With repetition, truth accretes. For example, repeat that Iran must be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons, and everyone believes that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. The problem is, the facts don’t support so certain a conclusion, any more than they prove Iran’s innocence.

Barack Obama’s decision to open US diplomacy to the overtures from new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is not going to be an easy one to follow through on. Almost 35 years of enmity between the two countries, and the associated prejudices on both sides that engenders makes things very difficult. But one of the major obstacles he faces is the lack of critical thinking in his own country about the Iranian nuclear program.

In political discourse and in the media, it generally goes without saying that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. The belief is not without foundation, but it has been built on years of mistrust and on one incident after another of either Iran or the US and Europe stoking the fire of suspicion. One expects this from politicians and diplomats. Sadly, one also expects it from the US media, a vast source of information that largely ranges from misleading to incomplete.

I’ve encountered it too much in the university, however. For the past few years, I have been pursuing graduate studies at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. Because of its proximity to Washington, this is one of the top public policy programs in the United States. Naturally, it’s geared toward producing graduates who will find work in the US government or with prestigious think tanks and nonprofit organizations. In such places critical thinking is desired…but only to a point, and that’s just what is taught at U of M when it comes to US foreign policy.

Over the course of my time in this school, the myopia on the Iran issue has grown steadily worse. In class after class, including those that have nothing to do with foreign policy, I have experienced discussions that dealt with or touched on Iran and the level of the discourse has been bitterly discouraging. I expect many of the students to be overwhelmed by the constant assumptions about Iran, but professors should know better. Sadly they don’t.

It isn’t really surprising that things have gotten to this point. Iran has certainly contributed to the atmosphere with its non-compliance with a series of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements and defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions. In the public mind in the US, the immediate assumption is that Iran would not do such things unless it was pursuing an actual nuclear weapon. But it’s far from that simple.

Suspicions about Iran’s nuclear program and fiery rhetoric have been flying around for decades. But in fact, both US and Israeli intelligence agree that Iran stopped its research into nuclear weapons technology a decade ago and has not restarted. Moreover, it is important to note that under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, signatory countries have the right to engage in nuclear research. They simply don’t have the right to work to develop a bomb, something the United States and its allies, for all their years of trying have found no evidence that Iran has done.

Antideutsch sticker. Stuttgart, July 2010.

Antideutsch sticker. Stuttgart, July 2010.

There are two key words missing from the public discourse, and they are the key to the most likely scenario regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Those two words are “nuclear latency.” They describe a condition where a country has the ability to build a nuclear weapon but is not trying to actually build one.

Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands are all nuclear latent states. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists describes how we know whether a latent state is trying to become a nuclear power: “…intent becomes of paramount importance in evaluating the latency threat of these technical developments. Aside from direct intelligence, intent can be judged by evaluating a state’s motivation for acquiring nuclear weapons, by the economic justification for the state’s peaceful nuclear power program, and by the need within the peaceful nuclear power program to maintain its own supply of enriched uranium or plutonium, as the case may be.”

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked why an oil-rich state like Iran would need extensive nuclear facilities. But he is surely aware that Iran has long been an energy importer, with its oil going more to exports due to various subsidies and domestic economic constraints. Iran’s oil is exported in far greater quantities than it is used domestically, so the need for nuclear energy there is as great as it is anywhere else.

Enriched uranium and plutonium stockpiles being located in Iran has been an issue. At one time, Iran agreed to remove the stockpiles to Russia, but they backed out of that deal. While that wasn’t specifically the reason Tehran did so, one can easily understand that keeping such a key resource in another country would only make sense if that country had a solid and stable relationship with your own. Russia is an ally of Iran (indeed, Russia is largely responsible for Iran having been able to complete its first nuclear reactor) but the relationship is too precarious to rely on for the foreseeable future.

Does Iran have a good reason to develop a nuclear weapon? Perhaps, but any such reason is far outweighed by the costs. No country can take such a step in secrecy (Israel developed its nuclear weapons without declaring or admitting it, but everyone knew while it was happening, as was also the case, though much less comfortably, with North Korea.) Some steps can possibly be taken without detection, with a bit of luck, but some steps cannot avoid detection. Some of those steps have been taken by Iran, but IAEA inspections which, for some periods of time, have been permitted widely in Iran and US and Israeli intelligence can find no evidence of such a program.

But does Iran have an interest in latent nuclear ability? You bet. Of the nine nuclear states in the world, five are near Iran, and another two are its bitterest enemies. One of those enemies, the United States, invaded, occupied, de-stabilized and to a great degree destroyed the country just across the Persian Gulf from Iran. Another, Israel, depicts Iran as equivalent to Germany in 1938 (despite the fact that Iran hasn’t fought a war of aggression since the 19th century) and continually repeats the false claim that Iran has threatened to destroy it. Given all that, no matter the sincerity of Iran’s Supreme Leader, who issued a fatwa against the possession of nuclear weapons, Iran has good reason to want the capability to move toward a weapon if the need arises.

So one can either believe or disbelieve that Iran is continuing to pursue a nuclear weapon, or that its ambitions are merely nuclear latency. But the former doesn’t gibe with the intelligence assessments of Israel and the US. Could Iran be so clever as to hide that? It’s possible. But that possibility is far from a justification for a war that could magnify a hundred-fold the chaos that exists in the Middle East already.

Rouhani has opened a door. The deal should be clear enough: full transparency of the Iranian nuclear program for the end of Western sanctions. Should the transparency become opaque, the sanctions would return, which would leave us all no worse off than we are now. Iran’s own refusals to cooperate with the IAEA and UNSC have largely been born of their fear of those bodies being abused by the US and their own desire to appear strong in the face of Western “bullying.” The West and Israel have magnified these issues due to their enmity for Iran and its support for armed militias like Hezbollah, its Islamic revolutionary ideology, Iran’s regional ambitions and the perceived threat it poses to the Saudi-Gulf Monarchies’ dominance of the status quo.

That is, sadly, politics as usual. But these past few years, it has reached a more dangerous point, on flimsy grounds that just keep reinforcing themselves until something comes along to change the pattern. Is that something Hassan Rouhani? I don’t know for certain, any more than the IAEA can prove a negative, that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

What I do know is that Benjamin Netanyahu’s warnings are phony. If Rouhani is really the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” Bibi claims, he will gain nothing from this subterfuge because only full transparency will back the US off its war footing and relieve the sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy. There is no reason not to give Rowahani a chance. Indeed, there is even less sense in doing that than there has been in most of the steps taken by all sides – the US, Europe and Iran – that got us here.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit