Three Reasons Not to Bomb Iran—Yet
I know of no reputable expert in the United States or in Europe who trusts the constantly repeated promise of Iran’s rulers that their nuclear program will be entirely peaceful and is meant only to produce electricity. The question is what to do about this. Faced with the alarming prospect of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, some policy experts favor immediate preventive action, while others, of equal standing, invite us to accept what they consider to be inevitable in any case. The former call for the bombing of Iran’s nuclear installations before they can produce actual weapons. The latter, to the contrary, urge a diplomatic understanding with Iran’s rulers in order to attain a stable relationship of mutual deterrence.
Neither position seems adequately to recognize essential Iranian realities or American strategic priorities. To treat Iran as nothing more than a set of possible bombing targets cannot possibly be the right approach. Still more questionable is the illogical belief that a regime that feels free to attack American interests in spite of its present military inferiority would somehow become more restrained if it could rely on the protective shield of nuclear weapons.
In contemplating preventive action, the technical issue may be quickly disposed of. Some observers, noting that Iran’s nuclear installations consist of hundreds of buildings at several different sites, including a number that are recessed in the ground with fortified roofs, have contended that even a prolonged air campaign might not succeed in destroying all of them. Others, drawing a simplistic analogy with Israel’s aerial destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in June 1981, speak as if it would be enough to drop sixteen unguided bombs on a single building to do the job. The fact is that the targets would not be buildings as such but rather processes, and, given the aiming information now available, they could indeed be interrupted in lasting ways by a single night of bombing. An air attack is not a demolition contract, and in this case it could succeed while inflicting relatively little physical damage and no offsite casualties, barring gross mechanical errors that occur only rarely in these days of routine precision.
The greater question, however, is neither military nor diplomatic but rather political and strategic: what, in the end, do we wish to see emerge in Iran? It is in light of that long-term consideration that we need to weigh both our actions and their timing, lest we hinder rather than accelerate the emergence of the future we hope for. We must start by considering the special character of American relations with the country and people of Iran.
The last time the United States seriously considered the use of force in Iran, much larger operations were envisaged than the bombing of a few uranium-enrichment installations. The year was 1978, and the mission was so demanding that a complete light-infantry division would have been needed just as an advance guard to screen the build-up of the main forces. The projected total number of troops in action—most of them from Iran’s U.S.-equipped and U.S.-trained army—would easily have exceeded the maximum total fielded by the United States and its allies in Iraq since 2003. Their mission: to defend the country from a Soviet thrust to the Persian Gulf, in which motor-rifle divisions would descend from the Armenian and Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republics to link up with airborne divisions sent ahead to seize the oil ports.
That long-ago bit of contingency planning reflected sound intelligence on the contemporary transformation of the Soviet army from a ponderous battering ram to a fast-paced maneuver force. In the end, to be sure, it turned out that not Iran but neighboring Afghanistan was the Soviet target. But there is no question that, in facing the adventurism of an exceedingly well-armed Soviet Union in its final stage of militarist decline, the government of Iran could rely on the protection of its American alliance, an alliance in place ever since the Truman administration blocked Stalin’s attempt to partition the country in 1946. From then on, and even in the perilous circumstances envisaged in 1978, the United States stood ready to risk the lives of American troops to defend Iran—it was that important in American strategy.
At stake in those decades was not just Iran’s oil, although that counted for much more in 1946 than it does now: there was as yet no oil production to speak of in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq was the only other oil exporter in the region. More significant than Iran’s geology was, and is, its geography. During the cold war, its northern border on either side and across the waters of the Caspian Sea formed an essential segment of the Western perimeter of containment. Today, it is Iran’s very long southern coastline that is of equal strategic importance, dominating as it does the entire Persian Gulf from its narrow southern entrance at the straits of Hormuz to the thin wedge of Iraqi territory at its head. All of the offshore oil- and gas-production platforms in the gulf, all the traffic of oil and gas tankers originating from the jetties of the Arabian peninsula and Iraq, are within easy reach of the Iranian coast.
Unchanging geographic realities thus favor a strategic alliance between the United States and Iran, with large benefits for each side. Only the strategic reach of the distant United States can secure Iran from the power of the Russians nearby—a power not in abeyance even now, as the recent nuclear diplomacy shows, and much more likely to revive in the future than to decline. Likewise, a friendly Iran can best keep troublemakers away from the oil installations on the Arab side of the gulf, where there are only weak and corrupt desert dynasties to protect them.
The vehement rejection of the American alliance by the religious extremists in power ever since the fall of the Shah in 1979 therefore violates the natural order of things—damaging both sides, but Iran far more grievously. The cost to the people of Iran has been huge, starting with the 600,000 dead and the uncounted number of invalids from the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which American protection would certainly have averted, and continuing till now with the lost opportunities, disruptions, and inconveniences caused by the lack of normal diplomatic and commercial relations.
These impediments are so costly precisely because there is still so much interchange between the two sides, with Iranian-Americans traveling back and forth and not a few operating businesses in Iran while residing in the U.S., and vice-versa. Beyond that, millions of ordinary Iranians are keenly interested in all that is American, from youth fashions to democratic politics, and nothing can stop them from watching the Farsi-language television stations of Los Angeles; all attempts by Iran’s rulers to prohibit the country’s ubiquitous satellite antennas have failed.
That is part of a much wider loss of authority over Iranian society. The regime started off in 1979 with the immense prestige of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, initially the consensual leader of just about everyone in Iran: Westernizing liberals and traditionalist bazaar merchants, the modernizing middle classes and the urban poor, rural landlords angry at the Shah’s land reforms and the peasant beneficiaries of those measures, old-line Tudeh Communists and anti-Communist radicals, and of course believing Muslims of every sort, from the moderately devout and quietist to the fanatical clerics of the more extreme theological schools.
Except for the last-named, all the members of this broad coalition of the deluded were one by one excluded from any share of power, and then variously outlawed, imprisoned, executed, oppressed, marginalized, or simply ignored, leaving extremist clerics in full control. Initially, these still had Khomeini’s authority to justify their power, and still enjoyed the traditional respect that many Iranians used to feel for the clerics of Shiite Islam. But that is entirely gone now, replaced by resentment and contempt.
Too many clerics have used their official government positions, or their control of confiscated property placed in Islamic trusts, to enrich themselves and their families. Too many have operated scams of all kinds, diverting oil revenues or overcharging the government not only to fund the hugely swollen theological schools whose hordes of pious idlers must be fed and clothed but also for their personal benefit. The most notorious of them all, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a low-ranking cleric by trade, twice president of the Islamic republic from 1989 to 1997, perennial candidate for another term, chairman of the unelected but powerful “Expediency Discernment Council,” and a top adviser to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, is widely believed to have become Iran’s richest man.
Under the Shah, corruption in government contracting notoriously added some 15 percent to the cost of everything that was bought, from fertilizers for the ministry of agriculture to helicopters. Now the graft is more like 30 percent; the family and cronies of the Shah, it turns out, were paragons of self-restraint as compared with the clerics. They now form an entire class of exploiters, with the result that a bitter anti-clericalism has become widespread in Iran as it never was before.
Having lost all its moral authority, the regime must survive on the power of coercion alone, derived from the brutish part-time Basij militia of poor illiterates and the full-time Pasdaran Inqilab, or “Revolutionary Guards,” whose forces are structured in ground, air, and naval combat units but whose men can still be sent into action as enforcers against protesting civilians. With the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first non-cleric to win Iran’s presidency and himself a former engineering officer in their ranks, the Pasdaran have become an important political faction as well as a military force, a political gendarmerie, and a business conglomerate.
It is one more symptom of the regime’s degeneration that, although the Pasdaran are well paid by local standards, they complement their salaries by engaging in both legal and illegal business, from manufacturing to contraband across the Persian Gulf. The Pasdaran’s naval arm operates fast patrol boats from seven Iranian ports and the Halul oil platform. They are used to smuggle in products from foreign hulls or from the port of Dubai, not only embargoed items for national purposes but also perfumes and other luxury products for private money-making.
Nor is that all. Because of its ideology, as well as the imperatives of retaining power against the popular will, the regime is in permanent collision with the culture, or rather the cultures, of Iran.
Almost half of the country’s population is not Persian. Yet, under an official Persian nationalism that dates back to the 1920’s—it is the only aspect of the Shah’s imperial regime that Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors have left entirely untouched—all other national cultures are suppressed and reduced to mere folklore. Only Persian-language teaching is allowed (except for Armenian-Christian and Jewish religious instruction), condemning all non-Persians to illiteracy in their own languages.
Of these non-Persians, the Kurds alone account for some 9 percent of Iran’s population, and their national sentiments have certainly been strengthened by the example of virtual Kurdish independence in Iraq next door. As their demands for cultural autonomy become more forceful, something of an insurgency seems to have started in Kurdish-inhabited parts of northwestern Iran. Smaller nationalities, too, have recently engaged in acts of violent resistance, including the Arabs at 3 percent of Iran’s population and the Baluch of the southeast at 2 percent.
Taken together, the Kurds, the Arabs, the Baluch, plus several other ethnicities (Turkmen, Lurs, Gilaki, and Mazandarani), whether in any way dissident or not, amount to a quarter of Iran’s population. But another quarter at least is added by the Turkish-speaking Azeris. Although many Azeris, especially in Tehran, are thoroughly assimilated, many others increasingly affirm their Turkic national identity, and groups calling for cultural autonomy or even separation have become increasingly active among them. Ever since Azerbaijan, just across the border, gained its independence from the Soviet Union, the Azeris have had a national home of their own, and it is not Iran.
Further fracturing the country’s unity is the clerics’ religious extremism. Their discriminatory practices arouse the resentment not only of such minor non-Islamic communities as the Bahais, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, who conjointly amount to less than 1 percent of the population, but also of the Sunni Muslims who account for some 10 percent. In Tehran, home to more than a million of them, Sunnis are not allowed to have their own mosque, as they have in Rome, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C. The last sustained attempt to build a Sunni mosque was blocked by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he was mayor of Tehran.
Ahmadinejad’s advent as president marks, indeed, a definite shift—from the institutionalized religious extremism in place since the fall of the Shah in 1979 to a more strident ultra-extremism. True, under Iran’s theocratic constitution the elected president must obey the “Supreme Leader,” a cleric of at least ayatollah rank, just as the elected Majlis parliament is subordinated to the unelected “Council of Guardians.” Hence the views of the previous president, the elegant, learned, and mostly moderate Seyyed Muhammad Khatami, mattered not at all, as was soon discovered by the Western officials who wasted their time in negotiating with him. But Khatami was powerless because he was out of step with a regime that was responding to its ever increasing unpopularity by becoming ever more extreme. Ahmadinejad, by contrast, exemplifies that very trend.
Although the world now knows him for his persistent denial of the Holocaust and his rants against Israel and Zionism, at home Ahmadinejad’s hostility is directed not against Iran’s dwindling Jewish community but against the Sunnis. Lately, moreover, his ultra-extremism has antagonized even many of his fellow Shiites: he is an enthusiastic follower of both Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, for whom all current prohibitions are insufficient and who would impose an even stricter Islamic puritanism, and of a messianic, end-of-days cult centered on the Jamkaran mosque outside the theological capital of Qum. More traditional believers are alarmed by the hysterical supplications of the Jamkaran pilgrims for the return of Abul-Qassem Muhammad, the twelfth imam who occulted himself in the year 941 and is to return as the mahdi, or Shiite messiah. More urgently they fear that in trying to “force” the return of the mahdi, Ahmadinejad may deliberately try to provoke a catastrophic external attack on Iran that the mahdi himself would have to avert.
The shift from everyday extremism to a more active ultra-extremism is also manifest in the persecution of heterodox Shiites, both the Ahl-e-Haqq of western Iran and the far more numerous Sufi brotherhoods, who were previously left alone even by the rigorously fanatical Ayatollah Khomeini. Now, by contrast, Sufi gathering places are forcibly closed or attacked, and a major center in Qum was recently demolished, with hundreds of protesting Sufi dervishes arrested in the process.
Far more important than any of this is the antipathy of the regime for the Persian majority culture itself. Relentlessly favoring an essentially Arab Islamic culture instead, it condemns—though it has not been able to suppress—such cherished pre-Islamic customs as the fire-jumping ceremony that precedes the Nowruz celebrations of the Zoroastrian new year each spring. More generally, it elevates its narrow Islamism above the achievements and legacy of one of the world’s major civilizations, whose millennial influence in everything from poetry and music to monumental architecture, from the higher crafts of carpets and miniatures to cuisine, continues to be felt in a vast area from the Balkans to Bengal right across central Asia.
The cultural dimension of their identity is especially significant for the Persians of the Iranian diaspora. This vast and growing group comprises a handful of political exiles and millions of ordinary people who could have prospered in Iran, and made Iran prosperous, but for their refusal to live under the rule of religious fanatics. Their cultural identity is what gives them a strong sense of cohesion quite independently of the Islam they were born into. While only a few have converted to Christianity, or are seriously engaged in the Zoroastrian revival that is promoted by some exiles, the majority have reacted to the extremism of Iran’s present rulers by becoming, in effect, post-Islamic—that is, essentially secular but for a sentimental attachment to certain prayers and rituals.
In this, the exiles are presaging the future of Iran itself.
In contemplating American military action against Iran, it is important to recall these fundamental realities—now submerged but bound to reassert themselves as fundamentals always do. For the inhabitants of Iran are human beings like the rest of us, and extremist norms can be imposed on them only by brute force. A valid analogy is with the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and Russia and, in China, the retreat of Communism from the economic to the political realm alone. In each of these cases, even after all the depredations, massacres, destructions, and claimed transformations of decades of Communist rule, local cultures and historic identities reemerged largely intact and essentially unchanged—except for the principled rejection of Communist ideology.
It will be just the same in Iran when the fanatics who now oppress the non-fanatical majority lose power, as they inevitably will in time. Along with the reemergence of the country’s suppressed Westernization that dates back to the 1920’s, along with the restoration of its own beloved secular Persian culture, one can reasonably expect the United States to return to the scene as Iran’s natural ally. But not everything will be as it was before, for the long and bitter years of religious oppression will have engendered widespread disaffiliation from politicized Islam, with some interest in its apolitical variants and perhaps some conversions to milder faiths, and certainly with an irresistible demand to strip the clerics of all political or judicial power.
That, as it happens, is one excellent reason not to move forthwith to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations. For the long-term consequences of any American military action cannot be disregarded. Iranians are our once and future allies. Except for a narrow segment of extremists, they do not view themselves as enemies of the United States, but rather as the exact opposite: at a time when Americans are unpopular in all other Muslim countries, most Iranians become distinctly more friendly when they learn that a visitor is American. They must not be made to feel that they were attacked by the very country they most admire, where so many of their own relatives and friends have so greatly prospered, and with which they wish to restore the best of relations.
There is a second good reason not to act precipitously. In essence, we should not bomb Iran because the worst of its leaders positively want to be bombed—and are doing their level best to bring that about.
When a once broadly popular regime is reduced to the final extremity of relying on repression alone, when its leadership degenerates all the way down from an iconic Khomeini to a scruffy Ahmadinejad, it can only benefit from being engaged or threatened by the great powers of the world. The clerics’ frantic extremism reflects a sense of insecurity that is fully justified, given the bitter hostility with which they are viewed by most of the population at large. In a transparent political maneuver, Ahmadinejad tries to elicit nationalist support at home by provoking hostile reactions abroad, through his calls for the destruction of Israel, his clumsy version of Holocaust denial that is plainly an embarrassment even to other extremists, and, above all, his repeated declarations that Iran is about to repudiate the Non-Proliferation Treaty it ratified in 1970.
There is a third reason, too. The effort to build nuclear weapons started more than three decades ago, yet the regime is still years away from producing a bomb.
It was as far back as August 1974, when the overnight tripling of Iran’s oil revenues seemed to offer boundless opportunities, that the Shah publicly announced his intention to fund the construction of 23 nuclear reactors with an electricity-producing capacity of 1,000 megawatts each—a huge total, enough to supply Iran’s entire demand. His declared aim was to preserve the “noble” commodity of oil for the more valuable extraction of petrochemicals, instead of burning it as a furnace fuel.
That almost made economic sense at the time. Although many suspected—rightly—that the Shah’s real aim was to acquire nuclear weapons (we now know that he was seeking to buy ballistic missiles as well), he did at least have a passingly plausible explanation. But that was before the immensity of Iran’s natural-gas reserves became known. No such cover story can deceive anyone in 2006: with 812 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves (15 percent of the world’s total), Iran can cheaply generate all the electricity it wants with gas turbines.
In 1975, the Shah contracted with the French for enriched uranium and with Germany’s Kraftwerk Union consortium of Siemens and A.E.G. Telefunken, as well as with ThyssenKrupp, to build the first two pressurized light-water reactors and their generating units near Iran’s major port city of Bushehr. Work progressed rapidly until July 1979, when, after an expenditure of some $2.5 billion, the Germans abandoned Bushehr because Iran’s new revolutionary rulers refused to make an overdue progress payment of $450 million. It seems that Ayatollah Khomeini opposed nuclear devilry—and besides, anything done by the Shah was viewed with great suspicion.
At that point, one reactor (Bushehr I) was declared by the Germans to be 85-percent complete and the other (Bushehr II) 50-percent complete. Both were subsequently damaged during the war with Iraq that lasted until 1988, chiefly in air strikes flown by seconded French pilots. Siemens was asked to return to finish the work but, knowing that the German government would never allow the contract to proceed, refused.
Negotiations with the Russians began soon thereafter. But because of quarreling by different factions within Iran and protracted haggling with Minatom, the Soviet atomic-energy ministry, no agreement was reached until 1995, when Boris Yeltsin, by now the president of Russia, ignored American objections and approved the delivery of a VVER-1000 pressurized light-water reactor powered by slightly enriched uranium rods. Delivered as a single large module, the reactor was to be fitted into the Bushehr I building, which was to be quickly repaired, adapted, and completed by Iranian and Russian contractors.
But problems arose—more or less the same ones that might be encountered in remodeling a suburban kitchen, though on a somewhat larger scale. Today, some eleven years after the contract was signed, some 2,500 Russian technicians are still hard at work in famously hot Bushehr, and the reactor is still not quite ready. The United States, which originally opposed the Minatom contract, now accepts, presumably for good reason, that all is proceeding properly—the Russians alone are to process the uranium rods, and the level of Minatom’s competence and efficiency has been adequately signaled by the pace of its performance so far.
Rather less is known about Iran’s secret program to produce weapon-grade uranium by the centrifuge process, but there is no reason to believe that things are otherwise. What is known is that in 1995, the Pakistani thief and smuggler Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is regularly described as a scientist but who has never invented or developed anything at all, agreed to sell to Iran the complete centrifuge-technology package he had stolen from the European URENCO consortium. The package also included samples of Pakistani-made centrifuges, full-scale plans for a heavy-water and plutonium reactor and separation plant, and the drawings and calculations for a cannon-type uranium bomb that Pakistan had originally received from China.
Evidently not included in the package were the two first stages of the separation process—the straightforward crushing and leaching needed to extract concentrated natural uranium or “yellowcake” from uranium ore—and the less simple but not overly sophisticated chemical plant needed to convert yellowcake into the gas uranium hexafluoride, which is fed into centrifuges. But China made up for this lack in 1996, selling complete and detailed plans and blueprints to Iran after the United States successfully objected to the sale of the plant itself. It is now installed, big as life, near Isphahan, ready for use and evidently already tested. To judge by photographs, it could just as readily be incapacitated with fewer than twelve 1,000-pound bombs, though the target would have to be revisited periodically because chemical plants are easily repaired even after their seemingly spectacular destruction.
But the core technology in the Khan package was that of the centrifuges themselves. They were not the ultra-fast, carbon-fiber units that URENCO now uses but two early models: one built out of dense aluminum that is easier to manufacture with the right machinery, and the other built out of a more efficient maraging steel but harder to manufacture. Both derive from a 1957 German design that was itself an improved version of the original aluminum centrifuges developed in the postwar Soviet Union by captured German scientists.
The fissile U-235 isotope of uranium that is needed for bombs is only 1.26-percent lighter than the mass of U-238 that comprises 99.3 percent of natural uranium. To extract it, only very fast centrifuges are of any use, turning at the rate of at least 1,500 revolutions per second, a hundred times as fast as a domestic washing machine. Things that turn that fast easily break apart, and the detailed design is also far from simple: to reduce friction that would otherwise generate enough heat to melt the whole thing, the electrically powered rotor must spin in a vacuum, with a magnetic bearing. The Japanese, who are generally believed to be somewhat more advanced than the Iranians in such matters, encountered considerable difficulties with their centrifuge plant.
Nor could Khan possibly sell enough centrifuges to Iran: to separate U-235 for a bomb in any reasonable amount of time, many centrifuges must be set to work at once. With the design now in Iran’s possession, it would take at least 1,000 centrifuges working around the clock for at least a year to produce enough U-235 for a single cannon-type uranium bomb. Those 1,000 centrifuges must first be manufactured and then connected by piping into so-called “cascades”—and they must not break down, as poorly made centrifuges certainly will. (Of the 164 centrifuges that Iran already had in motion when the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] shut down the cascade in November 2003, fully a third crashed when the electricity was turned off.) Nor is it easy to keep the cascade running correctly: because uranium hexafluoride becomes highly corrosive in contact with water vapor, it can easily perforate imperfect tubes—and any leaks will promptly damage more of the plant.
It is true that one potential obstacle to Iran’s quest for U-235 did prove to be entirely insignificant. European firms, mostly German and Swiss, not only eagerly sold the high-strength aluminum, special maraging steel, electron-beam welders, balancing machines, vacuum pumps, machine tools, and highly specialized flow-forming machines for both aluminum and maraging steel centrifuges, but also trained Iranians in the use of all this equipment. Remarkably, or perhaps not, they were also willing to train Iranians in the processes specifically needed to manufacture centrifuges whose only possible purpose is to enrich uranium U-235. When the IAEA inspectors came around, they were able to read and photograph the labels on all the equipment, which neither the European manufacturers nor the Iranians had bothered to remove. It remains to be seen if any consequences will ensue.
Still, in spite of all the industrial assistance it received, it is not clear that the Iranian nuclear organization can manufacture centrifuge cascades of sufficient magnitude, efficiency, and reliability. There are many talented engineers among the Iranian exiles in the United States and elsewhere in the world, but perhaps not so many in Iran itself. Besides, demanding technological efforts require not just individual talents but well-organized laboratories and industrial facilities.
Organization is indeed Iran’s weakest point, with weighty consequences: after a century of oil drilling, for example, the state oil company still cannot drill exploratory wells without foreign assistance. In another example, even though the U.S. embargo was imposed almost 25 years ago, local industry cannot reverse-engineer spare parts of adequate quality for U.S.-made aircraft, which must therefore remain grounded or fly at great peril—there have been many crashes. Similarly, after more than sixty years of experience with oil refining at Abadan, existing capacity still cannot be increased without the aid of foreign engineering contractors, while the building of new refineries with local talent alone is deemed quite impossible. Iran must import one third of the gasoline it consumes because it cannot be refined at home.
In sum, there is no need to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations at this time. The regime certainly cannot produce nuclear weapons in less than three years, and may not be able to do so even then because of the many technical difficulties not yet overcome.
To this it might be objected that the nuclear program clearly has priority over everything else, and receives funding in huge amounts. That is true enough. Although there are no reliable expenditure numbers for Iran’s nuclear program, there is no need of numbers to establish its sheer magnitude. When the secret installations and activities revealed in August 2002 are added to those already publicly known, the total is impressive. It includes the Saghand ore-processing plant and uranium mine, the Tehran nuclear research center with its (very old) U.S.-supplied 5-megawatt research reactor, the nuclear technology center at Isphahan with four small Chinese-supplied research reactors, the Isphahan zirconium-production plant, the Bonab atomic-energy research center, the Anarak nuclear-waste storage site near Yazd, the Ardekan nuclear fuel plant, the shuttered Lashkar Ab’ad laser isotope separation plant, the Parchim, Lavizan II, and Chalous development facilities that eluded inspection, the Yazd radiation processing center, and finally the four largest and most important installations: the Bushehr reactor, the Isphahan uranium-hexafluoride conversion plant, the heavy-water and plutonium reactor and separation plant at Arak near the Kara-Chai River, some 150 miles south of Tehran, and the huge Natanz centrifuge complex between Isphahan and Kashan (at 33°43’24.43” N, 51°43’37.55”E, in case any friendly pilot should ask).
The last-named facility contains more than two dozen separate buildings within a perimeter of 4.7 miles, but of greatest interest are the two huge underground halls of 250,000 square feet each. Built with walls six feet thick and supposedly protected by two concrete roofs with sand and rocks in between—impressive to contemplate even if no dice against today’s penetrating munitions—these halls are large enough to hold as many centrifuges as the Iranians could possibly want to make any number of uranium bombs or for that matter to fuel many reactors, always assuming of course that they can successfully manufacture, assemble, and operate centrifuge cascades.
That they can indeed do so is what Iranian spokesmen themselves now claim, and none more emphatically than Ahmadinejad, who insists that his countrymen have already mastered all the required processes and techniques. But is he right? He does possess a Ph.D. in engineering—won, however, in a special program for Pasdaran veterans and in the field of urban traffic management rather than nuclear engineering. What undermines confidence in Ahmadinejad’s opinion is his rather expansive way with the facts, including his repeated assertion that the centrifuge technology was developed by Iranians in Iran and is “the proud achievement of the Iranian nation”—somehow overlooking the 99.99 percent of it that was purchased from A.Q. Khan.
Ahmadinejad aside, even casual observers must wonder how the world knows so much, in such exceptional detail, about Iran’s once secret nuclear program, certainly as compared with what it knows of North Korea’s program or what it knew of Iraq’s at any point in time. Moreover, only a fraction of what it knows about the installations and processes at Arak, Isphahan, Natanz, and all the other places was uncovered by the much-advertised inspections of the IAEA; the recent Nobel Peace Prize won by its director Mohamed ElBaradei must have been a reward for effort rather than achievement. Satellite photography, too, is only part of the explanation, because one needs to know exactly where to look before it can be useful.
The conclusion is inescapable that among the scientists, engineers, and managers engaged in Iran’s nuclear program—most of whom no doubt hold the same opinion of their rulers as do almost all educated Iranians—there are some who feel and act upon a higher loyalty to humanity than to the nationalism that the regime has discredited. Iran’s regime, extremist but not totalitarian, does not and cannot control the movement of people and communications in and out of the country as North Korea does almost completely, and as Iraq did in lesser degree.
Because of the continuing flow of detailed and timely information out of Iran, it is possible both to overcome the regime’s attempts at dispersion, camouflage, and deception and—if that should become necessary—to target air strikes accurately enough to delay Iran’s manufacture of nuclear weapons very considerably. At the same time, there is no reason to attack prematurely, because there will be ample time to do so before it is too late—that is, before enough fissile material has been produced for one bomb.
And that brings us back to the beginning. What gives great significance to the factor of time is the advanced stage of the regime’s degeneration. High oil prices and the handouts they fund now help to sustain the regime—but then it might last even without them, simply because of the power of any dictatorship undefeated in war. There is thus no indication that the regime will fall before it acquires nuclear weapons. Yet, because there is still time, it is not irresponsible to hope that it will.
By the same token, however, it is irresponsible to argue for coexistence with a future nuclear-armed Iran on the basis of a shared faith in mutual deterrence. How indeed could deterrence work against those who believe in the return of the twelfth imam and the end of life on earth, and who additionally believe that this redeemer may be forced to reveal himself by provoking a nuclear catastrophe?
But it is not necessary to raise such questions in order to reject coexistence with a nuclear Iran under its present leaders. As of now, in early 2006, with American and allied ground and air forces deployed on both sides of Iran in Afghanistan and Iraq, with powerful U.S. naval forces at sea to its south, with their own armed forces in shambles and no nuclear weapons, the rulers of Iran are openly financing, arming, training, and inciting anti-American terrorist organizations and militias at large. Under very thin cover, they are doing the same thing within neighboring Iraq, where they pursue a logic of their own by helping Sunni insurgents who kill Shiites, as well as rival Shiite militias that fight one another.
If this is what Iran’s extremist rulers are doing now even without the shield of nuclear weapons to protect them, what would they do if they had it? Even more aggression is the only reasonable answer, beginning with the subversion of the Arabian oil dynasties, where very conveniently there are Shiite minorities to be mobilized.
These, then, are the clear boundaries of prudent action in response to Iran’s vast, costly, and most dangerous nuclear program. No premature and therefore unnecessary attack is warranted while there is still time to wait in assured safety for a better solution. But also and equally, Iran under its present rulers cannot be allowed finally to acquire nuclear weapons—for these would not guarantee stability by mutual deterrence but would instead threaten us with uncontrollable perils.