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June 2, 2022
The Clock’s Ticking: Stopping Iran Before It’s Too Late
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Joseph Cirincione

Time is running out on Iran. Decisions are being made in Washington and Tehran that could put the two countries on a collision course in the new year. The dominant leadership faction in Iran seems determined to continue a steady march to nuclear capabilities that could make Iran a nuclear-weapon state sometime in the next decade. Simply the perception that Iran may get the ability to make a weapon seems to be enough to convince its regional rivals that they should create their own nuclear hedges.

Officials in both Egypt and Turkey suggested in September that their nations should develop nuclear power programs. How long until others follow suit?

The Bush administration’s strategy, meanwhile, has failed to stop the Iranian program. The good news is that national intelligence estimates and independent expert judgment conclude that Iran is at least five years and most likely 10 years away from the ability to enrich uranium in significant quantities for either fuel or bombs. The bad news is that the program has greatly accelerated in recent years.

Iran’s nuclear power plans and covert efforts to develop nuclear weapons go back decades to the time of the Shah. U.S. intelligence first detected covert weapons research by the Shah in the mid 1970s. Officials then still approved the Shah’s plans for both uranium-enrichment facilities and plutonium reprocessing plants. (The approval process then included several officials who have advised President George W. Bush on Iran, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations). Aside from basic research, these efforts remained largely plans, however, until the mid 1990s when Iran began construction of several nuclear fuel facilities. The pace picked up in this decade.

Iran has made more progress on its nuclear program in the past five years than it has made in the previous 10 years. Since 2001, Iran has completed most of the construction of a massive uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz (including protecting it from air attack under 75 feet of dirt and several meters of reinforced concrete); successfully converted uranium to uranium hexafluoride at the new facility at Isfahan; opened new uranium mines; opened a heavy-water production plant at Arak and began construction of a 40 megawatt (IR-40) reactor there; started construction on a fuel manufacturing plant at Isfahan; tested centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride; produced their first samples of low-enriched uranium; and nearly completed construction of their first nuclear power reactor at Bushehr, set to open in 2007.

The Push for a Military Strike

This progress has taken place under both reformist President Mohammad Khatami and his hard-line successor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. U.S. strategy has been largely ineffective during this period. Over the past few years there have been several opportunities to stop the programs of most concern, the development of uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities. But the administration both spurned direct talks with Iran and gave lukewarm support to the European Union negotiations of 2003-2005 that had won a suspension of the programs.

The preferred strategy of the dominant faction in the administration seems still to seek the elimination of the Iranian regime rather than the elimination of the nuclear capabilities. Though officials do not say so directly, there are clear signs that for some the desire to “stay on the offensive,” may include carrying the fight to Iran.

Administration supporters in the neoconservative research institutes and press have been the most direct. They have returned to the Iraq playbook, using the techniques proven successful then, including presenting a false choice between appeasement and war, exaggerating the threat, cherry picking intelligence, linking the country to the September 11 terrorist attacks, undermining negotiations then using their failure as justification for military attack, and providing optimistic assessments of the effect such strikes would have on regime change and regional transformation.

The war campaign has already begun in the right-wing media. This summer, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, used the Hezbollah attacks—what he calls “ Iran’s Proxy War”—to push the United States into war with Iran:

We might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions—and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.[1]

Former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle weighed in decrying Bush’s “ignominious retreat” on Iran. He, too, wants war. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) says we are already in World War III and that the United States needs to take direct action against North Korea and Iran.

Diplomatic options are dismissed as naïve, if they are mentioned at all, while war is reckoned as not such a bad alternative. Mario Loyola, a fellow at the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, writes in the Oct. 23 National Review that “ Iran’s military is surprisingly weak. It would never be able to stop the advance of a single American mechanized or armored bridge on a ‘thunder run.’”[2] Many believe military action would promote a revolution in Iran, Reuel Marc Gerecht argues, “It’s likely that an American attack…would, within a short period of time, produce burning criticism of the ruling mullahs, as hot for them as it would be for us.”[3]

We do not know how closely these writers mirror the thinking inside the administration. However, even after the fiasco in Iraq, noted neoconservatives continue to occupy key national security positions in the administration such as vice presidential Mideast advisor David Wurmser and Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams. We do know that increased attention is being paid to Iran. A new directorate devoted to Iran, using the space and some of the same staff as the Office of Special Plans set up before the Iraq war by then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, has just been set up under Feith’s successor, Eric Edelman.

There is strong resistance to this agenda in both the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But if this drive is to be countered, there needs to be a clear, effective alternative. A strategy for stopping the Iranian program without war would include five key steps.

Step One: An Accurate Threat Assessment.

Any strategy must begin with an unbiased threat assessment. Misjudging the nature of the threat will lead to strategies that either overreach or underreact.

Iran’s nuclear efforts, despite the progress of the past five years, are still a long way from success, according to U.S. intelligence and most outside experts. The 2005 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program, according to published accounts of the classified study, projected that Iran is five to 10 years from being able to indigenously produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a bomb. The timeline represents the consensus judgment of the U.S. intelligence community and is a conservative, worst-case estimate “designed to reflect a program moving full speed ahead without major technical obstacles.”[4]

Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte updated this estimate on Sept. 1, in effect pushing it out another year, when he told National Public Radio, “sometime beginning in the next decade, perhaps out to the middle of the next decade would be a good timeframe. Five to 10 years from now.” If Iran were to experience major technical obstacles, then it could be expected to take even longer. Iran appears to be experiencing just such problems both in it ability to convert uranium ore to uranium gas at Isfahan and in its ability to get its centrifuges to enrich that gas.

Congress has ordered the production of a new NIE on Iran. It must now insist on its delivery as well as the release of an unclassified version of the estimate for public debate. Congress must reassert its constitutional responsibility mandated by House and Senate rules for “comprehensive policy oversight,” especially for this critical national security issue. The NIE and any dissenting views need to be aired, including the likely consequences of beginning a war with Iran.

Step Two: Real Transparency

In order to judge the accuracy of U.S. assessments, it will be necessary to convince Iran to provide more information about the history of the program and to allow for a more intrusive inspection regime than is required under its Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy. Iran has signed but not ratified the Additional Protocol. It had agreed to implement the enhanced inspections, but suspended these more rigorous procedures when negotiations with the European Union broke down. Restarting and even going beyond these inspections must be a key part of any negotiations.

Based on what we now know, it is unlikely that Iran has a large, secret nuclear weapons program, though U.S. officials and many journalists talk as if they do. Rather, most evidence indicates that Iran has now embarked on a significant effort to acquire legally and openly all the technologies necessary for a nuclear power program, technologies that would enable it to also produce a nuclear weapon sometime in the next decade were it to decide to do so.

This is a very difficult strategy to counter. It would be easier to get tough sanctions on Iran if inspectors or intelligence agencies could expose a vast, underground weapons program. While it seems very likely that Iran did conduct weapons-related activities in the past, including possible acquisition of weapon designs and some limited research experiments, it also appears that the weapons work has ended, or, at least been suspended.

The evidence of past weapons work is largely circumstantial, but compelling. It is hard to believe, for example, that Iran was primarily interested in nuclear power generation when, in the mid-1980s, officials restarted the nuclear programs that the Islamic Republic inherited from the Shah. Deals with the Abdul Qadeer Khan network to buy centrifuges also netted the mullahs instructions for how to turn uranium into metal and shape it into hemispheres, a process that has no use other than for nuclear weapons.

Other suspicious activities, including experiments with Polonium-210, an element used to generate the neutrons necessary to initiate a nuclear chain reaction, bolster this judgment. This research seems to have slowed after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, proceeding in fits and starts during the 1990s. The major efforts seem to have turned to the publicly acknowledged programs, including resumption of construction of the reactor at Bushehr (begun by the West Germans during the Shah’s reign and scheduled to be completed by the Russians next year) and the construction of the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan with Chinese help.

With the exposure in late 2002 of Iran’s third major effort, the secret construction of uranium-enrichment facilities at Natanz, Iran was forced to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors access to most facilities and records. The IAEA work has now given us an extensive look at both the history and extent of the program. It may also have led to Iran’s current strategy: Cooperate with the inspections enough to provide information on current efforts, block investigations that could expose past, embarrassing weapons work, negotiate limits on the program that allow the assistance the country needs to both build power reactors, and develop enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.

Step Three: Understanding the Wild Cards

There likely are clashing views inside the Iranian ruling circles. The revolutionaries, now headed by Amadinejad, may want a crash program for a bomb, but seem to have been held in check by the more pragmatic elements of the business and clerical elites. It is quite possible, even likely, that Iran’s ruling elites have not yet made a final decision. At present, Iran seems to be following a “ Japan model” of acquiring all the technologies necessary for the production of fissile materials in order to both develop a full civilian nuclear complex and achieve a “virtual” nuclear status that could be made actual within months of a decision to do so. Like Japan, this program could be legal under existing international treaties, once past transgressions were either explained away, acknowledged and regretted, or simply excused.

In order for the international community to have any confidence in Iran’s intentions, Tehran will have to provide answers to all the outstanding questions posed by IAEA inspectors and allow those inspectors unimpeded access to all nuclear facilities and nuclear officials.

This transparency is vital to ascertaining both the accuracy of Iran’s claim that its program is entirely peaceful and the reliability of the timeline suggested by the intelligence. The uncertainties about the program have prompted many to leap to the conclusion that the worst must be true. Using Cheney’s logic, now popularized in Ron Suskind’s book, The One Percent Doctrine, if there is even a 1 percent chance that Iran could have secretly built a nuclear weapon and could give it to terrorists, we must attack. Any strategy must delineate the “wild cards” or unknown factors that could change the threat assessment in one direction or the other.

Wild cards that could give Iran a nuclear weapon sooner include: the existence of a secret, parallel, enrichment effort capable of producing weapons-grade enriched uranium; access to an alternative source of HEU, such as material stolen or purchased from one of the many dozens of stockpiles around the world; access to a supply of low-enriched uranium that could be fed into centrifuge cascades to produce HEU much more quickly; and acquisition of a complete nuclear weapon from a foreign source such as Pakistan or North Korea.

Wild cards that could delay the development of Iran’s capabilities include: difficulties in engineering enrichment technology; the expense of pursuing a limited enrichment program; multilateral sanctions that prevent Iran from acquiring key components or technologies for the program; or a decision by the current or a new Iranian regime to abandon the program.

There are other factors that could delay or accelerate the program (sabotage or assassinations of key scientists, for example) but the above seems to cover the major, likely possibilities. All must be taken into consideration. Obviously, those factors that would accelerate the program are of the most concern. The inspection and transparency measures negotiated with Iran must be thorough enough to reduce the chance of an Iranian “nuclear surprise,” such as the sudden disclosure of a completed weapon. Though no inspection regime can provide one hundred percent reliability, U.S. strategy must be to minimize the risk of surprise, and maximize the confidence that Iran is keeping to a negotiated pledge of a completely peaceful program.

Step Four: Understanding the Consequences of War

Policymakers must be aware of the likely Iranian and world reaction to military strikes on Iran. There is no question that the United States has military options. There is a strong likelihood that the United States could destroy most, maybe even all, of Iran’s known nuclear facilities with five days of air-strikes. There would likely be few American casualties. The strikes would set Iran’s physical technical infrastructure back two to three years, to where it was prior to 2002-2003; Iran’s nuclear expertise would remain intact. It would also retain blueprints, technical specifications, and other plans.

The United States could also degrade, but not destroy, Iran’s capacity to retaliate by simultaneously targeting Iran’s medium-range ballistic missiles, Republican Guard bases, and naval assets that could be used to disrupt shipping in the Persian Gulf. Thousands of Iranian civilians would likely be killed as collateral damage because many of the targets are located near population centers.

The problem is, what happens next? Iran has a half-dozen feasible, asymmetrical responses that could turn this into a costly, global war. Iran and its allies in the region—such as Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Iraq commanded by Moqtada al-Sadr—would still be able to mount a formidable reprisal against the United States and its interests in the region, such as carrying out a new round of terrorist attacks against Israel and targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. With minimal effort using weapons ranging from cruise missiles to rubber boats, Iran could effectively shut down the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz. Forty percent of the world’s global supply passes through this narrow ocean passage. The price of oil would go screaming past $100 a barrel, with some experts estimating prices of $200 a barrel. The price of gas would soar to between $5 to $8 per gallon in the United States. If sustained for any length of time, the price rise would trigger recessions in most Western economies and even a global recession. Ironically, Iran might not suffer, even if its sales were restricted, as the increased price could keep its revenues steady, or even cause an increase.

Global reaction is likely to be swift and angry, particularly if Iran is successful in drawing Israel into the war. It would then be seen by Muslims as a battle of the West against the Muslim world, triggering attacks on U.S. businesses, diplomatic missions, and citizens around the world.

Worst of all, military strikes would not stop the nuclear program. Just as the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 accelerated Saddam’s efforts,[5] a U.S. strike would end all debate within Iran about the necessity of nuclear deterrence and propel the regime to build, buy or steal nuclear materials and nuclear weapons as soon as possible. The lesson would not be lost on other states. As the Indian Army chief of staff observed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, if you think you might someday be opposed by the United States, you’d better get a nuclear weapon.

Step Five: Negotiating the Limits of Iran’s Program

All parties agree that the Iran has a right to and can proceed with its planned nuclear power reactors. The disagreements lie in how to limit the technologies inside Iran for enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium that can also be used for weapons purposes. There are four basic options for negotiated restrictions:

  • Suspend the enrichment and reprocessing programs until Iran has reestablished the confidence of the international community;
  • Allow some limited enrichment work, under strict controls;
  • Construct a multi-national or international enrichment facility in Iran;
  • Create a internationally guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel to reassure Iran and other states that they would continue to be supplied in the event of a failure in the commercial market or a foreign policy rift (aside from nonproliferation violations).

The first is clearly preferable. Iran would get its fuel from Russia, as it originally agreed to do in the contracts for the construction of the Bushehr reactor, and send the spent fuel-rods back there for disposal. This is also the most economical plan. It removes the major concern about the program by greatly reducing the risk of an Iranian “break out” capability. The problem is that Iran insists it will never agree to it.

The second is deeply problematic. It would allow Iranian technicians to gain increased knowledge of the enrichment process, risks the transfer of those skills and those technicians to a covert facility, and could eventually lead to the development of a full-scale enrichment facility as the Iranians now plan for Natanz. Its chief benefit is that many of the parties involved in the negotiations could agree to it and that it is the easiest to implement.

The third option also risks giving Iran access to the most advanced centrifuge technologies, and could also result in an Iranian seizure of the facility at some point. Proposals for such a facility include elaborate mechanisms such as self-destructing centrifuges and black boxes around the sensitive technologies, but the risk remains. Iran would accept this as a compromise. But, while this sort of facility was supported by the United States during the time of the Shah, there is little chance of support now.

The fourth is perhaps the most attractive, as it could not only solve the Iran issue, but establish a model that could finally fix the gaping hole in the nonproliferation regime that allows countries to acquire the means of producing bomb materials. This defect has existed from the beginning of the nuclear age. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has proposed such a solution and the Nuclear Threat Initiative has recently secured a $50 million grant from Warren Buffet to help finance a “fuel bank” that could back up any international fuel supply arrangement. (See ACT, October 2006) NTI Co-Chairman Sam Nunn said in announcing the grant on Sept. 19, “We believe that such a mechanism can be achieved, and that we must take urgent, practical steps to do so.”

Difficult Choices, Made More Difficult

There is no clear path forward. There were several opportunities in the past few years when the United States could have negotiated an end to the enrichment program (and an improvement in Iran’s relationship with Israel), but U.S. officials believed they could change the entire regime, not just the regime’s policies. Those arrogant choices have now narrowed U.S. options and increased the price for obtaining any of them.

U.S. policy should now proceed on the basis of two judgments. First, that we do not know for certain what Iran’s intentions are: whether it is rushing to build a bomb, or is willing to end or defer the program for a new relationship with the West. Second, that any of the above options may be attainable for the right price in resources, diplomatic capital, and presidential commitment.

The first means that we cannot exclude the possibility of negotiating a deal that could end Iran’s weapons-related activities, nor should we naively assume such activities are not taking place. It requires both openness on the part of the United States and transparency on the part of Iran.

The second means that there are trade-offs. How far are the United States and the European Union willing to go to get a complete cut-off of enrichment? How much effort are these states and others willing to devote to the fundamental transformation of the global nuclear fuel cycle? The United States and others should be willing to commit at least a fraction of the time and resources that would be needed for a war with Iran to efforts to solve this issue without war.

The most desirable solution is to negotiate both an end to Iranian enrichment and reprocessing activities and a beginning of a globally guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel. This is perhaps the hardest to achieve, however. It will require sustained, high-level attention, considerable financial resources, and political concessions from the United States that could assure Iran that giving up its program will not expose it to U.S. military attacks. It will require the United States to begin a fundamentally new relationship with Iran that would includes sustained dialogue, inclusion of Iran in security and cooperation arrangement in the region, negotiations to end Iran’s hostility towards Israel, and step-by-step normalization of relations with Iran

The difficulty of achieving this solution may require a short-term compromise. It may mean that the EU and the United States should agree to begin negotiations with Iran without preconditions; Iran would then suspend its enrichment activities for a limited period. Then when it became clear that serious negotiations were underway for a thorough final solution, the West could consider agreeing to partial operations of the pilot facility at Natanz, with strict limits on the number of centrifuges and on the amount of time such centrifuges could operate. This would be accompanied by an intrusive inspection regime to prevent secret operations.

This could only be a short-term measure as neither Iran nor the other states would be happy with these limited operations for more than a year or so. It would have to be accompanied by the approach outlined above: a substantial and sustained diplomatic effort to change Iran’s relations with the West and with its neighbors, including pursuing ideas for a Gulf Security and Cooperation Organization that could negotiate conflicts and give Iran the increased role in regional affairs it believes it deserves.

Finally, to break the current diplomatic stalemate, to regain control of the entire situation, the president should make the dramatic gesture of appointing a senior, high-level envoy to Iran communicating his peaceful intentions and the gains that Iran could achieve through negotiations and compromise. In so doing, the president will be better positioned to simultaneously gain the agreement of all the major powers involved to enact sanctions and restrictions on trade and travel with Iran if no deal is reached. Without this stick, Iran may believe that they can eventually get the carrots even without an agreement.

There is no guarantee of success. But without making the effort, there is a guarantee of failure.

Joseph Cirincione is vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. This essay is based in part on a forthcoming center report on Iran written with Andrew Grotto.


1. William Kristol, “It’s Our War; Bush should go to Jerusalem—and the U.S. Should Confront Iran,” The Weekly Standard, July 24, 2006.

2. Mario Loyola, “Can Their Program Be Destroyed?” National Review, October 23, 2006, p. 38.

3. Reuel Marc Gerecht, “To Bomb or not to Bomb; that is the Iran Question,” The Weekly Standard, April 24, 2006.

4. Dafna Linzer, “ Iran is Judged 10 Years from Nuclear Bomb,” The Washington Post, August 2, 2005, p. A1.

5. After the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, Saddam Hussein turned the program from one involving 500 workers into a more ambitious, secret, 7,000-person drive that came closer to delivering a bomb by 1991 than the open program would have. See Joseph Cirincione, “No Military Option,” Carnegie Analysis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 19, 2006.