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Reason 1: International inspections
No state has built nuclear weapons while under scrutiny of in-country IAEA inspectors. In fact, out of the five countries that developed nuclear weapons in the past four decades, four (Pakistan, India, South Africa and Israel) were not signatories of the NPT and therefore were never under IAEA inspection, while North Korea had expelled the inspectors before testing its nuclear device.
IAEA inspectors visit Iran's nuclear facilities on an almost weekly basis. And time favours the inspectors. Alarmist warnings about Iran reaching "breakout capability — the ability to process low-enriched uranium into weapons grade fissile material — omits the simple fact that if Iran decided to produce weapons-grade uranium, it would have to reconfigure its centrifuge cascades.
That process usually takes between one to two weeks, and will undoubtedly be detected by the IAEA. It is extremely unlikely that Iran could even buy time by delaying the inspectors visit based on fabricated pretexts, given that such action is likely to prompt aninternational opprobrium and even serve as a casus belli.
Iran can’t begin producing bomb material without triggering an trip wire that would give the international community several weeks to react before it had created fissile material for a single bomb; and turning such material into a deliverable warhead would take would take at least a year.
Reason 2: The cost-benefit rationale
A country reaches the military nuclear threshold when it possesses the capacity to manufacture one or more nuclear weapons within weeks. But it defies strategic logic for a country to accept risks of a military confrontation with more powerful adversaries simply in order to develop a single crude nuclear device.
To acquire real nuclear deterrence, Iran would need a deployable nuclear arsenal, not just enough material for one bomb. It would need to test a nuclear device and marry it with an appropriate delivery vehicle. And it is nearly impossible that Iran could reach such a capability in less than a year, without being detected and stopped by the U.S. or Israel.
All previous Iranian efforts to conceal nuclear activities were exposed in their nascent stages. Likewise, it is useful to remember than given America's significant standing capabilities in the region, it would take less than 24 hours for the U.S. to launch military strikes in response to any such Iranian undertaking.
Reason 3: The lack of a political decision
Iranian leaders have pledged to never make nuclear weapons, which they consider a violation of Islam. But more importantly, according to James Clapper, the Director of the U.S. National Intelligence, Iran’s leaders have not yet decided to build nuclear weapons. Both the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities are reasonably confident of their ability to detect such a decision.
In contrast to lack of evidence of any political decision Iran to cross the Nuclear Rubicon, the Iranian government has provided plenty of evidence that it wants a nuclear deal. Besides verbal declarations by its leadership, a number of Iranian decisions in managing nuclear work have been read as signalling a desire to avoid provoking confrontation. For example, Tehran has converted approximately 60 percent of its 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile to uranium oxide, which is less prone to proliferation as its further enrichment requires weeks of chemical processing detectable by the IAEA.
Tehran could also double its enrichment at Fordow by turning on nearly 2,000 centrifuges that it has installed at the facility, but which are not yet operating. The same applies to the IR-2m machines. Iran has also delayed the previously announced completion date (the first quarter of 2014) of the Arak reactor.
Analysts see these moves as signs that Tehran is preparing bargaining chips to negotiate relief from the Western sanctions that have debilitated its economy. As DNI Clapper has assessed, "Iran's nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran."
With 17 declared nuclear facilities and nearly five-decades in the making, Iran's nuclear program is quite extensive. It has also been expensive given the cost of harsh sanctions that the program has incurred. Yet, it has also become a point of national pride as Iran has developed indigenous nuclear know-how.
That fact alone means that Iran’s nuclear program cannot be wished away or bombed away. U.S. military and intelligence chiefs have made clear that the only sustainable solution is one in which Tehran chooses to refrain from building nuclear weapons, under an accord that thickens the barrier between civilian and military nuclear activity in Iran. Such an accord would limit the scale and scope of Iran's nuclear work, enhance the IAEA's monitoring capabilities, and allow Iran to re-join the international community.
Ali Vaez is the senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, having previously headed the Iran project of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., focusing on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.