Graham Allison Testifies Before Senate Committee on Iran's Nuclear Program

April 24, 2008

Graham Allison, director of Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, testified before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs on April 24, 2008. He discussed Iran’s nuclear ambitions, current U.S. strategy, and future policy options for blocking Iran’s nuclear bomb.

Chairman Carper, Ranking Member Coburn, and members of the Subcommittee, I am honored to appear before you to discuss Iran's nuclear ambitions, current U.S. strategy, or lack thereof, and what we should do to block Iran's nuclear bomb. The views I express are my own, and not those of any organization with which I am associated.
I commend the Committee for drilling down on Iran's nuclear challenge and the need for a coherent American strategy to combat it. This is a subject I have wrestled with for a number of years and track in some detail. My 2004 book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, includes a chapter on Iran. In that book, I propose a strategy for preventing nuclear terrorism organized under a "doctrine of Three No's": No Loose Nukes; No New Nascent Nukes; and No New Nuclear Weapons States.
The second No, "No New Nascent Nukes," means no new national enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of plutonium—the essential ingredients for making nuclear weapons. The clear and present threat today to that principle is Iran. If Iran succeeds in learning to operate efficiently its uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, it will have overcome the major technical barrier standing between it and a nuclear bomb. Unfortunately, as a result of failed policies by the U.S. and its allies over the past seven years, Iran stands seven years closer to that goal line today than it did on January 20, 2001. If the Bush administration's successor were to continue the basic strategy followed by the Bush administration, during the term of our next president, Iran is likely to become a nuclear weapons state.
Our stakes in stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is not simply the challenge posed by Iran to the U.S. and our allies in the region. A nuclear-armed Iran poses a much larger challenge to the entire global nuclear order. Were Iran to become a nuclear weapons state, over the decade that followed, one would likely see a significant knock-on effect in the region. Egypt (traditionally the leader of the Arab Middle East), Saudi Arabia (the leading Sunni state), and possibly Syria and Turkey, could also go nuclear. A cascade of nuclear proliferation in this volatile region would very likely lead to nuclear war. Recognizing these larger dangers, the United Nations Security Council has passed four Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment activity and negotiate.
To assist the Committee's exploration of Iran's nuclear challenge, I have submitted with my testimony a Harvard case that I assigned students in the course that I am currently teaching. It required them to engage in what the U.S. government calls "red teaming." Red teaming requires one to imagine that he is working for the government of an adversary. You seek to do your best for that government in advancing its objectives. The U.S. Defense Department and intelligence community used this method often to help better understand what our opponents may be up to.
In my Iran case, the reader is asked to play the role of trusted assistant to Iran's Supreme Leader—Khamenei. The Supreme Leader's operational objective is to have at least three nuclear weapons by December 2009—without triggering a military attack that would severely retard Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Students were required to sketch three strategic options for achieving the stated operational objective. As the case makes plain, this is an extraordinarily ambitious objective for Iran. The case stretches to introduce hypotheticals that represent not current facts, or best judgments about facts in Iran, but "worst case" possibilities about Iran's rate of technological progress.
If you have an opportunity to read the case, I hope you will find it helpful in exploring the challenge we now face.
For purposes of brevity, I have organized my comments as key questions and short answers.
Is Iran seriously seeking nuclear weapons?

Is the Bush administration's strategy of a "slow diplomatic squeeze" working?

What has the Bush administration's approach to Iran achieved, and failed to achieve?
Adroit diplomacy succeeded in winning support for four Security Council resolutions demanding Iran suspend its enrichment activity and enter negotiations. In addition, both at the UN and in collaboration with the EU, the U.S. has succeeded imposing mild, mostly symbolic sanctions on Iran.
What this strategy has failed to do is to prevent Iran advancing towards its goal lines, including the infrastructure for a nuclear weapons program and ultimately a nuclear weapon. Today Iran has installed 3,000 centrifuges at its Natanz facility, has been operating these at about 20% efficiency, has finished installing the first 492 centrifuges of an announced 6,000 centrifuge expansion, has mastered the technology for enriching uranium to 4% and produced about 75 kilos of LEU; has developed an indigenous capability to manufacture centrifuges; and is seven years (perhaps minus two years during which Iran suspended enrichment activities while negotiating with the EU) towards its goal lines.
In one line: the Bush administration's efforts to organize diplomatic sanctions have essentially succeeded in giving Iran time to advance its nuclear facts on the ground.
Has the administration's approach missed opportunities to stop Iran's nuclear program?
The best opportunity arose in May 2003 when the U.S. and Iran exchanged a draft outline of issues for negotiation that included the entire agenda. Whether a serious effort to negotiate a deal would have succeeded remains uncertain. What is clear is that we failed to try.
On the current track, when will Iran acquire its first nuclear bomb?
The NIE offers the best consensus judgment: "We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely. We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame."
Are there lessons from the U.S. wrestling match with North Korea that provide relevant insights for dealing with Iran?
The results of the Bush-Cheney-Bolton strategy of "threaten and neglect" ("We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it.") are clear: Kim Jong Il: 8—Bush: 0.
In the largest and ultimately most dangerous failure of nonproliferation policy in recent decades, Bush administration policy ignored North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT, ejection of IAEA inspectors, and shutting down of the 24-7 cameras that were watching 6 bombs-worth of plutonium stored in warehouses after the '94 agreement. Kim Jong Il proceeded to restart the Yongbyon reactor (which produced 1-2 bombs of plutonium per year); reprocess the spent fuels to harvest six additional weapons; and conduct North Korea's first nuclear weapons test in October 2006. As a consequence of this approach, a Mafioso state well-known for selling whatever it makes to whomever will pay, now has an arsenal of 10 nuclear bombs-worth of plutonium and has conducted a nuclear weapons test. North Korea is the only state that could plausibly sell a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden who could then bring it to Washington or New York for a successful nuclear terrorist attack.
After what John Bolton rightly calls a "flip-flop" from the prior approach, the new Bush/Rice/Hill approach consisted of the U.S. and the other members of the 6-party talks bringing carrots as well as sticks to the table. This has succeeded in freezing the Yongbyon reactor (that was otherwise producing another 1-2 bombs of plutonium a year) and entering a long, drawn out process of haggling about North Korea's prior nuclear activity and its current nuclear arsenal.
The February 13, 2007 6-party agreement requires that, in the initial phase, North Korea shut down and seal its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, allow international verification and provide a list of all of its nuclear programs.
The Bush Administration hailed this agreement as a "breakthrough step." In contrast, I wrote in the Boston Globe on May 21, 2007: "After the closing and disabling of Yongbyon, expect lengthy slogging through incomplete records…missed deadlines, disputes about who can visit where, and all the other antics that have left IAEA inspectors unable to close the nuclear file in Iran after 20 years of effort. My bet, therefore, is that Kim Jong Il will succeed: selling his future nuclear weapons production capability at Yongbyon for a good price and China's graces, while keeping a minimum nuclear deterrent."
My latest bet: this is another issue the administration will pass on to its successor. Nonetheless, paying North Korea to stop producing additional nuclear bombs, however tawdry, is preferable to the prior policy.

Are there relevant historical analogies that might offer insight for dealing with Iran?
I have compared the emerging U.S.-Iran confrontation to a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. Events are moving, seemingly inexorably, towards a showdown at which an American president, most likely President Bush's successor, will be forced to choose between acquiescing in a nuclear Iran, and a military attack to prevent that outcome.
In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev attempted to sneak nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba, Kennedy confronted him with the demand that the missiles be withdrawn. At the final hour in what historians now judge "the most dangerous moment in human history," Kennedy stretched well beyond the box of his advisors' options to an imaginative solution that eliminated the Soviet missiles without war.
Ironically, today many members of the sanctioning coalition seem readier to accept the risks of bombing Iran than to tolerate the pain required to impose sanctions sufficiently harsh to persuade Iran to defer or postpone a nuclear bomb. Only when an American president internalizes the unacceptability of both acquiescence and attack will he (or she) develop a realistic strategy for blocking Iran's bomb—a strategy that will include U.S. concessions the Bush administration has been unwilling to contemplate.

Photo of Graham Allison

Graham Allison, director of Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

"I have compared the emerging U.S.-Iran confrontation to a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. Events are moving, seemingly inexorably, towards a showdown at which an American president, most likely President Bush's successor, will be forced to choose between acquiescing in a nuclear Iran, and a military attack to prevent that outcome," Allison testified.

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