Politics & Policy

The Thin Red Line

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

Before we get to the nitty-gritty of Israel’s new Iranian red line, let’s be clear about one thing: The U.S. and its allies have already completely botched this whole situation. Ever since the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, we have been giving Iran a green light to make nuclear weapons. The green light has been constant, brilliant, mesmerizing, and irresistible.

At every Iranian decision point, Western governments have communicated with utter clarity that the next several steps in Iran’s nuclear program would carry no risk of a military confrontation. The result, quite naturally, is that Iran is about to get nuclear weapons, and almost nothing can stop it.

There is still a chance for a peaceful resolution. But that painfully small sliver of hope rests on the assumption that the West will do now, when it makes the least sense and carries the greatest risk, what it was unwilling to do earlier, when it made the most sense and carried the least risk.

Now Israel has drawn a red line. At the United Nations last week, this is what Prime Minister Netanyahu said:

Iran has to go through three stages [to build a nuclear weapon]. The first stage: They have to enrich enough of low-enriched uranium. The second stage: They have to enrich enough medium-enriched uranium. And the third stage and final stage: They have to enrich enough high-enriched uranium for the first bomb. Where’s Iran? Iran’s completed the first stage. It took them many years, but they completed it and they’re 70 percent of the way there. Now they are well into the second stage. By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and moved on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb. . . . So if these are the facts, and they are, where should the red line be drawn? The red line should be drawn right here . . . before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb. Before Iran gets to a point where it’s a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

At long last, a precise red line has emerged in the slow-moving Iranian nuclear crisis: Iran cannot be allowed to complete the second stage of nuclear enrichment. What does that mean exactly? According to the latest quarterly report (based entirely on Iranian disclosures) of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has amassed perhaps half of the medium-enriched uranium (MEU, 20 percent enriched) that it would need for a warhead before the uranium is further enriched to weapons grade (highly enriched uranium, or HEU, which is 90+ percent enriched). At current rates of enrichment, Iran will amass enough MEU for a single warhead by next summer and will then be ready to complete the third stage, enrichment to weapons-grade uranium, in a matter of weeks. The Israeli position is that Iran must not be allowed to complete enough MEU for a warhead.

This red line is a fantasy. What will Israel do if Iran crosses it? Presumably, it will try to bomb the enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow. But those plants are deep underground, beneath steel-reinforced concrete and tons of earth. Israel could hit them with everything it has (short of its own nuclear weapons) and still barely make a dent on the nuclear program.

And this assumes that Iran’s two known enrichment facilities are its only ones. But it stopped declaring production of centrifuges to the IAEA years ago. We have no idea how many centrifuges it now has. It defies reason to assume that Iran has no enrichment plants other than the ones we know of, at Natanz and Fordow. In fact, both of these plants started life as secret facilities before our spotty intelligence services discovered them.

Moreover, the known enrichment plants are now arguably secondary targets. Iran has amassed enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) for five or more weapons, and it will soon have enough MEU for another, assuming the stockpiles are enriched to weapons grade. According to Greg Jones of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, both stockpiles together would take up about one cubic yard. In other words, Iran’s precious stockpile of enriched uranium is as mobile as the Ford pickup truck that could take it anywhere.

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.

The uranium-enrichment pathway, by contrast, doesn’t require a nuclear reactor at all. It involves only adding several more cycles to the same centrifuge-enrichment process that produces LEU for light-water reactors. All the elements of the uranium pathway can be dispersed and hidden deep underground. And because the U.S. failed to bomb the single, totally exposed reactor at Yongbyon, Iranian leaders might have reasoned that it would be far less likely to undertake strikes against multiple facilities deep underground in reinforced bunkers. Perhaps it was then that the Islamic Revolution of Iran saw its key to longevity: nuclear weapons.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits “non-nuclear-weapon States” (those that did not explode their first device before 1967) from doing anything that constitutes a “diversion” of nuclear material for weapons use. Certifying Iran’s “non-diversion” for weapons use has been the basic mission of IAEA inspectors all along. Four times a year, the IAEA makes exactly the same certification: We can rule out diversion for weapons use at Iran’s known nuclear facilities, but Iran’s disclosures are insufficient to establish the peaceful nature of its nuclear program generally.

The French have insisted for years that any use of nuclear material that cannot be reasonably justified for civilian purposes should be deemed a “diversion” for weapons use. That view is correct, and it must prevail. Otherwise, the catastrophic collapse of the nonproliferation regime is inevitable.

It is particularly urgent to embrace that view now, in the case of Iran, and jettison the preposterous position articulated by General Dempsey. The usefulness of the IAEA, both as a shield for Iran’s nuclear program and as a window into that program, has almost run its course. Iran’s explanation for producing LEU was largely implausible; in the case of MEU, it is obviously so. But once Iran starts producing HEU, no one will seriously dispute that it has embarked on the final step of nuclear-weapons production. At that point,  IAEA inspections will become quite useless.

If Iran declares to the IAEA that it has begun HEU-enrichment activity, the IAEA could and should designate the activity a diversion for weapons use. At that point, Iran will probably expel the inspectors and draw a veil over its program. In any case, openly admitting to high-enrichment activity would be tantamount to a declaration of war. But why would Iran undertake high enrichment openly if it can do so secretly? We can’t be certain that we know all of Iran’s enrichment facilities. By early next year, we will have to start treating Iran as a de facto nuclear-weapons state regardless of what it declares to the IAEA. Unless Iran agrees to anytime-anywhere inspections, the value of keeping Iran within the regime  of IAEA disclosures and inspections will become vanishingly small.

In light of this, the Israeli red line doesn’t make sense. Iran may tell the IAEA that it has decided to cross the red line, but otherwise, under the current limited-inspections regime, we will never know if it has or hasn’t. With IAEA inspections limited to certain facilities, even if Iran halts its known nuclear activity at the threshold of HEU production, we will still have to assume that Iran has become a de facto nuclear-weapons state.

A red line would have made sense between 2003 and 2005: No enrichment activity, or we will bomb your facilities. With some 200,000 American troops surrounding Iran on three sides, it would almost certainly have backed down in the face of a strong ultimatum. But America is on its way out of the region now, and Pandora’s box is wide open. Iran already has a stockpile of enriched uranium and can convert it to weapons-grade material in a secret facility at any time. Not even the destruction of the Natanz and Fordow facilities — if that is within the capabilities of our conventional ordnance — would alter the fact that Iran is about to become a de facto nuclear-weapons state.

There is now only one way to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis, and that is to convince the Iranian government to abandon its indigenous nuclear-fuel production — entirely and verifiably. That means exhaustive disclosures and intrusive IAEA inspections. Any use of military force that does not produce that result will be a failure. Given the gravity of the threat, the military option must consist of whatever force may be necessary and proportional, in combination with other pressures, to convince Iran to abandon the program. Iran’s continued enrichment, Israel’s red line, and the destruction or non-destruction of Iran’s known nuclear facilities are all secondary considerations.

It is crucial to get out of the utterly wrong mind-set that force is appropriate only if diplomacy fails. If diplomacy fails, force will be virtually useless. Treating diplomacy as separate from military power virtually guarantees that both will fail.

If our leaders have to choose between an Iranian nuclear breakout and an extremely high-risk, low-return military option, the fear of action will carry the day. And if the task is to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program, we’ll gain very little through military strikes limited to its known nuclear facilities — certainly far less than if we had conducted such strikes five or six years ago.

The first question to ask is: What ordering of inducements — including force — is most likely to persuade Tehran? The government of Iran needs many things that our military power can take away. In coercive diplomacy, everything the regime values can become a viable target — from peace of mind to gasoline supply to command and control of its security forces. Nonviolent incursions into Iranian airspace or territorial waters could prove highly unnerving to Tehran. Interdicting its gasoline supply could bring the regime to its knees in a matter of weeks. Taking away the assets it counts on for retaliation could make escalation much less attractive.

Such actions would all be acts of war, and Iran might well retaliate. That is where strategic analysis comes into play. If the goal is to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, then we need to shape Iran’s cost-benefit analysis. Would it really make sense, from Iran’s point of view, to react to an incremental use of force (such as violations of airspace or strikes on a single refinery) by shutting down the Strait of Hormuz or launching missiles at U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf? The answer is almost certainly no.

By contrast, the standard military option of strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities risks leaving Iran’s capacity and willingness to retaliate undiminished — to make no mention of its ability to reconstitute its nuclear program or continue enrichment in secret facilities. No wonder skeptics dismiss such a military option. A campaign that successfully targets Iran’s nuclear facilities must diminish its capacity and willingness to retaliate and rebuild. That means that any strikes on the nuclear facilities should go far beyond those targets and cripple the regime itself. The goal is the same as with more limited uses of force: to convince the government to back down.

Thus far, we have assured Iran that proceeding with the next steps in its nuclear development entails few near-term risks. That must change. The Israeli red line assures Iran that it can continue enriching uranium for several more months at least. That must change.

If there is still any chance of stopping Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, the time to add force to the diplomatic equation is now.

— Mario Loyola is a former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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