The Specter of Iranian Nuclear Development: Five Minutes with Professor Bruce Hoffman

This is an excerpt from an interview with Professor Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University in the upcoming summer/fall issue of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.  GJIA: What impact would Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon have on the Middle East and other countries in the region? And what should the U.S. response entail?

Hoffman: The impact of such an event on the Middle East, even putting aside Iranian threats towards Israel, would be a game changer. Other Middle Eastern countries would feel that they needed a nuclear weapon to deter Iran, for their own status, and for their own self-image. One could easily see Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for example, potentially acquiring them. It would alter the region. Also, with Iran, especially with its current leadership, our assumptions that traditional theories of deterrence would work might be seriously challenged. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on numerous occasions, not least when he addressed the United Nations a couple years ago, has often invoked Messianic images to justify his country’s policies and his reign in office. I find it very worrisome. Iran’s interest in developing a nuclear capability may be to ward off the fate of countries like Libya and Iraq that did not follow through with this path and were overthrown. Conversely, North Korea, which is by any metric is a struggling society, is barely held together and its people are starving, but its nuclear capability has cast an enormous shadow over events in the Korean Peninsula and upon East Asian security as well. I think the big question is whether or not Iran will be responsive to sanctions and if there is still the time for sanctions to work before the United States, Israel, or other countries have to resort to something else. A debate on this issue needs to begin now.

In dealing with Iran, we must consider the huge problems with the invasion of Iraq that we are living with today. Firstly, it bankrupted us; we were told that the invasion would be a surgical operation, very quick, and that the superior technology of the United States would win the day. We were told that Iraq’s oil-producing capability would pay for whatever expenses accrued and we would be gone in a short period of time. Of course, it did not work out that way. Secondly, not since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s has anything caused such a deep feeling of skepticism and doubt of government, as with the WMD question. I think many people do not believe the serious concerns about Iranian proliferation because they feel they heard the same things about Saddam Hussein almost a decade ago, which turned out to be completely erroneous. I think a more forceful and open debate about this than perhaps some of the wishful thinking that permeates our assumptions about Iran needs to occur so we are not caught off guard and so that the government does not further lose the confidence and trust of the American people. It may be that sanctions will work—it may be that we have the time—but I do not think we really know these things for sure.

GJIA: Do you think there is any potential for a nuclear weapon, developed by Iran or another similar state, to fall into the hands of non-state actors?

Hoffman: Well, from what we read in the press, I think there is probably a greater danger of a nuclear weapon from Pakistan falling into nefarious hands. There was an excellent article by Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic (“The Ally From Hell”) that talked about how, to flummox U.S. and Indian attempts to track their nuclear weapons, the Pakistani government moved their arsenal about on a daily basis. When things are in transit they are much more vulnerable. I do not think there would be that problem in Iran because they keep their weaponry hidden in blast-proof bunkers.

In the beginning of 1977 there was very similar talk to that of the present day regarding the Shah of Iran’s ambition to develop a nuclear weapon. At the time, developing a nuclear weapon was a real point of pride. The thought was that if Iran could get a nuclear weapon, it would be a geostrategic game changer in the region. This is no less the case now. The difference being that the Shah was of course an ally of the United States and Israel. The control that we might had back then inspired confidence in an Iranian nuclear weapon under the Shah’s reign that no longer exists. I am not waxing nostalgically for the Shah, but I am just saying there existed that same ardent desire to develop the capability and it provoked a lot of worry in the Gulf and elsewhere. This was someone who was very firmly allied with the West. One should view the situation now with greater foreboding.

Bruce Hoffman is the Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He was a director of the RAND corporation’s Washington Office from 1998-2006, and he is the author of Inside Terrorism.