Is the world ready to secure Iran’s nuclear assets if the state collapses? While the Soviet Union’s collapse was a boon for democracy, it also ushered in the threat of loose nukes. Especially with Russia in deep recession, Western authorities feared the country’s scientists and nuclear engineers might sell orphaned warheads to the highest bidder. Behind the scenes, however, the United States and vital Russian scientists worked to keep Russia’s weapons secure. The fear of loose nukes also resurfaces periodically with Pakistan, a nuclear weapons state that perennially appears on the brink of failure, and North Korea, which recently declared itself a nuclear weapons state.
So long as the world knows, the Islamic Republic does not yet possess nuclear weapons. The 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency “Possible Military Dimension” annex, and Iran’s own secret nuclear archives spirited out of the country by Israeli agents, however, all suggested that Iran maintained a secret nuclear weapons program, at least for a time.
Iran may appear stable now, but the world should not take Iran’s stability for granted. Rumors swirl about the octogenarian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s health. A smooth succession is uncertain. Throughout Iranian history, insurrection along the periphery has marked periods of transition and government weakness. With neighboring states primed to interfere, civil war is a possibility.
The problem for the international community may not be loose nuclear warheads, but Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium. The notion that the Iranian regime enriched this material for peaceful purposes is false. Low-enriched nuclear fuel is around 5.4 percent enriched; Iran openly talks about enriching it to 60 percent. Nor do the quantities involved suggest a desire for medical isotopes is anything more than a thin excuse to assuage diplomats willing to accept anything.
Those nuclear stockpiles are under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). More than four decades after the Islamic Revolution, the IRGC remains opaque. While most analysts will acknowledge the group is not monolithic, they cannot assess with granularity whom ideology motivates and who prioritizes privilege and cash. In both cases, Iran’s disintegration poses risks, especially if IRGC elements seek to construct dirty bombs or sell Iran’s fissile material to a terrorist groups or rogue actors.
Too often, Western diplomats behave as if they have endless time to bargain and cajole in Vienna. They blame the spike in Iran’s enrichment on President Donald Trump’s exit from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the Iranian leadership’s loss of fear following President Joe Biden’s election and rationalize that Tehran is only enriching to augment its negotiating position. Fair enough. But, given the increasingly shaky foundations of the Islamic Republic, it is essential that the Biden administration plan for the worst even as they hope for the best.
It is past time the U.S. military and intelligence community plan and drill for the necessity to secure Iran’s fissile material lest it gets lost in potential chaos following Khamenei’s death.
Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).