Tehran's Atomic Gamble

Iran’s full-speed-ahead atomic weapons program appears focused on creating a capability that minimizes the risk of retaliation by destroying America’s or Israel’s electrical infrastructure without killing its people.  This makes an American and/or Israeli pre-emptive strike necessary and exposes President Obama’s current strategy as dangerously naïve.

All Tehran needs is a single nuclear weapon exploded at high altitude to shut down any country.  That explosion will interact with the Earth’s atmosphere to produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which will have a cascading effect – knocking out electrical power, frying circuit boards, and disrupting telecommunications.  Most non-hardened military systems will be inoperable.

Even though the Obama administration understands the seriousness of Iran’s emerging EMP threat, it seems to be flailing about for an answer.  

Last week, the New York Times reported Obama sent a letter to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev offering to abandon our planned missile defense system in Europe if Moscow is willing to help combat the threat of a nuclear Iran.  The White House denies the letter offered a quid pro quo, but if it did, the approach rests on a questionable assumption that Russia shares our goals, which – given the Russian roles in building Iran’s nuclear plants and selling Iran missile systems to protect them – is a leap of faith, not grounded in reality.

Obama advisers also recommend incentives and talks with Iran and sanctions against it to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.  Last week, Obama advisor Zbigniew Brezinski, who was President Carter’s National Security Advisor, recommended a strategy of direct talks with Iran.  Dennis Ross, Obama’s Iran policy coordinator, favors sanctions such as cutting off refined petroleum products to pressure the regime.  But those sanctions require the wholehearted cooperation of European nations unlikely to help.

These efforts evidence the administration’s hope the Iranians are rational actors who will count the costs of pursuing atomic weapons and change course rather than radical theologians as they have been labeled by many in the West.  But time is running out while Obama’s team hopes in the Russians and looks for “rational” mullahs.  

“Iran is moving full steam ahead, not only with uranium enrichment but missile development as well,” said Emily Landau, a director at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.  “It’s going to reach its goal — whether nuclear weapons or remaining one step short of them — very soon,” Landau said.

Last month, the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) disclosed Iran had produced sufficient low-enriched uranium to provide enough raw material for at least a single bomb.  U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen agrees with that assessment and said “Iran having a nuclear weapon … is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world.”    

The UN emphasized that to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb the Iranians would have to reconfigure its Natanz enrichment plant which would be visible and take months.  But certainly the IAEA remembers Iran has mastered the art of concealment as demonstrated by keeping its atomic program secret for decades until it was exposed in 2002.  

Some experts believe Iran is already close to weaponization.  Prof. Raymond Tanter, president of the Washington-based Iran Policy Committee, said Tehran has smuggled enriched uranium for further refinement from Natanz to Lavizan-2, a secret military facility near Tehran.  That site, which is not open to UN inspection, is buried deep in tunnels and operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  

America’s intelligence community confirms the Iranians also have bomb making “know how” and critical materials.  The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessed “… with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons.”  

In the 1980s, Tehran bought a package of nuclear technologies and materials from Pakistan’s nuclear proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan.  Those materials include directions for casting uranium metal and for working with polonium and beryllium, metals primarily used for making nuclear bomb components.  The IAEA has discovered Iranian scientists working with these metals.

Simultaneously, Iran is developing a missile to deliver an EMP atomic weapon.  Last May, the IAEA reported Iran was working on a new missile warhead, known as Project 111, for its long-range Shabab-3 ballistic missile.  The IAEA claims Iran has redesigned the current “Shabab-3 missile re-entry vehicle to accommodate a nuclear warhead.”  The Shabab-3 has a range of 1,250 miles and can carry a one-ton payload.

William Graham, President Reagan’s top science adviser and the chairman of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the U.S. from EMP, testified in July 2008 that Tehran has also conducted successful tests to demonstrate that the Shabab-3 could be detonated by remote control at high altitude – that makes it an EMP capable system.  

Tehran isn’t limited to the Shabab-3 for an EMP platform, however.  Peter Pry, a senior staffer with the EMP commission, testified that Iran has successfully test-fired Scud missiles from a barge in the Caspian Sea which provides Tehran with the capability to target many countries with a short-range EMP capability by launching from a freighter.

Finally, Iranian media has addressed the EMP as a weapon.  A 2001 article in Siyasat-e Sefa-I (The Journal of Defense Policy) includes EMP as a part of “terrorist information warfare” and an article published in Iran’s security journal Nashriyeh-e Siasi Nezami in 1999 identified an EMP attack as a way to defeat the U.S.

So what should be done?  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argues Iran is “…not close to a weapon at this point.”  Likely, that puts the brakes on any pre-emptive American military strike.  But how certain is the secretary?  

Two years ago the NIE stated “We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.”  But Leon Panetta, the new Central Intelligence Agency director, believes Tehran has an active weapons program. “I think there is no question that they [Iran] are seeking that [nuclear weapon] capability,” Panetta testified.

Israeli leaders have been warning for years that Iran is dangerously close to crossing the nuclear weapon threshold and Tehran’s consistent incendinary rhetoric – “wipe Israel off the map” – has raised the level of alarm in Jerusalem and Washington.  

It appears the Israelis and prime minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu have already figured out that Iran has crossed the nuclear red line and attack plans are being rehearsed.

Jerusalem has the means to destroy a lot of Iranian real estate.  It has a fleet of sophisticated fighters and refueling aircraft which have practiced strikes on mock Iranian nuclear facilities using a variety of bunker buster munitions.  Three Israeli  Dolphin submarines are equipped with 930-mile capable Popeye sea launched cruise missiles and fighter mounted Popeye turbo cruise missiles provide plenty of stand-off capability.  As a last resort, Israel has more than 50 nuclear-capable Jericho-II ballistic missiles that can range all of Iran.

Any Israeli or American pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear sites will draw an ugly response.  Tehran will try to close the Straits of Hormuz through which 40 percent of the world’s crude oil must pass.  It will launch ballistic missiles at Israeli and American targets and it will unleash Hizballah and Hamas, its terrorist proxies, to attack Israeli and American targets in the region and across the globe.

Tehran’s response to being attacked is a predictable consequence of  denying the mad mullahs nuclear weapons.  The alternative to striking Iran is a Middle East intimidated by an atomic-armed Persian hegemon which will result in a regional arms race or worse.

The facts are frightening enough, but, based on a track record of intelligence failures, it is what we don’t know that is terrifying.  Israel and America have been threatened over and over and Iranian actions show that it is not idle rhetoric.  It is time to trust that they mean what they say and time to act rather than react after some tragedy. Dispatch the diplomats to deliver the deadline notice and back it up with military action.