing and running a cascade of centrifuges. Furthermore, air strikes cannot destroy targets that have not been identified, including possible parallel covert cascades.  Moreover, as the administration has examined the list of actions Iran could take in response to an American attack on its nuclear facilities, and the likely retaliation others in the Muslim and Arab world would take against American and allies’ interests, this path seems even less attractive. 

On the diplomatic front, the President has concluded that the sanction route is almost certainly too weak and too slow to prevent Iran’s reaching its goal line. Although the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1747 on March 24, expressing its unified displeasure at Iran’s continued uranium enrichment for a third time in a year, the probability that this "slow squeeze" strategy, in itself, prevents Iran from producing a bomb is less than 20%. The next round of negotiations to impose stronger sanctions will expose sharply the differences among sanctioneers.  Both Russia and China are opposed to Iran acquiring nuclear bombs.  But both have concluded that this outcome is probably inevitable. Neither is prepared to pay significant short-term economic costs to slow or prevent this happening. The White House suspects that both countries see the sanctions process primarily as a mechanism to keep the U.S. engaged so it doesn’t attack Iran.


The President and the Secretary of State have concluded that they need a serious strategic reassessment of our strategy to block Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  As the new member of the policy team, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has been given this assignment. His task is to start afresh and to reexamine our position today, our national interests, and our options.  Specifically, the President and the Secretary have asked Negroponte to be inventive in exploring options between acquiescence and attack that best protect and advance American national interests. 

Known for your capacity for strategic thinking while on Nicholas Burns’ team, Negroponte has hired you to assist him in finding a path between these two options.  He asks you to write a three-page analytic options memo (or one-page outline or group presentation) that presents three “outside the box” strategies for resolving this conflict, evaluates the pros and cons of each, and makes a recommendation.

The President has told Negroponte specifically that he should not be constrained by prior positions taken by the administration.  The task is to be inventive, to be prepared to use all the sticks and carrots in the American arsenal, and, indeed, everything in the international arsenal that can feasibly be mobilized to this end.  Our operational objective, the President reiterated, is to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons within the foreseeable future, by which he said he means at least five years.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Case Study: Blocking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions.” , Updated September 2007.