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How Serious Is the World About Stopping an Iranian Bomb?

The announcement at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh by the U.S., France, and Great Britain that Iran has been secretly constructing a smaller version of its nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz is a clear indication that those who have been concerned about the Iranian nuclear program have been right all along.

“They have cheated three times,” one senior administration official with access to the intelligence said of the Iranians late on Thursday evening. “And they have now been caught three times.”

Actually, you can make that four times caught cheating if you include:

1. The actual existence of the Iranian nuclear program that the Iranians lied about for more than a decade.

2. The existence of the underground nuclear facility at Natanz which was unearthed by an Iranian dissident group and which the Iranians had been denying existed for years.

3. Iranian lies about their desire not to build nuclear weapons — until we penetrated their computer network two years ago and discovered they were trying to design a bomb. (Note: the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from 2007 determined the regime had stopped trying to build a bomb in 2003.)

4. This new revelation about a facility that Western intelligence has known about for several years, while at the same time the Iranians were telling the International Atomic Energy Agency that there were no other nuclear facilities in Iran.

The question asks itself: why would a nation that claims to be interested only in the nuclear fuel cycle hide a facility capable of secretly enriching uranium to the 85-90% level necessary to construct a bomb?

Nothing Iran has ever publicly said about the extent of its nuclear program has ever proven to be true. The have brazenly and repeatedly lied about matters vital to the peace and security of the world.

What’s the “world” going to do about it?

Why should anyone believe the Iranians when they claim they have no interest in constructing a bomb? And if no one believes them, then the world has two choices: try and prevent Iran from developing a bomb or learn to live with them possessing it.

Obviously, the milquetoast Security Council sanctions we have applied to Iran previously have failed to convince them to stop their drive to build nuclear weapons — or at least develop the capability to build them in a matter of months. Searching for a solution short of war, Western nations will now seek much tougher sanctions against the regime in hopes that it will bring concessions by Iran at the bargaining table in Geneva, where talks are scheduled to begin on October 1.

The major element of any new sanctions will almost certainly be a cutoff by the world to Iran of refined gasoline. Despite sitting on a sea of oil, the Iranians import about 40% of their fuel needs from abroad. Such a cutoff would not only bring the Iranian economy to a standstill; it would more than likely feed the discontent already boiling over in the streets as a result of the stolen election last summer.

GOP House Whip Eric Cantor took advantage of the revelation about the secret Iranian facility to push legislation that would bring about the fuel sanction:

The existence of a second uranium enrichment facility not only undercuts the administration’s policy toward Iran, but leaves little doubt that terrorist nations are not to be trusted or negotiated with diplomatically. Congress should act immediately to give the president the tools he needs to implement sanctions on Iran by passing the bipartisan Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act.

But whether the rest of the world, including Russia and China, would support such stiff measures against Iran is another question. The Chinese have found it profitable to use the Asian spot market in refined gasoline to make considerable deliveries to Tehran using third parties.

And Russia is extremely reluctant to do anything that would upset its profitable commercial ties with Iran — especially in the areas of modern arms sales and helping the regime with its “peaceful” nuclear program.

Both nations have vetoes in the United Nations Security Council and could potentially derail any effort to impose meaningful sanctions on Iran that might give the regime second thoughts about their enrichment program. Can they be convinced to play for such stiff sanctions?

The president’s much criticized decision last week to pull the rug from underneath the Polish and Czech governments with regards to missile defense may have opened a diplomatic avenue to the Russians:

Mr. Obama had, by that point, made a giant step toward getting Russia more amenable to the idea of sanctions against Iran — something Moscow does not like — by announcing last week that he was replacing President George W. Bush’s missile defense with a version less threatening to Moscow. That issue, one administration official said, completely changed the dynamic during Mr. Obama’s meeting with Mr. Medvedev.

While it is unclear whether Mr. Obama briefed Mr. Medvedev about the Qum facility during that meeting at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the two leaders nonetheless emerged with Mr. Medvedev promising, for the first time publicly, that Russia would be amenable to tougher sanctions.

So goes Great Power diplomacy: the perceived betrayal of two allies in exchange for the arguably more important goal of getting Russia on board for tougher, meaningful sanctions against Iran.

If Mr. Obama is suffering from an attack of realpolitik, it is occurring at an opportune time.

What to do with this new-found stick that we can use against Iran? Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies, writing in Foreign Policy magazine:

According to the New York Times, the administration went public because the Iranians had discovered that Western intelligence had “breached the secrecy surrounding the project.” Perhaps. But it seems rather more likely that the administration chose to go public as part of a calculated effort to ratchet up the credibility of the threat of tough sanctions ahead of the October 1 meeting between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva. The public disclosure puts Iran on the back foot ahead of those talks, and appears to have encouraged Russia to more seriously consider supporting such sanctions (that, plus the missile defense decision probably). This has to change Iranian calculations — indeed, the perception that the sanctions are now more likely is precisely what may lead the Iranians to make more concessions to avoid them.

It also demonstrates to the Iranians the quality of Western intelligence and the difficulty of deception and denial — especially in the atmosphere of (quite warranted) mistrust of their intentions. That may reduce their reasons to oppose the intrusive inspections and monitoring regime.

“Intrusive” inspections and monitoring is an understatement, according to Jeffrey Forden, writing in the influential Arms Control Wonk:

Now that we know about at least this one covert facility, it is the time to reach a deal with Iran about placing a multinational enrichment facility on Iranian soil. This may seem paradoxical, but such a facility is the best way of ensuring that Iran cannot set up other secret enrichment facilities later. We obviously now know that “suspension” is not the answer; they can use the freedom such inactivity gives their workers to setup new plants outside the prying IAEA inspectors’ view. We need to be with the Iranian scientists and engineers 24 hours a day, seven days a week to understand what they are doing. Of course, the first step will be to require lists of workers at both the covert and overt enrichment plants as well as enough supporting documentation (shift schedules, pay stubs, payroll accounts come immediately to mind) to instill confidence in the West that we know everyone who has worked there. Of course, while we are checking those documents, Westerners can be working in the plants; keeping an eye on those already there. They could start that tomorrow.

This revelation of a covert facility might be just the bargaining chip the West needs to force the measures necessary to build up confidence Iran is not establishing other secret plants.

It is doubtful Iran would agree to those terms — unless not agreeing to them meant the end of their regime, not through war but through the chaos that would result if Iran suddenly faced a shortfall of 40% in its fuel supply. That still might not convince President Ahamdinejad, but the chances that he and his cutthroat friends would be deposed would rise substantially.

But what of the Israelis? Benjamin Netanyahu’s magnificent speech at the United Nations on Thursday underscored Israeli determination not to allow Iran to threaten its existence while at the same time imploring the international community to take serious measures to see that the regime did not achieve the ability to threaten his country.

Beyond that, it is likely that Netanyahu has personally and privately assured the Russians that Israel will make no military moves as long as a Moscow did not supply the Iranians with the means to destroy them.

This from the left-wing Guardian:

With the “reset” of US-Russian relations, the Kremlin has performed a spectacular “rethink” of its Iran policy. The “secret” Moscow visit by Binyamin Netanyahu on 7 September seemed to reassure the Russian leadership that Israel would not launch unilateral pre-emptive strikes against suspected Iranian nuclear installations — on the condition that Moscow promise not to equip Iran with the advanced S-300 system, an offensive missile capability that could deliver nuclear warheads.

If Russia drops its opposition to further sanctions, China is likely to agree or at least to abstain because Beijing’s policy is to avoid isolation within the UN security council.

It would appear at this juncture that the world is beginning to get more serious about the Iranian nuclear threat. Those who recall similar efforts at trying to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear desires will probably scoff at this latest drive for sanctions, feeling it “too little, too late.” And there is absolutely no guarantee that the Russians or Chinese would go along with sanctions against Iran that could result in the regimes ouster.

But the alternative is nearly as unthinkable as the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran: a general war between Israel and Iran with consequences for U.S. interests in the region and around the world that would prove devastating.

The president is acting with clear-eyed realism by publicizing the Iranian threat while trying to line up the international community behind what is hoped will be much tougher sanctions. He is aware that his policy will not sit well with those who wish to attack Iran and remove the threat of nuclear arms from that quarter for at least a few years. But the discovery of this secret site should give anyone advocating such a policy pause. There may yet be other sites of which we are not aware and trying to force Iran to divulge their entire nuclear program so that it can be monitored and inspected may accomplish the same goal without a ruinous, costly war.