Iran's nuclear programme has reached the point where it threatens to achieve a weapons capability, and this Adelphi analyses Western policy responses aimed at forestalling this outcome. It argues that the risks are still best minimised by reinforcing the binary choice presented to Iran of cooperation or isolation and by strengthening denial of supply.

This paper explains how Iran developed its nuclear programme to the point where it threatens to achieve a weapons capability within a short time frame, and analyses Western policy responses aimed at forestalling that capability. Key questions are addressed: will the world have to accept an Iranian uranium-enrichment programme, and does having a weapons capability mean having the Bomb?

For nearly two decades, Western strategy on the Iran nuclear issue emphasised denial of supply. Since 2002, there has also been a demand-side dimension to the strategy, aimed at changing Iran’s cost–benefit calculations through inducements and pressure. But the failure of these policies to prevent Iran from coming close to achieving a nuclear-weapons capability has promoted suggestions for fallback strategies that would grant legitimacy to uranium enrichment in Iran in exchange for intrusive inspections and constraints on the programme.

The paper assesses these ‘second-best’ options in terms of their feasibility and their impact on the proliferation risks of diversion of nuclear material and knowledge, clandestine development and NPT break-out, and the risk of stimulating a proliferation cascade in the Middle East and beyond. It concludes that the risks are still best minimised by reinforcing the binary choice presented to Iran of cooperation or isolation, and strengthening denial of supply.

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  • Introduction

    Six years after the August 2002 exposure of Iran’s uranium-enrichment and plutonium-production programmes prompted intense scrutiny, diplomatic enticements and financial coercion, the international community has failed to persuade Iran to stop work that will soon give it a latent nuclear-weapons capability. Although technical difficulties and limited components still may restrict the size and effectiveness of its programmes, Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium has become a fait accompli. Zero enrichment...
  • Chapter One: Framing the Problem: Iran’s Pursuit of Fissile Material

    The problems and challenges presented by the Islamic Republic of Iran vary according to the geographical and political vantage point of the observer. To most Americans, as well as to the leaders of most of the Sunni Arab states that neighbour Iran, not to mention to Israel, the Islamic Republic presents a revolutionary, hegemonic, offensive threat. Many of Iran’s policies and actions give grounds for offence: its military and financial...
  • Chapter Two: Western Strategy So Far

    For many years, the US-led strategy for impeding Iran’s nuclear project was strictly supply-side, based on denying Iran the wherewithal to produce nuclear weapons. For nearly two decades, bilateral diplomacy to discourage potential suppliers coupled with multinational export controls effectively closed many of Iran’s avenues to dual-use equipment of proliferation concern. Concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions grew in the 1990s, as evidence mounted about the country’s interest in acquiring experimental...
  • Chapter Three: Can Iran’s Capability Be Kept Non-Weaponised?

    Possessing an enrichment capability is not the same as having the Bomb. If enrichment alone conferred weapons status, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Brazil would be considered nuclear-weapons capable. All produce enriched uranium for reactor fuel and have the technical capability to convert their industrial-scale facilities to HEU production. With the partial exception of Brazil, however, there is little international concern that any would do so. Their acceptance of IAEA...
  • Conclusion

    Claims that the West’s current policy is highly likely to lead to an unconstrained Iranian enrichment programme are unduly pessimistic. Notwithstanding the progress that Iran has made to date, concerned countries can still restrict Iran’s fissile-material-production capability through export controls, sanctions and other means. Only a limited number of high-tech firms manufacture the parts and materials that Iran cannot produce by itself, and Iranian access to these foreign goods is...

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.

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