Even as the US military launched a long-rumored offensive in the Iraqi city of Falluja in early November 2004, the subject of anxious speculation in Washington was not Iraq, but Iran. President George W. Bush’s victory at the polls on November 2 returned to office the executive who located Iran upon an “axis of evil” in the 2002 State of the Union address and called the Islamic Republic a “totalitarian state” during his campaign for a second term in the White House. The neo-conservatives who were so influential in promoting the invasion of Iraq have long harbored the desire to foment “regime change” in Tehran as well as in Baghdad. While the nightmarish occupation of Iraq has circumscribed the neo-conservatives’ preferred military options for dealing with Iran, the underlying logic of US-Iranian relations is one of confrontation — which could build slowly or escalate very rapidly in the coming years. The chattering classes spent the summer of 2004 filling the op-ed pages and the airwaves with warnings that Iran, in the words of centrist commentator Walter Russell Mead, casts “a darker shadow than Iraq” over the trajectory of US Middle East policy. [1]

As with Washington’s decade-long faceoff with the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein, there is consensus among conservative and liberal hawks that the Islamic Republic must be actively confronted and isolated. If anything, this consensus is stronger than it was with Iraq because of what Western and Israeli intelligence agencies regard as the immediate or looming prospect that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon. Bush has said more than once that the United States “will not tolerate” that eventuality. [2] For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has referred to Iran as the largest “existential threat” to Israel at present — a stance hinting at Israeli contingency plans for military action of its own to destroy the Iranian nuclear program. US and Israeli claims that Iran is assembling an atomic bomb are unproven. But like Saddam Hussein, the arch-conservative clerics who control Tehran’s national security establishment have supplied lurid words and images that can be used to convince Western public opinion in the absence of direct evidence. At a September 21 military parade, for example, the Iranian regime displayed a Shihab-2 missile draped with a banner reading “Israel must be wiped off the map,” alongside its new Shihab-3 missile whose range enables it to reach Tel Aviv. Three European countries, Britain, France and Germany, are trying to broker a compromise on Iran’s nuclear program to ratchet down the ambient tension — but the second Bush administration will not soften its hard line in any case.

Nuclear Ambitions

Unlike its nuclear-armed neighbors Israel, India and Pakistan, Iran signed and ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 while under the rule of the Shah. By the terms of the NPT, the nuclear club of nations undertakes not to transfer nuclear weapons technology to countries outside the club and also to negotiate “in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” Non-nuclear states pledge not to seek weapons capability as long as they can acquire the means of generating nuclear power for civilian purposes if they choose. Under side agreements, countries outside the club also promise to declare all civilian nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to submit to procedures for verification. Iran concluded such a safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 1974.

As early as 1957, the US agreed to help the Shah obtain enriched uranium for civilian nuclear power plants. The Shah’s government, with West German aid, began constructing two nuclear reactors at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf in 1974. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini halted the construction on the grounds that nuclear power was “un-Islamic,” but the ferocious Iran-Iraq war and the damage it did to Iranian oil production facilities made the ayatollah reconsider. Iran resumed acquisition of the equipment necessary to produce nuclear fuel, and in January 1995, the government of President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani signed a contract with Russia to finish construction of the two reactors at the Bushehr facility (which had been bombed by Iraq in the 1980s), as well as a centrifuge plant to enrich uranium and an additional research reactor. In a nod to its NPT obligations, Russia agreed to take back the plutonium-laden spent fuel from the reactors. The Clinton administration’s suspicion that the revived nuclear program was aimed at acquiring the bomb was one of the factors leading to executive orders establishing embargoes on US-Iranian trade and, later, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, which provided for penalties against American or foreign companies doing business with Tehran. US officials provided no evidence that Iran had stepped outside its rights under the NPT to produce fuel for civilian nuclear power. Instead, they contended that Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves rendered nuclear energy unnecessary — a claim that was complicated, if not belied, by the existence of multiple nuclear plants in the oil-rich Russia and the petroleum-pumping United States. [3]

The Bush administration entered office more certain than its Democratic predecessor that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are military. Though the US has not produced solid proof to counter Iran’s vociferous denials, Tehran’s credibility with the IAEA and European capitals was severely shaken by the August 2002 revelation of two clandestine nuclear facilities, a centrifuge plant at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak. Hawks in Washington seized on this information unveiled by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the US-based front for the cultish Mojahedin-e Khalq, to press their case. The combination of the Natanz and Arak facilities, conceivably, could allow Iran to manufacture the highly enriched uranium (HEU) that can be used for both civilian purposes and a bomb. Iran’s elaborate dance with the IAEA ensued, with the UN watchdog stuck being unable either to issue Tehran a clean bill of health or to confirm the suspicions of the US and an increasingly skeptical Europe.

More Inspectors and Yellowcake

In December 2002, Iran again denied US accusations that it is seeking a nuclear weapon and stated that all atomic sites, declared and previously secret, would henceforth be open to IAEA inspection. Two months later, Tehran partially retracted this statement, acceding to IAEA inspections at Natanz, but declining to give inspectors access to suspected nuclear research sites. Pressure built on Iran over 2003 to sign an Additional Protocol to the NPT, providing for surprise inspections of any site in the country. This pressure increased dramatically in July, when inspectors found traces of HEU on centrifuges at the Natanz plant, implying that the Islamic Republic had either enriched uranium despite statements to the contrary or had imported the mineral from another country without declaring the transaction — either action being a violation of the NPT. Iran insisted that the centrifuges in question were contaminated with residue from previous use in Pakistan, their country of origin. To date, the IAEA has not fully established the facts of the matter, in part because Pakistan will not let its envoys question top nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, the man accused of running a “proliferation Wal-Mart” for shoppers from Libya, Iran, North Korea and possibly elsewhere.

The US declared Iran out of compliance with its non-proliferation agreements, and demanded that the IAEA refer the Iranian case to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, but wound up reluctantly backing a European proposal to give Iran until October 31 to make a full disclosure. In a stern resolution, the IAEA imposed the same deadline upon Tehran for a full declaration, suspension of uranium enrichment and an agreement to sign the Additional Protocol. Britain, France and Germany brokered Iran’s agreement to the first two conditions before the deadline, and Iran eventually signed the protocol on December 18, 2003. The European intervention was heralded as a triumph of compromise over confrontation, but Washington had succeeded in appending to the IAEA resolution a clause promising that should “further serious Iranian failures” come to light, the UN agency would have “all options at its disposal” — including recommending sanctions.

Throughout the encounter with the IAEA, figures ranging from President Mohammad Khatami, identified with the parliamentary reformists, to chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani, a moderate conservative, have stressed Iran’s “natural right” to enrich uranium for a peaceful nuclear program. Suspension of these activities, they have said, is purely voluntary. With the recapture of the Iranian parliament by conservative forces in February 2004, the October 2003 agreement began to unravel. Iran resumed production of centrifuges in July, and on September 1, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei reported that Iran would commence processing 37 metric tons of yellowcake uranium into uranium hexafluoride — the material that the centrifuges spin into HEU. While the move did not break any treaty obligations, or constitute proof that Tehran has decided to cross the nuclear threshold, Western observers doubt Iran’s continued protestations of innocence. David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq who is widely quoted on non-proliferation subjects, writes: “37 metric tons is a small quantity for a civilian nuclear power program. But it would be a large amount for a fledgling nuclear weapons program — enough material to make roughly five crude nuclear weapons.” [4]

Albright counts the working centrifuges in Iran to arrive at an estimate of when the Islamic Republic could have the bomb. A plant containing 1,500-2,000 centrifuges could churn out enough HEU for one nuclear warhead per year. According to the IAEA, Iran possessed 500 operating centrifuges before it resumed their manufacture in June, since which time it has tested about 70 per month. At that pace, Iran could have 1,600 centrifuges by the close of 2005. Albright believes that Tehran would then complete assembly of its first nuclear weapon by early 2007. [5] While estimates vary — with some assuming a much shorter timetable — there is little dissent in mainstream Washington policy circles from two propositions: Iran has the equipment and materiel to build a bomb, and its engagement with Europe and the IAEA is only a stratagem to buy time.


Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, successive US administrations have based their Iran policy on the insistence that Iran stop sponsoring terrorism, cease backing movements opposed to Israel and the US-sponsored “peace process,” and give up its pursuit of strategic weapons. The US approach to Iran has been rooted equally in geostrategic concerns, residual animosity from the 1979-1981 hostage crisis and pressure from neo-conservative and pro-Israel lobbies. Ironically, however, only the conservative clerical hierarchy and the military high command in Iran are capable of negotiating over these demands.

Support for Hizballah and colorful denunciations of Israel may be the special preserve of hardline elements within the Islamic Republic. But it is not only Iranian conservatives who regard their country as encircled by unstable states in the Caucasus, Afghanistan, and Iraq — with a verbally hostile US military presence on two of those fronts. As Pakistan, India and Israel are already nuclear powers, and the military expenditures of Turkey and Saudi Arabia dwarf Iran’s, support can be found across Iran’s political spectrum for acquiring some form of strategic deterrence.

Fearing political demise if the parliamentary reformists managed to strike a grand bargain with the West, conservative forces in Iran carried out a parliamentary coup so that they could gain direct control over nuclear negotiations. Since then, Iranian conservatives have been playing a hardnosed game of chicken with the IAEA and the European Union, with occasional shows of flexibility. Key conservative figures have tempered the usual thunderous rhetoric of confrontation with unmistakable signals of willingness to compromise over the nuclear issue and their support of radical Palestinian factions, in exchange for guarantees of security. These signals have been noted by the Bush administration — but not exactly welcomed. Aversion to substantive dialogue with any representatives of the Islamic Republic, let alone the hardliners, has simply been too strong.

Wistful Talk of War

Meanwhile, roughly three camps have emerged in the unofficial Washington debate over Iran’s nuclear program. The first, hailing from right-leaning think tanks with ties to the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, argues for an aggressive US posture to prevent an “Iranian nuclear weapons breakout.” But, to their chagrin, the neo-conservatives do not quite know what means of aggression to recommend, since the obvious model of Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osiraq complex in 1981 appears difficult to emulate. The Iranian nuclear sites are dispersed throughout the country, many of them apparently buried underground or nestled in urban areas. Even Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, who regularly urges the Bush administration to move “faster, please” on regime change in Iran, admits that there may not be “a politically acceptable military option…[that can] derail the mullahs’ mad atomic march.” [6] Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) argues that “we do not need to start by dropping bombs” to “contain and deter” Iran from going nuclear. The US could station larger numbers of US troops in surrounding countries, preposition nuclear missiles on US warships off the Iranian coast or sell more advanced arms to neighbors like Turkey or Iraq, he muses. [7] Michael Eisenstadt, also of WINEP and also cognizant of the risks of a bombing raid, has even suggested covert action — “creating ambiguity about the murder of key Iranian scientists” — as one of many poor options to be left on the table in the likely event that diplomacy fails. [8]

In June 2004, another option appeared to present itself when the US sold Israel nearly 5,000 “smart bombs,” including 500 “bunker busters” that can penetrate six-foot concrete walls. “They don’t need those for the Palestinians,” quipped Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton administration’s ambassador to the UN and a rumored frontrunner to become secretary of state had Democrat John Kerry won the election, on the September 23 edition of Fox’s popular prime-time program “The O’Reilly Factor.” Holbrooke declined to “advocate” an Israeli strike, but echoed numerous pro-Israel commentators when he continued: “In 1981, the Israelis attacked the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osiraq. President Reagan personally criticized Israel. Today, we all recognize Israel was 100 percent right to do it.”

Israeli officials have since fueled fevered speculation that Israel might spare the neo-conservatives their dilemma. On September 27, Giora Eiland, national security adviser to Sharon, told the Israeli daily Maariv that Iran would reach the “point of no return” in its nuclear weapons program by November, not sometime in 2005. In New York, pro-Likud commentator Zev Chafets, under the reassuring headline “Iran’s Nukes: Israel’s On the Case,” noted that Prime Minister Menachem Begin had authorized the Osiraq raid after being told that Iraq had reached the “point of no return.” [9] Back in Israel, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz confirmed to Yediot Aharonot on September 29: “All options have to be taken into account to prevent [Iranian nuclear capability].” An Israeli strike would face the same difficulties as a US strike, with the presumed additional obstacle of having to fly through US-controlled Iraqi airspace to reach Iranian targets. The biggest problem would be that, because the nuclear sites are dispersed, Israel could not guarantee that a raid would destroy Iran’s nuclear program entirely. But, as Ephraim Kam of the influential Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University temporized: “There is a logic to operating against Iran. Just taking out the facilities that are known would create a serious degradation of the Iranian potential.” [10] Still, the neo-conservatives’ talk of military options has a wistful tone.

Getting Tough

The second camp in Washington is composed of liberal internationalists. Where the neo-conservatives oppose proliferation into the wrong hands, the liberal hawks are strongly against any nuclear proliferation. Like the right, the liberals fear that an Iranian bomb would be “the proliferation tipping point” that would set off an uncontrollable rush of Middle Eastern and Asian countries to follow suit. [11] Egypt and Saudi Arabia are commonly mentioned as countries that would immediately seek their own warheads (after years of living with Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal). The liberals applaud the Bush administration for its grudging acquiescence in the Europeans’ diplomatic efforts, and advocate a carrot-and-stick strategy for dissuading Iran from proceeding down the nuclear path. Iran would be offered nuclear fuel for civilian uses, along with enhanced trade concessions from Europe and Washington’s promise to desist from the rhetoric and machinations of regime change. In the meantime, the US would hold out the threat of Security Council sanctions and keep the military option, unpalatable though it may be, just visible on the table.

Still a third camp — peopled by “realists” at the Nixon Center and the Council on Foreign Relations — is not as disturbed by the evident atomic aspirations of the Islamic Republic. The Council, while firm that Iran should face sanctions if it does not honor the Additional Protocol and other obligations, directly challenges the unspoken premise of the hawks with its idea that “political dialogue with Iran should not be deferred” until the nuclear file is closed. [12] The outlier in the realist camp is the libertarian Cato Institute, whose president Ted Galen Carpenter argued at an October 28 forum that the US should “accept” a nuclear-armed Iran, which it could then deter from using its weapons offensively. Following the political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who famously wrote that “the measured spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared,” Carpenter suggested that Middle Eastern rivalries could be more stable if Iran (and, presumably, others) developed the ultimate deterrent to foreign invasion. [13]

Needless to say, the Bush administration would prefer to plug its ears rather than hear the realists’ advice — not to speak of pondering the ironies of its position as the world’s largest nuclear power and the world’s loudest voice for non-proliferation. When the IAEA meets on November 25 to consider Iran’s progress toward transparency about its nuclear program, the US intends to press vigorously for referral to the Security Council and, then, sanctions. Sanctions are the universally preferred measure for “getting tough” on the Islamic Republic. The hardliners in Tehran are confident that sanctions are an empty threat, because removing Iranian crude from the market would further inflate the already historic price of oil. In November, the Chinese foreign minister indicated his disapproval of the sanctions option. But Washington has faced, and broken, deadlock at the Security Council before. Alternatively, coupled with the Washington consensus that Iran is lying about its intentions, the UN’s refusal to impose sanctions might impel the neo-conservatives to broach military options — with the aim of frightening the UN into toeing the Bush administration line. Israel’s rattling saber may be pointed in the same direction, though the chances of an Israeli (or US-Israeli) strike are not to be entirely discounted. Sanctions, most believe, would only slow the speed of a nuclear assembly line, should Tehran decide to proceed.

Logic of Confrontation

Of course, the goal of maintaining Iran’s international isolation extends beyond the perhaps prohibitively difficult task of nuclear non-proliferation. Another right-wing hawk, Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, dreads the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon not so much for its threat to global security as “because of the constraining effect it threatens to impose upon US strategy for the greater Middle East. The danger is that Iran will ‘extend’ its deterrence…to a variety of states and other actors throughout the region. This would be an ironic echo of the extended deterrence thought to apply to US allies during the Cold War. But in the greater Middle East of the twenty-first century, we are the truly revolutionary force and ‘revolutionary’ Iran is more the status quo power.” [14] It is that status quo that President Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” ultimately aspires to change. If they could somehow topple the regime, the neo-conservatives might imagine, the amount of yellowcake in Iran would be a moot question. After all, John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, has said that “when the day comes when there is a representative government, and the Security Council says that, in fact, Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction…there’s no reason, it seems to me, unlike some other countries, there’s no reason why you couldn’t contemplate a civilian nuclear power program.” [15]

Not every lever of international pressure on the Iranian regime will invigorate democratic forces in Iran, however. Security Council sanctions, or especially military strikes, directed at halting the progress of the nuclear program will strengthen the hand of the regime, despite popular disillusionment. Once missiles hit or sanctions hurt a population already facing considerable hardship, the conservatives will be able to mobilize nationalist sentiments against an external enemy.

The only form of international pressure that might assist the struggling democratic movement in Iran is a policy that places human rights — defense of political prisoners, NGO activists, students and intellectuals — over security concerns and economic interests. These activists have borne the brunt of state repression in the last seven years. Yet such is not the logic of either the Bush administration or the advocacy groups who will dominate the debate in the US media. The stage is set for either a spiraling and very dangerous confrontation or a grand bargain, as the US sinks deeper into the Iraqi quagmire and the Iranian hardliners’ grip on domestic dissent begins to slip. In either scenario, the conservative clerics would seem to have the upper hand over their neo-conservative foes on the Potomac.


[1] Walter Russell Mead, “A Darker Shadow Than Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2004.
[2] New York Times, June 18, 2003.
[3] For details, see the report of the Atlantic Council of the United States, Thinking Beyond the Stalemate in US-Iranian Relations, vol. 2 (Washington, DC, July 2001), pp. 20-21.
[4] David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, “Countdown to Showdown,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November-December 2004).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Michael Ledeen, “Iran, Impossible?” National Review Online, September 24, 2004.
[7] Patrick Clawson, “How to Rein in Iran Without Bombing It,” Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2004.
[8] Michael Eisenstadt, “Delay, Deter and Contain, Roll Back: Toward a Strategy for Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions,” in Geoffrey Kemp, ed., Iran’s Bomb: American and Iranian Perspectives (Washington, DC: Nixon Center, March 2004).
[9] New York Daily News, September 29, 2004.
[10] Times (London), October 13, 2004.
[11] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security (Washington, DC, June 2004), p. 78. [Draft] [12] Council on Foreign Relations, Iran: Time for a New Approach (New York, July 2004), p. 3.
[13] Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” Adelphi Papers 171 (London: International Institute of Strategic Studies, 1981). Waltz updates this argument in Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003).
[14] Thomas Donnelly, “A Strategy for Nuclear Iran,” AEI National Security Outlook, October 1, 2004.
[15] Agence France Presse, June 8, 2004.

How to cite this article:

Kaveh Ehsani, Chris Toensing "Neo-Conservatives, Hardline Clerics and the Bomb," Middle East Report 233 (Winter 2004).

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