World Powers Struggle to Contain Iran’s Nuclear Program

March 12, 2012
By Doug Gavel

Iranian leaders have agreed to return to the bargaining table with major world powers to discuss their nuclear program. Whether or not those talks will produce any substantive breakthroughs is the focus of intense debate within the international community. Some, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have expressed grave doubts about the effectiveness of negotiations, while others, including President Obama, are expressing hope that diplomacy may reap some dividends.
While government leaders in Tehran continue to downplay their nuclear ambitions, many experts believe Iran is close to producing the nuclear-weapons grade material necessary to build a bomb.
“If Iran decides to produce weapons-grade uranium from 20 percent enriched uranium, it has already technically undertaken 90 percent of the enrichment effort required. What remains to be done is the feeding of 20 percent uranium through existing additional cascades to achieve weapons-grade enrichment (more than 90 percent uranium). This step is much faster than the earlier ones,” writes Olli Heinonen, a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in Foreign Policy. “Growing the stockpile of 3.5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium, as Iran is now doing, provides the basic material needed to produce four to five nuclear weapons.”
World powers have imposed economic sanctions on Iran while also pursuing diplomatic channels, a strategy endorsed by Nicholas Burns, the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations and former U.S. undersecretary of state.
“[President] Obama, like President Bush before him, has threatened Iran with sanctions and force with one goal in mind - to persuade its recalcitrant leaders to accept diplomacy and a possible negotiated outcome short of war,” writes Burns in the Boston Globe. “Lost in our increasingly shrill national debate about whether to bomb Iran is bipartisan consensus to at least try negotiating with Iran’s mullahs before we decide to fight them….
“We can’t fight all our foes and can no longer afford to pay for costly long-term occupations in the Middle East.”
Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, also endorses a diplomatic approach to the Iran problem, arguing that a military attack alone is not a long-term solution.
“Force cannot produce a meaningful victory,” Walt writes in the Financial Times.”Israel’s air force cannot destroy all Iran’s nuclear facilities; even a successful US attack could not eliminate the knowledge on which the programme is based. Iran would simply rebuild its facilities in less vulnerable locations, as Iraq did after Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981.”
Strategic posturing is an essential element in international affairs, argues Juliette Kayyem, lecturer in public policy, but war talk should not be taken lightly.
“Managing the interactions among nations on questions of war and peace requires tremendous agility. Decisions are often made with imperfect information; success can be as simple as averting sheer chaos. Figuring out how to handle Iran is not the same as playacting,” writes Kayyem in the Boston Globe.

map of Iran underneath a magnifying glass

“[President] Obama, like President Bush before him, has threatened Iran with sanctions and force with one goal in mind - to persuade its recalcitrant leaders to accept diplomacy and a possible negotiated outcome short of war,” writes Nicholas Burns in the Boston Globe.


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