Iran Nuclear Weapons

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after the P5+1 and Iran concluded negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013, public domain

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after the P5+1 and Iran concluded negotiations about Iran’s nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013, public domain

Iran Nuclear Weapons

Iran and its nuclear program is one of the most contentious and debated cases regarding nuclear weapons. There are a number of questions surrounding the issue of Iran and nuclear weapons. Does Iran want nuclear weapons? Are they working towards nuclear energy or towards the production of nuclear weapons? What has been the international response to Iran’s quest for nuclear capabilities? What would be the geopolitical effects if Iran tests a nuclear weapon? What are current diplomatic attempts to resolve the tension situation regarding Iran’s nuclear program? Who are the different actors making these decisions? This article will go into detail answering the different questions and discussion points regarding Iran’s nuclear program (Kerr, 2014).

History of Iran’s Interest in a Nuclear Program

Despite the recent attention to Iran’s interest in a nuclear program, Iran has had a history with regards to issues of nuclear weapons as it relates to nonproliferation. Beginning in the early 1950, following the Second World War, Iranian leader Mohamed Reza Shah actually began establishing a nuclear program, with the help from the United States of America and the Atoms for Peace program. In addition, the Shah had goals to set up nuclear power plants, a nuclear facility that could enrich uranium (one of the key elements in a nuclear weapon), as well as facilities that can reprocess spent fuel (NTI, 2014) (which can then be used for nuclear weapons). However, these plans were short-lived, as the Shah only stayed in power until January 1979, where the Iranian revolution took place, causing him to step down, and also to leave the country. The new theocratic regime, under the Supreme Ayatollah Khomeini, spoke out against nuclear weapons, viewing it against the principles of Islam, thus ending Iran’s nuclear program (NTI, 2014). However, his position only lasted a handful of years; in 1984, he was recommitted to the nuclear program (NTI, 2014).

In terms of its international commitments regarding nuclear weapons, Iran did signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, and agreed to terms with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding safeguards as it relates to nuclear energy. It wasn’t until decades later, in 2002, that the IAEA started looking in the possibility that Iran was working on illegal nuclear issues, and found that the Iranian state did indeed violate some of the terms of the safeguards (Kerr, 2014). The reason that states became suspicious of Iran’s nuclear activities is because “an opposition group revealed secret activity including construction of a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy-water reactor at Arak (BBC, 2014). This period in 2002 was also around time that the United States and Iran relationship continued to worsen, with President George W. Bush labeling Iran one of the “axis of evil” states, along with North Korea and Iraq (BBC, 2014). It was reported that Iran, with the help of Russia, was building the state’s first nuclear reactor (BBC, 2013). In 2003, the IAEA called for Iran to provide evidence that their nuclear ambitions were not towards a nuclear weapon. Following Iran’s statement to stop enriching uranium, the IAEA said that there was not evidence that a nuclear weapons program existed. However, the following year, the IAEA was upset because of a lack of full cooperation by the Iranian state with regards to the transparency of their nuclear program. In November of that year, Iran did agree (with the European Union) to stop enriching much of their uranium, although again, in late August/early September 2005, Iran did again state that their uranium enrichment was up and going again, but that it was not for nuclear weapons; the IAEA says that Iran is going against the NPT. Iran further upset the IAEA, when they directly broke IAEA seals at one of the nuclear facilities (BBC, 2013), leading the IAEA to go to the United Nations in 2006 (BBC, 2013; Kerr, 2014). In turn, the United Nations has attempted to ensure that Iran is adhering to all necessary safeguard requirements. Furthermore, the IAEA continued to work with Iran to attempt to satisfy the conditions for the nuclear program, trying to ensure that Iran agrees with all necessary requirements. In 2008, Mohamed El Baradei, the Director General of the IAEA at the time, was still concerned that Iran did not provide enough safeguards or information to ensure that they had no interest or direction towards nuclear weapons (Kerr, 2014). 

However, Iran continued to enrich uranium. And because of this, sanctions continued in 2007 in 2008, and Iran continues to test missiles in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, Obama supported additional sanctions against Iran for its lack of halting its nuclear program. In 2012, sanctions against Iran increased significantly, particularly after “ Iran says its scientists have “tested first nuclear fuel produced from uranium ore deposits inside the country”. The IAEA confirms that Iran has started enriching uranium at Fordo to purities of 20 per cent” (BBC, 2013). Following threats of sanctions, Iran did not stop operate its nuclear program, thus leading to additional sanctions in late 2013 (BBC, 2013). However, relations between Iran and other international actors improved in 2013 when the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani not only met with the United States and other major powers, and coming to an initial agreement to limit nuclear activity, and in turn sanctions would be reduced (BBC, 2013) (For a detailed timeline, see (BBC, 2013)). The recent discussions of a long term deal seem to hinge on whether Iran will be willing to stop its uranium enrichment, as well as how far along it is from being able to make a nuclear weapon; some in June of 2014 said Iran was a few months away, whereas Iran argued that they were much further away (Dahl, 2014). And just this past United Nations General Assembly meeting produced no agreement between Iran and the negotiating states; there is a deadline of November 24th for a deal to be reached (NBC, 2014). Interestingly, on September 26th, 2014, during the yearly United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, it was reported that “the US is reportedly considering a proposal that would let Tehran keep half of its centrifuges while reducing its stock of uranium gas so much that a weapon would take over a year to create” (RT USA, 2014). There are also possibilities also mentioned as possibilities of approaching the nuclear issue. For example, “[o]ther plans being considered include allowing Iran to have more than 1,500 centrifuge machines, but removing or destroying much of the equipment like connecting circuits and pipes needed to feed uranium gas” (RT, 2014). This would be a diplomatic move so that both sides could claim they held ground on key positions; Iran could still enrich uranium, and the US could tout the point that these new positions would extend the time it would take for Iran to reach weapons capabilities (RT, 2014).

Iran’s Nuclear Program

As Kerr (2014) explains “Tehran’s construction of gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facilities is currently the main source of proliferation concern. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at high speeds to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. Such centrifuges can produce both low-enriched uranium (LEU), which can be used in nuclear power reactors, and highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is one of the two types of fissile material used in nuclear weapons. HEU can also be used as fuel in certain types of nuclear reactors. Iran also has a uranium conversion facility, which converts uranium oxide into several compounds, including uranium hexafluoride. Tehran claims that it wants to produce LEU for its current and future power reactors” (1). Furthermore, there is also worry by some that Iran has a reactor that will produce splent fuel that contains plutonium, which is used in nuclear weapons. The issue is whether Iran will “reprocess” or split the plutonium from the fuel, which would be needed in order to use the plutonium for nuclear weapons (Kerr, 2014). This is the point of contention; while Iran is assuring the international community that it will not carry out that step (Kerr, 2014), others are quiet skeptical. Thus, the points of disagreement hinge both on Iran’s centrifuges, and the ability to enrich uranium.


Iran Nuclear Negotiations, Dragan Tatic, Das österreichische Außenministerium, cc 2.0

Iran Nuclear Negotiations, Dragan Tatic, Das österreichische Außenministerium, cc 2.0

Why Does Iran Want A Nuclear Program?

Scholars have offered a number of explanations regarding Iran’s interest in a nuclear program, and for those that believe they want a nuclear weapon, why they have an interest in reaching that objective. And not surprising, different theories in international relations have offered different explanations for this pursuit. For realists, who emphasize power, survival, and state security, Iran’s attempt to reach a nuclear weapon (for those who think this is their goal) will help their protection in the region, as well as the international system, particularly from other states who have nuclear weapons. Many point out that Iran is worried about a number of surrounding countries such as India and Pakistan, Israel, as well as its tense history with Iraq (Sagan, Waltz, & Betts: 2007). Furthermore, some such as Waltz (Sagan, Waltz, & Betts: 2007) have also said that it does not help Iran’s feeling of safety when President George W. Bush included Iran into the “axis of evil.” If a state’s fear is the United States, he argues that Iran might not see many other options save for nuclear weapons to ensure some sort of feeling of security against the United States.

Liberalism in turn allows for the focus on the domestic political scene, and how political leaders approach the nuclear issue as it relates to domestic conditions, as well as their own political careers (Sherrill, 2012). In the case of Iran, there has been concern that different actors have different interests and political moves on power, thus potentially leading to more destabilizing domestic situation; the theocratic rulers’ often has veto power in decision making, the president negotiates international diplomatic positions such as the the nuclear issue, and, as Sagan (2006) explain, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, a group that has a history of building its own power outside that of the regime, have a key role in guarding nuclear facilities. Along these these points, Constructivist international relations theory emphasize issues of state identity in the context of the international system (Sherrill, 2012).

Acquiring a nuclear program and nuclear weapons is not without risk; while it may help a feeling of security and deterrence, it is also possible that it may increase hostilities. For example, regional states may feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear program, and if Iran were to ever acquire nuclear weapons, it could lead them to also try to acquire nuclear weapons, which may set conditions of hostility and even more insecurity  for Iran (Sherrill, 2012). In fact, in 2011, Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia said that if Iran was to acquire a nuclear weapon, it “would compel Saudi Arabia…to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences” (Burke, 2011). And while what was meant was not directly noted, another Saudi leader said “[w]e cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t. It’s as simple as that…” If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit” (in Burke, 2011).  And as many who advocate no nuclear weapons suggest, any additional nuclear weapons only makes the world less safe and secure. Another concern for Iran could be that a state who truly believes Iran is very close to a nuclear weapon may want to carry out a pre-emptive strike against the state before they actually do produce a nuclear weapon (Sherrill, 2012). This scenario is clearly not outside of the realistic possibilities, particularly given Israel’s strong statements and actions against Iran in the past. Furthermore, other states that feel more insecure, even if they themselves do not use nuclear weapons (if they have them), or work to acquire them (if they currently do not have such weapons), may move towards other states who want to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons. Moreover, there is always an issue of securing the nuclear weapons domestically. This is also coupled with the possibility of heavy sanctions by the international community (Sherrill, 2014).

What Else Could Be Done To Prevent Iran From Producing Nuclear Weapons?

According to Sagan, in his 2006 piece “How to Keep the Bomb from Iran”, the United States and the international community can find ways to help ensure that Iran does not get nuclear weapons. They can do so by finding out why Iran really would want nuclear weapons. And if Iran has felt that they are threatened by outside states such as the United States, then there would need to be reassurances that the United States would not advocate some sort of regime change (2). Sagan (2006) argues that the key is Iran’s security; if they have security concerns, the international community should attempt to alleviate any worries that Iran would have.

One of the other contentious policy positions with regards to Iran’s nuclear program has been whether outside states should carry out a military strike against Iran. For example, Sagan, writing in 2006, argued that “[a] U.S. military strike on Iran today should be avoided for the same prudent reasons that led Eisenhower and Kennedy to choose diplomacy and arms control over preventive war in their dealings with the Soviet Union and China. Even if U.S. intelligence services were confident that they had identified all major nuclear-related sites in Iran (they are not) and the Pentagon could hit all the targets, the United States would expose itself (especially its bases in the Middle East and U.S troops in Afghanistan and Iraq), and its allies, to the possibility of severe retaliation” (6). Others, such as Matthew Kroenig, in his 2011 Foreign Affairs article “Time to Attack Iran,” argued that a military strike on Iran would be “the least bad option,” arguing that deterrence and sanctions has not worked to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, he argues that “to contain a nuclear Iran, the United States would need to make a substantial investment of political and military capital to the Middle East in the midst of an economic crisis and at a time when it is attempting to shift its forces out of the region. Deterrence would come with enormous economic and geopolitical costs and would have to remain in place as long as Iran remained hostile to U.S. interests, which could mean decades or longer. Given the instability of the region, this effort might still fail, resulting in a war far more costly and destructive than the one that critics of a preemptive strike on Iran now hope to avoid.” However, as mentioned, Kroenig makes it clear that a strike would not be without its drawbacks, or is a strike even necessary, just that his argument is that the other options are worse. He points out that a strike could lead to a wider war, wider economic implications (particularly if China and Russia respond to US attacks in Iran) (which could also include oil shipments from the Strait of Hormuz), the possibility that all nuclear facilities are known or all hit, that an attack would even be successful.

Others have criticized the idea of a military attack on Iran. For example, Stephan Walt criticized Matthew Kroenig’s Foreign Policy piece with his own article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Worst Case for War With Iran“, calling the article “a remarkably poor piece of advocacy,” and that Kroenig’s piece follows “a simple and time-honored formula for making the case for war, especially preventive war [(Kroening then responded to Walt, and then Walt responded, both of which are listed in the references section below)]. First, you portray the supposed threat as dire and growing, and then try to convince people that if we don’t act now, horrible things will happen down the road. (Remember Condi Rice’s infamous warnings about Saddam’s “mushroom cloud”?) All this step requires is a bit of imagination and a willingness to assume the worst. Second, you have to persuade readers that the costs and risks of going to war aren’t that great. If you want to sound sophisticated and balanced, you acknowledge that there are counterarguments and risks involved. But then you do your best to shoot down the objections and emphasize all the ways that those risks can be minimized. In short: In Step 1 you adopt a relentlessly gloomy view of the consequences of inaction; in Step 2 you switch to bulletproof optimism about how the war will play out.” He goes not to say that “Kroenig’s piece follows this blueprint perfectly.” Walt (2011) points out that Iran would not dare challenge the United States with a nuclear war, knowing that that is a conflict that they could not win such a fight. Others have also downplayed the need for a military response, without suggesting that Iran having nuclear weapons would be highly concerning (Sagan, in Sagan, Waltz, & Betts: 2007). He stresses the concern with the security of the weapons, as well as how the Revolutionary Guard may act–knowing that they have weapons–and what this would do in terms of raising tensions between them and the United States (for a detailed discussion regarding Iran and the possibility of nuclear weapons, see the discussion with Sagan, Waltz & Betts, 2007).

Others, such as Waltz, have not only said that a military strike would not be the right response, but he even wrote a piece in 2012 saying that there would be benefits to Iran having a nuclear weapon. In this Foreign Affairs piece entitled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” he argued that once a state wants a nuclear weapon, it becomes difficult to move them from that position, and in fact, it could make matters worse, as their security could feel even more threatened. And while letting them get to the point just before a weapon may be fine for some states, Israel would not accept such a position (Waltz, 2012). Thus, Waltz (2013) argues that what might be best is actually if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, which would then balance Israel’s power in the region, something that has been at an “imbalance” in the Middle East for years. He also challenges ideas suggesting that Iranian leaders are “crazy,” instead, saying that they have political objectives like other states, and that they would not risk a nuclear attack on Israel, knowing the power capabilities that these states hold. He also argued that states do not need to worry about ideas of increased hostility by Iran, or worries that Iran won’t be able to protect the bomb from other domestic and international groups.

The debate regarding Iran’s nuclear program is sure to continue, as Iran and the United States, along with other powers attempt to negotiate an agreement. And as we see, states in the P+1 (the US, China, the UK, Russia, France, & Germany) as recently as late September, while at the United Nations, have been trying to come up with a nuclear agreement with Iran, particularly a way for Iran to keep some uranium centrifuges, but with some restrictions (Tobey, 2014). 

Iran Nuclear Deal

In July 14th of 2015, Iran, along with the Permanent 5 countries (of the United Nations Security Council) (the US, China, France, Germany, Russia, and UK) agreement to a landmark nuclear deal that not only limits that among of Uranium that Iran can enrich, but the nuclear deal also allows IAEA inspectors into the country to monitor various reactor sites. Among the conditions for the agreement include assurance that Iran is not testing uranium at the Arak reactor sight, and also that Iran is following through on the deal which limits enrichment capabilities to 5060 IR-1 centrifuges for ten years, and also that Iran ensures overall enrichment of under 3.67 percent for 15 years. Furthermore, additional centrifuges will be removed and put at the Natanz for international monitoring (Williams, 2015).

In return for the caps on uranium enrichment, international actors such as the European Union have removed sanctions  on banking, the insurance industry, financial transfers, oil, shipping, software, as well as removal of visa freezes (Williams, 2015).

While the deal has been highly politicized by both Democrats and Republicans in the United States, “Experts and analysts broadly agree that the nuclear deal struck between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Iran on July 14 will effectively and verifiably block Iran’s potential pathways to nuclear weapons for 15 years or more. Absent the agreement, Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium could rapidly increase and sharply reduce the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

Although several key restrictions on Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity and its stockpile of enriched uranium will expire after 15 years, the deal—known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—establishes several other restrictions and tools that will help constrain and provide deep insights into Iran’s nuclear program far beyond the first 15-year period” (, 2015). Iran is also barred from carrying out any activities that could be seen as working towards a nuclear weapon explosive device (, 2015). 

This last point is also very important since “The NPT does not explicity prohibit research or use of explosives suitable for nuclear weapons for non-nuclear purposes. Iran has asserted that some of its past activities with possible military dimensions (PMDs) that the IAEA has been investigating were for non-nuclear weapons purposes.

Under the deal, however, Iran can no longer make this dubious claim. Iran agreed to forgo computer modeling to simulate nuclear explosive devices, testing, developing, or acquiring multi-point explosives and neutron sources, and development and designing of nuclear explosive diagnostic systems (Annex I Section T). 

While some of these activities are relevant for developing conventional explosives and for activities like drilling, in the future, if caught conducting research in these areas, Iran will not be able to claim it is undertaking any of these activities for non-nuclear purposes.

We will continue to update this page as developments on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program unfold.


Arms Control Association (2015). Restrictions on Iran’s Nuclear Program: Beyond 15 Years. Arms Control Association. August 26, 2015. Available Online:

BBC (2013). Timeline of Iran’s Nuclear Programme. BBC. 24 November 2013. Available Online:

BBC (2014). Q&A: Iran Nuclear Crisis. BBC, 17 September 2014, Available Online:

Burke, K. (2011). Riyadh Will Build Nuclear Weapons If Iran Gets Them, Saudi Prince Warns. The Guardian, 29 June 2011.

Dahl, F. (2014). U.S., Iran Experts Dispute Nuclear Bomb ‘Breakout’ Timeline. Reuters. July 18th, 2014. Available Online:

Kerr, P. K. (2014). Iran’s Nuclear Program: Tehran’s Compliance With International Obligations. Congressional Research Service. April 28, 2014. Available Online:

Kroenig, M. (2011). Time to Attack Iran: Why A Strike IS the Least Bad Option. Foreign Affairs; January/February 2012.

Kroenig, M. (2011). Kroenig’s Case For War With Iran. Tuesday December 27th, 2011. [Reponse to Walt’s Article].

NBC (2014). No Agreement Reached on Iran Nuclear Program, Officials Say, September 28th, 2014. Available Online:

NTI (2014). Iran: Country Profiles. July 2014. Available Online:

RT (2014). US Softens Position on Iranian Nuclear Program. September 26th, 2014. Available Online:

Sagan, S. D. (2006). How to Keep the Bomb from Iran. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, September/October. Available Online:

Sagan, S. D., Waltz, K. & Betts, R.K. (2007). A Nuclear Iran: Promoting Stability Or Courting Disaster? Live Debate at Kellogg Conference Center, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. 8 February, 2007. Available Online:

Sherrill, C. W. (2012). Why Iran Wants the Bomb and What it Means for US Policy. Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 19, No. 1, pages 31-49.

Tobey, W. (2014). The West is Getting Desperate in the Iran Nuclear Negotiations. Foreign Policy, September 28th, 2014. Available Online:

Walt, S. (2011). The Worst Case for War With Iran. Foreign Affairs, Wednesday December 21, 2011. Available Online:

Walt, S. (2011). Why Attacking Iran Is Still A Bad Idea. Foreign Affairs, Tuesday December 27th, 2011.

Waltz, K. (2012). Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability. Foreign Affairs, July/August 2012.

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