Through negotiations, U.S. must convince Iran not to build a nuclear bomb, says Stanford expert

Stanford scholar Siegfried Hecker believes that Iran has already developed the option to build a nuclear bomb. Washington must convince Tehran not to exercise that option. Recent negotiations have a good chance to do so, he says.

Glen Johnson Officials from countries participating in Iran nuclear talks standing in front of their flags

Representatives from world powers and Iran gather in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday after announcing a framework agreement on limiting Iran's nuclear capabilities.

Rigorous inspections, no cheating and continued talking can help generate a successful nuclear deal with Iran, Stanford faculty experts say.

But the United States and the world community need to convince Iran it has more to lose than to gain from building a nuclear bomb, according to Siegfried Hecker, a research professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

On April 2, the United States, Iran and five other world powers agreed on "key parameters" for resolving a long-standing dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting of financial sanctions, the broad agreement charts the course for a possible final, detailed agreement by June 30.

Hecker said that even though Iran has already put in place all the requisite technical capabilities to build the bomb, it has not yet decided to exercise the option to build one.

The problem, he said, is that it takes rather small quantities of bomb fuel, highly enriched uranium or plutonium, to build a bomb, whereas commercial nuclear power production requires huge amounts of uranium and large enrichment capacity.

"In other words, even a small production capacity is useful for bombs, whereas large capacities are required for electricity. Hence, it is all but impossible to prevent Iran from reconstituting the capabilities to build the bomb should it decide to break the agreement," he wrote in an article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Hecker said it is important is to have Iran agree to an "intrusive inspection and verification regime" so the international community can respond quickly should Iran "break out" with a nuclear weapon.

"Breakout time" measures the amount of time to build a nuclear weapon – the United States wants a year, while some say Iran is within a few months. It has been a key sticking point between Western and Iranian negotiators.

"There are lessons to be learned from what happened in North Korea – it 'broke out' in 2003, and the U.S. and international community did not respond adequately. Consequently, North Korea not only has the bomb today, but a rapidly growing nuclear arsenal," said Hecker, who recently wrote about the North Korean situation.

Hecker is an expert in plutonium science, global threat reduction and nuclear security who served as the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first atomic bomb was created in 1945.

From a purely economic and technical standpoint, he said, there is no need for Iran to have any enrichment capability or to build the type of reactor they chose for medical isotope production in their Arak facility.

"The enrichment services are readily available to Iran in the international market. However, insisting on zero enrichment or no centrifuges shatters Iran's pride and questions why the regime has spent billions of dollars pursuing what is really not needed to have civilian nuclear energy," he said.

The key objective for the next few years, he said, should the deal be formalized, is to convince Iran that it has "more to gain from keeping its end of the bargain than it would lose by exercising its hedge."

Inspections critical

Allen Weiner, director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law and a senior lecturer at Stanford Law School, said the robustness of the inspection process and whether Iran decides to cheat are two big factors.

"If we stop and think about where we are starting from, it certainly seems that the agreed arrangement can't hurt. Without the agreement, if Iran concludes that it wishes to build nuclear weapons, it is doubtful that international actions can stop that," he said.

Weiner points out that Iran has weathered sanctions for nearly a decade and has continued to move closer to "breakout" capability. "Given that backdrop, the framework arrangement has the potential to help," he said.

If Iran's nuclear program spurs similar ones among its neighbors, the outlook is dire, said Weiner, a former U.S. State Department lawyer.

"A Middle East region with multiple nuclear-armed states would be a very dangerous place. The risk of nuclear confrontation would grow under such circumstances," he said, noting the especially acute tensions now between Shiite states like Iran and Sunni ones like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Weiner noted, "The greatest danger if multiple states in the region acquire nuclear weapons may be miscalculations or mistakes leading to the use of a nuclear weapon."

The length of the breakout period for Iran between a decision to build nuclear weapons and its ability to actually assemble such a weapon is seen as critical, according to Weiner: "That window presumably provides time for the international community to develop a response."

As for sticking points, for the United States the acceptance of the basic idea that Iran would retain a uranium enrichment capability was difficult, "although it was a pill the U.S. swallowed early in the negotiations," Weiner said.

Once the United States had agreed to this, it had to accept the risk of Iranian breakout, which makes the ultimate deal dependent on Iran's good faith, he said.

"It creates the grave fear that even if the agreement works, we are merely kicking the Iranian nuclear crisis down the road for 10 years," due to the time limits under the arrangement on the restrictions on the number of centrifuges that Iran may operate to enrich uranium, Weiner said.

For Iran, it was difficult to accept the reality that not all sanctions would be immediately lifted, he added. The country says it is only trying to exercise its rights to operate a peaceful civilian nuclear power program.

"Iran feels that it has accepted both substantive restrictions on its nuclear program and an intensive inspection regime that do not apply to other Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty states, and that it should not continue to be singled out for sanctions, even partial ones, in order to earn the trust of the international community," he said.

Finally, the road ahead will be exceedingly difficult due to internal politics in both countries.

Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian studies at Stanford and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, offers this perspective:

"While the people of Iran are rejoicing at what they think is a new beginning, and while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his men are congratulating Iran for its 'victory,' the conservative press has been blasting the agreement as defeatist and accusing the U.S. of publishing a faulty version of the agreement. In short, it is a happy moment, but a final resolution is yet to come."

Siegfried Hecker, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 725-6468,

Allen Weiner, Stanford Law School: (650) 724-5892,

Abbas Milani, Iranian Studies: (650) 721-4052,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,