By William Tucker
The powers that be in Washington, not to mention several other Western capitals, have repeatedly stated that a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable. In the last few months all parties involved have been rather silent – even the Israelis. A partial explanation is the attention paid to the so-called Arab Spring, and the resulting chaos now gripping the Middle East. Of course, the U.S. has entered a period of electoral campaigning which has also consumed a considerable amount of media bandwidth. For many, the issue of a nuclear armed Iran, and the associated implications, has been pushed to the background. This change in focus has done nothing to diminish Iran’s drive toward a nuclear weapon capability. If recent reporting from government, media and international sources are to be believed, then Iran may have everything it needs to move from development into production. In other words, Iran is close to a nuclear breakout, but it is likely a political decision rather than a technical problem that would explain why Tehran has not taken the next step.
Back in June of this year it was revealed by a former CIA spy in Iran that the Supreme Leader had ordered the acceleration of the nuclear program. This acceleration was likely focused on enrichment activities as Iran has already cold tested the components of a nuclear weapon. With help from China and Russia, the Iranians have also been diligently working towards mating a nuclear warhead to Iran’s existing missile arsenal. The only part that’s left is the final enrichment of U-235 from 20% to at least 90% for weapons grade uranium. Iran does have the capability to do this and it wouldn’t take long at all. This is why it appears as if the decision to further enrich the existing stockpiles of uranium has not yet happened.
Another aspect of the Iranian program that is not often considered is the view of the Iranian public. Over the last few months, several websites run by Tehran have begun running articles discussing what would happen should Iran test a nuclear device. Many of these articles have been rather philosophical, and appear geared toward a public that is just as anxious about the nuclear program as the Western powers. In the midst of these articles a nuts and bolts analysis from an Iranian military analyst, as discussed in a recent opinion piece by the indispensible Mr. Khalili, took things a step further by claiming that the U.S. had no choice but to accept a nuclear armed Iran. This conclusion was reached because two U.S. defense sources claimed that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would be counter productive. This Iranian analyst took that to mean the U.S. was militarily incapable of attacking Iran as a whole, not just the nuclear sites.
This is where the situation begins to clarify. The recent silence on Iran’s nuclear program and the unwillingness of Tehran to go for a full breakout make sense. It is easy to make the claim that a nuclear Iran would be unacceptable, but that is a single issue and doesn’t drive U.S. policy towards Iran as a whole. Washington has had plenty of opportunities to target Iran’s nuclear infrastructure for destruction but has not done so because this infrastructure can be rebuilt. In essence, you would be delaying the program and not destroying it. If one wanted to end the nuclear program with finality you would target those ordering the program along. This means you would have to target and destroy the regime. After following this issue for years it is the most reasonable conclusion that I can reach on why Washington has been holding back. The Pentagon’s plan, first revealed in 2007, was to destroy the Iranian military in its entirety in three days – a plan that any President would be hesitant to employ. The goal of this plan was to allow the Iranian people to replace their government by removing the very thing that keeps the mullahs in power.
This may be a reality that has given Iran pause. It is unlikely that Iran, even though it has the capability, would go for nuclear breakout without a decent nuclear arsenal. This means that Iran would have to forego testing until it had a better stockpile of nuclear fuel, established production and reliable means of delivery of a nuclear payload. Should Iran breakout prematurely it may bring about an attack that the country is ill prepared to fight. The view from the Iranian analyst was most likely meant for domestic and regional consumption. Tehran has been trying to portray the U.S. as unwilling to aid the Arab states in the battle against Persian influence in the wider Middle East and this type of article fits established Iranian propaganda. All that being said, Iran has achieved nearly all the necessary challenges of developing a nuclear program. Nuclear warheads do not need to be assembled and on alert for a nuclear power to be dangerous. Ultimately, the capability just needs to be within arms reach.