How to Prevent a Nuclear-Armed Iran

November 19, 2004

Publication Type: 

  • Roundtables

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Rolf Ekeus
Stanley K. Fraley
John Sigler
Terence Taylor
Marcus Winsley

Moderated by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control



It is widely believed that Iran has nuclear weapon ambitions, which it is trying to hide behind a civilian nuclear energy program. The question is whether Iran can be stopped from getting the bomb, given the indigenous capability it has already amassed. If so, which combination of policy tools-diplomacy, inspections, sanctions and the use of force-is most likely to succeed?

For the purpose of shedding more light on this topic and in an effort to arrive at the policy most likely to achieve a nuclear weapon-free Iran, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. on November 19, 2004. The five panelists who participated in this discussion were chosen on the basis of their experience with Iran, the Middle East and weapons proliferation. They are Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, who served as executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and as Sweden's ambassador to the United States, Dr. Stanley Fraley, director of the Office of Nuclear Affairs in the Verification and Compliance Bureau of the U.S. State Department, Admiral John Sigler, a retired officer in the U.S. Navy who served as plans and policy officer at U.S. Central Command, Terence Taylor, a former chief inspector at UNSCOM and head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies office in Washington D.C., and Marcus Winsley, First Secretary at the embassy of the United Kingdom in Washington D.C. The panelists took up the following questions:

  • Is there a diplomatic deal that could convince the regime in Iran to give up its nuclear weapon ambitions?
  • What kind of deal, if any, could be adequately verified?
  • How useful would international sanctions or the use of force be in rolling back Iran's program, and does the political will exist for such measures?

The panelists found, in sum, that engaging Iran in an iterative diplomatic process, involving Europe, the United States, Russia, China and Iran's neighbors, offers the best chance of inducing Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. If this process fails and Iran continues to operate its sensitive nuclear facilities, then the panelists doubt that international inspections will be able to assure the international community of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. In this case, an international oil embargo, perhaps enforced by a naval blockade, would be most successful in punishing Iran, and have the highest probability of achieving a reversal in its nuclear ambitions. However, the panelists agreed that, barring a flagrant act by Iran, it will be very difficult to unify the world behind either sanctions or the use of force. In this case, a nuclear-capable Iran is likely to emerge.

Underlying all the panelists' conclusions are three assumptions: first, that the civilian nuclear program in Iran provides cover for a weapon program; second, that a nuclear-armed Iran, and in particular a hostile Iran so-armed, would have an enormous negative impact on the Middle East and on international security; and third, that the internal political dynamics in Iran are bound to affect Tehran's negotiating posture and its perceived need for nuclear weapons. As the international community wrestles with the question of Iran's nuclear ambitions, it should-to the greatest extent possible-not do anything that would embolden the current regime at the expense of the domestic reform movement.

The following findings are the moderators' summary of the discussion. These findings should be considered a composite of the panelists' individual views; no particular finding should be attributed to any single panelist, or be seen as an official statement of policy of any government.

The best chance of convincing Iran to reconsider its commitment to a nuclear weapon program is to engage the Iranian regime in an iterative process of negotiation, setting out potential economic, political and security benefits, while at the same time threatening punitive measures in the event of non-cooperation.

  • The deal struck between Iran and the governments of Britain, France and Germany provides tactical but not strategic benefits.
  • The United States is the only state capable of providing Iran with the necessary security guarantees.
  • Russia and China have significant leverage with Iran and should contribute to the diplomatic process.

The panelists found that over the next few years, it might be possible to bring Iran to the point where it would reconsider its commitment to a nuclear weapon program, although the chance of bringing about such a strategic shift is slim. The process must involve Europe, the United States, Russia, China and Iran's neighbors, and all parties must work together to induce Iran-through an artful combination of benefits and threats-to roll back its nuclear effort. Through such a process, Iran might eventually recalculate its strategic objectives and decide that achieving a nuclear weapon capability would have a net negative impact on its security, its economic vitality and its standing in the world.

Time is needed to prepare the ground for such a long term solution, which includes assembling and motivating a diverse group of states and building a climate of trust between Iran and its negotiating partners. In this context, the deal struck between Iran and the governments of Britain, France and Germany (the E-3) in November 2004 should be seen as a tactical maneuver that buys time and provides an opening for continued talks. At this stage, however, it is not a solution to the overall strategic problem. The two immediate aims of the deal for the Europeans-under which Iran has agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment and plutonium processing activities during negotiations-are to keep the diplomatic process going in order to stand a chance of influencing Iran's behavior, and to draw attention to the issue. Since the E-3 effort began in the summer of 2003, the level of political awareness around the world of the threat posed by a nuclear-capable Iran has increased significantly. The European Union has become involved. The issue has been debated at G-8 and U.S.-E.U. summits, and in quarterly meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors. The level of awareness in Iran that the world takes this issue seriously has also risen.

The E-3 and E.U. have much to offer Iran economically, including the resumption of negotiations over a trade and cooperation agreement and support for Iran's accession to the World Trade Organization. Europe, unlike the United States, has an active commercial relationship with Iran. The promise of future economic benefits in exchange for continued cooperation is the main thing Europe has to offer; the denial of such benefits is Europe's primary threat.

While this economic leverage is important, the panelists judge that Iran's nuclear program remains motivated by security concerns-which Europe is less capable of addressing on its own-and by Iran's desire to increase its military and diplomatic power in the region. The United States, until now disengaged from direct negotiation with Iran, is the only state capable of providing Iran with adequate security assurances. It must do so if Iran can be expected to rethink its nuclear ambitions. Iran's nuclear effort, begun under the Shah, was revived by the Islamic Republic partially to combat the threat of a nuclear-armed Iraq and in response to a historic rivalry with neighboring Arab states. Although Saddam Hussein's regime has been deposed, the nuclear future of Iraq remains uncertain and largely in the hands of the United States. Further, Iran today finds itself a member of the Bush administration's "axis of evil," surrounded not only by its historic adversaries but by U.S. forces stationed in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the Persian Gulf. Just as the Europeans must be prepared to punish Iran should it fail to uphold the latest agreement, the United States must be willing to engage in a security dialogue with Tehran.

Yet the current climate of distrust and animosity between Iran and the United States is a high barrier to such a dialogue. A series of confidence-building measures must therefore be implemented over time to create trust. On the Iranian side, ratification of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Additional Protocol would be a symbolic but useful first step, as would the provision of a transparent national security doctrine that does not include nuclear weapons. Other confidence-building mechanisms could include cooperation in military-to-military operations such as search and rescue exercises, or joint work on an incidents at sea protocol, similar to that which existed in the Cold War era between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States should also work to ensure against the emergence of a nuclear-capable Iraq. Ultimately, the United States must be prepared to provide Iran with at least some level of assurance that it will not face a nuclear or other mass destruction weapon threat if Iran demonstrates its willingness to forgo such weapons.

The panelists also found that Europe and the United States must try to include Russia and China in diplomatic efforts. This will not be easily done, given the extensive Russian and Chinese commercial ties with Iran-particularly in the energy sector-and the fact that neither of these countries feels directly threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, the panelists judged that without the active participation of Russia and China, diplomacy is unlikely to succeed. Russia and China must assume the responsibility conferred by their status as nuclear weapon states and veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council. The specter of a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, which both countries have a stake in upholding.

It would be useful, for example, if Russia and China could be convinced to approach Iran privately and underscore the importance of maintaining its enrichment freeze. Russia and China could also articulate their support for a long term solution in which Iran would be allowed to develop nuclear energy as long as it agrees to give up its nuclear fuel cycle facilities. The Russian decision to withhold fuel for the light water power reactor at Bushehr during this crisis is a positive sign. As a further incentive for Russian participation, an eventual nuclear deal with Iran could include the promise of additional Russian-supplied reactors and reactor fuel.

In particular, Russia and China could warn Iran that it should not try to back out of the current enrichment freeze by accusing the Europeans of not delivering on their promises. Iran should be told by as many states as possible that this will not be an acceptable justification for resuming its nuclear activities. Iran, in fact, must understand that it currently lives under a suspended sentence, thanks to the deal it struck with the Europeans. If Iran decides to renege on the deal, then the sentence-notification to the U.N. Security Council of its safeguards violations-would be applied.

The panelists also judged that Iran's neighbors should play a diplomatic role. Iran should understand that these states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would be threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon capability and might feel compelled to follow suit. The current conventional arms race in the Middle East could escalate to a nuclear arms race. Iran would become a nuclear target not only for the United States and Israel, but eventually for its Arab neighbors. Delivering this message to Iran would play to the Iranian leadership's fears of regime survival and stability and could provide the basis for a security argument against a nuclear option.

The panelists also cautioned against overestimating Israel as a motivating force in Iran's nuclear quest. In fact, they believe that Israel's nuclear arsenal may not perceived by Iran as an immediate threat.

Even with these steps, however, and with the world's attention focused on the Iranian nuclear crisis, the panelists were not optimistic about the chances of diplomatic success. Several panelists questioned whether a non-nuclear Iran is a realistic objective, given Iran's repeated refusals to give up is weapon potential; all judged that the international community may not be willing to bear the costs of forcing such an outcome. Nonetheless, the panelists concluded that diplomacy remains the best-perhaps the only-option at present: at the very least, it will increase awareness about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran among key states in Europe, as well as in Russia and China, and therefore help to consolidate support for sanctions or the use of force among members of the U.N. Security Council, should either eventually be required. Indeed, to stand any chance of achieving consensus in the future on the imposition of international sanctions or the application of military force, considerable ground work on the part of Europe and the United States would be required. These states must convince the rest of the world that all other options aimed at preventing a nuclear-armed Iran have been exhausted.

It will be impossible to verify that Iran is not secretly making nuclear weapons under any deal that allows Iran to keep its fuel cycle facilities.

  • The IAEA's Additional Protocol on nuclear inspections is useful but not adequate and could instill a false sense of security.
  • If Iran makes the strategic decision to give up its work on plutonium and enriched uranium, the verification and inspection protocol it concludes would be both straight-forward and comprehensive.
  • Iran should be allowed to develop and run a civilian nuclear energy program in exchange for giving up its ability to produce enriched uranium and plutonium.

The panelists judged that any final deal would have to include Iran giving up and verifiably dismantling its fuel cycle facilities. There would be no acceptable way to conduct inspections in Iran if it were to keep such facilities: the inspection burden would be either unacceptable to Iran or provide inadequate assurance for the West. The denial of fuel cycle plants would prevent Iran from producing the two ingredients that can be used to fuel a nuclear weapon: highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Neither of these elements is necessary to a nuclear energy program.

An inspection regime like the IAEA's Additional Protocol, the panelists assessed, would raise the risk to Iran of conducting secret nuclear work by increasing the likelihood of getting caught. However, the Additional Protocol could not per se ensure that Iran was not conducting any secret nuclear work. When dealing with a state whose peaceful nuclear intentions are in doubt-as is the case in Iran-it is necessarily difficult to craft an adequate inspection arrangement. Only a more intrusive, specialized inspection regime-perhaps modeled on the U.N. special inspections organized in Iraq-in which inspectors were allowed anyplace, anytime access would offer a robust guarantee against cheating. This would require access to sensitive military sites with no declared relation to Iran's civilian nuclear infrastructure. Iran is unlikely to agree to such a regime, which it would see as a grave infringement on its national sovereignty.

A good indication of Iran's nuclear intentions should emerge from the negotiations themselves and from the type of long term verification and inspection protocol that Iran is willing to accept. If Iran follows the North Korean or Iraqi example and insists on a complicated series of steps that never fully lift suspicion or answer all questions, then doubt about its intentions will persist; if Iran follows the Libyan model and endorses a straightforward agreement, it could successfully lead to the dismantlement and removal of most nuclear fuel cycle equipment in a matter of months.

The IAEA itself should not be asked to do more than it is institutionally capable of achieving. The Agency can verify suspension of activity at known facilities and it can track nuclear material at these facilities. But Agency inspectors, under any inspection regime, are limited in their ability to detect secret nuclear processing at undeclared sites. Further, the IAEA is not equipped to detect any work that deals with the manufacture and testing of weapon components. Over nearly two decades, Iran has conducted secret nuclear processing at a number of sites. Some of these sites were known to the IAEA, others were never declared. Iran's experience in duplicity will make it doubly difficult to catch it conducting illicit nuclear work.

If there is any hope of convincing Iran to give up permanently the most sensitive and proliferation-prone parts of the nuclear fuel cycle-uranium enrichment and plutonium processing facilities-the panelists judged that Iran must be allowed to keep, and to develop, a civilian nuclear energy program. It is therefore necessary for Europe and the United States to arrive at a reasonable and realistic definition of what technologies Iran should and should not have.

Currently, the light water power reactor being built by Russia at Bushehr is the centerpiece of Iran's civilian effort. The E-3 are pushing Iran to accept a guaranteed external supply of fuel to run this plant, and perhaps future power reactors, in exchange for abandoning plans to produce the fuel domestically. The panelists agreed that some sort of supply and take-back program for reactor fuel would be far preferable to Iran producing fuel itself. Such an agreement would also be more cost effective, as it is less expensive for Iran to buy reactor fuel from abroad than to produce the fuel domestically. The panelists further believe that there exists an adequate means of verifying that Iran does not divert any imported fuel for weapon use. Such an arrangement has the further advantage of appealing to Russia, which has strong commercial incentives to continue, and to expand, its nuclear work in Iran.

The panelists found the issue of Iran's heavy water facilities, both its plant for producing heavy water and a planned 40 megawatt reactor for using it, more worrisome. These facilities are not part of the current freeze and despite a request by the IAEA, Iran has not yet suspended work on them. Given the large size of the reactor, and the fact that similar reactors have been used around the world to produce plutonium for weapons, the panelists agreed that Iran must be induced to give up this technology.


Short of an international embargo against Iran, which would be difficult to achieve, sanctions are not likely to work.

  • International economic sanctions or an oil embargo would be the most effective punishment for Iran, but these measures have little chance of being imposed.
  • The United Nations could probably pass milder sanctions, which would help build consensus against a nuclear Iran.
  • An embargo on high-technology sales to Iran would be advisable, even though Tehran has already amassed what it needs to produce nuclear bomb fuel.

The panelists found that there is little prospect of getting meaningful sanctions voted in the U.N. Security Council unless Iran does something to trigger worldwide outrage. Such an event might be the discovery that Iran is still conducting secret nuclear work, has actually developed nuclear weapon components, or decides to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Absent such discoveries, the political will to vote meaningful sanctions-an economic or oil embargo-probably does not exist.

It might, however, be possible to get milder sanctions voted by the U.N. Security Council. Even if these measures do not cause economic hardship in Iran, such a multilateral expression of political disapproval would have a symbolic value. The panelists thought that such action might have a powerful impact on internal dynamics in Iran. It might provoke a crisis of legitimacy at home for the regime and be perceived as a diplomatic defeat abroad.

This step might also be useful as part of a progressive coalition-building process. If Security Council members could be convinced to come together and pass a resolution critical of Iran's behavior, then the Council would be better positioned to pass a stronger resolution at a later point, should the crisis amplify. In this way, a series of largely symbolic measures taken in concert by a coalition of states would establish a record of consensus on Iran within the United Nations. The panelists believe that this would increase the likelihood that the Security Council might in the future agree to tougher action, including oil sanctions.

Another means of preparing the ground for more serious action by the Security Council would be to use multilateral fora beyond the Council to draw attention to Iran's behavior. The upcoming review conference for the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in May 2005 or future G-8 summits are two possibilities.

Conversely, the panelists warned of the risks in taking up the Iranian nuclear crisis within the Security Council. On the domestic front, it might provoke a siege mentality in Iran, leading Iranians to coalesce around the current regime. Should this happen, any domestic reform process would stall.

In addition, it could be counter-productive to send the Iranian case to the U.N. Security Council without a good prospect that effective action will be taken. If the Council does little or nothing, it would show that states in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty do not bear any real costs. This could be the lesson Iran has already learned from North Korea's referral. The Council endorsed six-party talks with North Korea but has not voted any punitive measures. A repeat performance with Iran would deal a major blow to the Treaty.

Finally, the panelists assessed that the international community should deny Iran legal access to high technology items that could be useful in its nuclear program. Last June, leaders from G-8 member countries took a step in this direction by agreeing to a one year moratorium on support for any transfers of uranium enrichment or plutonium processing technology. The prohibition of such sales could slow Iran's nuclear progress. However, this measure would by no means solve the problem. Export controls have not succeeded in preventing the development of Iran's centrifuge enrichment program. Indeed, Iran managed to procure much of what it needed on the nuclear black market and could continue to do so.

There is no favorable military option for stopping Iran's nuclear progress.

  • Any use of force by the United States against Iran is likely to trigger asymmetric retaliation and could leave the United States without a practical response.
  • Nevertheless, the most effective use of force would be a naval blockade of Iran's ports.
  • Air strikes or a ground invasion could entail more costs than benefits.

The panelists agreed that at present there exists no effective way to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis through the use of force. Potential military options include sabotage, a naval blockade, limited overt or covert strikes against nuclear or conventional targets, invasion, and regime replacement. However, the costs associated with each of these options seem to outweigh the benefits. Sabotage or air strikes might delay Iran's nuclear progress but could harden Iran's commitment to the program and drive it further underground. Cutting off Iran's oil through a naval blockade, while logistically feasible, would cause economic stress on a number of other countries through the increase in oil prices and would be difficult to get through the United Nations. A ground invasion aimed at regime change is not logistically or politically feasible because of the U.S. and other coalition member commitments in Iraq. Echoing the words of the British strategist Basil Liddell-Hart, one panelist warned that the United States is already involved in two land wars in Asia-in Afghanistan and Iraq-and that a third war on a third front-in Iran-would be difficult to sustain.

Even if the United States were to use military force, it is ill-prepared to answer the Iranian response. That response would probably be delivered asymmetrically, either in the United States, Europe or Israel. The United States military is now stretched to the point where it would not be able to escalate from its initial action-such as limited air strikes or a naval blockade-to the next level-such as mounting a ground invasion, without downscaling or abandoning its commitments elsewhere. This reality makes it unlikely that force would be used in the first place.

Still, all the panelists agreed that a credible threat of force must remain on the table if the world expects to influence Iran's behavior. They found that a naval blockade of Iran's ports on the Persian Gulf is the best military option. The U.S. Navy is currently capable of such a blockade, even with the U.S. troop commitment in Iraq. This move would shut down most of Iran's oil exports and severely damage the Iranian economy. Iran, unlike Iraq, does not have an effective land route over which goods could travel to escape the blockade. If done with international support, a blockade could punish Iran enough to force a change in behavior. However, if done unilaterally by the United States, it would be an act of war and would create a difficult political situation for the United States vis-à-vis its allies and Iran's key trading partners, such as China.


Overall, the panelists concluded that there is only a small chance of convincing Iran to abandon its nuclear weapon ambitions. Although the prospects for success are not high, diplomacy is the least costly option with the greatest promise of achieving positive results. Negotiating with Iran today does not foreclose more aggressive action tomorrow. Rather, it is a necessary precursor to gaining U.N. support for international economic sanctions, an oil embargo, or the application of military force, should these steps become necessary. As long as parts of Iran's critical nuclear infrastructure remain frozen, diplomacy also has the benefit of slowing Iran's nuclear progress.

But for any policy to work in the long term, states must change their priorities and recognize the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. The United States must show itself willing to present Iran with benefits in exchange for meaningful Iranian cooperation. Europe must be more willing to punish Iran for failing to abide by its agreements. Russia and China must actively join in the effort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, at the expense of their lucrative economic ties. Today, these changes appear unlikely. In the end, the panelists warn, the world may prove unwilling to bear the costs of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.