Befriend the Scientists

How to Bring Iran's Nuclear Program Into the Fold

An Iranian operator monitors the nuclear power plant unit in Bushehr, about 755 miles south of Tehran, November 30, 2009.
An Iranian operator monitors the nuclear power plant unit in Bushehr, about 755 miles south of Tehran, November 30, 2009. (Mehdi Ghasem / Courtesy Reuters)

The recent international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is a welcome triumph of hope over experience. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has signaled his willingness to go further than any previous Iranian leader to satisfy the international community’s concerns about his country’s ultimate nuclear ends. For Rouhani and his team of political moderates, however, getting to yes with the United States and its partners is the comparatively easy part. The really tough part will be the struggle inside Iran.

The Islamic Republic’s secretive nuclear program has been grinding away for nearly three decades. During this time, the country has gradually built up considerable political, technical, and organizational inertia toward the bomb. That inertia will not dissipate simply because diplomats shook hands in Geneva. What is really necessary is a profound change in the nuclear program’s organizational culture -- and such transformations always take time.

Given the realities of Iran’s internal situation, the United States must show forbearance and reject calls to jettison the Geneva agreement at the first hint of Iranian noncompliance. Iran must be held to its promises, of course, but not in a manner that weakens the power or resolve of the very people who have the strongest interest in keeping those promises.

Patience is merited in this case because the potential benefits far outweigh the potential costs. Even if Rouhani -- contrary to all indications -- really is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has alleged him to be, the fact is that Israeli intelligence itself has acknowledged that Iran could not possibly have its first bomb before 2015 or 2016. Moreover, given the pathetic track record of past such estimates, in the real world an Iranian drive toward the bomb would probably need much more time than that. At this point, therefore, the United States and its partners can certainly afford to give Rouhani the benefit of the doubt.

THE CHALLENGE OF REFORM

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