Commentary Magazine


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Iran Building a Nuclear Submarine?

The semi-official Fars News Agency is claiming Iran is in the “initial stages” of building a nuclear submarine. While the Iranian government repeatedly exaggerates its prowess, the fact that the Iranians have come so far on their nuclear enrichment and missile programs suggests that no one should underestimate their engineers.

Perhaps it is time for some Western reflection. The Obama administration—and its European counterparts—are reportedly willing to put on the table advanced nuclear technology sharing, an idea that should have gone out the window when it failed with North Korea. Obama, however, does not own the idea of using nuclear technology as an enticement.

During the Bush administration, the State Department unveiled a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to share nuclear technology with, among other regimes, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The logic behind the program was to offer nuclear generating capability in a way that was supposedly proliferation proof. Little, however, is proliferation proof; some technologies just take a little more creativity to master diversion. And, once even a licit nuclear program is in place, it can serve as a means to import equipment and material which regimes can then divert to covert programs.

Of course, a basis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Additional Protocol is also technology sharing; indeed, Iran cites the Treaty to reaffirm its right to its nuclear project regardless of what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors and Security Council may say. While many in the proliferation community will uphold the NPT at any cost—even if it means providing hostile and cheating regimes with nuclear technology—it may be time for the United States to consider whether the lesser of all evils is clamping down on nuclear trade.

At the very least, Washington and Europe can still act unilaterally and simply stop offering nuclear goods as incentives. The last thing needed for international security is an Iranian submarine fleet that can actually operate for sustained periods far from Iran’s shores.