The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Iran Building Nuclear Subs?

Iran’s leaders may be flirting with the possibility of exploiting an enormous loophole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop nuclear technology. And by “nuclear technology”, we mean nuclear weapons.

Wired.com’s Danger Room reports:

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which limits nuclear weapon states to five countries (not including Iran), also removes IAEA safeguards for nuclear materials used for “non-explosive military purposes such as naval propulsion,” according to Cole Harvey of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. This means Iran could theoretically move nuclear materials into its propulsion program, before refashioning the material into “bomb cores in a cheating or breakout scenario,” Harvey wrote in an article for the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Iranian Rear Admiral Abbas Zamini has rightly pointed out that “all countries have the right to manufacture nuclear-powered submarines for peaceful purposes” such as for national development projects involving power-generation, agriculture, and medicine. The admiral’s argument would pack a heavy punch, if only it was possible to think of any reasonable purpose why Iran would need to invest billions of dollars in building a fleet of peaceful nuclear submarines. For dock maintenance, perhaps, or undersea pipeline repairs? Fishing? Extended spiritual retreats for high ranking clerics?

The good news is that experts have doubts that Iran can actually carry out a nuclear-submarine program. Danger Room explains:

First, Iran will have to miniaturize the country’s nuclear technology into a safe and working power plant capable of powering a sub. Second, one does not just install a nuclear plant onto a submarine. Iran will have to build a new sub from scratch around the future sub’s nuclear plant.

Let’s also not forget that Iran’s military engineers weren’t even skilled enough to perform basic maintenance repairs on their own Russian subs until a couple of years ago. Jim Holmes, an associate professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, says, “It’s not impossible. . . . But it seems hard to believe this would be a high priority for Tehran considering the financial and engineering barriers to entry.”

That seems about right to us, but the submarine loophole could be a convenient excuse to cover other Iranian nuclear activity. The US and other powers need to keep the pressure on, stay engaged in diplomacy, and keep the powder dry if at the end of the day the Iranians persist with the nuclear drive.

 

Published on June 18, 2012 12:00 pm
  • Eric

    This may be a reaction to the article in Der Spiegel a couple weeks ago. It seems unlikely to me that the article would’ve gone out without some agreement from the Israeli government.