A defect(ion) in Iran’s nuclear program

Interesting news from ABC (h/t Andrew Sullivan), that the CIA reportedly convinced an Iranian nuclear physicist named Shahram Amiri to defect to the United States about a year ago. Amiri was reportedly part of Iran’s nuclear research program and has now been relocated in the United States. Three quick thoughts: First, even if he was ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Rohollah Vahdati/AFP/Getty Images
Rohollah Vahdati/AFP/Getty Images
Rohollah Vahdati/AFP/Getty Images

Interesting news from ABC (h/t Andrew Sullivan), that the CIA reportedly convinced an Iranian nuclear physicist named Shahram Amiri to defect to the United States about a year ago. Amiri was reportedly part of Iran’s nuclear research program and has now been relocated in the United States.

Three quick thoughts: First, even if he was a very talented physicist, a single defection like this isn't going to stop Iran’s nuclear research program in its tracks, or even slow it down very much.

Second, assuming he was intimately involved in Iran's nuclear program, this ought to increase our confidence in its current state of development. There's been lots of disagreement about when Iran might actually be able to assemble a nuclear weapon -- if in fact they intend to do so -- and if this guy's information is any good, then some of that uncertainty ought to be reduced.  Is it time for a new National Intelligence Estimate?

Interesting news from ABC (h/t Andrew Sullivan), that the CIA reportedly convinced an Iranian nuclear physicist named Shahram Amiri to defect to the United States about a year ago. Amiri was reportedly part of Iran’s nuclear research program and has now been relocated in the United States.

Three quick thoughts: First, even if he was a very talented physicist, a single defection like this isn’t going to stop Iran’s nuclear research program in its tracks, or even slow it down very much.

Second, assuming he was intimately involved in Iran’s nuclear program, this ought to increase our confidence in its current state of development. There’s been lots of disagreement about when Iran might actually be able to assemble a nuclear weapon — if in fact they intend to do so — and if this guy’s information is any good, then some of that uncertainty ought to be reduced.  Is it time for a new National Intelligence Estimate?

Third, I wonder what Americans would think if other intelligence services engaged in energetic efforts to get leading scientists in our nuclear weapons labs to defect? Based on our reaction to prior cases of nuclear espionage (going back to the Rosenbergs), my guess is that we’d regard it as an act of considerable hostility. I’m not saying we were wrong to recruit this guy, but doesn’t it undercut that "open hand" that we’ve supposedly been extending to Iran? I’ll bet that’s how Tehran sees it.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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