- Belfer Center Newsletter

How to Prevent or Live with a Nuclear-Armed Iran

| Winter 2009-10

As the debate continues over actions the U.S. and international community should take to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon - or using it if built - experts from Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center and Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer their analyses and advice.

Diplomatic pressure has a chance of stopping nuclear efforts

Nick Burns headshotR. Nicholas Burns (Harvard Kennedy School (Professor, Belfer Center)
"At home, the president's conservative critics charge that his engagement policy has been naive, arguing the United States should return to a more confrontational strategy based on military force. They could not be more mistaken. The president's patient diplomatic pressure on Iran [combined with the threat of sanctions] is a more sophisticated strategy with a better chance of actually arresting Iran's nuclear efforts." ("Obama's Opportunity in Iran," Boston Globe, Oct. 1, 2009)

Persuade Tehran it doesn't need deterrent to be safe

Steve Walt headshotStephen Walt (Professor, Belfer Center)
"If we want to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to halting its nuclear enrichment activities), we are going to have to convince Iran that it doesn't need a nuclear deterrent to be safe.... Persuading Tehran that they don't need a deterrent requires taking the threat of force, regime change, and the like off the table, instead of ratcheting the threat level up." ("What is Iran up to?" ForeignPolicy.com, Sept. 25, 2009)

Transparency is vital to any deal with Iran


GTA headshotGraham Allison (Director, Belfer Center)
"The central policy question has become: What combination of arrangements, inside and outside Iran, has the best chance of persuading it to stop short of a nuclear bomb? More important than how many centrifuges Iran continues operating at Natanz is how transparent it will be about all of its nuclear activities. Maximizing the likelihood that covert enrichment will be discovered is the best way to minimize the likelihood that it will be pursued."  ("A New Red Line from Iran," Washington Post, June 1, 2009)

A deal could strengthen arguments against building nuclear weapons

Matt Bunn headshotMatthew Bunn (Associate Professor, Belfer Center)
In comments for this article, Bunn said: "I don't think the Iranian government as a whole has made a concrete decision to build nuclear weapons.  Some factions want that outcome, but others appear to believe Iran can get what it needs by establishing the option to build a weapon when it chooses, without the international reaction that would be provoked by building nuclear weapons. A deal could strengthen the arguments of those who don't think nuclear weapons are necessary for Iran's security."

Bunn believes Iran will not agree to a negotiated deal that would ban all enrichment in Iran and has suggested a range of measures that could limit the security risks of a deal allowing some continued enrichment. These include, among others, Iranian agreement to accept the Additional Protocol and a broad range of additional transparency measures to limit the risk of covert enrichment, international ownership and staffing for the centrifuges that continue to operate, and requirements for declaration and monitoring of all centrifuge-related procurement, testing, and manufacture.

To get a deal that addresses some of the international community's concerns, Bunn argues, will require addressing some of Iran's concerns as well, by implementing a broad incentives package, agreeing that the United States will not attack or attempt to overthrow the regime as long as Iran complies with its nuclear obligations and does not commit or sponsor aggression or terrorist attacks against others, and establishing dialogues to address other issues of mutual concern. (See: "Options for Limiting the Security Risks from a Negotiated Nuclear Settlement with Iran," Presentation, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Sept. 22, 2009 at http://belfercenter.org/SecurityRiskOptions)

Deterrence and containment can work again

Barry Posen headshotBarry Posen (Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
"The strategy of deterrence and containment has worked for the United States before; there is no reason why it cannot work again.... In a confrontation with the United States, Iran would run risks of complete destruction, and it cannot threaten the United States with comparable damage."("A Nuclear-Armed Iran: A Difficult But Not Impossible Policy Problem," A Century Foundation Report, 2006)

Convince Russia a nuclear Iran is not in its best interests


Will Tobey headshotWilliam Tobey (Senior Fellow, Belfer Center)
"Moscow must understand that the absence of effective international action on Iran's nuclear program will drive other policies in directions anathema to the Kremlin. It will strengthen NATO unity. It will make missile defense deployments more imperative. Most of all, it will cause countries throughout Europe and the Middle East again to turn to the United States for protection and leadership. In short, Russia must be convinced that a diplomatic double game on Iran is not worth the candle."("Is Moscow Playing a Double Game on Iran's Nukes?" Foreign Policy, Sept. 4, 2009)

U.S. must acknowledge legitimacy of Iran's government

Kayhan Barzegar headshotKayhan Barzegar (Research Fellow, Project on Managing the Atom/International Security Program, Belfer Center)
"From the Iranian perspective... the first step is Washington's acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the current leadership, recognition of the right to an independent nuclear fuel cycle, and a measure of respect for the nation's long-held history as a regional power." ("The Paradox of Iran's Nuclear Consensus," World Policy Journal, Fall 2009)

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wilke, Sharon. How to Prevent or Live with a Nuclear-Armed Iran.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Winter 2009-10).

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