Response to Nuclear Iran Should be Free of Ambiguity
Anthony Cordesman, The Financial Times:
The debate over Iran has come to focus almost exclusively on negotiations and diplomacy, and the effort to persuade that country to give up aspects of its nuclear enrichment activity and reopen itself to United Nations inspections. Whether or not such agreement is reached, the real issue is not what Iran agrees to but how determined it is to pursue a nuclear weapons programme.
If Iran wants to pursue covert proliferation, it can almost certainly do so. It may lose time but it might also end up better off with a well-dispersed and concealed programme than the one it is pursuing. Such a programme not only would allow it to continue in spite of any agreement it signs, it would deny Israel and the US a credible military option. READ MORE
The work of the International Atomic Energy Agency shows that Iran has almost certainly acquired all the technology needed to make fission nuclear weapons. Its work on enrichment technology has reached the point where it knows how to make both weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. It has almost certainly developed the capability to make the polonium devices necessary to trigger criticality. It seems likely that it can produce high- explosive lenses and beryllium reflectors. There is a good chance it has acquired the same nuclear weapons design for a relatively compact implosion device that was sold to Libya. In short, no one can deny Iran the technology for nuclear weapons. It already has it.
Experts disagree as to whether Iran could conceal small reactors for plutonium production. Most, however, feel it could develop far more sophisticated centrifuges than the P1 designs it is now testing and is likely to put into mass production. The IAEA cannot determine how far Iran has gone with the P2 design, which is at least three to five times more efficient than the P1. If Iran spent three to five more years creating the industrial base to produce more advanced centrifuges, and learning how to deploy them in scattered small facilities, it is highly unlikely that even full IAEA inspection could detect and prove this.
Iran not only can probably cheat on any agreement if it wants to, it can disperse most or all its critical technology base well enough to survive any Israeli or US attack and then rebuild its programme with scattered facilities that would be extremely difficult to target and destroy. It can appear to agree and comply, get as much technology and enriched fuel as possible, develop the ability to suddenly cannibalise its “peaceful” nuclear power programme, and create another sudden “break-out” capability. It can follow plenty of previous “retreat and cheat” models: Israel, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan.
Iran has more options than nuclear weapons. It has admitted to having a chemical weapons programme and boasts of a long-range missile programme. It can bypass its nuclear programme and shift to genetically engineered biological weapons. It can play a role in Iraq and Afghanistan, seek to polarise the Shia part of Islam, and use proxy groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
None of this means the US should not pursue negotiations along with its European allies, try to persuade China and Russia to press Iran, and work with the UN to resume and strengthen inspections. Delaying an Iran nuclear effort could be vital. As Argentina, Brazil and South Africa show, regimes do change their character and goals. If Iran remains committed to nuclear proliferation, however, the only real answer is deterrence and containment.
Iran and US allies need to know that US policy will do more than negotiate or conduct some single strike or “military option” as a last resort. The US needs policies that make it clear Iran will face determined US containment and deterrence. It needs options such as missile defence and a strong US military presence in the Gulf. It may need the same kind of extended nuclear deterrence it once used to protect its Nato European allies from Soviet and Warsaw Pact nuclear threats.
It is to be hoped that the clear and unambiguous threat of such a US response could reinforce negotiations and incentives to the point where Iran will truly give up its search for nuclear weapons. Iran and the world need to know, however, that Tehran could never use a nuclear weapon without receiving a nuclear response in kind from the US. Iran needs to be certain that the only way to win this game is not to play it.
The writer is chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and is co-author with Khalid Al Rodhan of Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSIS, 2006)