Assessing Motives in Tehran

As American policymakers and foreign policy experts argue over the proper reaction to Iran’s apparent quest for nuclear weapons, CFR’s Intelligence Fellow Frank Procida asks whether the West should be so sure weaponization is in the offing given its track record on guessing at what motivates Tehran.

February 20, 2009 4:10 pm (EST)

Expert Brief
CFR scholars provide expert analysis and commentary on international issues.

Analysts of all political stripes, including, most importantly, members of the new U.S. president’s foreign policy team, seem to agree that Iran is striving to build the bomb. Why else would a state risk further economic isolation, or worse, to develop nuclear-related technologies whose output it could pursue more cheaply and easily on the open market? But as the foreign policy cognoscenti argue the merits of enhanced sanctions packages, grand bargains, and military options in changing Tehran’s behavior, it is worth reconsidering the question of whether Iran even plans to develop nuclear weapons, and how certain anyone outside of Iranian decision-making circles can be of that answer.

More From Our Experts

The controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years earlier, appears to have been all but forgotten. Regardless, more instructive is the inverse of that report’s central point; in order to halt a program it must first exist, a fact that suggests the intelligence community has significant evidence that Tehran, at one point at least, authorized the development of nuclear weapons.

More on:


Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Beyond the estimate, all that is known publicly is that Iran has a history of hiding sensitive nuclear sites from the International Atomic Energy Agency and that Tehran has yet to answer the agency’s questions on what are known as the "alleged studies"--documents said to indicate Iran attempted to develop a ballistic missile re-entry vehicle capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. This lack of transparency has fueled the charges of those who dismiss Tehran’s denials of wrongdoing. The IAEA’s latest report is a case in point, revealing that Tehran understated by about one-third the amount of  bomb quality uranium it has enriched, meaning it could very likely produce a bomb with current stocks if it chose.

"An unexpected reasoning might exist for Iran’s seemingly self-destructive behavior today."

Still, probably more important to most observers than uncertain intelligence and games of cat and mouse is simple logic; all experts agree that Iran’s desire to enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel makes little sense from an economic or energy perspective. Russia has agreed to provide enriched uranium for Iran’s only existing, and not yet operational, power plant, and fuel for any future plants could be similarly acquired on the open market. Indeed, the EU-led overtures to Iran have included such guarantees. Moreover, Iran’s efforts to produce this fuel are not only premature but are costly and inefficient, wiping away the economic benefits Tehran supposedly hopes to reap by developing nuclear power plants in the first place. Adding the negative economic and political consequences of sanctions to the mix only makes Iran’s nuclear policy more senseless unless the program is meant as a cover or hedge for weapons development.

More From Our Experts

As tempting as it may be to accept such wisdom, the West’s experience in assessing the motives behind Iraq’s behavior under sanctions should give pause; sometimes actions that appear irrational--say, enduring crippling economic sanctions and inviting a war to uphold the veneer of a WMD capability--have a rationale that is unrecognizable to outsiders. It was not tales of mobile biological labs and mistaken assessments of aluminum tubes that led to the Bush administration’s excessive confidence in Iraq’s guilt--although these collection and analytic lapses certainly did not help. Rather, it was a gut feeling that Iraq’s intransigence, and its ensuing costs and risks, only made sense if Baghdad was harboring weapons it felt it needed to ensure its survival. In reality, Saddam did view such weapons as vital, so much so that his regime risked everything to maintain the mirage it still possessed them. While Saddam’s calculation was wrong--in fact the ploy brought on the outcome he hoped it would prevent--the thinking at least becomes understandable when viewed from the Iraqi perspective.

Similarly, an unexpected reasoning might exist for Iran’s seemingly self-destructive behavior today. Investing in nuclear technology for energy production does make some sense for Iran, a country with a growing population that imports more than 40 percent of its refined petroleum. Diversifying its energy needs also could, in theory at least, free up crude oil for Iran to export. After all, no credible analyst is questioning the United Arab Emirates’ motives in seeking nuclear plants, despite ranking sixth worldwide in proven oil reserves. Citing Iran’s massive reserves to prove the absurdity of an Iranian nuclear energy program is therefore pointless.

More on:


Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

There may even be a legitimate motive behind Iran’s dogged pursuit of a domestic enrichment capability, a much more alarming policy. While it is true that the West has offered fuel guarantees that would negate the need for a costly enrichment program, Tehran would have reason to doubt the sanctity of such promises. The nuclear dispute is but one of many areas of contention between Iran and the West, and it would not be unreasonable for Tehran to expect nuclear-related deals to dissipate in the event of future flare-ups involving Hezbollah. Given how sanctions have crippled other important industries in Iran, why leave something as essential as energy production vulnerable to outside suppliers?

"It might be worth spending a bit of time contemplating whether the unbearable outcome the West is desperately trying to prevent even exists as an option in the minds of Iranian decision-makers."

Domestic politics also should not be dismissed as a driver of Tehran’s nuclear policy. Iran remains autocratic, but even its recent election results support the maxim that all politics is local. Although it would be foolish to grant them too much credibility, most published poll results show that a large majority of Iranians support the nuclear program and are opposed to compromise. The issue appears to have become one of national pride, with the ordinary Iranian, regardless of his or her opinion of the ruling regime, viewing Western efforts to constrain its nuclear development as hypocritical at best and malicious at worst. The already unpopular mullahs could fear further backlash if they were seen as abandoning technological development because of outside pressure. It would be short-sighted to expect Iranian leaders to share the West’s assumptions that its promises are reliable, and raw domestic political calculations could have a greater influence over Iranian policymaking than generic concerns about the country’s overall economic health.

The lack of any serious debate on the question of Iran’s intentions is somewhat stunning, given that the United States remains mired in a war caused in part by the failure to accurately forecast Iraq’s weapons capabilities. President Bush himself has expressed disappointment at his administration’s failures regarding the Iraqi WMD case, and the U.S. intelligence community, judging by the tone of the 2007 NIE, appears to be similarly chastened. All the more surprising then that outside analysts, even those opposed to the more hawkish options being floated to deal with the problem, appear willing to assume the worst when it comes to Iran’s intentions.

The consequences of a deepening rift with Iran are unknown but scary--an unleashed Hezbollah, further Iranian meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan, potential missile attacks against U.S. allies in the region, and skyrocketing oil prices. Some observers believe that if Iran acquired a nuclear "guarantee" it would become even more mischievous than it is today and for that reason alone the country must not be allowed to cross the nuclear threshold. Others argue that whatever plans Tehran now has for its nuclear program are irrelevant, since intentions are subject to change. In such a view, capabilities are all that matter. But before risking such costly consequences, it might be worth spending a bit of time contemplating whether the unbearable outcome the West is desperately trying to prevent even exists as an option in the minds of Iranian decision-makers.

The writer is the National Intelligence Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


Top Stories on CFR

United States

Some experts are sounding the alarm over rising inflation in the United States, despite assurances from the Federal Reserve. Here’s what to know.

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Is America back and able to make the West once again the core of an open, rules-based world order? Biden and his counterparts have an opportunity to prove skeptics wrong this week.


U.S.-Russia bilateral relations have fallen to a new low, with Ukraine, Belarus, cyberattacks, and nuclear weapons among the biggest disagreements. What’s the best way to judge this summit’s success?