On the Brink of an Atomic Tehran

Iran now has enough atomic fuel and bomb making know-how for nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them.  This matters because the soon to be nuclear-armed Tehran could ignite a Middle East arms race that might end catastrophically unless President-elect Obama finds a way to quickly disarm the atomic mullahs.

“Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable,” Obama said.  “And we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening.”  But does Mr. Obama understand that intensive and prolonged international diplomatic and economic sanctions have failed to curb Iran’s nuclear lust?  

The diplomatic efforts of the so-called G-3 nations — Britiain, France and Germany — went on for five years without producing any change in Iran’s nuclear pursuits.  

In fact, since the mullahs took over in 1979, there has been no diplomatic effort — on any subject — that has changed Tehran’s course of action.

Whether driven by its paranoia that the West seeks to occupy and control Iran or by Israel’s nuclear capability, Tehran is intent on acquiring atomic weapons.  And it has, for two decades, hidden its pursuit of that goal from UN inspectors.  Irrespective of Iran’s motivation, Tehran is on the cusp of achieving its atomic weapons goal.  President-elect Obama’s promise to “…step up our economic pressure and political isolation” must be replaced by a more pragmatic strategy.

First, we must discount the Washington myth that atomic weapons make nations more responsible geopolitical actors.  That may be true for Western nations but the Islamic Republic of Iran isn’t like Britain or France.  Iran’s radical ayatollahs are driven by bizarre theocratic ideas and have a long history of intimidating their neighbors and targeting the West. There is little doubt that once the mullahs have nukes, Tehran will launch an intimidating and hegemonic row that will send its neighbors scrambling for their own atomic arsenals.

Unfortunately, time is on Iran’s side.  Tehran is skilled at hiding its nuclear weapons program.  It learned the art of delay and strategic ambivalence from its North Korean mentors, who after years of playing nuclear hide-and-seek surprised the world by testing a plutonium weapon in 2006.  

Although Iran has had a nuclear program for almost 50 years, allegedly for peaceful purposes, in 2002 it was learned that Tehran had secretly built nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak where it works with materials related to weapons production.  The subterfuge and deception have continued to the present in spite of UN resolutions, economic sanctions and diplomacy.

Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed that Tehran now has enough nuclear material to make, with added purification, a single atom bomb.  That achievement is mostly symbolic because there is more work to be done before the regime has a useable weapon.

The timing of this revelation is shocking, however. Last year, the controversial US National Intelligence Estimate assured the world Tehran was many years away from producing a weapon.  It stated, “…centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon.”  The NIE is right on that account but our intelligence experts must be surprised by Tehran’s rapid progress.   Iran is expected to have nearly 6,000 centrifuges enriching uranium by the end of the year and another 3,000 in early 2009. The announced long-term goal is 50,000 centrifuges.   

The NIE estimate went on to predict “…with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009, but that is very unlikely.”  

“They clearly have enough material for a bomb,” said Richard Garwin, a top nuclear physicist who helped invent the hydrogen bomb. “They know how to do the enrichment. Whether they know how to design a bomb, well, that’s another matter.”

America’s intelligence community believes the Iranians do have bomb making “know how.”  The 2007 NIE assessed “…with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.”  

Years ago Pakistan, China and Russia sold Tehran atomic weapons technology.  In the late 1980s, Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s chief nuclear proliferator, sold Tehran uranium enrichment centrifuges, the blueprints for a Chinese nuclear bomb, and a package of nuclear technologies, including assistance for casting uranium metal and for working with polonium and beryllium, metals primarily used for making nuclear bomb components. The IAEA subsequently discovered Iranian scientists working with these metals.

China’s cooperation with Iran began in the mid-1980s when it made significant nuclear contributions in terms of scientific expertise, technologies and dual-use transfers and helped build Iranian uranium enrichment plants.  It also sold Iran several calutrons, magnetic isotope separation devices that can be used to derive enriched uranium for an atomic bomb.  Even though China says it no longer provides Iran nuclear assistance, the intelligence community likely has a long list of nuclear and dual-use technologies Beijing continues to pass to Tehran with a wink and a nod.

The New York Times reported that in 1992 a House Republican Research Committee stated that there was a “98 percent certainty” that Iran had bought at least two Soviet-designed nuclear warheads.  The IAEA never found the weapons. They may have been hidden at one of Tehran’s many secret weapons facilities.

Predictably, the Russians assured the world that they had accounted for all warheads. Israeli officials at the time, however, insisted the warheads arrived in Iran and were disassembled for study using a reverse engineering process the Chinese communists have long used for exploiting stolen American technology.

Iran’s rapidly increasing stockpile of enriched uranium, the confirmed presence of thousands of functioning enrichment centrifuges and nuclear bomb-making know-how convince some experts that Tehran is dangerously close to possessing an atomic weapon.

Shabtai Shavit, an adviser to the Israeli parliament’s defense and foreign affairs committee, believes the worst-case scenario is that Iran may have a nuclear weapon in 2009. Mr. Shavit was deputy director of Mossad, the Jewish nation’s intelligence service, when Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq in 1981.  He admits that “…working with the worst-case scenario” the only alternative “left is a military action.”

President-elect Obama campaigned on promises of talking to America’s enemies.  Now, he faces a real dilemma.  He must pursue talks to effectively derail Tehran’s mullahs from their nuclear weapon ambitions or he must choose among launching military operations to destroy Iran’s atomic program, supporting an Israeli attempt to do so, or accepting Tehran as an atomic power and the potential catastrophic events that could bring.