Why nuclear weapons programs often fail on their own — and why Iran’s might, too

It is widely assumed that the only things standing in the way of Iran developing nuclear weapons are either external pressures (sanctions, sabotage, assassinations, the threat of military strikes, and the constraints imposed by the NPT), or that Iran has yet to decide to apply its nuclear know-how to the creation of weapons.

Jacques E.C. Hymans suggests a third obstacle which is an authoritarian political culture that undermines the pursuit of such a goal.

Nuclear research and development organizations depend heavily on intense commitment, creative thinking, and a shared spirit of cooperation among large numbers of highly educated scientific and technical workers. To elicit this positive behavior, management needs to respect their professional autonomy and facilitate their efforts, and not simply order them around. Respect for professional autonomy was instrumental to the brilliant successes of the earliest nuclear weapons projects. Even in Stalin’s Soviet Union, as the historian David Holloway has written, “it is striking how the apparatus of the police state fused with the physics community to build the bomb. . . . [The physics community’s] autonomy was not destroyed by the creation of the nuclear project. It continued to exist within the administrative system that was set up to manage the project.”

By contrast, most rulers of recent would-be nuclear states have tended to rely on a coercive, authoritarian management approach to advance their quest for the bomb, using appeals to scientists’ greed and fear as the primary motivators. That coercive approach is a major mistake, because it produces a sense of alienation in the workers by removing their sense of professionalism. As a result, nuclear programs lose their way. Moreover, underneath these bad management choices lie bad management cultures. In developing states with inadequate civil service protections, every decision tends to become politicized, and state bureaucrats quickly learn to keep their heads down. Not even the highly technical matters faced by nuclear scientific and technical workers are safe from meddling politicians. The result is precisely the reverse of what the politicians intend: not heightened efficiency but rather a mixture of bureaucratic sloth, corruption, and endless blame shifting.

Although it is difficult to measure the quality of state institutions precisely, the historical record strongly indicates that the more a state has conformed to the professional management culture generally found in developed states, the less time it has needed to get its first bomb and the lower its chances of failure. Conversely, the more a state has conformed to the authoritarian management culture typically found in developing states, the more time it has needed to get its first bomb and the higher its chances of failure.

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