Dealing with Iran’s nuclear program is one of the most important foreign policy issues of the day. Years of stalled talks, diplomatic dead-ends, and sanctions have made it difficult to see exactly where progress has been made with Iran and what efforts are worth pursuing. In “The Iranian quagmire: How to move forward” (November/December 2010 Bulletin), leading foreign policy experts weigh in from around the world on how to proceed with Iran -- from clear diplomacy to fuel swaps to the darkest scenario of military strikes. Whatever their proposed solutions, the writers express one common theme: We ignore Iran at our own peril. From the US, Thomas R. Pickering, Lawrence J. Korb, and Bennett Ramberg; from Turkey, Mustafa Kibaroglu; from Iran, Kayhan Barzegar; and from Israel, Emily B. Landau.
Below, more experts explore the options, their strengths and weaknesses, and propose various structures and points to consider as the West and Iran are set to re-enter talks in November.
The writers in this symposium appear to share the view that the Iranians, if they so choose, have the capability to develop their nuclear program to the point of constructing a nuclear device. This may not be the case.
UN and other sanctions are intended to force the Iranian government to change policies and to disrupt and delay development of the country's nuclear program. In this latter respect, sanctions have had some success. They have delayed the critical point when clear evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapon capability might have forced other countries to respond -- for example, by taking military action or developing their own deterrent. Either of these situations would result in enormous regional instability. These drastic measures can be further delayed -- creating more time for finding diplomatic solutions -- if existing sanctions can be better implemented. And the private sector has an important role to play in achieving this.
The core of the Iranian program is the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz (it is possible that the Iranians are hiding other enrichment sites). Technology used in the plant is old, operations have not gone smoothly, and it is clear that output is less than planned. According to some estimates, the plant has produced enough low-enriched uranium for two nuclear devices; however, to build a nuclear weapon that is capable of threatening neighboring states, the Iranians need to process this uranium to much higher levels, build a working device, and incorporate this into a missile.
Judging from reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as those by the Iranian government, it appears that the great majority of machinery and equipment currently in use at Natanz has been imported. It is almost certain that, alone, the Iranians could not build the machinery that is needed to upgrade Natanz, nor build a viable weapon; the country would need further material and equipment from abroad -- this is costly and difficult because of the secrecy required to evade sanctions. Iranian commercial agents and middlemen risk exposure and retribution from international authorities. The question is: How can the international community further restrain Iranian procurement efforts?
Commercial interests. Successful counter-proliferation requires close cooperation within the international community. The first task is to identify the individuals, entities, materials, or equipment, which are banned under UN resolutions or other international agreements. This is not an easy task because the Iranians have developed measures to evade sanctions, including changing names of trading companies, using front companies, mislabelling equipment, procuring sub-optimal but non-sanctioned substitute equipment, and trading through third countries. So the international community must identify both the procurement of dual-use equipment, as well as the apparent end-user -- neither of which might appear on control lists, despite their ultimate connection to nuclear or missile programs.
Some reported or suspected instances of illegal procurement for the Iranian nuclear and missile program include:
Iranian procurement exploits the private sector, i.e. exporters, freight-forwarders, shipping companies and port authorities, and the insurance industry. The private sector knows this and, in many cases, is supportive when governments around the world request help to intercept procurement; but the sector's reaction to counter-proliferation has been only on a case-by-case basis.
The private sector has no excuse for breaching sanctions. Doing so runs risks of penalties, particularly from US authorities; it further invites adverse publicity and damage to a company's reputation. This is bad for business. The lists of what to avoid under international agreements (such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group) and UN resolutions, EU, US, and other national legislation are readily available. The US Treasury Department maintains a comprehensive "black list" of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons.
But the private sector can use more resources than official lists. For example, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a non-profit advocacy group, publishes information on covert procurement methods and publicizes interdictions or legal proceedings. Furthermore, governments publish declassified information of suspect Iranian companies, entities, individuals, equipment and materials, and end-users.
In a few countries, government departments (in the case of the UK, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) conduct successful counter-proliferation outreach programs with exporters and others to encourage cooperation and information exchange; briefings are provided to companies and, in turn, companies offer feedback on deals or activities of suspect dealers. But government resources are limited, and information on proliferation is hard to come by. Companies can make an active contribution to the exchange. Many possess good databases of customers and market knowledge, and some possess expertise and capabilities in monitoring and detection (perhaps in a counter-terrorism or counter-narcotics context). Commercially-sensitive information clearly needs to be protected, but where proliferation is suspected, pro-active sharing of information or capabilities with governments, and even with commercial competitors, could significantly enhance national counter-proliferation efforts.
Under current global economic conditions the private sector is wary of assuming additional bureaucratic burdens or commercial risks. Although large German companies such as Siemens, Daimler, and ThyssenKrupp reportedly started cutting ties with Iran last year, German-Iran trade links go back many years; there are plenty of smaller German companies that could fill commercial gaps, not to mention Asian or Far Eastern companies that might be interested. The shipping sector, although it already cooperates with law-enforcement authorities against illegal drugs shipments, risks losing business if cooperation on counter-proliferation results in slower freight movements. Similarly, ports risk a loss of business to regional rivals (Singapore and Malaysia's Port Klang are examples) if freight-handling slows as a result of compliance with government requests to detain suspect shipments for inspection.
Solutions. One approach to strengthening sanctions against Iran -- but adaptable to proliferation threats in any country -- would be to develop a set of commercial counter-proliferation, best-practice standards; if these were adopted globally, they would ensure equal advantage to businesses in any country.
Possible counter-proliferation standards:
Background checks. Implement internal systems to ensure that background checks are carried out on customers and business partners, and goods and equipment are reviewed. This will be accomplished by consulting:
New systems. Develop and implement corporate monitoring and detection systems:
Published lists. Terminate business dealings in materials or equipment connected with the Iranian nuclear program, or with individuals or entities involved in Iranian procurement that appear on published lists. Business relationships should be terminated when evidence of proliferation is provided by:
Publicized proliferation and counter-actions. For reputational purposes and promotion of global standards, transparency, and good-faith, publicize information about proliferation and counter-actions:
The private sector should:
Conclusion. Governments can do more to encourage the private sector to adopt counter-proliferation standards. The European Union, for example, uses an "Authorised Economic Operator" status to give cooperating companies access to customs simplifications in return for supplying information on transactions (i.e. parties and countries involved), and the items to be imported or exported. Similar mechanisms could be modified to incorporate a requirement for the private sector to implement counter-proliferation standards.
Such standards will have a real impact once they are adopted on a global basis. They will not stop Iranian procurement immediately nor the advancement of its nuclear program entirely. But they will increase the costs of illicit procurement and create more obstacles. Furthermore, as more companies see benefits and comply, those that continue to assist Iranian procurement will be easier targets for international authorities. In this way the international community can further slow Iranian nuclear progress and gain more time for diplomacy to achieve a peaceful resolution between Iran and the international community. The private sector has a key role to play.
After a year-long stalemate, nuclear negotiations with Iran are expected to restart. Since October 2009, the deal to refuel Tehran's medical isotope reactor proposed by the Vienna Group -- France, Russia, the United States, and the IAEA -- has been the touchstone of engagement. These technical discussions between the group and the Islamic Republic were intended to open up separate talks with the P5+1 (the permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany) on Iran's nuclear program. Though Tehran has favored cooperation on fuel supply for both its research reactor and the Russian-built Bushehr power reactor, it has refused to discuss its other nuclear activities, especially its controversial uranium enrichment program. In September, however, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran is "in principle" ready to re-enter discussions with the P5+1, and President Barack Obama reaffirmed that "the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it." Washington now plans to pursue the technical and political dialogues simultaneously.
Ultimately, a successful fuel deal is a necessary condition for further engagement, and the Vienna Group will try once again to work with Iran to reach consensus on the terms for exchanging Tehran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) for ready-made fuel elements for its research reactor. But circumstances have changed since the offer was first proposed in 2009. In February 2010, Iran began production of 20 percent uranium -- a first step in the domestic manufacturing of fuel for the research reactor, and a move that could cut by more than half Tehran's time to a bomb. The Security Council, pressed by Washington, passed a new round of sanctions against Iran's nuclear program, despite Tehran's last-minute concession to ship a ton of its uranium to Turkey in exchange for fuel -- the once-rejected condition that had originally created the impasse in discussions. In addition, Iran's LEU production has continued since the swap was proposed, so its stockpile is now twice what it was then.
Both Washington and Tehran say the fuel-swap deal is still on the table but differences remain. Iran insists that its May 2010 joint declaration with Turkey and Brazil, which closely mimics the Vienna Group's October 2009 proposal, establishes new grounds for discussions. However, the US wants to review the terms of the original offer.
A successful agreement hinges on realistic expectations from both sides. Some of the goals set in October 2009 -- like undermining Iran's rationale for domestic enrichment -- are still valid now, but others -- like leaving Tehran with less than a weapon's worth of material -- are today beyond the reach of this deal under the best of circumstances.
New circumstances shouldn't mean moving goalposts. There are common misconceptions about the fuel deal, and it is important to understand what it can, cannot, and ought to achieve.
Common myths. The international community does not object to selling Iran fuel for its nuclear research reactor, which Iran purchased from the US more than 40 years ago under Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. While certain aspects of Iran's nuclear drive may pose various security concerns, providing the mullahs with reactor fuel is not one of them. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has the right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy and purchase fuel. Because uranium can be purchased easily and reliably, the West argues that Iran does not need to develop indigenous, potentially dual-use, fuel-cycle capabilities.
Selling fuel to Tehran is not a security concern -- the costs of using the fuel elements in a breakout scenario surely outweigh any potential benefits. In theory, the fuel elements could be disassembled, and uranium oxide could be extracted, reconverted to uranium hexafluoride gas, and further enriched to highly-enriched uranium, which could be used for bombs. This is a multi-step process that would certainly be detected by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and encourage international scrutiny.
The deal in October 2009 was not the only legitimate way for Iran to buy fuel, although it was presented as a final offer by the US and its allies. This arrangement -- that is, shipping a ton of LEU to Turkey for storage; sending it from Turkey to Russia, where it is further enriched to 20 percent; transporting the 20 percent enriched uranium to France and converting it into uranium oxide and manufacturing this into fuel rods; then returning the fuel rods to Iran via Turkey -- was hardly business as usual. Agreeing to the swap was a concession for Tehran, which met a great deal of domestic opposition by political hard-liners.
Iran was not sanctioned by the UN because it rejected the Vienna Group's proposal; the fuel deal was in no way a requirement. Tehran was punished because it has refused to actively engage with the international community on the nuclear issue -- it has ignored numerous Security Council resolutions to stop uranium enrichment, and it has not addressed the IAEA on "broadly consistent and [technically] credible" allegations of nuclear weapons research.
Although it lacks the experience, Iran does have the technological know-how and the core infrastructure to produce its own fuel; IAEA data suggests this production is possible before it exhausts its current supplies. Tehran prefers an outside supplier because domestic production is expensive and risky. But until fuel-supply negotiations are successful, Iran plans to continue with 20 percent enrichment. Tehran's actions show that the country is now likely beyond posturing. A new law passed in June 2010 requires the government to manufacture its own fuel; further, the country told the IAEA that it will install research reactor fuel production lines in November 2010.
Impossible goals. There are certain issues, which, though important, the fuel deal
would not have addressed, even if an agreement was reached last October. The narrow technical arrangement was never meant as a solution to the entire nuclear issue. The current proposal neither compels Iran to stop enrichment nor explains alleged nuclear weapons activity. It does not directly aim to stop an Iranian nuclear bomb or even permanently prolong the time needed to manufacture one.
The main purpose of the Vienna Group's original proposal was not to reduce the Iranian threat, but to sell Iran fuel and build confidence between the West and Iran: in Iran, by showing that credible fuel guarantees exist; and in the West, by demonstrating -- through a significant (but not game-changing) reduction of Iran's uranium stockpile -- that Tehran is seriously interested in engagement. However, the core objective of the deal was to sell Iran fuel -- by pure coincidence, the ton of LEU that, if further enriched, could fuel Tehran's medical isotope reactor for 20 years could also produce enough material for one crude nuclear bomb. A fuel exchange would reduce by one the number of bombs that Iran could make at any given time in the future. In addition, if the material immediately left Iran and was shipped to Turkey, Tehran would temporarily have less than a weapon's worth of LEU,which would effectively prolong its time to a bomb. The latter was always a short-lived benefit, since the Vienna Group did not obligate, or expect, Iran to stop enrichment.
Inappropriate goals. The threat-reduction benefits of the deal stem from the fuel needs of Tehran's research reactor. These technical requirements still determine what is or is not acceptable when other circumstances have changed.
One of the State Department's concerns is Iran's growing stockpile of LEU, an approximately 1,400 kg increase since October 2009, according to IAEA data. This changes the original threat-reduction calculus -- an exchange today would not add time to the nuclear clock -- so Washington may be tempted to require Iran to export more LEU. However, such a demand would be unrealistic under this fuel arrangement and will surely be seen by Tehran as moving goalposts.
Quantitative stockpile goals were never a formal objective of the agreement, and there is no technical justification for increasing the swap amount -- the exchange of 1,200 kg of LEU corresponds to 120 kg of research reactor fuel, the same amount sold to Iran by Argentina in 1992. In addition, an increase in the amount of LEU shipped, means an increase in the fuel sold to Iran. Tehran is already buying fuel supplies to last until 2030 and beyond and will unlikely agree to purchase additional fuel.
Iran's larger stockpile is not as significant as it might seem. The benefit of leaving Iran with less than a bomb's worth of LEU was always a fleeting advantage and, inevitably, that benefit is now gone. For example, regardless of whether Iran shipped out its uranium in October 2009 or August 2010, it would have ended up with 1,590 kg of LEU that August, based on calculations from IAEA reports. The net effect on the Iranian stockpile would have been the same because Tehran would have continued enriching uranium irrespective of whether a fuel agreement was signed.
Insisting on a deal that would leave Iran below this "breakout" threshold makes sense only under two very unlikely scenarios for the US and Iran: If in the short time that it would take Iran to rebuild its stockpile, it would be persuaded to stop enrichment -- or if, during that period, it would rush to a bomb, in which case buying more time would provide the US with a significant strategic advantage.
Realistic goals. The main goals of the deal were not strategic, but political -- to alleviate mistrust and set grounds for negotiations. Although the stalemate has undermined the confidence-building aspect, some benefits can still be salvaged.
Delays have created a new baseline: Iran's growing stockpile of 20 percent uranium and, with it, the additional important goal of stopping this higher level enrichment. If Iran buys fuel from abroad, it will not have an immediate reason to continue these activities. Prospects for negotiating a suspension of higher level enrichment are good; in August, Ahmadinejad said that he "promise[d] to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent if fuel supply is ensured," echoing earlier statements by Iranian officials.
The new fuel deal could require Iran to ship about 1,000 kg of LEU and its entire stockpile of 20 percent uranium -- or currently about 30 kg (equivalent to 200 kg of LEU). This would still reduce the number of nuclear bombs Tehran could potentially make and, relative to Tehran's current capabilities, would also prolong its time to a bomb, thereby maintaining the important threat-reduction and confidence-building aspects of the deal.
The deal is still worth pursuing. Not selling fuel to Iran only strengthens its case for uranium enrichment. On the other hand, going through with the exchange reaffirms Washington's position that credible fuel guarantees exist, and undermines Iran's rationale for its own enrichment. Inaction would give Tehran carte blanche to further increase its breakout potential. Once Iran manufactures its own fuel -- and installation of fabrication equipment begins in November -- buying fuel from abroad will no longer be an attractive option and its 20 percent enrichment program would be more difficult to reverse.
Unfortunately, so much distrust has been created that a deal, even if ultimately successful, is hardly evidence of reliable fuel guarantees -- a key confidence-building element for Iran that the October 2009 deal aimed to achieve. The complicated circumstances around the current swap proposal may not provide proof of credible fuel guarantees in the same way a straightforward fuel supply contract would have a year ago, but it is a start. The Russian-powered Bushehr reactor, expected to go online by the end of this year, also supports that objective. With sanctions or military strikes unlikely in the short term, Washington must make engagement work. Right now, a successful fuel deal is the door to a long-term diplomatic solution.
Editor's note: All LEU quantities mentioned are in uranium hexafluoride (UF6) mass.
There has been much rhetoric suggesting that the United States, Israel, or both could become embroiled in a military conflict with Iran. While Jeffrey Goldberg has suggested in The Atlantic that Iran may be able to breathe easy for up to a year, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton gave the country only days. Whether driven by fear or excitement, it is easy to get caught up in the march to war. But it is crucial to take a step back and evaluate before sounding the drums.
It won't work. Barry Rubin, Director of Global Research for the International Affairs Center, writes that in the case of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, "There's simply too much that could go wrong."
Like Iraq after the first Gulf War, an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities now will simply set the stage for a full-scale war later. Even if all of Iran's nuclear facilities can be located and destroyed, ruling hardliners would begin rebuilding these facilities immediately. This time, though, it would be without the constraints of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguards Agreement. In no more than a few years, Iran's program would be back on track and more likely to succeed without the prying eyes of weapons inspectors.
Joshua Pollack, a US government consultant, and blogger for Arms Control Wonk and columnist for the Bulletin, aptly notes that "The name of the game today isn't bombing, it's intelligence." Even if the US were to develop the perfect plan of attack on one or many of Iran's current nuclear facilities, recent developments in Iran have proven that the regime would be unlikely to use a well-known facility, such as the one at Natanz, to make highly enriched uranium for a bomb. In a more likely scenario, Iran would develop one or more facilities like the one near the city of Qom, exposed in September 2009. In the end, if Iran plans to enrich uranium to weapons grade at a secret facility similar to Qom, bombing "the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, the formerly secret enrichment site at Qom, the nuclear-research center at Esfahan, and possibly even the Bushehr reactor, along with the other main sites of the Iranian nuclear program," which Goldberg writes are the most likely targets, would achieve little to nothing.
"To play for time, we try to catch Iran at building [a hidden facility]," says Pollack, naming such facility "Son of Qom." "But when that happens, if we are clever, we won't bomb Son of Qom … Instead, we'll shut that sucker down with a press conference." As it turns out, US intelligence began picking up signs that someone was tunneling into the side of a mountain in the desert three years before the facility was revealed to the world. When Iran realized its endeavor was exposed, it rushed to declare the facility's existence to the IAEA, hoping to pre-empt other reports. Instead, the joint announcement by President Barack Obama, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the opening of the 2009 Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Pittsburgh shattered any image of Iran's openness and cooperation and led to the opening of Iran's Qom facility to IAEA inspections, making it much less likely that the facility will be used to build a bomb. For Iran, it was on to Plan C.
An Israeli attack. Israel has attacked and destroyed an enemy's nuclear reactor twice. In 1981, Israeli warplanes successfully bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak. Likewise, in 2007 Israel destroyed a North Korean-built reactor in Syria. Iran is different. Cognizant of those previous attacks, Iranian leaders have hardened and dispersed their nuclear installations, and several important facilities are located in Tehran or near other population centers. The Qom facility, for example, is built inside a mountain for maximum protection from a possible aerial attack.
Two separate analyses conducted in 2009 and 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that the US is "the only country that can launch a successful military solution" in Iran. Authors Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman argue that an Israeli attack "would be complex and high risk at the operational level and would lack any assurances of a high mission success rate."
A war game conducted in December 2009 by the Brookings Institution posited a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. In the scenario, Iran launched ballistic missiles at Israel's air bases and its Dimona nuclear facility. While Hezbollah and Hamas began new rocket campaigns, drawing Israel back into Lebanon, Iran began a campaign of international terrorism in Europe designed to undermine Western support for Israel. In the game, America hoped to remain on the sidelines. However, when Iran began to mine the Strait of Hormuz, a key choke point for global oil trade, it crossed a US "red line." The game ended with a massive US buildup in the region and the prospect of a major conventional war between the United States and Iran.
Iran has threatened to close the Strait. While this threat concerns American military planners, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in July 2008 that the Iranians "have capabilities that could certainly hazard the Straits of Hormuz, but … I believe the ability to sustain that is not there." Regardless, the price of oil would spike immediately in the event of a closure.
In April 2010, Admiral Mullen told an audience at Columbia University that, "Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome … In an area that's so unstable right now, we just don't need more of that."
Alternatively, a preemptive nuclear attack is highly unlikely. The consequences of a nuclear attack on Iran would be devastating for the entire region, a fact Israel is not unaware of. To assume that domestic politics would support a preemptive attack is ingenuous.
Iran's response to an attack. In the wake of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran will almost certainly assume the implicit involvement of the US. According to retired Army Col. Sam Gardiner, Iran could face three options:
1) Iran could decide not to respond immediately and to accept a period of 'victim status,' gaining support within the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.
2) Iran could respond with low-DNA attacks (not attributable to itself) against Israeli and U.S. interests.
3) Iran could respond with full and open military attacks.
Gardiner also points out, however, that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard will push for a hard-line against the US and Israel, making it difficult to control escalation. For this reason and others, the first option can be seen as highly unlikely.
During remarks at the New America Foundation in September 2009, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni pointed to just a few of the consequences that could result from a military strike on Iran. Zinni noted that he often responds to advocates of such strikes with "And then what?"
"After you've dropped those bombs on those hardened facilities, what happens next? What happens if they decide, in their hardened shelters with their mobile missiles, to start launching those? What happens if they launch them into U.S. bases on the other side of the gulf? What happens if they launch into Israel, or somewhere else? Into a Saudi oil field? Into Ras Laffan, with all the natural gas? What happens if they now flush their fast patrol boats, their cruise missiles, the [unclear] full of mines, and they sink a tanker, an oil tanker? And of course the economy of the world goes absolutely nuts. What happens if they activate sleeper cells? The MOIS, the intelligence service -- what happens if another preemptive attack by the West, the U.S. and Israel, they fire up the streets and now we got problems. Just tell me how to deal with all that, okay? Because, eventually, if you follow this all the way down, eventually I'm putting boots on the ground somewhere."
A reaction might also be expected from Hezbollah and Hamas. In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of the "ever increasing capability" of Hezbollah's weapons, which have ballooned to a point where, according to Gates, "Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world." Whatever Iran's initial reaction, it is easy to see how escalation can occur.
Retired Army Col. David E. Johnson has noted that Iran's response may not even have to be so drastic to have an effect. There is a much simpler option available to Iran: dramatically step up its support of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This response is far more likely and, consequently, more worrisome," says Johnson.
Iran already provides financial and military support to Shiite militias in Iraq. In 2005, Iran began arming Moqtada al-Sadr's "Mahdi Army" (Jaysh al-Mahdi, or JAM) militia through the Revolutionary Guard's "Quds (Jerusalem) Force," the unit that assists Iranian protégé forces abroad. Sadr's political faction held 30 total seats in the 2006-2010 parliament and garnered a significant, dedicated following among lower-class Iraqi Shiites. Between 2004 and 2008, al-Sadr alternately unleashed and reined in the JAM in response to what he deemed a US "occupation" of Iraq.
Most likely, Tehran has weapons caches that include improvised explosive devices (IED), mortars, short-range rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and a variety of small arms and ammunition.
On July 2, 2007, Brig. Kevin Bergner said that Hezbollah was involved in assisting the Quds Force in aiding Iraqi Shiite militias. He added that Iran gives about $3 million per month to these Iraqi militias. He based his statement on the March 2007 capture of former al-Sadr aide Qais Khazali and Lebanese Hezbollah operative Ali Musa Daqduq, who were allegedly involved in the January 2007 killing of five US personnel in Karbala.
Moreover, Iran has a history of supplying surrogates to do its fighting, including its arming in 2006, along with Syria, of Hezbollah in the second Lebanon war against Israel. In 2006, Hezbollah employed a variety of rockets with ranges of 20 to 100 kilometers, high-end antitank guided missiles, anti-ship missiles and even unmanned aerial vehicles. As of yet, none of these weapons has shown up in significant numbers in Iraq or Afghanistan. If Iran did introduce them, the level of violence could escalate significantly.
In Afghanistan, Iran has waged what former CIA officer Bob Baer calls a war by proxy, supplying and training what is today commonly known as the Northern Alliance. Politically, Iran's influence is also great. During the rule of the Taliban and since, Iran has pursued a strategy of supporting Afghan minorities, both Shia and Sunni. Iran commands significant influence over the Shia population, which accounts for 19 percent of the country's people. In addition, Iran has established a network of support among Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, who together make up 30 percent of the population.
If Iran wishes to escalate tensions in Iraq or Afghanistan, it could accomplish this task without directly engaging coalition personnel with its own military forces.
A strike will help -- not hurt -- the regime. The Carnegie Endowment's Karim Sadjadpour has written that he is convinced "Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would actually welcome a military strike it may be their only hope to silence popular dissent and heal internal political rifts." The country's right to nuclear power is widely supported by Iranians. The use of force against Iran is not likely to cultivate divisions among the Iranian leadership or strengthen the democracy movement.
Externally, if Iran were to play the victim, it might increase its chances for sympathy from countries that would otherwise be inclined to shun it. In the end, Iran's rulers could emerge far stronger than they currently are, giving Iran a convenient excuse to point a finger at the West.
This has happened before. In a discussion at the Cato Institute in May 2010, Iranian dissident journalist Akbar Ganji noted that by taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, "the US inadvertently increased Iranian power and reach in the Middle East."
A 2008 Brookings report by Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh reached a similar conclusion:
"Tehran now has acquired the means to influence all of the region's security dilemmas, and it appears unlikely that any of the Arab world's crises, from the persistent instability in Iraq and Lebanon to security of the Persian Gulf, can be resolved without Iran's acquiescence or assistance."
There is still time for a negotiated solution. The facts on Iran's nuclear program are often misconstrued. Multiple steps are involved in the construction of and ability to deliver a nuclear weapon that go far beyond the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, which Iran achieved in February of this year.
First, Iran needs a stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU), which it has. LEU can be used to power peaceful civilian reactors, or enriched further to build bombs. The most recent data indicates that Iran has enough LEU to construct two bombs, but only if that uranium is enriched. It is important to note that it is far more difficult and time-consuming to enrich uranium from less than 1 percent to 20 percent than from 20 percent to 90 percent. So, with this in mind, Iran isn't far off. In April 2010 Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess and Gen. James Cartwright testified to Congress that Iran could potentially produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear bomb within one year.
In the same testimony, General Cartwright reported to Congress that it would take "another two to three, potentially out to five, years to move from the idea of having the material to… something that can actually create a detonation, an explosion that would be considered a nuclear weapon." Cartwright further clarified that, should the enrichment of uranium and the development of a weapon take place simultaneously, "experience says that it's gonna take you three to five years" before Iran is in possession of a capable nuclear weapon.
After three to five years, Iran still will still need a reliable means of delivery. Iran's current ballistic missiles could reach Israel, Turkey, and portions of southeastern Europe. They could not reach the United States.
An April 2009 report of the US Air Force's National Air and Space Intelligence Center stated that "With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015." This exact wording would later appear in the Pentagon's April 2010 report submitted to Congress. The prospect does not, however, seem likely. Looking back at the past decade of intelligence estimates, the Arms Control Association's Greg Thielmann notes that, "the only significant change made in estimating Iran's ICBM timeline has been to lengthen it." In a more likely estimate, a May 2010 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) found that an Iranian ICBM remains "more than a decade away from development."
Doing the math, this means that Iran will not possess a meaningful nuclear threat to Israel, Turkey, or southeastern Europe for a minimum of three years and could not threaten the US and Western Europe for at least a decade if Iran does not succeed in obtaining outside assistance. This is not to suggest that Iran should be allowed to achieve such capacity, but to be clear that a highly significant amount of time still exists to work toward a negotiated solution.
Moving forward. Dealing with Iran's nuclear program demands patience. The likelihood of a successful strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is small, but the consequences would be dire. Before such a crucial decision is made, it is important to step back and evaluate the many options still available. Iran's nuclear program is not yet at its tipping point, and sanctions have already begun to show an effect on Iran's leaders. The US should continue to work toward a negotiated solution.