I am trying to track down more on this AP story by George Jahn, who is based in Vienna (where the IAEA is) and has written pretty extensively about Iran’s nuclear program. The story in essence is that Iran appears to have blocked access by IAEA inspectors to an underground facility where it has been enriching uranium. So far as I know, both the U.S. government and the IAEA are refusing to comment on the story. But if true, this represents a point of no return, which Iran has staged deliberately to catch us off guard while everyone is studying its lengthy answer to the EU3+3 offer. In my piece in the current (August 28) print edition of National Review, I described precisely this eventuality as a point of no return, and argued that the United States should invoke preemption if this ever happened.
Iran’s barring access to weapons inspectors is the same as expelling them for all practical purposes unless the inspectors are allowed to continue inspecting immediately. This is the warning flag. If this story is true, we should bomb the facilities right now. Article 51 of the U.N. Charter preserves the right of self-defense in cases of armed aggression. For Iran to hide a batch of LEU is not only a violation of the nonproliferation treaty, but also, strategically speaking, an act of armed aggression, because it is the last moment at which the scope of Iran’s enrichment activities can be known with any certainty. Assuming the story is true, if we don’t attack now, the optimal window for self-defense will close and any future military operation may have to be much more expansive in scope and would have a greatly diminished probability of success. At least now we know where this batch of LEU is. Within days the batch could be at another — totally clandestine — facility. And we will then find ourselves in a brave new world.
Iran is now moving fast to produce as much lightly enriched uranium as it can. According to Valerie Lincy of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, once Iran has a large-enough batch, it will be a short step to convert it to weapons grade. If Iran then expels the IAEA inspectors, no one knows how long it would take for them to produce enough for a nuclear device. We will from that point forward be living with an intolerable uncertainty. Under these circumstances, the U.S. should make clear that it will consider any further Iranian violation of the nonproliferation treaty an act of armed aggression within Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.