Iran: Can We Afford to Wait?

In considering the problem of Iran, rational observers quickly come upon what seems to be an insuperable dilemma.

Despite increasingly unconvincing denials, Iran seems determined to proceed with the construction of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them far and wide in the Middle East and western Europe. In a way, its decision is understandable. Almost all of the major powers have them. So do India and Pakistan, Iran‘s near neighbors in southern Asia. So does Israel, with whom Iran exists in a state of sworn enmity. On what basis can Iran‘s claim to equal status fairly be denied?

Only (if at all) on the basis of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which insists that nuclear weapons simply cannot be allowed to proliferate unchecked for the safety of the entire world. If further proliferation is not forbidden, nuclear weapons will soon be in the hands of medium-sized powers all over the globe, very definitely including the Middle East. Within a decade or so, it is entirely possible that a nuclear weapon might be detonated in Washington, with immense cost in human lives, without the United States knowing which rogue power was responsible and hence not even being able to retaliate.

The only conceivable way to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons would be for the United States to conduct a series of devastating air strikes on the key production centers. There are all sorts of objections to this idea, ranging from the alleged impossibility of wiping out, or at least substantially damaging, the production facilities, to the indisputably harmful effects of such a bombardment on America’s reputation in the Middle East and in the world at large — let alone the backlash Iran might be able to unleash among its fellow Shiite Muslims in Iraq, on whom our success there so heavily depends. (For a tidy summary of all the evil consequences, read James Fallows’ article in May’s Atlantic.)

We are, therefore, damned if we do, and also damned if we don’t. There seems no escape from truly awful consequences, whatever we do.

However, with luck, there may be a solution. I have no secret information on how far along the Iranians may be, in the long and highly technical process of building nuclear weapons. According to a lot of professional pessimists, whom seem to derive actual pleasure from making problems seem insoluble, it’s just a matter of months — after which it will supposedly be too late to stop the process. But in a highly persuasive article in the May issue of Commentary, Edward N. Luttwak, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues that Iran "is still years away from producing a bomb."

There is no space here to quote Luttwak’s numerous technical arguments. But suffice it to say that, according to him, a key chemical plant could "readily be incapacitated with fewer than 12 1,000-pound bombs." Moreover, in the critical matter of the core technology involving centrifuges ("(I)t would take at least 1,000 centrifuges working around the clock for at least a year to produce enough U-235 for a single cannon-type uranium bomb"), it is by no means sure "that the Iranian nuclear organization can manufacture centrifuge cascades of sufficient magnitude, efficiency and reliability." Luttwak concludes that Iran "cannot produce nuclear weapons in less than three years, and may not be able to do so even then." What’s more, it is possible, if necessary, "to target air strikes accurately enough to delay Iran‘s manufacture of nuclear weapons very considerably."

If that is so, we need not choose now between launching air strikes against Iran and allowing it to trigger a worldwide epidemic of nuclear-armed nations. Within three years, the situation in Iraq may look vastly better, and American forces can be redeployed for other possible uses. The whole atmosphere in the Middle East — and in Iran itself, where the mullahs’ grip is precarious — may be transformed. Time, for a welcome change, may be on our side.