Jeffrey Lewis"Is Iran set on building a nuclear bomb?"

The answer to that question determines whether or not one supports the Iran-EU3 deal. NPR asked Matt Bunn that very question this morning. (You can listen to they story, “Iran Agrees to Halt Uranium Enrichment, here and Matt’s answer at 3:50 in the story)

Matt’s answer was a good one; though I would have tackled it differently. The answer is “No.” Iran has a large nuclear program, some elements of which are better useful for a military program than a civilian one. Why does Iran have these facilities? One answer, suggested by John Bolton, is that Tehran is “dead set” (i.e. has made a formal decision) to build a nuclear weapon.

From other cases of proliferation, acquiring a nuclear weapon is seldom the only reason—building a nuclear weapon is a large and complex industrial project that requires a coalition of bureaucratic interests. This more complicated reality appears to be operating in Iran; support for the country’s nuclear efforts reflect a variety of scientitfic, political and industrial interests. Negotiations with Europe, which the hardliners opposed, suggest that some elements of that bureacratic coalition might be willing to sell out the nuclear weapons crowd in exchange for access to Western technology.

This is essentially happened in Brazil and Argentina, argues John Redick of the University of Virginia, in a pair of mid-1990s monographs (Nuclear Illusions: Argentina and Brazil, Stimson Center, December 1995 and The Role Of Scientists In South American Nuclear Cooperation, Paulo S. Wrobel, co-author, January 1998).

“Increasingly, scientists, both in and out of government, concluded that continuation of independent nuclear policies would result in permanent denial of advanced technology from the United States and Western Europe,” Redick argues. “While scientists in both nations embraced the need for a national nuclear program, their justification was not based on a military/security rationale. Rather, the nuclear program was supported as important to independent national development and economic advancement.”