Botching the Bomb

Why Nuclear Weapons Programs Often Fail on Their Own -- and Why Iran’s Might, Too

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Aly Song / Courtesy Reuters)

The chronic problem of nuclear proliferation is once again dominating the news. A fierce debate has developed over how to respond to the threat posed by Iran's nuclear activities, which most experts believe are aimed at producing a nuclear weapon or at least the capacity to assemble one. In this debate, one side is pushing for a near-term military attack to damage or destroy Iran's nuclear program, and the other side is hoping that strict sanctions against the Islamic Republic will soften it up for a diplomatic solution. Both sides, however, share the underlying assumption that unless outside powers intervene in a dramatic fashion, it is inevitable that Iran will achieve its supposed nuclear goals very soon.

Yet there is another possibility. The Iranians had to work for 25 years just to start accumulating uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is not even weapons grade. The slow pace of Iranian nuclear progress to date strongly suggests that Iran could still need a very long time to actually build a bomb -- or could even ultimately fail to do so. Indeed, global trends in proliferation suggest that either of those outcomes might be more likely than Iranian success in the near future. Despite regular warnings that proliferation is spinning out of control, the fact is that since the 1970s, there has been a persistent slowdown in the pace of technical progress on nuclear weapons projects and an equally dramatic decline in their ultimate success rate. 

The great proliferation slowdown can be attributed in part to U.S. and international nonproliferation efforts. But it is mostly the result of the dysfunctional management tendencies of the states that have sought the bomb in recent decades. Weak institutions in those states have permitted political leaders to unintentionally undermine the performance of their nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians. The harder politicians have pushed to achieve their nuclear ambitions, the less productive their nuclear programs have become. Meanwhile, military attacks by

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