Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

U.S. Still Flying Blind on Iran Nukes

On a day when we learned, via quotes from anonymous American officials, that Iran is up to its neck in the fighting in Iraq, confidence in Washington’s ability to stay in command of events in the Middle East is dropping rapidly. But the same administration that has dozed as America’s hard-won achievements in Iraq have evaporated is also hoping that its ignorance about what’s happening inside Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t hinder efforts to broker a deal with Tehran.

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On a day when we learned, via quotes from anonymous American officials, that Iran is up to its neck in the fighting in Iraq, confidence in Washington’s ability to stay in command of events in the Middle East is dropping rapidly. But the same administration that has dozed as America’s hard-won achievements in Iraq have evaporated is also hoping that its ignorance about what’s happening inside Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t hinder efforts to broker a deal with Tehran.

The Obama administration’s slender grasp of the facts about Iran’s extensive network of nuclear facilities is the most important point to be gleaned from a New York Times feature that centers on the largely unspecified role that scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh plays in his country’s effort to build a bomb. Fakhrizadeh is, according to the Times, Iran’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the Manhattan Project to nuclear success during World War Two. His absence from the negotiations being conducted with the West is much remarked upon because he, rather than some of the Islamist regime’s representatives who are taking part, is the key to Iran’s nuclear program. While that absence is motivated largely by a prudent desire to avoid Israelis who rightly think scientists trying to create genocidal weapons are good candidates for elimination, the speculation about the gap between what the West knows about Iran’s program and what Fakhrizadeh could tell us is the focus of the Times piece.

But the point of the questions that abound about Iran’s mysterious nuclear expert ought to alarm those who believe the United States knows what it’s doing in the Iran talks. The U.S. has a poor track record when it comes to monitoring Tehran’s actions outside its borders, such as international terrorism and its military intervention in Syria and now Iraq. But President Obama is betting what’s left of his reputation on the world stage and the security of America’s allies in the region on the strength of a number of assumptions about what Fakhrizadeh and his associates have achieved that are difficult to back up.

As the Times reports, the interesting point about Fakhrizadeh is that the timeline of what Iran has already created is extremely fuzzy. There is widespread confusion about whether the claim that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003 is accurate, especially since no one in Washington or anywhere else outside of Iran seems to be sure about when those activities were resumed under different organizations. Yet the administration seems to be assuming that understanding what Iran’s program achieved in the past is irrelevant since they think that they can trust the regime’s promises going forward and believe U.S. intelligence is capable of keeping track of current work.

But the Times lets slip an ominous truth buried deep in the article:

Obama administration officials say they have no illusions that they will get visibility into many of Iran’s most heavily protected sites, even if a deal is reached in the next month. That will leave verification of the accord reliant on the American intelligence community’s ability to track covert nuclear activity, a record that is littered with failures.

In other words, even after the next nuclear deal with Iran is reached, the administration is assuming they still won’t have access to all of Iran’s most critical nuclear sites. Underlying that assumption is a belief that the deal will not require Iran to open up its facilities devoted to military research or its ballistic missile program.

This next deal will leave, as did the interim agreement signed last fall, Iran’s uranium enrichment program in place and allow it to keep a stockpile of nuclear material that could be upgraded to weapons-grade levels. That means any hope of preventing the Iranians from “breaking out” and using the nuclear program left in place by the deal to produce a weapon–regardless of its promises–hinges on the U.S. knowing almost immediately if Tehran breaks its word. But given the American ignorance about what Iran has already done and sketchy intelligence and lack of access for inspections about its current activity, how can the president or anyone else say with any assurance that this next agreement will be worth the paper it is printed on?

Even with full access and inspections of the nuclear sites we know about—as opposed to those that Washington isn’t aware of that most intelligence experts assume exist—the chances of stopping Iran are slim. But to knowingly sign such an agreement with such poor information is a virtual guarantee of failure.

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