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Defining Weaponization Down: Why We Should Be Wary of 'Successful' Nuclear Negotiations With Iran

With the next round of nuclear negotiations with Iran set to begin on Wednesday, commentators are increasingly optimistic that they will succeed. There has, however, been an alarming lack of discussion about the fact that Washington has been in the habit of constantly shifting down its definition of what a “successful” outcome would consist of.

Over the course of the Iranian nuclear crisis—across the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama—one goal has remained consistent: that Iran not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons. “They’ve declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people,” declared President Bush. “And that’s unacceptable to the United States, and it's unacceptable to the world.” For his part, Barack Obama announced in March 2012, “When the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”

These statements, however, keep making more allowances in defining the “weaponization” of the Iranian nuclear program. During the early Bush administration, it was said that any uranium enrichment at all by Iran would be considered an unacceptable threat. Then it was said that enrichment beyond a certain percentage of refinement would be unacceptable. Then in 2007, a National Intelligence Estimate loosened the definition of threat even further, declaring that “by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapons design and weaponization work.”

And now the Obama administration seems to have decided to draw the line at a decision by Iran to actually begin the assembly of a bomb. There is no shortage of evidence that this is the new working definition. The Washington Post recentlyquoted a senior U.S. official as saying, “There is confidence that we would see activity indicating that a decision had been made.” In January 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that “they are certainly moving on that path, but we don’t believe they have actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon.” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the Senate Budget Committee that “our intelligence makes clear that they haven’t made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon.”

This latest red line makes eminent political sense, in that it would certainly forestall the triggering of military intervention until after the coming presidential election. But from a security viewpoint, as well as that of decision-making theory, the new threshold is a catastrophe. I asked Charles Ferguson, the President of the Federation of American Scientists and an expert on nuclear matters, how long the assembly process of a nuclear bomb would be once all the pieces were ready. He suggested it would take weeks, maybe days—hardly enough time for the United States to organize the sort of military action it is supposedly committed to in that instance. Moreover, this latest approach assumes that the Mullahs will let us know about their deliberations.

Needless to say, this is a far cry from Washington’s original negotiating position. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any further retreat on the issue. (Though a colleague, familiar with the ways of the White House, has already predicted the next concession: “Weaponization” will consist of miniaturizing a nuclear bomb and mounting it on top of a missile.) In any case, given the constant redrawing of the lines in the sand by the Obama administration, we should be wary of any declarations of progress during the current round of negotiations. Some “successes” are mainly cover for further retreat. 

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at George Washington University and author of Security First.