Commentary Magazine


There’s No More Time to Waste on Iran

The best argument I’ve yet seen for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities imminently is a chilling new report from the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security saying that by the middle of next year, Iran will have reached “critical capability”–the ability to build a nuclear bomb completely undetected. In other words, by mid-2014, it will be impossible to mount a last-minute effort to stop Iran from sprinting for the bomb because, as the Jerusalem Post explains, “breakout times at critical capability would be ‘so short’ that there would not be enough time to organize an international diplomatic or military response.” This would be true even if Iran agrees to heightened scrutiny through measures such as remote monitoring and more frequent on-site inspections.

But aside from warning that time is running out, the ISIS report also undercuts some of the arguments made against military action, such as that nobody can be sure all of Iran’s nuclear facilities have been discovered, and hence an attack could easily miss some. And it particularly demolishes the main argument against a solo Israeli attack: that Israel lacks the capability to inflict enough damage on Iran’s nuclear program to set it back significantly.

That’s because the key component of critical capability is simply the number of centrifuges in operation. The more centrifuges Iran has, the faster it can enrich enough uranium for a bomb, so as soon as it has enough centrifuges, it will also have the ability to enrich enough uranium for a bomb faster than military action can be mounted to stop it. According to ISIS, the 3,000 advanced centrifuges that Iran announced plans to install earlier this year would be enough to give it this capability.

What that means, however, is that even if an attack doesn’t destroy every last bit of Iran’s nuclear program, as long as it destroys enough centrifuges to push Iran away from critical capability, this would suffice to prevent it from racing for the bomb undetected.

Clearly, that isn’t as good as permanently eliminating the program. But given the choice between buying a little more time and accepting the inevitability of a nuclear Iran, buying time is clearly preferable.

I’ve argued before that buying time is often more effective than commonly thought; Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor–which set Iraq’s nuclear program back just long enough for the 1991 Gulf War to finish the job–is a case in point. But buying time would be especially effective in this case, for the simple reason that an attack would convince Iran of something it currently doesn’t believe: that either the U.S., Israel, or both will prove to be serious about preventing it from obtaining nukes, even if doing so requires military action. And once convinced of that, Iran is less likely to rush to rebuild its capabilities.

ISIS, incidentally, doesn’t argue for bombing Iran; it argues for negotiating an immediate agreement “limiting the number and type of Iran’s centrifuges at Natanz, Fordow, or a site not yet finished.” But given Iran’s past history of dragging out negotiations ad infinitum without ever reaching a deal, the chances of reaching an agreement like that in enough time to stop it from obtaining critical capability are almost nil.

In short, either military action is taken in the coming months, or a nuclear Iran will be inevitable. There is no more time to waste.