War Stories

The Nuclear Mullahs

Can Iran’s A-bomb ambitions be stopped?

Atomic Ayatollah?

How apt that, during the week when the U.N. General Assembly is conducting a formal review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran and North Korea are making their own nuclear ambitions so clear.

The North Koreans, true to form, are stepping out in particularly cheeky fashion. A bit more than two years after abrogating the NPT and reprocessing 8,000 nuclear fuel rods into bomb-grade plutonium, they seem on the verge of conducting their first underground atomic-weapons test, marking their tangible entry to the club of nuclear powers.

The Iranians are operating more subtly. They are still signatories to the NPT, but they’re exploiting its loopholes to the max so that—some day in the not-too-distant future—they could announce they’re dropping out, too, and have a bomb ready soon after.

Two bits of news, only scantly reported in the American press, bolster suspicions that this is the Iranian plan.

First, the new Ukrainian government revealed two months ago that, sometime between 1999 and 2001, the old regime secretly and illegally sold Iran 12 Soviet-built cruise missiles. The missiles, known as Kh-55s or AS-15s, have a range of just over 2,000 miles and were designed to carry a nuclear warhead.

Some have dismissed the significance of this revelation. The Iranians, after all, possess between 25 and 100 Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, which can carry a nuke and have a range of 850 miles, more than enough to hit Israel. But ballistic missiles are rather large; their location could be tracked; they could be destroyed in a pre-emptive strike or possibly intercepted by air-defense missiles. The AS-15s, on the other hand, are small; they can be launched from anywhere (say, a truck or a small boat); they can fly under radar and are much harder to shoot down.

Now, whether these cruise missiles work is another matter. The Soviets built them in 1987; they came with an expected shelf-life of eight years, and they were never well maintained.

Still, it is unlikely the Iranians would have bought the missiles unless they had intended to put nuclear warheads on them. The purchase, in short, is a sign of an intention to go nuclear.

The other bit of news is the Iranian government’s latest negotiating position at the EU-3 talks. These are the talks where France, Germany, and Britain—representing the European Union’s high command—are trying to place limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

At the general assembly this week, the Iranian delegates have insisted on their rights under the NPT to enrich uranium—and they are correct. This is a major loophole of the treaty: It allows, even encourages, signatories to develop technology for nuclear energy as long as they forgo nuclear weaponry. The problem is that the technology is the same for both. The Iranians insist they are enriching uranium strictly for peaceful purposes. But they could readily—and legally—go all the way up the line that separates atomic power from atomic weapons; abrogate the treaty; then step over the line and amass an arsenal.

Their latest proposal at the EU-3 talks—a document reprinted on the ArmsControlWonk Web site—suggests this is their strategy. They lay out a four-phase program. In Phase 1, international inspectors are allowed unlimited access to Iran’s nuclear sites (something they already are allowed under the NPT’s Additional Protocol, which Iran signed in December 2003); in exchange, the E.U. drafts “feasibility studies” for a new generation of Iranian nuclear power plants.

In Phase 2, the Additional Protocol is submitted to the Iranian Parliament for ratification. In exchange, the Iranians install 3,000 gas centrifuges in their Natanz reactor (which they say have peaceful purposes but could also produce four A-bombs a year); and the E.U. signs construction contracts for the new Iranian nuclear plants.

In Phase 3, Iran allows on-site inspections of Natanz (again, something the Additional Protocol already allows). In exchange, construction of centrifuges continues; Iran joins the G-8; the E.U. guarantees the fuel for Iran’s new reactors and proposes a WMD-free zone in the Middle East (i.e., Israel is pressed to get rid of its 200 or so nuclear weapons).

Finally, in Phase 4, the Iranian Parliament actually ratifies the Additional Protocol. In exchange, centrifuge work continues at Natanz; the new E.U.-supplied nuclear power plants begin construction; and the E.U. and Iran sign “contracts for Defense Items” (presumably, a new cache of advanced conventional weapons for Iran).

The proposal is a model of audacity: It gives the Iranians all the economic and military benefits they might ever desire as part of a deal to restrain their nuclear appetite—except that they don’t have to restrain their nuclear appetite.

Furthermore, the plan says nothing about Iran’s 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor at Bushehr, whose spent fuel could be reprocessed to build 50 to 75 bombs—or the heavy-water reactor at Arak, which, once completed, could produce one or two plutonium weapons a year.

The Bush administration is insisting—and rightly so—that any accord with Iran must, at minimum, prohibit the enrichment of uranium. Yes, enrichment is allowed by the NPT; yes, other nations do it for their commercial power plants (France, Japan, the U.S.). But too bad for the Iranians. The Iranians kept Natanz a secret; the rest of the world found out about it, in August 2002, only after an Iranian-resistance group revealed its existence. That alone puts the Iranians in violation of the NPT. When international inspectors went to look inside the plant, they found traces of highly enriched uranium on the centrifuges. The Iranians, plainly, cannot be trusted to abide by the spirit of the treaty.

The Iranians say they want enrichment strictly for energy—implausible, given all their oil, which they could extract much more cheaply. Why do they want nuclear weapons? The usual reasons: to deter an attack (from, to name a few, Israel, the United States, perhaps a resurgent Iraq); to provide a cover for their own expansionist aims (if Saddam Hussein had built a few nukes before he invaded Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. and its coalition might have been more reticent in pushing him back); or simply to gain prestige. The presently reigning mullahs aren’t unique in this regard. Our great ally the Shah of Iran wanted nuclear bombs (Nixon promised to sell him any weapon short of nukes to keep his ambitions at bay).

But the mullahs make the situation worse. Israel’s intelligence service has declared an Iranian A-bomb to be the greatest threat the nation has ever faced. Israel’s defense minister has said, “Under no circumstances would Israel be able to tolerate nuclear weapons in Iranian possession.” In the past few years, the Israeli air force has equipped its attack planes with external fuel tanks; its modified F-15 and F-16 aircraft now have the range to reach Iran. They have rehearsed bombing-raids on replicas of Iranian reactors, which have been erected in the Negev desert for that purpose.

Seymour Hersh has famously reported in The New Yorker that high-level Pentagon officials have drawn up plans to attack Iranian facilities. A year ago, the U.S. House of Representatives approved, 376-3, a resolution “to use all appropriate means to deter, dissuade, and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

In short, if Iran goes through with its plans, all hell could break loose. Last fall, the American Conservative published a nightmare scenario: Israel strikes the Iranian facilities; huge protests erupt; embassies are ransacked worldwide; Iran instructs Hezbollah forces in Lebanon to cross the Israeli border; fundamentalists demand that Saudi Arabia declare war on Israel; al-Qaida sympathizers in Pakistan overthrow Musharraf, place nuclear weapons onboard passenger planes, and order suicide-bombers to crash them into cities in Israel, the United States, or both.

Is it possible to slam on the brakes and stop this wreck from happening? Do any brakes exist?

Maybe. International inspections do have—or at least have had—some effect. Since the Iranians signed the NPT’s Additional Protocol, all their nuclear facilities have been monitored. As a direct result, Israeli intelligence has pushed back its estimate of when Iran might have nuclear weapons from 2005 to 2008. There is time to do something.

So, what to do? First, it’s worth noting that Iran’s negotiating position at EU-3 is just that—a negotiating position. The question is whether the Europeans, who have assured Bush they’ll remain firm, actually will. They simply can’t allow the Iranians to install 3,000 centrifuges. (A mere 750, churning for a year, can produce enough highly enriched uranium for one atomic bomb.) If Iran refuses to adjust, the Europeans have to do what they told Bush they would do—apply sanctions and take the issue to the U.N. Security Council. The Iranians assume that the Europeans value short-term trade revenue more than long-term security—and would be shocked, possibly to the point of changing their policy, to learn otherwise.

At the same time, if the Iranians agree to put off enrichment, the U.S. has to get involved in the talks—alongside the Europeans—in order to offer the range of economic benefits and security assurances that only the United States can.

But if the Iranians stay their course, if they don’t want benefits and assurances, if all they really want is nukes, there might be nothing anybody can do.