Ches Thurber is a doctoral student at Tufts University’s The Fletcher School of Law and
Diplomacy, where he focuses on international security. He can be reached at richard.
A STEP SHORT OF THE BOMB:
EXPLAINING THE STRATEGY OF
The global spread of technology will inevitably result in more
states gaining access to the scientiﬁc and technical means to
create a nuclear weapon. In order to confront this reality, poli-
cymakers and analysts must develop a better understanding
of why some states feel compelled to conduct overt nuclear
tests while others are content to pursue a strategy of hedging:
developing the capability but not actually testing or deploying
nuclear weapons. Using case studies from Japan and South
Asia, this article seeks to explain nuclear policy through a
combination of two factors. First, states attempt to maximize
their relative security vis-à-vis their rivals by balancing the value
of deterrence with the risk of proliferation. Secondly, domestic
political sentiment and the balance of power amongst competing
bureaucratic factions may either enable restraint or push a state
toward conducting a nuclear test. Finally, by applying these two
factors to the case of Iran, this article will evaluate the drivers
of Iranian nuclear behavior and offer policy recommendations
to increase the odds that Iran will pursue a latent, rather than
an overt, nuclear capability.
In the wake of yet another failed negotiation round in January 2011, the
Islamic Republic of Iran appears increasingly unlikely to cease nuclear tech-
nology development. For Iran, the perceived beneﬁts of an active nuclear
program—whether in terms of security, technological advancement, or
national prestige—outweigh anything the West can offer in compensation.
While damage inﬂicted by the “Stuxnet” computer virus has reportedly
slowed Iran’s progress, nuclear security analysts still believe that Iran may
be able to develop both the technological expertise as well as the sufﬁcient
quantity of ﬁssile material necessary to construct a nuclear device in as few
as three years (Dilanian 2011). Even more worrisome is that Iran is not
alone. As technological barriers are shattered, nuclear capability—once
reserved for the world’s most advanced nations—is coming within reach
of dozens of nations. However, despite the alarming inevitability of nuclear
capability proliferation, nuclear weapon proliferation is not inevitable.
Instead, we may see states adopt a strategy of nuclear “hedging;” whereby
they seek to acquire the technology necessary to construct a nuclear weapon
but refrain from becoming overt nuclear powers. The key question will
become how nuclear-capable states can be dissuaded from testing and
deploying the world’s most dangerous weapon.
Winston Churchill provided an early articulation of nuclear hedging in
1951 when he summarized Britain’s nuclear strategy: “I have never wished
since our decision during the war that England should start the manufacture
of atomic bombs. Research, however, must be energetically pursued. We
should have the art rather than the article” (Gowning 1976, 401; Levite
2002, 70). Some analysts have proposed that contemporary Iran may be
following a similar strategy of seeking only to acquire a “latent” nuclear
capacity (Cole 2009). This idea has also been gaining traction in policy
circles. In a January 2010 memo to President Barack Obama, Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates expressed concern that Iran might develop all of the
materials necessary to build a bomb but stop short of actually assembling
it (Sanger and Shanker 2010).
The Churchill model, however, is not cause for optimism; the United
Kingdom tested a nuclear device in 1952, the year after Churchill’s state-
ment. Indeed, some of the most obvious beneﬁts of nuclear weapons
possession do not seem to apply when a state has only a latent nuclear
capability. For instance, nuclear latency is not as effective a deterrent as
actual possession and deployment of a weapon as it poses no threat for
counterattack. Neither is nuclear latency likely to galvanize national pride
in the same way as a country’s ﬁrst nuclear test. Despite these limitations,
many states with the requisite materials and capabilities have opted not
to test or deploy a nuclear device. Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Germany,
Japan, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Sweden could all be considered
latent nuclear powers today. Why have these states been able to maintain
a strategy of nuclear hedging, while others have felt compelled to test and
This article will argue that nuclear policy can be explained through a
combination of two factors. First, states seek to maximize their relative
security vis-à-vis their rivals by balancing the value of deterrence with the
risk of proliferation. Secondly, domestic political sentiment and the bal-
ance of power amongst competing bureaucratic factions may either enable
restraint or push a state toward conducting a nuclear test. To illuminate these
factors, the paper will present deﬁnitions of nuclear latency and nuclear
hedging and apply theories of nuclear proliferation to these concepts. It
will then examine two case studies, using the framework described above to
explain why Japan has remained a latent nuclear state in the face of rising
regional tensions, while India and Pakistan felt compelled to become full-
ﬂedged nuclear states after a period of latency. The argument will then be
applied to the current challenge of Iran’s nuclear development in attempt
to provide a better understanding of the drivers of Iran’s nuclear policy.
The article concludes with policy recommendations to increase the chances
that Iran will pursue a latent rather than an overt nuclear capability.
II. DEFINING LATENCY AND HEDGING
The traditional demarcation of a nuclear power has been the successful
detonation of a nuclear device. However, the proliferation of advanced
nuclear technologies for ostensibly civilian use has made the once clear
“red line” murky. It is now possible for a nonnuclear state to develop a
“civilian” nuclear program that puts it within months, or even weeks, of
being able to construct a weapon, all while maintaining compliance with
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) regulations. Furthermore, a number of states have sought
to conceal their nuclear weapons capability. Israel is widely acknowledged
to have upwards of one hundred nuclear weapons, though it has never
overtly tested or publicly acknowledged its nuclear status. South Africa
assembled six nuclear weapons in the 1980s, though their existence was
not publicly conﬁrmed until 1993, three years after they were dismantled
(Nuclear Threat Initiative 2010b).
Such ambiguity requires the international community to pay closer
attention to states’ nuclear programs early in the development process.
Wohlstetter et al. have argued that the nuclear threshold must now be
pushed back. They claim that states with the capabilities to produce a
weapon should be considered nuclear states just as states that have actually
If, in fact, technological transfers can bring a ‘‘nonnuclear
weapon state’’ within weeks, days or even hours of the ability
to use a nuclear explosive, in the operational sense that ‘‘non-
nuclear weapon state’’ will have nuclear weapons. The point is
even more fundamental than the fact that effective safeguards
mean timely warning. A necessary condition for timely warn-
ing is that there be a substantial elapsed time. But if there is no
substantial elapsed time before a government may use nuclear
weapons, in effect it has them (Albert Wohlstetter, Jones, and
Roberta Wohlstetter 1979, 39).
Wohlstetter et al. thus provide an early conception of “latent” nuclear
capacity. In doing so, they highlight one of the key challenges presented
by nuclear latency: while NPT requirements and IAEA inspections are
supposed to prevent a state from diverting civilian materials toward mili-
tary use, nuclear latency might allow a state to renounce the NPT, throw
out inspectors, and assemble a nuclear weapon in an extremely short time
frame. Such a scenario would leave the international community few, if
any, opportunities to intervene.
“Hedging” describes a state’s strategy of seeking to develop a latent nuclear
capability without actually testing a device. Levite deﬁnes nuclear hedging
as “a national strategy of maintaining, or at least appearing to maintain, a
viable option for the relatively rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons, based
on an indigenous technical capacity to produce them within a relatively
short timeframe ranging from several weeks to a few years” (Levite 2002,
While latency refers to a state’s capability, hedging refers to a state’s
policy of seeking or maintaining nuclear latency. Rather than enter into the
debate over what level of nuclear capability constitutes nuclear “latency,”
this article will focus more speciﬁcally on the strategy of hedging. The
article also addresses the question of what external and internal political
pressures convince some states to pursue a policy of hedging while others
feel compelled to overtly test and declare their nuclear weapons.
III. THEORIES OF NUCLEAR PURSUIT AND NUCLEAR
The ﬁeld of international relations includes an expansive literature on
the causes of nuclear proliferation, why some states seek these weapons
and others do not, and why some states relinquish their nuclear weapons.
Policy decisions in this realm were traditionally considered binary: a state
could either go nuclear or not. Nuclear latency and the related strategy of
nuclear hedging open a spectrum of gray between these stark black and
white choices. The question becomes not just whether or not a state will
go nuclear, but up to what point will it develop its nuclear capabilities.
New analysis is needed to address this question; yet the traditional theo-
ries of nuclear proliferation can still be applied. The principal variables
that govern whether a state may or may not seek a weapon—the external
security environment and domestic political pressures—may also help
inform whether a state might pursue a strategy of nuclear hedging and to
what degree it might seek to develop its nuclear program.
The Security Environment
Realist scholars consider external security conditions to be the primary
driver of global nuclear proliferation. In this model, states seek nuclear
weapons when they face a signiﬁcant security threat that they cannot
confront solely through conventional military means. This threat may take
the form of a rival with superior conventional forces or one with a nuclear
capability. Nuclear weapons scholar Scott Sagan has noted that proliferation
often occurs in pairs or bunches: as one state acquires a nuclear weapon,
its rivals feel compelled to acquire it as well (Sagan 1996, 57). History
provides ample evidence for this theory. The knowledge that Germany was
seeking a nuclear device compelled the United States, United Kingdom,
and Soviet Union to scramble to develop a weapon ﬁrst. India sought to
acquire a weapon after neighboring China tested a device, and Pakistan
conducted its ﬁrst test just two weeks after India tested weapons in 1998.
This logic also helps explain why states may not want to acquire nuclear
weapons. While a state might seek to develop a weapon if its rival has one,
it may also choose to avoid provoking proliferation by its neighbors. If a
state has a conventional military advantage, it will likely see a situation
in which both it and its rival acquire a nuclear weapon—the great equal-
izer—as a decrease in its relative power. Thus, states will pursue a policy
that Professor T.V. Paul terms “prudential realism,” in which they seek
to balance their desire to maximize their own capabilities with a desire
to minimize the degree to which they are perceived as a threat to their
neighbors (Paul 2000, 5). Through the lens of prudential realism, nuclear
latency becomes an attractive policy option. It allows a state to develop the
capabilities to quickly build a weapon in the event of escalating regional
tensions, but in the meantime is far less provocative than actually testing
and deploying a weapon.
An alternative policy may be to seek security guarantees from a nuclear
power. A nuclear umbrella may have a deterring effect on a state’s adversar-
ies without pushing them to develop a weapon of their own. In tandem,
nuclear latency and inclusion in a nuclear umbrella may be a particularly
effective policy package. A latent nuclear capability alone may not be a
sufﬁcient deterrent, as a rival can always attack before the latent state is
able to assemble and deploy a weapon. Moreover, the nuclear umbrella
strategy carries the risk that the ally’s commitment to the security guaran-
tee may waiver in the future. But, when combined, the nuclear umbrella
deters potential adversaries while the latent nuclear capability provides an
insurance policy in case that security guarantee weakens.
Domestic Political Dynamics
While external security factors provide a clear and relatively simple explana-
tion for nuclear behavior, states’ nuclear decision-making may be strongly
inﬂuenced by internal factors as well. These domestic pressures may take
multiple forms. Sagan’s “domestic politics model” focuses on the effect of
bureaucratic interests on nuclear policy (Sagan 1996, 55). He posits that
nuclear programs are promoted by a coalition of industrial, scientiﬁc, and
military actors that seek to beneﬁt from a nuclear weapons development
program. When these interest groups are able to unite and win the battle
of bureaucratic politics, they can push a government to pursue a weapon
even when external security conditions have not changed. Sagan points
to India and South Africa as cases where internal bureaucratic politics can
better explain the timing of key nuclear decisions than security factors.
However, if domestic interest groups opposed to nuclear weapons are bet-
ter organized and more readily mobilized, bureaucratic interests can push
in the other direction. For a government caught between two competing
bureaucratic coalitions, Levite argues that the strategy of nuclear hedging
may carry the lowest political costs (Levite 2002, 74).
Popular beliefs and norms regarding nuclear weapons can also inﬂuence
a government’s nuclear strategy. As with bureaucratic coalitions, these
norms can push for or against weaponization. The domestic public may
see nuclear weapons as a symbol of prestige and a necessary step in order
for a nation to assume its rightful place among elite global powers. On
the other hand, nuclear weapons can be seen as a taboo and contrary to
a nation’s core values (Sagan 1996, 76). Some states exhibit both of these
normative trends; in these cases, nuclear latency could provide a compro-
mise solution. Developing nuclear capabilities can allow political leaders
to rally national pride over their country’s scientiﬁc and technological ac-
complishments. For example they may choose to publicly announce and
celebrate key milestones of nuclear development, such as the successful
uranium enrichment or the construction of a new research reactor. However,
by pursuing only a latent nuclear capability, these leaders are still able to
avoid the risks that would come from actually testing a nuclear weapon.
The way in which a government responds to bureaucratic and popular
pressures also depends on the nature of the regime in power. Changes in
government have often been pivotal moments in states’ nuclear trajecto-
ries. It is no coincidence that South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons
program during its transition to a post-apartheid regime. Argentina and
Brazil similarly abandoned their weapons programs as they moved toward
liberalization. India’s on-again, off-again posture towards further testing
and weaponization from 1974 to 1998 corresponded with governmental
changes (Sagan 1996, 66). Changes in government could increase the
likelihood that a state will eventually test a weapon, based on the govern-
ment’s perception of its security environment or the ideology of its political
IV. JAPAN: THE CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF LATENCY
Japanese nuclear policy is inevitably shaped by the country’s tragic dis-
tinction as the only nation to be the victim of a nuclear attack. Japan’s
constitution speciﬁcally renounces war and the use of offensive weapons.
And while historians continue to debate the degree to which this language
was drafted at the demands of the American occupiers at the end of World
War II (Shoichi 1998, 82-83), it has become a ﬁrmly embedded principle
of Japanese policy. Japan reiterated these principles and applied them
speciﬁcally to the issue of nuclear weapons in the 1955 Atomic Energy
Basic Law, which restricts the use of nuclear energy to purely peaceful
purposes. In 1968, the Japanese Diet, the country’s legislative body, ad-
opted the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles,” which stipulated that Japan
would not manufacture, possess, or permit the introduction of nuclear
weapons into its territory.
Despite its unique history and the resulting policies banning nuclear
weapons, Japan has developed an extensive nuclear energy program. Nuclear
power plants account for 30 percent of Japan’s energy production, and the
country has the third highest number of nuclear reactors in the world with
thirty-ﬁve (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2009). Furthermore, Japan has an active
program for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. As a result, it has the largest
stockpiles of separated plutonium of any non-nuclear state (International
Panel on Fissile Materials 2009, 23). The Japanese government maintains
that this material will eventually be used as fuel in new reactors. In the
meantime, however, the plutonium quantities are reportedly sufﬁcient to
produce up to 10,000 warheads (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2009). Analysts
speculate that Japan is mere months away from being able to assemble a
nuclear warhead if it so chooses (Levite 2002, 71). Moreover, in recent
years, Japanese leadership has shown a willingness to broach the topic of
reconsidering its nuclear policy. In 1999, Vice Defense Minister Shingo
Nishimura told a magazine that the Japanese parliament should “consider
that Japan might be better off if it armed itself with nuclear weapons,” and
in 2002 then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary (and later Prime Minister)
Shinzo Abe argued that Japan’s laws do “not necessarily ban the posses-
sion of nuclear weapons as long as they are kept at a minimum and are
tactical” (Campbell and Sunohara 2004, 229).
The Security Environment: Japan under the U.S. Nuclear
The protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella has provided Japan with a strong
deterrent while allowing it to maintain its nuclear abstinence. However,
recent changes in the Asia-Paciﬁc security environment may strain this
policy. North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, as well as its mis-
sile tests over Japanese airspace, have led to a widespread perception that
North Korea poses an escalating threat to Japan. China’s rapid economic
expansion and the corresponding surge in its military and defense spend-
ing represent another potential threat to Japan and the region at large.
Furthermore, China is aggressively pursuing a nuclear energy program that
could involve reprocessing on a large scale. This could result in China also
having large stockpiles of separated plutonium (Jane’s Information Group
2011). The end of the Cold War has compounded these potential threats
by calling into question the United States’ security commitment to Japan.
Without the threat of the Soviet Union, and with its forces extended in
Iraq and Afghanistan, would the United States still be able and willing to
come to Japan’s defense (Hughes 2007, 72)?
Japan has responded to these challenges by redoubling its efforts to
maintain its close security relationship with the United States. For example,
it has sought explicit clariﬁcation that the United States would respond with
force to North Korean aggression (Hughes 2007, 76). Such clariﬁcation
was intended not only to provide greater conﬁdence to Japan’s leaders and
population, but also to deter North Korea by emphasizing the potential
consequences of aggression. It has also increased its military participation
in alliance activities, including sending Japanese forces to Iraq in 2003
(Hughes 2007, 79).
The political costs of developing nuclear weapons are also likely to have
inﬂuenced Japan’s nuclear strategy. Going fully nuclear would anger the
United States and thus damage its most important security relationship.
Furthermore, it would likely escalate tensions with China and could spark
a regional build-up of nuclear arms. Under these constraints, nuclear la-
tency represents the optimal strategy for ensuring Japanese security. Since
the U.S. nuclear umbrella currently provides an effective deterrent, Japan
can maintain its long-held position against an internal nuclear weapons
program without unduly compromising its security. But in the event that
the U.S. security guarantee wanes, or is perceived by Japan’s rivals to wane,
Japan is not stuck at square one—it can quickly become a nuclear power
if changes in the security environment convince it that it must.
Domestic Political Dynamics: The Shadow of Hiroshima and
Changes in Japan’s regional security environment have sparked a revival
of the nuclear debate within its domestic politics. In 2007, Prime Minis-
ter Shinzo Abe declared that acquiring a nuclear weapon might be legal
under Japan’s constitution, as it could be considered a defensive weapon
(Hughes 2007, 84). However, such arguments are unpopular among the
Japanese polity. Both the Basic Law of 1955 and the Three Principles of
1968 clearly prohibit Japanese acquisition of a bomb. Moreover, Japanese
public opinion remains ﬁrmly against nuclear weapons. Even after the ﬁrst
North Korean nuclear test in 2006, polls indicated that only 17 percent of
the Japanese population supported the idea of nuclear acquisition (Hughes
2007, 89). With such popular opposition and an increasingly competitive
electoral climate, it would be politically reckless for a Japanese government
to go forward with testing a nuclear weapon. Japan’s nuclear latency can
thus be explained both by its security interests and by the strong domestic
pressures against a weapons program.
V. THE FAILURE TO MAINTAIN LATENCY
IN SOUTH ASIA
While the security environment and domestic politics have led Japan to
maintain a latent nuclear capability, these same two factors led to the op-
posite outcome in India and Pakistan. South Asia presents a case where
two rival states went beyond latency to fully test and deploy nuclear weap-
ons. India ﬁrst tested a nuclear device in 1974, largely in response to the
Sino-Indian War and China’s successful nuclear test in 1964. But India
did not conduct any further tests or deploy deliverable nuclear weapons
for another thirty-four years. Thus, while most would consider India to
have been a full nuclear power as a result of its 1974 test, it more closely
resembled a latent nuclear state. That is, it sought to demonstrate its
nuclear potential but without incurring the costs of escalation that could
have resulted from testing additional devices or mounting warheads on
missiles. From the perspectives of threat and deterrence, the quasi-latent
status of India’s nuclear program also meant that in the event of a crisis,
adversaries might question whether India truly had the capability to use
nuclear force. Analysts have questioned the efﬁcacy of India’s 1974 nuclear
test (Perkovich 2002, 180), and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cancelled
planned additional tests in 1982 (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2010c). It is
far from clear when and if India actually had the capability to use a nuclear
weapon in a military context during this time period.
In the mid-1970s after a series of wars with India, Pakistan began a
nuclear program focused on uranium enrichment. By 1990, it was believed
to have become a virtual nuclear power, possessing stockpiles of highly
enriched uranium (HEU) estimated at between 580 and 800 kg—enough
to make thirty to ﬁfty bombs (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2010d). Pakistan’s
Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan stated publicly in 1992 that Pakistan
had “all the elements which, if hooked together, would become a [nuclear]
device” (Ahmed 1999, 190).
Thus for a period of eight years beginning roughly in 1990, both Paki-
stan and India could be considered latent nuclear states. But on May 11
and May 13, 1998, India conducted its ﬁrst nuclear tests in twenty-four
years and subsequently declared itself a nuclear power. Pakistan responded
almost immediately with tests of its own on May 28 and May 30 of the
The Security Environment: A Security Dilemma in South Asia
While both India and Pakistan were pursuing nuclear hedging strategies
in the early and mid- 1990s, they also continually worked to improve
their weaponization and delivery systems. In 1994, knowing that Pakistan
had stockpiles of nuclear material, India developed the capacity to deliver
a nuclear weapon by aircraft and subsequently designed a warhead that
could be placed on its Prithvi-1 missile (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2010c).
Pakistan responded by similarly seeking to improve its delivery missiles,
acquiring key technologies from China and North Korea (Nuclear Threat
Unlike Japan, India lacked a security guarantee from a nuclear power
that might have strengthened its faith in deterrence in the face of Pakistan’s
increasing military capabilities. Indian leaders place its country’s nuclear
policies in the context of its history of non-alignment with great powers.
As such, it is forced to rely on its own military capabilities for its defense.
Jaswant Singh, a defense advisor to India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Va-
jpayee, explains the rationale behind India’s 1974 nuclear test in Foreign
Affairs by saying that “with no international security guarantees forthcom-
ing, nuclear abstinence by India alone seemed increasingly worrisome”
(Singh 1998, 42). According to Singh, it was the same logic pushed India
to renewed testing in 1998. While India raised concerns about the nuclear
assistance that China was providing to Pakistan, “the United States was
either unwilling or unable to restrain China” (Singh 1998, 46). India thus
concluded that it could not rely on foreign help and that the only way to
be sure of deterring Pakistan was to conduct another test to demonstrate
its capabilities and signal its willingness to respond in kind to a potential
Once India had tested its weapons, Pakistan, unsurprisingly, conducted
a test as well. The potential negative consequence that had prevented Paki-
stan from testing—that it would spark renewed nuclear proliferation in
India—was no longer applicable after the Indian demonstration. Through
the logic of Paul’s prudential realism, Pakistan no longer had anything
to lose. While Pakistan has historically maintained a close relationship
with China, it lacks the type of security guarantee that the United States
provides to Japan and NATO member states. A Pakistani ofﬁcial declared,
“We will never be able to remove the nuclear imbalance if we do not fol-
low suit with our own explosion” (Ahmed 1999, 194). This supports the
inference that nuclear latency is more difﬁcult to maintain in arms races
among rivals without security guarantees from nuclear powers.
Domestic Political Dynamics: Nuclear Weapons and National
Rather than act as a restraint, domestic political dynamics in both India
and Pakistan propelled the countries toward testing nuclear devices. Both
felt compelled to demonstrate their capabilities not only for the security
rationale of deterrence, but also as a symbol of national prestige. Jaswant
Singh wrote, “Nuclear weapons remain a key indicator of state power.
Since this currency is operational in large parts of the globe, India was left
with no choice but to update and validate the capability that had been
demonstrated twenty-four years ago in the nuclear test of 1974” (Singh
1998, 44). In fact, public opinion polls taken after the original 1974 test
demonstrated the political popularity of nuclear tests in India; 90 percent
of respondents said they were personally proud of India’s achievement
(Sagan 1996, 68).
Changes in India’s nuclear policies can also be linked to transitions in
political leadership. Following India’s ﬁrst test under Prime Minister Indira
Gandhi, the nuclear program was put on hold in 1977 when the Janata
Party came to power. But Gandhi revived the program when she returned
to power in 1980. This research laid the groundwork for her son, Rajiv
Gandhi, to authorize development of weapons-speciﬁc technologies in the
late 1980s (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2010c).
In the 1990s, the Bharativa Janata Party (BJP) (a successor to the previ-
ously mentioned Janata Party) became the national advocate for testing a
weapon and formally declaring India’s nuclear status. Prime Minister Va-
jpayee planned to conduct a test in 1996 but his party lost its seats before
executing a test. In the 1998 election, Vajpayee and the BJP successfully
ran on a platform that pledged to “reevaluate” India’s nuclear policy and
to “exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons” (Ahmed 1999, 193).
While the extent to which this issue played a role in the election is debat-
able, a nuclear test was clearly part of BJP’s domestic political strategy and,
once in power, it carried out the campaign promise.
Pakistan’s decision to test a nuclear weapon can also be traced to bu-
reaucratic politics, in which its military was the primary driver of a more
assertive nuclear policy. India’s test sparked a debate within Prime Minister
Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet, with Sharif himself initially taking a more restrained
approach (Ahmed 1999, 194). The military, however, argued forcefully for
Pakistan to respond with its own nuclear tests; while the cabinet may have
been divided, the internal balance of power in Pakistan strongly favored
the military. The military and civil bureaucracy, “with the acquiescence of
the political leadership,” thus decided to proceed with the tests (Ahmed
1999, 179). While the military’s central role in this decision suggests that
security concerns played an important role, national prestige was clearly
at play as well. Ahmed writes, “for Pakistani policymakers, particularly
the military, a nuclear stature less than India was unacceptable” (Ahmed
Public opinion also plays an important role in the decision to conduct
tests. Even before India’s test, a 1996 Gallup poll found that 80 percent of
Pakistanis would support a nuclear test if India were to conduct a test ﬁrst
(Koch 1996, 4). In short, the inability of India and Pakistan to maintain
a status quo of mutual nuclear latency was caused by both a security envi-
ronment that could not prevent escalation and internal political dynamics
that pushed the countries toward conducting nuclear tests.
VI. ASSESSING IRANIAN AMBITIONS
An analysis of the external security environment and domestic political
factors helps to explain why Japan has maintained nuclear latency despite
growing regional threats and why India and Pakistan felt compelled to
end their respective periods of latency and become full-ﬂedged nuclear
powers. Applying this framework to Iran may therefore be useful in evalu-
ating whether Iran is likely to test a weapon or content itself with a latent
nuclear capability. While drawing analogies between Iran and the countries
detailed above will not produce any deﬁnitive conclusions about its nuclear
ambitions, exploring Iran’s security environment and internal pressures
provides a framework that will more clearly elucidate the factors at play.
The Security Environment: Comparing the Fates of Iraq and
Iran faces possible security threats from its Arab neighbors, Israel, and the
United States, each of which could push Iran toward acquiring a nuclear
weapon. Locally, Iran seeks to extend its inﬂuence over the Arab Gulf
states. Iran scholar Ray Takeyh writes that, “From the Islamic Republic’s
perspective, the Gulf is its most important strategic arena, constituting its
most reliable access to the international petroleum market” (Takeyh 2004,
53). Moreover, Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq cost tens of thousands of
lives and remains ﬁrmly imprinted in the memories of Iran’s leaders today.
President Ahmedinejad himself served as a soldier in the Revolutionary
Guard Corps (IRGC). Further, with Saddam Hussein removed from power,
Iran possesses the most powerful conventional military in its immediate
region. Under the logic of prudential realism, deploying nuclear weapons
would actually damage Iran’s regional security by sparking proliferation
amongst its rivals and thus negating its conventional military advantage.
Israel, however, is widely understood to have a nuclear weapon (Cohen
2010; Nuclear Threat Initiative 2010a). Thus, an Iranian bomb could be a
deterrent against a potential Israeli attack. But despite a history of hostile
rhetoric and proxy battles via the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah, there
has been no direct conﬂict between Israel and Iran. Iran did not partici-
pate in any of the Arab wars against Israel, and Israel has not shown any
inclination to retaliate against Iran for Hezbollah’s violent actions. Indeed,
it is Iran’s nuclear program itself that has raised the possibility of an Israeli
attack. While Israel should rightly be concerned about the possibility of an
Iranian nuclear weapon, it is hard to accept an Israeli threat as rationale for
Iran acquiring the bomb. As former weapons inspector David Kay puts it,
“Iran does not worry that Israel can organize and build a regional coalition
that will limit the power of Iran or might even topple the regime. Only
one state has that power in the eyes of Tehran—the United States” (Kay
Indeed, the United States and Iran have a history of tensions—from the
coup in 1953 to the hostage crisis of 1979—that might cause the Iranian
regime to see the United States as an existential threat. Meanwhile, the
overthrow of Saddam Hussein demonstrated American willingness to use
force to pursue its interests in the region. As one Iranian ofﬁcial stated,
“The fact that Saddam was toppled in twenty-one days is something that
should concern all the countries in the region” (Reuters 2003). The ap-
peal of a nuclear deterrent may be even stronger for Iran as it compares
the respective fates of Iraq and North Korea. The United States targeted
Iraq for forcible regime change, believing Iraq to be developing nuclear
weapons but not yet capable of detonating a weapon. Conversely, the
United States has not pursued coercive action against North Korea, which
demonstrated its nuclear capability in 2006, and has repeatedly offered
North Korea economic incentives in exchange for more cooperative poli-
cies. Takeyh argues that the Iranian regime may interpret U.S. behavior
as suggesting that a developing or latent nuclear capability could put Iran
in jeopardy, while a proven ability to detonate a weapon would be Iran’s
only sure protection against an American attack (Takeyh 2004).
Domestic Political Dynamics: Islam and the Bomb
Iran’s domestic politics are characterized by factional disputes between
the clerics, revolutionary guard, so-called “pragmatic” conservatives, and
reformists. However, all groups seem to agree that Iran must develop a
high level of nuclear capability. For example, even Mir-Hossein Moussavi,
the primary challenger to President Mahmud Ahmedinejad in the 2009
elections, declared that “No one in Iran would accept suspension” of the
country’s uranium enrichment program (Financial Times 2009). In 2005,
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa stipulating that no Islamic
state may possess or use atomic weapons. In February 2010, Khamenei
reiterated that Islam is “opposed to nuclear weapons” (Yeranian 2010).
But he has simultaneously been a vocal proponent of developing Iranian
nuclear capacity, even for security purposes. The conservative newspaper
Jumhuriye-Islamii, largely considered a mouthpiece for the Supreme Leader
by scholars of Iranian politics, wrote “in the contemporary world, it is
obvious that having access to advanced weapons shall cause deterrence
and, therefore, security” (Takeyh 2004, 56).
Pragmatic conservatives and reformists, interested in opening Iran for
greater economic growth, may also be wary of the diplomatic and eco-
nomic isolation that a nuclear test would produce. Many have hoped that
if these leaders were to come to power, Iran might be more willing to cut
a deal with the West and, in essence, to exchange its nuclear program for
economic beneﬁts. However, Iran’s 2009 political campaign should cast
some doubt on such optimistic assumptions. Even the reformist candi-
date Mir Hossein Moussavi struck a deﬁant stance on the Iranian nuclear
program, stating that Iran would never halt its enrichment of uranium
Finally, the religious edicts of the Supreme Leader and the liberalizing
instincts of the pragmatists and reformists may be irrelevant if, as Iran
analyst Gary Sick suggests, the IRGC has essentially carried out a “soft
coup” and assumed exclusive control of Iran’s national security decision
making (Sick 2009). The IRGC is less likely to be inﬂuenced by religious
dogma or economic incentives and may view a successful nuclear test as
the only way for Iran to establish a credible deterrent against the United
States and assume its rightful place in the elite group of world nuclear
powers. Depending on which faction emerges victorious out of the past
year’s turmoil, Iran’s internal political dynamics could either restrain it
from moving beyond latency or propel it toward a nuclear test.
VII. POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
As Iran progresses toward developing a nuclear weapon capability, the
international community has a compelling interest in preventing it from
testing a nuclear device. Although most states would prefer Iran refrain
from developing even a latent capability, Iran’s interests and behavior in-
dicate that this is highly unlikely. Iran’s consistent deﬁance of UN Security
Council and IAEA resolutions, and its slow but steady uranium enrichment
(even with the most recent “Stuxnet” setbacks), both indicate that it is
only a matter of time before Iran acquires the technological capability to
build a nuclear weapon.
However, it is not inevitable that Iran will test a nuclear device upon
acquiring the capability to do so. Given this situation, the international
community should dedicate its energies toward encouraging Iranian nuclear
latency and preventing nuclear testing. This scenario greatly reduces the
risks that other states in the region would feel compelled to test weapons
or that dangerous non-state groups would try to acquire a nuclear weapon.
The theories and cases examined in this article suggest the following steps
for the international community to increase the likelihood of Iran pursuing
only a latent nuclear capability:
End Talk of Preventive Military Strikes on Iran: The crucial disad-
vantage of the hedging strategy for a potential nuclear power is the lack
of a credible nuclear deterrent. As long as Iran does not have a deployed
nuclear weapon that it can use to threaten counterattack, Iran will feel
vulnerable to military strikes by Israel and/or the United States. This threat
would likely be the primary impetus for Iran to develop an overt nuclear
capability. In fact, Iran’s current nuclear development efforts could be
seen as a race to develop a nuclear capability before Israel or the United
States decides to attack. Israel and the United States should seek to reverse
this logic by downplaying the possibility of a preventive strike as long as
Iran refrains from testing or deploying a weapon. If Iran were to conduct
a nuclear test, all bets are off, and such an action may invite a forceful
response. By clarifying this “red line,” the United States and Israel will
alter the incentives facing Iran in a way that will encourage Iran to pursue
a latent rather than overt nuclear capability.
Support from Russia and China: The U.S. nuclear umbrella has been
a key factor in dissuading Japan from advancing beyond nuclear latency.
It is unlikely and undesirable for any state to similarly accept a nuclear-
backed security guarantee from Russia and China. However, it may be in
the international community’s interest for China and Russia to continue
playing the role of Iran’s supporters. If Iranian leaders believe that such
great powers as China and Russia will help protect Iran’s security, they
may forego deploying their own nuclear deterrent. The message from
Russia and China to Iran must be crystal clear in order for such a strategy
to work. They must convey that while they are willing to support Iran’s
nuclear development and its conventional military forces, all assistance
would end if Iran were to test a nuclear device.
Nuclear Technology in the Arabian Peninsula: The international
community must increase the perceived costs to Iran of testing a nuclear
weapon. One way of doing this is to make a nuclear test a “red line” that
might invite a forceful response as described above. Another strategy is
to continue to provide limited materials and assistance to Iran’s rivals in
the Arabian Peninsula. Avoiding proliferation among one’s rivals is a key
reason that states pursue a policy of nuclear hedging. Iran may be more
likely to adopt such a policy if it fears proliferation amongst its Arab rivals.
Of course, one of Iran’s regional rivals, Israel, is already presumed to have
a nuclear capability. However, it has to date been unwilling to ofﬁcially
acknowledge its arsenal and, more importantly, unwilling to threaten its
use in regional conﬂicts. Iran should fear that conducting an overt nuclear
test might spark a change in Israel’s nuclear policy. An Israel that is will-
ing to threaten nuclear retaliation against Iran for attacks launched by
Hezbollah would put Iran in a very dangerous situation.
Avoid Intervention in Iranian Domestic Politics: Domestic politics
also play an integral role in states’ nuclear policies. The international com-
munity can do little in this regard; efforts by the international community
to intervene in Iranian domestic politics are likely to only exacerbate the
situation. Intervention may increase the chances that Iran will test a nuclear
weapon in an effort to incite nationalist sentiment in support of the ruling
government and to bolster Iranian prestige in the international commu-
nity. The United States may wish to continue pursuing public diplomacy
efforts to help mitigate its image as a threat to the country. However, it
should strive not to be seen as taking sides between political factions or
supporting efforts to overthrow the regime. In fact, even many dissident
groups themselves have argued that support from the United States is
counterproductive and undermines their mission (O’Rourke 2007).
As technologies will inevitably continue to spread, an increasing number
of states will possess at least the scientiﬁc capability to produce a nuclear
weapon. Thus, the main barrier to acquiring the bomb will no longer be
technology, but political choice.
It is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty whether and when
Iran might detonate a device and declare itself a nuclear state. However,
the cases of Japan and South Asia shed some light onto the factors that
inﬂuence states’ nuclear policy choices. The possibility of future U.S.
intervention provides the most compelling motive for Iran to develop
a demonstrable nuclear deterrent. The contrasting examples set by U.S.
policy toward North Korea and Iraq make it likely that Iran will continue
to pursue such a deterrent presence unless it can be convinced that weapons
tests will lead to more dire security consequences than abstinence.
The world is likely to face many more cases similar to Iran in the future.
Minimizing the number of states that test and deploy nuclear weapons
will require the international community to address both the security and
domestic political factors that inﬂuence whether latent states choose to
become nuclear states. Global powers must provide incentives on both
fronts, from expanding nuclear umbrellas to strengthening norms against
proliferation, if they hope to convince the expanding ranks of nuclear
capable states not to build the bomb.
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