Commentary Magazine


Zeno of Elea’s Triumph in Iran

In the age-old battle of the philosophical postures — “nothing can possibly happen” versus “everything is about to” — Zeno’s logical paradoxes seem to be winning out for control of the Western mindset on Iran. I’m reminded of Zeno’s paradox that “motion is impossible” every time I see another development that quite obviously means Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons. Zeno, you will remember from Logic 101, posited that motion is impossible because every distance to be moved can be split in half in an infinite regression, while the supposed mover can be in only one place at a given point in time.

Of course, for practical purposes, we accept the reality of motion and predicate much of our daily lives on it. Nevertheless, many Westerners are using Zeno’s approach to perpetually argue that no matter what we discover Iran has been up to, it doesn’t mean there are going to be nuclear weapons coming out of it any time soon.

The Zeno Refrain started almost immediately after Monday’s revelation by the Times of London of an Iranian document that showed that the country was pursuing a uranium deuteride (UD-3) initiator — something only a nuclear weapon can make use of — as late as 2007. Never mind that A.Q. Khan and the Chinese have worked with UD-3 initiators for nuclear warheads. Never mind that the National Council of Resistance of Iran reported back in 2005 that Iran was pursuing the UD-3 initiator. Never mind that some of the foremost think-tank experts on Iran’s nuclear program, at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), confirm that “although Iran might claim that this work is for civil purposes, it has no civil application.”

None of this, according to the same ISIS experts, means that this revelation is a “smoking gun.” Instead:

The document could describe work to develop and maintain a capability rather than being part of a program authorized to build nuclear weapons.  The document does not mention nuclear weapons and we have seen no evidence of an Iranian decision to build them.

A spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office did tell the Times that the document “raises serious questions about Iran’s intentions.” But since that’s been said about every previous revelation, the real question is how many more of these “questions” need to be raised before we drop the Zeno approach — which is summed up perfectly in this reader comment from the always useful Arms Control Wonk website:

Research into the physics of nuclear explosions (i.e. obtaining the know-how to achieve a nuclear weapons capability) is different from pursuing an active weapons program (i.e. diversion of material, of which there is no evidence).

The buried premise is that, for our policy purposes, merely “obtaining the know-how to achieve a nuclear weapons capability” is a different issue from “pursuing an active weapons program.” But just as Zeno could be made to look irrelevant by an arrow hitting its target or by Achilles overtaking the tortoise, so the hair splitters on Iran’s nuclear program are, with increasing frequency, made to look irrelevant by the repeated emergence of new information on Tehran’s intentions and activities. Their central error is looking for a smoking gun in the first place. A smoking gun is only available after the trigger has been pulled. What we look for beforehand is the time-honored intelligence pairing of intention and capability — and if we saw the set of Iran-related indicators piling up for any other nation, from Anguilla to Vanuatu, we would say it’s a nuclear-weapons program, and we’d say the hell with it.