Iran back on the radar

Is the time for effective sanctions and window for preemption closing fast on Iran?

Iran nucler center 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran nucler center 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ever since the so-called “Arab Spring” erupted throughout the Middle East one year ago, the headlines out of the region have focused on the political upheavals shaking the Arab world. The unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations also has taken up a lot of ink. Frankly, there was not enough attention being paid to the menace of a nuclear Iran, even though that danger has still been growing more ominous by the day.
Now suddenly, Iran is back on everyone’s radar screens due to the alarming report on its renegade nuclear program issued in early November by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. This key UN watchdog agency has concluded that Iran never stopped working toward developing a nuclear weapons capability, and that Tehran is now closer than ever to making atomic warheads for its Shihab III long-range ballistic missiles.
The new report directly challenges the findings of the National Intelligence Estimate released in 2007 by America’s intelligence services which concluded that Tehran suspended its covert efforts to develop nuclear weapons after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. More immediately, the report brings a fresh new urgency to pressing questions that have confronted the international community in recent years and can no longer be deferred.
For instance, is Iran so close to nuclear weapons capabilities that even stiffer sanctions will be unable to stop them? Is it better to launch preemptive strikes to set back Iran’s atomic ambitions? Or should the West and its regional allies seek to contain a nuclear Iran? Will Israel take matters into its own hands if its fears containment is not an option? And what responses does the Iranian regime have in store if its nuclear facilities are attacked?
Damning details  The IAEA report was a compilation of hard intelligence gathered over nearly a decade from more than 10 member states, which amounted to “credible evidence” that Iran has been undertaking activities whose only purpose could be designing a nuclear warhead for its Shihab III long-range ballistic missile.
Until now, atomic inspectors had only voiced “suspicions” about the “possible existence” of weapons work in Iran. But the latest report expressed “serious concerns” that Iran’s nuclear activities indicated a clear effort to reconfigure and miniaturize the nuclear weapon design once provided by rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.
The 25-page report plus an extensive annex of documents revealed that Iran had produced designs for a nuclear device, conducted research on how to engineer enriched uranium into an explosive core, and worked on technology to produce a nucleartipped long-range missile.
The evidence included the construction of a large metal chamber at the Parchin military complex outside Tehran for nuclearrelated hydrodynamic explosives testing. There was also extensive evidence that Iran had experimented on detonator development to set off a nuclear charge.
The report noted that sophisticated, fast-acting detonation devices which Iran has produced were more than likely to be used in a “Fat Boy” type implosion nuclear bomb, such as that used by the United States at Nagasaki in 1945.
The report also referenced a highly classified briefing presented in 2008 by Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s chief inspector until last year, in which he disclosed that Iran had tested a warhead on a Shihab-III missile that would detonate at an altitude of 600 meters – useless for conventional munitions but the optimum height for a Hiroshimatype explosion.
The UN’s nuclear watchdog added that Iran had successfully deployed advanced centrifuges in recent months and already has enough uranium on hand for at least four or five nuclear bombs.
In short, the IAEA report provides the details for what the agency has long suspected – that Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to target.
Release of the report was staunchly opposed by Russia and China, which both knew it would make it harder for them to continue shielding Iran from further punishment. But the contents also included details embarrassing to both countries.
For starters, the IAEA found that Tehran had employed Russian and other foreign nuclear scientists to help them design a warhead, specifically naming Vyacheslav Danilenko, a veteran Soviet weapons scientist whose expertise is to make objects blow up with nanosecond precision.
The IAEA also suspects Chinese firms have transferred to Iran a supply of aluminum powder used as a solid propellant for nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, as well as highquality carbon fibers that would help Iran build better centrifuges. The objections from Moscow and Beijing would likely have held sway with the IAEA’s former head, Dr. Mohamad ElBaredei, the Egyptian scientist who did not want Iran under so much pressure and scrutiny about its nuclear activities. But the report, which was called “damning” and “overwhelming” by experts for its abundance of precise details, was authored by the agency’s new director-general, Yukiya Amano, a Japanese diplomat whose nation knows all too well the destructive power of atomic weapons.
Strategic analysts say the report has now shifted the debate over Iran’s nuclear program from a dispute over the accuracy of intelligence to one of policy options. That is, there is no longer any question that Tehran is pursuing nuclear bombs and the means to deliver them; the issue now centers on whether the best approach for the West is even stiffer sanctions, preemptive strikes, or containment.
Israeli signals  Israel has been trying to energize and accelerate just such a policy debate over the past year, out of concern that Iran’s relentless atomic quest was playing second fiddle to the Arab Spring and the Palestinian bid for statehood. In fact, Israel’s Foreign Ministry cabled its ambassadors in late October instructing them to inform highranking politicians that the window of opportunity for imposing effective sanctions on Iran is closing due to the “significant progress that has taken place on all the components of the Iranian nuclear program.”
Then, as anticipation built over the pending release of the IAEA report, the leading Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot published a sensational front-page story by respected journalist Nahum Barnea which suggested that both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are determined to launch preemptive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities despite strong opposition within the military establishment.
Haaretz (another Hebrew daily) followed with its own alarmist story claiming that Netanyahu and Barak were urgently trying to convince other members of the inner security cabinet to approve a long-range operation soon after the IAEA report was to go public.
The sources and motives behind these leaked stories remain murky, but the debate within Israel over the Iranian threat quickly ratcheted up, and even the Israeli military censors gave the media unprecedented leeway to present the facts and available options.
Some analysts surmised that this was a deliberate decision by the Netanyahu government to use the IAEA report’s publication as a defining moment to signal Iran and the West that Jerusalem was seriously considering unilateral military action if nothing else is done to stop Tehran.
Foreign media joined the speculation, and the resulting sense of alarm in Washington and elsewhere was compounded by a series of Israeli actions that coincided with the IAEA disclosures.
First, Israel test-fired a long-range ballistic missile over the Mediterranean that foreign reports claimed was a version of the Jericho III missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads up to ranges of 2,485 miles. On the same day, the Israel Air Force announced that it had returned from a week of joint maneuvers with Italy over Sardinia which included longrange flights, midair refueling and complicated bombing runs. Lastly, the IDF’s Home Front Command held a large-scale civil defense exercise the same week which aimed to prepare the public for missile attacks in the center of the country.
On their own, these exercises did not seem overly exciting, especially since they were planned months in advance. But they did add to the sense that something imminent was being planned, a perception that Israeli officials sought to dismiss and encourage at the same time.
As the IAEA report went public, Barak told Israel Radio that the cabinet had “not yet” decided to take military action against Iran, while also playing down the cost of such a strike to Israel. “There’s no existential threat to Israel from the types of rockets and missiles held by Iran and Hezbollah,” insisted Barak.
He added that the nation’s leaders were privy to even more alarming information than that possessed by the UN agency, and warned that “we apparently have a last chance for globally coordinated, lethal sanctions that will force Iran to stop.”
Meanwhile, the government’s official response to the IAEA report was a terse, two-sentence communiqué which encapsulated Israel’s core approach to the Iranian problem over recent years – that Iran is a world problem and not just Israel’s headache.
Following the report’s release, Netanyahu told the next cabinet meeting that the full extent of Iran’s nuclear program was not reflected in the UN document.
“Iran is closer to getting an [atomic] bomb than is thought,” he stated.
“Only things that could be proven were written [in the UN report], but in reality there are many other things that we see.”
As a result, Israeli leaders have concluded that, at this late date, only crippling sanctions coupled with the “credible threat” of military action can persuade Iran to cease its nuclear activities.
Those added sanctions could include a boycott of Iran’s Central Bank, which facilitates key foreign purchases for Tehran’s nuclear program, as well as an embargo on Iran’s oil exports. But Western powers are reportedly concerned these measures would drive up petrol prices and deal a blow to an already shaky world economy.
Still, Israel believes a credible threat of preemptive strikes would finally persuade Russia and China to stop protecting Iran, as neither would want a major Mideast war to disrupt the flow of oil to their nations.
As a final argument, Israeli officials also are warning of the nightmare scenario of a nuclear arms race in an already volatile region, which would put so much of the world’s oil resources in jeopardy.
“The significance of an Iran with nuclear weapons capability is that it could create nuclear chaos in the Middle East and lead to the use of the nuclear umbrella to encourage terrorism and irredentism, and the transfer of a dirty bomb to Manhattan and Europe,” Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon told the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University last month. “One way or another, Iran has to be prevented from acquiring a military nuclear capability. The challenge is not only on our doorstep; it is before the whole free world, led by the US.”
‘Final confrontation’  For its part, Iran has reacted to the IAEA report with more denials, more disdain for the agency, and more bellicose boasts against Israel and the US.
Since the publication of the report, senior figures in the Iranian regime and the state-run media have begun to use threatening and defiant language toward Israel and the US, according to a survey of official statements out of Iran translated and analyzed by the monitoring group MEMRI.
“From Iran’s standpoint, an ongoing, head-on confrontation with the US and Israel would serve its purposes in the region and build its image as a key actor that stands firm against the West and provides an alternative agenda to reshape the Middle East. Hence, compromise has almost ceased to be an option for Iran,” MEMRI analysts concluded.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself told his nation it must prepare for the “final confrontation.”
Other officials in Tehran vowed to carry out a forceful military strike against the US and its allies if attacked, and even to destroy Israel with the help of its allies Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah also reportedly briefed his field commanders recently on the Iranian proxy militia’s operational plans for the next military conflict with Israel, insisting it would hit Tel Aviv with longer-range missiles at the outset of the war while also dispatching forces to conquer border towns in the northern Galilee.
If Israel does indeed decide to launch preemptive strikes, it has some new capabilities that raise the chances of success, such as a new jumbo series of long-range UAVs that can reach Iran armed with a ton of ordnance or electronic warfare devices to jam Tehran’s defenses and even shut down its power grid. Reports also indicate the Iranian military has been hit with a new computer “supervirus” more powerful than the Stuxnet virus which disabled numerous advanced centrifuges and other key components of Iran’s nuclear program.
It is still uncertain whether Israel will strike first, but the sense among most Israelis is that the more the military option is being talked about publicly by their leaders, the less likely an operation is on the immediate agenda. But if government officials suddenly go silent, then something may be up.
Leaving aside the guesswork, one thing is clear: Israeli leaders believe the window for effective sanctions and the window for preemption are both closing fast. •
Herb Keinon and Yaakov Katz contributed to this article.