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Iran’s Nuclear Weakness

The Iranian nuclear program could play a significant role in the final battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, with both candidates taking a tough stance on the issue. But they may not need to. In his new book, USC’s Jacques Hymans says that Iran’s nuclear program is likely to fail on its own, without Western involvement.

Sanctions, sabotage, diplomacy, and even the threat of military action — the United Nations Security Council countries seem to be emptying their toolbox when it comes to containing Iranian nuclear ambitions. But nuclear proliferation expert Jacques Hymans thinks they may be overlooking the easiest solution of all: letting Iran’s program fail on its own.

Hymans, associate professor of international relations at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has written a new book, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions, suggesting that repressive, authoritarian regimes often undermine their own nuclear programs with the same heavy-handed management they use to control their countries. Scientists and equipment are pushed to the breaking point, which ultimately saps morale for atomic projects and fosters unprofessional scientific practices.

Analyses of Iran’s nuclear progress lack credibility unless they consider this point, Hymans says. Most intelligence estimates just assume professional motivation, rather than assessing it, he adds. More importantly, the motivation factor works both ways. While leaving Iran to its own devices could result in a drawn-out, struggling nuclear program, drastic action (like bombing facilities or assassinating scientists) could unite the program’s workers and drive them to success.

“You end up creating the monster you were intending to slay,” Hymans says. “Basically, I think the more aggressive you become, the more sure you have to be that they are making very rapid progress. And Iran hasn’t been making rapid progress.” On the contrary, the length of time it has taken the Iranians to get to this point indicates something has been going wrong. Hymans says that Iran has a track record of “general mismanagement” in large-scale industrial projects.

This is in keeping with one of the major points of Hymans’ book, the rarely reported kink in the nuclear arms race narrative: Proliferation has slowed down drastically since 1970. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, he noted that the average timeline for building a bomb before 1970 was about seven years; the average timeline since then has been about 17 years. Of the 10 countries that have attempted to develop a nuclear weapon in that time, only three have found success.

Hymans points to recent history for an example of failed nuclear innovation. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was predicated on that country’s development of weapons of mass destruction. In the run-up to the invasion, Washington officials argued that Iraq’s nuclear program was being reconstituted after its initial development in the 1980s.

But not only was it not being revived; it wasn’t much cause for concern to begin with. Hymans says officials didn’t understand what a spectacular failure Iraq’s nuclear efforts had been. In both his book and the Foreign Affairs article, Hymans describes how the 1980s program was set back by the regime’s unrealistic deadlines and the repeated jailings of officials and scientists.

“After Iraq, people seemed to forget what they should have learned,” Hymans says. “Instead of drawing down the hype, the hype moved to Iran.”

Taking the issue seriously and hyping Iran’s nuclear development aren’t the same thing, Hymans adds, but unfortunately they have been conflated throughout the 2012 presidential election. The Republican primary debates were often a competition to see which candidate could use the strongest rhetoric. Now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican candidate, he’s charging President Barack Obama with being weak and not pursuing more aggressive policies against Iran.

“I expect this will play a significant role in the final battle between Romney and Obama,” Hymans says, adding that both men are likely to assert how aggressive they are.

Of course, Hymans recognizes that there are risks involved in Iran’s pursuit of the bomb. He doesn’t advocate allowing Iran or its peers to obtain any technical materials they like on the open market. His worry is that political leaders are rushing to decision, while overestimating Iran’s progress toward developing a successful program.

“I’m trying to enlarge our view of the possible,” Hymans says. “I’m trying to help us recognize that, if in fact Iran lacks the respect for science and scientists that is so crucial for efficiency, it’ll take a long time.”

Jacques Hymans, associate professor of international relations at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is an expert on nuclear proliferation and nuclear diplomacy. Contact him at (213) 740-8837 or

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