Op-Ed: Iran: The Point of No Return is Here
Mark Silverberg, Ariel Policy Research CenterThe writer is a foreign policy analyst for the Ariel Center for Policy...
Debkafile recently disclosed that it was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, not the Obama administration, who decided to call off the largest joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise Austere Challenge 12 ever planned between the two countries. That exercise had been scheduled for April 2012, and was to have tested the level of coordination between the two armies in missile defense in the event of a war with Iran or a regional conflict. Netanyahu’s concern is that the presence of a large U.S. military contingent in Israel would inhibit his country’s ability to conduct a preemptive strike on the Iranian nuclear reactors.
His decision to postpone the exercise was based on several recent developments not the least of which included Washington’s having taken no action against Iran for its capture of the RQ-170 stealth drone on December 4th; silence from Washington over Iran’s initiation of 20% uranium enrichment at the underground Fordo facility near Qom; Obama’s reluctance to send U.S. aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz for fear of provoking a confrontation that could lead to skyrocketing oil prices in an election year and an increase in Iranian-backed terrorist attacks against U.S. military forces pending their withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan; and Obama’s hesitation in approving immediate sanctions on Iran's central bank and energy sector.
Israeli military strategists have concluded that the U.S. is unwilling to undertake such a strike regardless of how many “red lines” are crossed. The Obama administration's Iran policy appears to revolve around diplomacy and international isolation based upon sanctions and containment (to prevent Iran from threatening its neighbors) uncoupled from the objective of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Rather than neutralizing the Iranian threat, he continues to believe that he can manage it.
Netanyahu is especially concerned that U.S. hesitation in striking at Iran’s nuclear reactors is based on the assumption that Iran has not yet made the decision to build a nuclear weapon. Even if that is the case, reports on recent Iranian advances in uranium enrichment suggest that the time lag between a decision to construct a nuclear weapon and its actual construction may be only a matter of months, if that.
From Netanyahu’s perspective, by kicking the can down the road and postponing the decision to strike, the U.S. is assuming that the Iranians will not move to build their bomb - something we won’t find out until after the first Iranian nuclear test - by which time, it will be too late.
The only question is when a deliverable nuclear weapon can be produced, and the reality is, Iran is in a position to produce it whenever it chooses…..and quickly. As Greg Sheridan points out correctly in The Australian: "In Jerusalem, Washington and Tehran, three different clocks are running, but they are all set to strike midnight this year.....This is the most explosive mixture the world has seen probably since the Cuban missile crisis."
The U.S may be prepared to run the risk of buying more time believing it can force the Iranians to stop their quest for a bomb due to the effects of increased international economic and financial sanctions, but Israel cannot run such a risk given the existential nature of the threat posed by a fanatical Iranian Islamist regime that embraces the Shia tradition of martyrdom, is a breath away from developing a deliverable nuclear weapon, and is ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction.
Jewish history has taught the country that when an enemy says it intends to “wipe you off the face of the earth,” it is a threat to be taken seriously.
Even if the Iranians have not actually constructed a nuclear weapon, there is little doubt based on recent findings that they have chosen a path that will lead to its construction in a very short period of time. In February 2010, intelligence reports began surfacing that Iranian nuclear engineers, under deep cover, were working full speed on the uranium enrichment centrifuge facility at Natanz (producing 20% enriched uranium – far in excess of what Iran’s civilian needs require) and at the Parchine nuclear and military laboratories in northeast Tehran where much of the work on nuclear bomb components and operational warheads is being conducted - most notably research on a neutron initiator using Uranium Deuteride (as disclosed in a May 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency Report) - the sole purpose of which is to trigger a nuclear reaction in a warhead.
On August 25th, 2011, the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung reported that North Korea had in fact supplied Iran with a highly precise computer to help simulate such a nuclear reaction.
The May report also gave fresh charges on the design of missile warheads. Documentary evidence, it said, suggested that Iran had conducted “studies involving the removal of the conventional high explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab-3 missile and replace it with a spherical nuclear payload.”
Anticipating a possible attack on its nuclear facilities, Iran announced its intention to shift its uranium enrichment production to a deep underground mountain bunker at Fordo near Qom and to continue enriching uranium to 20% purity – far beyond the amount needed for nuclear power and about 90% of the way to nuclear-grade fuel.
Concern was expressed in a November 2011 Report issued by the Wisconsin Project. That Report noted: “Based on the amount of low-enriched uranium Iran has stockpiled, and the amount it is believed to be producing each month, the Wisconsin Project estimates that by December 2008, Iran had accumulated enough U-235 to fuel one bomb - assuming Iran decided to further enrich the low-enriched material to weapon-grade. The Project further estimates that by the end of 2009, Iran had enough U-235 to fuel a second bomb; that Iran had enough of this material for a third bomb by August 2010; that Iran had enough of this material for a fourth bomb by April 2011; and that Iran had enough of this material for a fifth bomb by November 2011 - in each case assuming that Iran decides to raise the level of U-235 in its low-enriched uranium stockpile (3.5% U-235) to weapon-grade (90% or more U-235).”
At the same time, an exhaustive report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the same month concluded that Iran was testing explosives, conducting experiments on detonating a nuclear weapon, created computer models of nuclear explosions in 2008 and 2009, was conducting experiments on nuclear triggers, and was working on weaponization - the processes by which a device might be adapted and hardened to fit into the nose-section of a missile.
Specifically, it stated that Iran’s atomic experiments are “specific to nuclear weapons” and “includes the placing of radioactive material into a warhead and developing missiles.” “This information”, it said, “indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” In late November, a trove of diplomatic documents obtained by Wikileaks showed deep concern among Iran’s neighbors over its nuclear program and revealed that American officials believed Tehran had obtained advanced missiles from North Korea that could let it strike at Western European capitals and Moscow.
In January 2012, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization added fuel to the fire when he told Iran’s Kayhan daily that the Fordo Uranium enrichment site was about to become operational. In response, Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director-General of the IAEA wrote: “If Iran decides to produce weapons-grade uranium from 20%-enriched uranium, it has already technically undertaken 90% of the enrichment effort required. Growing the stockpile of 3.5% and 20%-enriched uranium, as Iran is now doing, provides the basic material needed to produce four to five nuclear weapons.”
In short, Iran's nuclear timeline no longer hinges on the calendar; it rests entirely upon a decision in Tehran to produce an atomic bomb - within months if desired - or weeks.
Nor is Iran’s production of an atomic bomb the only area of concern. In February 2008, Heinonen gave a highly classified briefing in which he revealed Iranian documents that detailed how to design a warhead, possibly nuclear, for their 1,300-kilometer-range Shahab-3 missile that could be detonated at an altitude of 600 meters.
Former CIA double agent Reza Kahlili who spent time as a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps added in his book A Time to Betray that the Iranians have conducted numerous advanced ballistic missile tests off ships in the Caspian Sea – tests consistent with an electromagnetic pulse-style attack.
For the U.S., these developments should represent the sum of all its fears – the possible detonation of an Iranian nuclear device high in the atmosphere off the East coast, the effect of which could send a massive electromagnetic pulse over much of the eastern seaboard shutting down virtually all U.S.-based electronic defense systems, destroying America's electrical grid, and shutting down everything from cars to computers to airplanes and refrigerators – not to mention the enormous loss of human life that would result from such a detonation were it to take place at the 600 meter level, the same level as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
With each passing day, it becomes more apparent that the sanctions designed to bring Iran’s economy to a stand-still and to force it to cease its nuclear enrichment efforts, combined with the covert campaign involving sabotaging parts of Iran's nuclear supply chain, the string of explosions at Iranian missile testing sites, the assassination of key Iranian nuclear scientists, and the use of Stuxnet cyber attacks in June 2010 to stymie the logic board that controls the spinning centrifuges at its enrichment facilities have failed to stop the mullahs’ quest for nuclear weapons.
Should Iran achieve its protective nuclear shield, it will be free to advance its Islamist revolution throughout the world with impunity from attack. The mullahs may be fanatics, but they are neither blind nor stupid. They understand the benefits of a nuclear shield and will not be dissuaded from their goal.
After all, a nuclear-armed North Korea shelled a South Korean island, sank a South Korean destroyer, engaged in state-sponsored terrorism and criminal activities, shares its nuclear technology with rogue nations like Iran, and has committed gross violations of human rights, yet it has not only enjoyed impunity from any sort of military action, but it has engaged in high-level diplomacy with the world's great powers to bargain for economic aid and fuel deliveries for its cash-strapped country.
For years, U.S. Administrations have assumed that economic sanctions and diplomacy would produce a pliable negotiating partner in Iran, but in the final analysis, Iran perceives U.S. and European efforts at compromise as symptomatic of Western fear and weakness. Enhanced incentives have not only failed to entice Iran to give up its nuclear program, but they have had the reverse effect of validating its uncompromising policy against making any concessions in the nuclear arena.
Iran’s messianic quest
The comparison we continue to hear from Western leaders (other than Israelis) equates Iran with Japan. The analogy used is that Japan has developed the technology to produce a nuclear weapon, but has stopped short of producing one.
The problem with the analogy is that the two countries are entirely different. Japan is a democratic country that is a close ally of the United States, whereas Iran is ruled by messianic mullahs who are intent on making war on the U.S. and our regional allies in order to spread their totalitarian revolution around the Middle East. Any country that threatens to wipe out other countries, peoples or cultures should not be underestimated nor should the West assume that Iranian ambitions can be “contained”. An aggressive Islamic theocracy armed with the bomb would cast a dangerous shadow over the region's political transition. Iranian hegemony in the Middle East under a nuclear umbrella will not only threaten the world’s oil supply, but facilitate Iranian Islamic influence throughout the world.
The twentieth century was the deadliest century in history primarily because the West failed to assess the danger posed by madmen. One insane leader can cause the death of millions of people, and Ahmadinejad’s intentions have always been clear. Difficult as it may be for Western leaders to comprehend, Ahmedinejad believes he is on a messianic mission to create the apocalyptic chaos necessary to lay the foundations for the Coming of the 12th Imam or Mahdi and the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate – a mission that is expressed through the incessant hum of thousands of Iranian centrifuges enriching uranium in his hidden and rapidly hardening nuclear facilities.
Jewish history has taught the country that when an enemy says it intends to “wipe you off the face of the earth,” it is a threat to be taken seriously.
Each day those centrifuges run brings Iran closer to achieving military nuclear capability and a nuclear shield under which it’s Islamic revolution will be exported to the world. Sixty million people died during World War II with weapons far more primitive than can be produced today. If lone suicide bombers are willing to sacrifice themselves for religious fanaticism, why then is it not beyond the realm of possibility that a leader like Ahmedinejad, protected by a nuclear shield would be willing to sacrifice millions for the same beliefs?
These Islamists have done it before. This is the same regime that encouraged the “martyrdom” of thousands of Iranian children by placing yellow plastic “keys to Paradise” around their necks and having them run through Iraqi minefields during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s; the same regime that counts 15% of its population as "volunteer martyrs"; and whose President proudly states that no art "is more beautiful . . . than the art of the martyr’s death."
An Iranian Islamist regime armed with nuclear weapons will trigger a regional nuclear arms race, destroy the non-proliferation treaty, and increase the danger of miscalculation that could bring on a nuclear exchange. A nuclear shield will allow it to escalate its destabilizing influence throughout the region and the world, threaten Israel and moderate Arab regimes, manipulate energy markets to its benefit and pose as “guardian” of Muslim communities even beyond the Middle East. It may even share its nuclear technology with its non-state proxies and some of the most unstable and belligerent regimes on earth. Given the mindset of those who rule the Islamic Republic, containment and deterrence are illusions.
The Wikileak cables from last year reveal that our conflict with Iran is about more than the nuclear issue. It is a sweeping theological confrontation permeated with imperialistic overtones. The mullahs have been at war with the West since seizing power in Iran in 1979 and have been involved in arguably every major terrorist atrocity against it. It is the West that has failed to appreciate the true nature of this war. We are confronted with a barbaric theological Islamist movement that will accept nothing less than the submission of Western civilization to Sharia law.
Time is running out, negotiations have proven fruitless, sanctions have yet to be proven effective as they will be circumnavigated by Russia, China and others, and Iran is stalling for time while enriching uranium to weapons-grade quality and closing in on a nuclear weapon, a delivery system, and a nuclear shield under which it intends to establish a global Islamic caliphate under its control. It is impervious to reason.
Unfortunately, the idea that the most powerful weapon on Earth is in the hands of the most irresponsible nation on the planet doesn’t seem to elicit any sense of urgency on the part of any nation in the world except Israel. There is no magical combination of sanctions that can induce the Iranians to halt their enrichment activities, nor has there ever been.
We have reached the point of no return. As Melanie Phillips writes: “…What really threatens to bring the West to its knees is its own cultural hubris. Refracting everything in the world through the prism of its unshakeable faith in universal reason, it is incapable of recognizing or understanding religious fanaticism - and insists instead upon treating the fanatic as a rational actor. Ironically, it is this belief in reason which has led the West to behave so irrationally in refusing to acknowledge the evidence of the mortal threat to itself posed by Iran - and that there is no alternative to force if it is to be stopped. And now, alas, we’re about to discover the consequences”.