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Iran and the nuclear bomb

COMMENTARY | March 17, 2009

You can’t just drop a bomb and make it look like there was an accident in the nuclear lab facilities below. Or can you? Nah, we thought about that once, over China, and gave up on the idea.

By George C. Wilson

This column first appeared in National Journal’s Congress DailyAM.

President Obama, the country’s chief basketball enthu­siast, has opted for a full-court diplomatic press on Iran to freeze its nuclear weapons development rather than use any of the Pentagon’s Strangelovian, bottom-drawer schemes, such as bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Secretary of State Clinton and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen agree the administration is bet­ter off taking Winston Churchill’s advice: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” And Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair says the administration has a bit of breathing room because Iran has not resumed its pur­suit of The Bomb.

If diplomacy fails and Iran develops a deliverable nuke, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin believes Russia might be scared into joining the United States in deploying a defense to stop Iranian nuclear-tipped mis­siles. The wild card is Israel, which has bombed Iraq and Syria to slow their development of The Big One.

Reasoned Levin at his panel’s hearing on Iran last week: “A nuclear-armed Iran with ballistic missiles would be a common threat to which Russia cannot be indifferent. U.S.–Russia cooperation on missile defense would send a powerful signal to Iran, perhaps helping dissuade Iran from continuing to violate United Nations resolutions.”

As for those Strangelovian Pentagon plans, I was cov­ering the military during the coldest days of the Cold War when one Air Force scheme, Operation Switchblade, was to send a high-altitude plane over China’s Lop Nor nuclear facilities, drop a nuclear bomb and then tell the world there had been an accident at the complex.

U.S. government documents recently declassified testify to the fact Obama is just the latest president to anguish over what to do about Iran’s nuclear reach. In 1974, when the Shah ruled Iran, a then-classified document warned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that if the Shah was toppled, “domestic dissidents or foreign terrorists might easily be able to seize any special nuclear material stored in Iran for use in bombs.”

Just last Wednesday night, Mullen told the Young Pro­fessionals in Foreign Policy organization that “I believe Iran is on a path to develop nuclear weapons.” The day before he spoke, apprehensive Armed Services senators wrung what they could out of Blair on just how close Iran is to getting nukes.

Levin: “It’s my understanding that uranium for civil nuclear power production has to be enriched from 2 to 4 percent, but that highly enriched uranium, which is necessary for a nuclear bomb or warhead, needs to be enriched to about 90 percent. Does the intelligence community believe that as of this time Iran has any highly enriched uranium?”

Blair: “We assess now that Iran does not have any highly enriched uranium.”

Levin: “Now, does the intelligence community assess that Iran currently has made the decision to produce highly enriched uranium for a warhead or a bomb?”

Blair: “We assess that Iran has not yet made that decision.”

Levin: “And in 2007, that national intelligence estimate on Iran said that, quote: ‘The intelligence community judges with high confidence that in the fall of 2003 Teh­ran halted its nuclear weapons program.’ Is the position of the intelligence community the same as it was back in October of 2007? Has that changed?”

Blair: “The current position of the community is the same, that Iran stopped its nuclear design and weaponiza­tion activities in 2003 and has not started them again, at least as of mid-2007.”

Levin: “And in 2007, that national intelligence estimate said the following: ‘We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date that Iran would be techni­cally capable of producing enough highly enriched ura­nium for a weapon is late 2009. But that is very unlikely.’ Now, if your position is the same as it was in 2007, does the 2009 now become 2011?”

Blair: “Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010-15.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: “A nuclear-armed Iran in terms of destabilizing the Mideast and making the world a more dangerous place, if that event occurred, how would you rate it: 1 being not so much and 10 being very destabilizing?”

Blair: “It’d be up on the 8-to-10 scale.”

Graham: “And potentially terrorist organizations might benefit more from that technology? Would that be a con­cern?”

Blair: “The more nuclear weapons technology around, the greater the chances of it getting into the wrong hands.”

Looking through Obama’s end of the telescope at Iran’s worrisome nuclear technology strides, the options other than diplomacy appear unattractive.

Invading Iran — like his predecessor invaded Iraq to rid the world of nukes that apparently did not exist — risks getting our military into another quagmire and spending billions of dollars in the process.

Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities risks poisoning the Earth for decades.

Allowing Iran to pursue The Bomb would likely push Israel into an attack, further inflaming the region.

Talking, bribing or otherwise pres­suring Iran out of pursuing nukes thus becomes the best of the unattract­ive options. And just think, he really wanted this job.

You're missing the big picture
Posted by hass
03/18/2009, 10:34 AM

I think you're missing the big picture. This dispute isn't about nukes, it is about some countries trying to control and monopolize the nuclear fuel cycle. This has been an on-going conflict between developed and developing countries for a long time now. The same countries that are trying to control the technology for nuclear fuel production under the guise of "non-proliferation" would become suppliers of nuclear fuel to other countries. THink that's just a coincidence? Think again.

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