Paul Pillar writes: There are popular fundamental misconceptions about Iran’s nuclear program: that the Iranian leadership has a fixed goal of acquiring a nuclear weapon, that if left alone Iran would build such a weapon and that this presumed ambition will be thwarted only if the rest of the world imposes enough costs and barriers. These misconceptions infuse much of the U.S. discourse on Iran, as reflected in frequent, erroneous references to Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.” These mistakes encourage a posture toward Iran that makes it more, not less, likely that Tehran will decide someday to build a bomb.
Public U.S. intelligence assessments are that Iran has not made any such decision and might never do so. Iranians have been interested in the option of a nuclear weapon, and some of their nuclear activities have helped to preserve that option. Whether they ever exercise the option depends primarily on the state of their relationship with the rest of the world, particularly the United States. As they sit down for their next round of talks with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the United States and its negotiating partners have an opportunity to forge a relationship with an Iran that remains a non-nuclear-weapons state — not so much because of technical barriers they might raise, but because the relationship would be one in which the Iranians would not want a nuclear weapon. [Continue reading…]