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.