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Where Is the 'Red Line' on Iran?

There is no more important question today than “what is the red line that Israel won’t allow Iran to cross?” Over the years, we’ve been given different answers. Originally, it was the capacity to quickly produce a nuclear weapon, allowing Iran to minimize the time between the decision to become nuclear-armed and the completion of that goal, paralyzing the West into inaction with its speed. We’ve heard that the actual construction of a bomb is the red line, but then there are those that say the capability to deliver that weapon with a warhead is the red line.

The latest IAEA report leaves little room for optimism. The White House spokesman Robert Gibbs shrugged off Ahmadinejad’s announcement that Iran was enriching uranium to 20 percent, owing it to bravado and an attempt to inflate the country’s technical capacity. As it turned out, Iran wasn’t lying this time. The IAEA confirmed that Iran enriched some of its uranium of about 3.5 percent purity to 20 percent in two days.

To become the fuel for a nuclear bomb, the uranium must be enriched to 90 percent purity. This fact can be misleading, as it causes the uninformed to think that a significant amount of time remains to prevent enrichment to that level. This is incorrect for two reasons. The first is that the enrichment to 20 percent only took two days, so this process moves along quickly. The second is that the work required for that extra 70 percent is not as exhausting as the initial climb to 20 percent. David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security says that it would only take about six months to enrich enough uranium from 20 percent to bomb-grade level, using 500 to 1,000 centrifuges. The IAEA said last June that Iran has 5,000 centrifuges operating.

The truth is that Iran has already crossed the first potential red line and is now able to produce a nuclear weapon within a few months. Israel must attack now or gamble that sanctions will be placed on Iran that deter or stop it from making a bomb, and that if a decision to make a bomb is made, Israel’s intelligence is good enough to detect it with enough time for it to quickly stop Iran.

As the significance of Iran’s technical achievements becomes realized by the Israelis and the West in general, expect the argument to shift. It will be repeatedly stated that even if Iran develops a bomb, it lacks the ability to fit it onto a warhead for effective delivery. But waiting for this red line to be approached is another unwise gamble.

The IAEA report shows that the controversial National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 that concluded that Iran had stopped nuclear weapons-related work in 2003 is false. The IAEA clearly states that Iran was working on technical expertise related to a nuclear warhead into 2004, and the regime ended all communication with the inspectors about the topic in August 2008. The regulatory agency found that Iran has been conducting tests related to warhead reentry, nuclear triggers, and a “spherical implosion system” that forms the core of a bomb.

The Guardian reported in November that Iran had been working on a sophisticated “two-point implosion system” that allows for the miniaturization of a warhead so it can better fit onto a ballistic missile. The regime has also been testing solid-fuel, two-stage ballistic missiles that could deliver such a weapon, and the military has practiced using such weapons in an electromagnetic pulse attack that could potentially fry all electronic components for thousands of miles. In other words, even if one pushes back the red line to this final stage in order to expand the window of time the West has, the regime is progressing along quite nicely and while it is unclear when it will perfect such delivery capability, it is certainly drawing near.

The key question is which of these three benchmarks is considered by the Israelis to be the red line that forces military action with all of its consequences. Ironically, as I’ve written before, it is very possible that the Iranians are deliberately trying to cross that red line so as to provoke a limited strike that gives them an excuse to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and announce that they will begin building nukes. For Israel, it’s a Catch-22 of the deadliest kind and it is the hardest decision any leader of that country has had to make.

The only way to prevent this horrid scenario from being actualized is for the Obama administration to take tough measures as suggested by members of Congress. Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz point out that the threat of sanctions on Iran’s energy sector is already causing banks and major companies to back out of investing in Iran. The Chinese are trying to come to the rescue by building refineries, but those will take years to finish. Senators McCain and Lieberman have proposed legislation forcing the president to publish a list of human rights violators in Iran so they can be personally sanctioned. Senators Brownback and Cornyn have presented the Iran Democratic Transition Act that paves the way to support the democratic opposition and actively support a transitional government. These bills must be immediately passed and enforced.

The Israelis are preparing for the worst. It is no coincidence that Israel revealed a fleet of unmanned aerial drones that can fly for an entire day and reach Iran shortly following the regime’s latest announcement. Only immediate, concrete, aggressive action can convince the Israelis to wait. Should such a strike commence, the international outcry against Israel will be misplaced. It will be the lack of action by the U.S. and its allies that, more than anyone aside from Ahmadinejad and Khamanei, will have forced Israel’s hand.