The Breakout Option: Raising the Bar for the Supreme Leader

April 5, 2012
By Greg Thielmann

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The U.S. intelligence community still assesses that Tehran has not yet actually decided to build a nuclear weapon. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be the one to give that order and the one who would control the weapons. It is therefore worth pondering what steps could discourage him from proceeding down the nuclear weapons path.

If Khamenei's foremost goals are the survival of the Islamic Republic with himself as supreme leader, developing nuclear capabilities may be seen an asset, even with the damaging sanctions that result. By positioning himself as a defiant defender of Iranian nuclear progress against foreign bullying, he can reinforce the domestic legitimacy of the clerical regime.

If he came to believe that Iran could forestall continuing economic punishment and eventual military attack only by abject capitulation, he might decide that breaking out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to build a bomb would be the preferred path for restoring Iran's international position and securing the Islamic revolution.

The challenge for the United States is to devise policies that would make it as difficult as possible for Khamenei to retain domestic support and international sympathy if he were to go for a bomb.

Presentations from earlier briefings in the ACA "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle" series are available from the ACA here.