The Wilson Quarterly

Politicians in Washington and Tel Aviv debate the question daily: Are sanctions or bunker busters the best way to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions? Jacques Hymans, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, suggests an alternative: Do nothing.

Before 1970, all seven states that sought the bomb succeeded, and in fairly short order. But of the 10 regimes that have attempted to go nuclear since then, six failed or abandoned the effort: Libya, South Korea, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Iraq, and Syria. Iran may become the seventh.

The difference is that the latecomers, Iran included, have all been developing countries with overbearing leaders and underdeveloped public administration systems. (One, Yugoslavia, no longer even exists.) These regimes “rely on a coercive, authoritarian management approach to advance their quest for the bomb, using appeals to scientists’ greed and fear as the primary motivators.” This seldom works. Scientists lose their professional pride; “bureaucratic sloth, corruption, and endless blame shifting” ensue.

Little wonder, then, that “the Iranians had to work for 25 years just to start accumulating uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is not even weapons grade.” Western intelligence agencies first feared that Iran would have nukes by 2000. That projection has subsequently been moved back to 2005, then 2010, and now 2015. Success, Hymans argues, is hardly inevitable.

Iraq provides a good example of a nuclear program that foundered because of bad management. In the early 1980s, Saddam Hussein fired or jailed nuclear scientists who displeased him. Matters only worsened when Hussein’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel al-Majid, took the reins of the nuclear effort. In 1987 he asked a top scientist, Mahdi Obeidi, how much time he needed to finish a gas centrifuge. Obeidi pleaded for a year, knowing it would actually take twice that time. Kamel gave him 45 days, a deadline that Obeidi raced to meet in “a mad dash.” The centrifuge cracked during its first test, setting back the program for years and costing the government millions. A weapons inspector later marveled, “This was probably one of the most expensive undertakings in the history of mankind in terms of dollars spent to material produced.”

Hymans disagrees with analysts who attribute “the great proliferation slowdown” mainly to other factors. Treaty-based nonproliferation measures didn’t take effect until the 1990s—two decades after the slowdown started. And a military campaign will not necessarily eliminate a nuclear program entirely. Israel’s 1981 air strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor that was still under construction “actually spurred Hussein to move beyond vague intentions and commit strongly to a dedicated nuclear weapons project.”

Indeed, the one variable that might enable a regime such as Tehran’s to succeed in spite of itself is external attack. “Nationalist fervor can partially compensate for poor organization,” Hymans warns. “Therefore, violent actions, such as aerial bombardments or assassinations of scientists, are a loser’s bet.”

THE SOURCE: “Botching the Bomb” by Jacques Hymans. Foreign Affairs, May–June 2012.

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