In recent weeks, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been receiving many senior clerics for happy embraces. They have come in unusually large numbers to congratulate him. According to Iranians I talk to, they believe that Iran now has all the necessary components for an atomic bomb or two or three, and all that remains is to assemble the damned things.
That would track with the mullahs’ clear international strategy, which is to stall for time. They think that if they can make it into early 2004, they’ll be safe from us for at least eleven months, as Bush would not attack during an election year (never mind that Bush has no intention of attacking at all, we’re talking about how they see things). In the meantime, they expect to be able to test a nuclear device, which will, they think, transform them into the North Korea of the Middle East. That is, invulnerable to us.
So the stall is on, in all directions. The negotiations with the Atomic Energy Agency are dragged out, and you can be sure the Iranians will insist that their parliament approve anything agreed to by the negotiators. The talks with State Department emissaries — apparently in the hopes of getting the mullahs to turn over some of their al Qaeda allies (not bloody likely), drag on and on. Time is working in their favor, just as the president said it would.
None of this has any great effect on the Bush administration, because they believe the latest assessment from the intel guys, who say that Iran is a good 3-5 years away from having the bomb. I wonder how they arrive at such estimates, and I especially wonder why any president would take them seriously, since we have always been surprised at how quickly others have developed atomic weapons.
We were surprised by Stalin, and by the Chinese, and by the Indians and the Paks. Hell, we were even surprised at the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests a few years back. And we were apparently surprised when the North Koreans told us they really did have a weapons program, although it was clear to everyone except Madeline Albright (who was too busy dancing with the dictators of Pyongyang to be able to think about it).
Furthermore, I don’t think we have very good information about Iran. Almost the whole Iranian nuclear program is underground. Deep underground, thanks to the Chinese and the North Koreans who helped dig the tunnels and secure areas, mostly underneath the cities. Maybe so deep underground than even our jazzy satellite technologies can’t figure out what’s going on down there. And I doubt we know just how much enriched uranium was smuggled into Iran from Iraq in the years leading up to the war.
Paradoxically, however, this is one time the mullahs may outwit themselves. As things stand, this administration is going to do everything possible to forestall a day of reckoning for the mullahs, hoping that the brave Iranian people will do it for us (and providing some assistance, as in the case of the new, secure Internet server now at the disposal of Iranian users).
But if Iran turns up with the bomb, that would add urgency to our ongoing war against the terror masters in Tehran.
Let’s hope we have time to do that before they use the thing.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen is resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.