Rather than being hampered by James Bond exploits, Iran’s nuclear program has probably suffered much more from Keystone Kops-like blunders: mistaken technical choices and poor implementation by the Iranian nuclear establishment. There is ample reason to believe that such slipups have been the main cause of Iran’s extremely slow pace of nuclear progress all along. The country is rife with other botched projects, especially in the chaotic public sector. It is unlikely that the Iranian nuclear program is immune to these problems. This is not a knock against the quality of Iranian scientists and engineers, but rather against the organizational structures in which they are trapped. In such an environment, where top-down mismanagement and political agendas are abundant, even easy technical steps often lead to dead ends and pitfalls.

Iran is not the only state with a dysfunctional nuclear weapons program. As I argued in a 2012 Foreign Affairs article, since the 1970s, most states seeking entry into the nuclear weapons club have run their weapons programs poorly, leading to a marked slowdown in global proliferation. The cause of this mismanagement is the poor quality of the would-be proliferator’s state institutions. Libya and North Korea are two classic examples. Libya essentially made no progress, even after 30 years of trying. North Korea has gotten somewhere — but only after 50 years, and with many high-profile embarrassments along the way. Iran, whose nuclear weapons drive began in the mid-1980s, seems to be following a similar trajectory. Considering Iran in the broader context of the proliferation slowdown, it becomes clear that the technical problems it has encountered are more than unpredictable accidents — they are structurally determined.