Iran: Dealing all the way to the bomb

Iran could still field a nuclear weapon even if an agreement is reached.

Iran nuclear talks in Istanbul 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Tolga Adanali/Pool)
Iran nuclear talks in Istanbul 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Tolga Adanali/Pool)
If leaks from Washington are to believed, then it would seem that the first round of nuclear talks with Iran have gone so well that all that is left are the sides’ signatures on the dotted lines.
For instance, David Ignatius, a frequent recipient of the Obama administration’s information giveaways, wrote in the Washington Post on April 19,"The mechanics of an eventual settlement are clear enough after [the] first session in Istanbul: Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level, and would halt work at [the Fordow] underground facility… built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes.”
Ignatius went as far as to claim that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “played his expected role in this [deal making] choreography,” when he criticized the negotiators for agreeing to another round of talks on May 23 in Baghdad without getting concessions in return.
The leaks aim to depress gas prices in the US, thereby bolstering President Barack Obama’s chances at reelection. Prices at the pump have been climbing ever since news that Israel was ready to launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. These rosy reports suggest that such action, if it was ever planned, is now further off given Tehran's amenability to a nuclear deal.
The leaks also intend to address Israel. The message: There is no need to rush to a military solution; diplomacy is on the verge of putting the Iranian nuclear issue to rest. In short, Washington wants to shore up confidence at home and ease nuclear tensions abroad, both of which would provide a boost to the American economy’s burgeoning recovery, a crucial component to Obama’s victory in November.
Given the political motivations of the leaks, however, it is naturally tempting to dismiss the bright predictions as premature, if not misleading. A decade of nuclear negotiations has demonstrated the mullahs' expertise in prevarications, delays, and deception. Even when understandings were reached with Tehran, like in 2005 and 2009, they soon collapsed, apparently because of Iranian domestic politics.
Yet, more worrying, perhaps, is the possibility that reports of an imminent deal with Tehran are true. Given Iran’s track record, it could be argued that the more eager it is to reach a deal, the stronger the possibility the mullahs have satisfied themselves they can get the bomb irrespective.
First, it must be acknowledged that the existence of hidden nuclear facilities in Iran is still a very real possibility. A November 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency report includes details of the potential for “undisclosed…activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile,” and, “efforts to develop undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material."
Second, consideration must be given to North Korea’s role as a silent partner in Iran’s nuclear plans. The arms relationships between Iran and North Korea are almost 30-years-old and motivated primarily by the sides’ common ideological hatred of America, suspicions of American intentions and the fact that North Korea will sell virtually anything for hard currency.
Relations between the two countries seem to have grown more intimate in recent years, and the nuclear programs can now be viewed as mirror, if not twin, projects. Most intriguing is the disclosure by Pyongyang in November 2010 – following its two plutonium-based nuclear tests – of a vast new facility to enrich uranium a la Iran’s pathway to the bomb. The New York Times reported in November 2010 that American officials claimed the facility “did not exist in April 2009, when the last Americans and international inspectors were thrown out of the country. The speed with which it was built strongly suggests that the impoverished, isolated country [North Korea]…had foreign help.” And like Iran, North Korea insists the enriched uranium is intended for a yet-to-be-built experimental reactor to make electricity.
It appears that the Iran-North Korea nuclear web involved Syria as well. The Syrian nuclear reactor, which Israel destroyed in September 2007, was according to multiple accounts financed by Tehran and modeled after Pyongyang’s Yongbyon reactor – the source of North Korea’s weapons-grade plutonium and the basis for its current nuclear arsenal. (The Syrian al-Kybar reactor was the only reactor, except for Yongbyon, of its style built since 1973.) This suggests that in addition to a uranium-based weapon, Iran sought a plutonium route to nuclear weapons.
Yet the interrelated expansion of Iranian-North Korean nuclear facilities is only one aspect of the two countries' growing collaboration. When former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Japan in February 2008, Japanese press reported that an aide to the prime minister said he would tell his hosts that Israel possessed information that North Korea had shared data from its October 2006 nuclear test with Iran.
Similarly, following North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009, the Tokyo daily Sankei Shimbun reported that an intelligence source indicated that a seven person Iranian delegation had observed the nuclear test and had high level meetings in Pyongyang. The delegation reportedly was made up of officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization.
The two countries also cooperate in the development of potential nuclear delivery systems. Iran’s Shahab-2 missile was essentially a copy of an earlier North Korean Scud missile, the short-range Hwasong-6. When North Korea tested its medium-range Nodong missile in May 1993, Iranian experts reportedly attended the launch. And when Iran started testing its version, the Shahab-3, in 1998, North Korean officials were in the crowd. In July 2006, after North Korea fired a long-range Taepodong-2 as well as several Nodong and Hwasong missiles, Bush administration officials told US lawmakers that Iranian officials had witnessed the tests.
Today, Iran is believed to be further ahead than North Korea in missile technology, employing both liquid and solid fuel boosters. Iran has also succeeded in placing three satellites in orbit while all such North Korean attempts have so far ended in failure. Not surprisingly, a televised military parade in Pyongyang in October 2011 showed hardware indicating that Iranian missile improvements were now starting to show up on North Korean weapons.
Since Iran’s strategic delivery systems are not even on the table in current negotiations, any advance in nuclear warhead design and configuration achieved by North Korea could be highly relevant to Tehran’s ability to field nuclear missiles on short notice.
If Iran can tap into North Korea's spinning centrifuges, it could gain access to enough highly enriched uranium to make its core obligations under the putative nuclear deal meaningless. Whenever North Korea conducts its uranium-based nuclear test it would be as if the Iranians themselves pressed the button. This would be the case regardless of whether Iranian money, know-how or material were involved in the blast.
In military parlance, the Iranian scheme amounts to pre-positioning (of armaments by an allied country) in reverse--i.e.- outside the theater. It would also uphold Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's fatwa which found possession of nuclear weapons to be un-Islamic.
The bottom line is that irrespective of any agreement, Iran would still be able to retrieve its foreign-based unconventional ordnance and join it with an in-country delivery systems to deploy an operational nuclear force. Further, as long as its partnership with North Korea endures and Pyongyang skirts around any international agreement on its nuclear activities, Iran’s phantom nuclear option remains viable.
Otherwise, if as some have argued, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is defensive in nature – i.e. aimed to deter a future like that of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, whose downfalls were supposedly due to their lack of a nuclear option – why would the mullahs suddenly forsake their last resort guarantee?
The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press).