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Last Updated: 03/15/2006
The Lesser of Several Evils
Paul Rushton

It is obvious Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon. The question, therefore, is what to do about it, and this question must be answered now, before Israel takes matters into its own hands and sets off even more conflict in the region, or before Iran gets the bomb and sets off an arms race among its neighbors. The international community's options aren't pretty, but even worse would be to do nothing.

Left to its own devices, Iran will build nuclear weapons in the near future. The US and European Union have been pushing for stricter international controls, while attempting to entice Iran into deactivating its expanding nuclear program. These efforts have so far been stymied by Iran’s defiance and the reluctance of China and Russia to be more vocal. But these efforts must persist, and must evolve into unified and gradually escalating trade sanctions as soon as possible. The alternative is the disintegration of the non-proliferation safeguards that have preserved nuclear peace for decades, and the specter of an unnerving military showdown in the Middle East.

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is explicitly permitted to pursue peaceful nuclear energy, and the government claims that its nuclear program is purely for civilian power. Some of its facilities, such as the Bushehr Nuclear Power plant, have legitimate civilian purposes. Others do not. For example, the Iranian government claims that the immense Natanz facility will serve only to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear power program – but low-enriched uranium can be purchased freely on the international market. The Natanz facility, much of which was built underground to be shielded from air attack, represents an enormous expense that would only make sense if it were intended to produce something considerably harder to acquire – highly-enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. Other sites, such as the Arak heavy-water facility and the uranium gasification site at Isfahan, have ominous military applications. Though the International Atomic Energy Agency is required to be very circumspect in its reporting and has thus not condemned the programs, the bulk of the international community increasingly concurs – Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, an Iranian nuclear arsenal is not imminent. Serious estimates of how long it will take Iran to complete its first bomb range from three years to more than a decade. The most detailed technical assessments guess that it will take at least another 7 years(1), while the US National Intelligence Estimate puts that figure closer to 10 years(2) – though black market technology purchases or unexpected breakthroughs could shorten the time considerably.

That does not mean that it will take a decade for this impasse to become a true crisis. Long before then, Iran’s nuclear program will heighten the risk of further international proliferation. As its technology improves and its weapons program expands, the chance will grow that Iran’s expertise will be shared with other regimes seeking nuclear weapons. At the moment, a combination of international norms and constraints, embodied by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is signatory, have prevented most states from seeking nuclear weapons. However, with each new state that develops nuclear bombs – first North Korea, and soon Iran – the norms surrounding the weapons become weaker and more states (Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example) may be driven to develop their own. As Kofi Annan cautioned, “We cannot continue to lurch from crisis to crisis, until the [non-proliferation] regime is buried beneath a cascade of nuclear proliferation”(3). .

There is another pressing reason for resolving this impasse as quickly as possible – Israel, Iran’s chief rival and the region’s only nuclear power. With its successful raid against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear weapons complex in 1981, Israel showed that it will not tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of regional competitors. Under today’s circumstances, this may be quite legitimate. Anti-Israel remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have garnered much attention recently, and Israel’s government will not let a regime that publicly claims “Israel should be wiped off the map” to develop a nuclear arsenal. Right now, Israel will likely let ongoing talks run their course and hope for the best. But if diplomacy truly breaks down, Israel’s military options will be on the table – and from a technical standpoint, airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would be more effective if they took place sooner rather than later. In the current climate of extreme tension in the Middle East - to say nothing of the wider Muslim world - a confrontation between Israel and Iran would be dangerous at best and catastrophic at worst. It is critical that Israel not feel that the non-military options have been exhausted – and therefore talks must lead to the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program.

But talk alone will not get the job done. The international community, particularly the US and EU, is hoping that Iran can be persuaded to trade away its nuclear weapons program for diplomatic and technical rewards. This is the same error that was made when the US was addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in the 1990’s. Ultimately, Iran will not abandon its nuclear program through simple bargaining because to Iran, like North Korea, the vast benefits of possessing a nuclear arsenal far outweigh the meager rewards (continued legitimacy, nuclear power assistance) the world is offering for giving up its bomb program.

Nuclear weapons, as is often noted, confer instant prestige – a nuclear Iran would instantly join an exclusive club of major international players. Moreover, the Iranian public sees nuclear weapons as a necessary and entirely legitimate counterpoint to Israel’s sizeable but undeclared arsenal. Zbigniew Brzezinski rightly observes that “the younger generation is more nationalistic than religious… they want nuclear weapons if Israel has them….”(4) No Iranian politician is eager to incur the wrath of a nationalistic public that proudly considers nuclear weapons to be an Iranian right. Moreover, nuclear weapons, in light of the American invasion of Iraq, probably seem an increasingly vital deterrent against American aggression – a view surely reinforced by the US government’s eagerness to strike non-nuclear Iraq rather than nuclear-armed North Korea.

Given these considerations, it’s not surprising that Iran’s government has grown increasingly defiant over this issue, and has rejected reasonable compromise offers. Recent attempts to find common ground, such as Russia’s offer to enrich uranium for Iran’s civilian program providing Iran suspends its own programs , have failed. They will continue to do so: Iran’s incentive for acquiring nuclear weapons is simply too great. It’s certainly possible that the internal machinations of Iranian politics will change the course of this dispute – there are dissenting voices in Iran who might gain prominence and power – but it would be foolish to wager on that.

Negative reinforcement, in the form of strong sanctions, is the most promising avenue left open. China and Russia have yet to publicly condemn Iran’s attempt to build nuclear weapons infrastructure, but continued technical arguments and diplomatic pressure should be applied to bring them on side. The Western powers are also reluctant to apply sanctions, for fear of the economic consequences of stemming the flow of Iranian oil onto world markets. They need to weigh this controlled, predictable disruption of the oil supply against the market chaos that would occur if Israel were to feel compelled to strike Iran and possibly ignite turmoil across the Middle East. Moreover, since the situation is not an immediate crisis, there is plenty of time to institute a program of gradually expanding sanctions, evolving over time from token efforts into a full-scale sanctions regime. Such an incremental program would likely have a better chance of attracting the support of China and Russia as well.

Inaction is the worst option possible – it guarantees nuclear proliferation, makes an Israel-Iran confrontation likely, and even threatens a wider regional war. Trade sanctions are not without risk – they will be seen as an escalation – but carefully applied they hold the greatest potential for preserving the existing counter-proliferation regime and defusing a critical threat to global peace.

(1) Jeffrey Lewis, Iran and the Bomb, available at

(2) “Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb: U.S. Intelligence Review Contrasts With Administration Statements," Washington Post, August 2, 2005.

(3)Kofi Annan, public statement in London, February 1st, 2006.

(4)Zbigniew Brzezinski, Speech at Johns Hopkins University, October 12, 2004.

Paul Rushton is a Master's candidate in International Peace Studies at the University for Peace.