The Thin Red Line
The time to use force against Iran is not next year. It’s now.

Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N., September 27, 2012


In February, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey told one of the Sunday-morning talk shows, “We also know, or we believe we know, that Iran has not decided to make a nuclear weapon.” It is impossible to characterize this statement as anything but idiotic. Iran doesn’t need nuclear energy, and it certainly doesn’t need this nuclear program for any civilian use. It has sacrificed untold treasure and forced its people to endure grueling sanctions in order to build nuclear facilities that it defends as strategic military targets. Iranian leaders decided to make a nuclear weapon long ago, and it is finally at their fingertips.

Iran’s “energy independence” justification for dual-use nuclear facilities is absurd on its face: The country does not possess enough indigenous natural uranium to fuel its power reactors for more than a few years, and it has a superabundance of oil. It says that it needs MEU (which cannot fuel any of its power reactors) for a research reactor in Tehran. But, according to Greg Jones, that reactor can burn at most seven kilograms of MEU yearly, whereas Iran is producing ten kilograms of MEU every month. And that’s only what Iran is openly admitting to the IAEA.

Meanwhile, everything about its nuclear program makes sense from a nuclear-weapons point of view. The key facilities are buried deep underground (except those that by their nature can’t be) and ringed with the most expensive air-defense systems they can procure from Russia without getting Russia into deep trouble with the United States. We talk about “Iran’s nuclear-weapons program,” but in fact it has two. It has developed the essential facilities for a uranium-enrichment pathway and most of what it needs for a plutonium-reprocessing pathway.

For reasons made clear below, Iran has focused on the uranium pathway. Rather than purchase LEU from abroad for its Russian-built power reactors, Iran has developed the “full nuclear fuel cycle” capability to enrich uranium. There is only one reason it would need to do this: to make nuclear weapons. No other explanation makes sense.

Anyone who argues that Iran has not decided to develop nuclear weapons, or to develop at least the ability to produce them on short notice (which amounts to the same thing), is simply making a fool of himself — and also giving up an important lever in the effort to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weaponry. Iran’s production of much more MEU than it needs for the Tehran research reactor should be considered a diversion for weapons use, in violation of the nonproliferation treaty. In other words, our position should be that Iran is already making a nuclear weapon.

This position will be even clearer once Iran starts enriching past 20 percent and approaches weapons-grade uranium. HEU is used only for fast reactors, nuclear-powered naval vessels, and nuclear warheads. Only the richest countries can afford fast reactors, and Iran doesn’t have any. Iran doesn’t need and can’t afford a global navy, the only justification for nuclear-powered vessels. That leaves one use for Iranian-produced HEU: nuclear warheads.

Iran decided to make nuclear weapons probably in 1994. That was when, under President Clinton’s watch, we stood idly by as North Korea discharged the reactor pool at Yongbyon — it was the last moment when we could have stopped North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. At that juncture, the Iranians may well have realized that the U.S. would be too wary of military action to interdict an Iranian nuclear program as well. They were right. And they probably realized something else: that the plutonium-reprocessing pathway, while more productive and cheaper, leaves one step in the production chain totally exposed. The plutonium pathway requires a fully operational hard-water reactor, which cannot be built underground and can be easily destroyed with a single air strike.