The Magazine

The Most Dangerous Man in the World

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ali Khamenei

Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Truth be told, if Tehran had just confessed that it had, once upon a time, thought about making a nuclear weapon, had experimented with developing triggers and warheads, but had forsaken the idea on religious grounds, the West would have greeted this as a major breakthrough. Paris and Washington—the most important players on the Western side—would have been inclined to grant Tehran considerable leeway on uranium enrichment, probably even at the underground, bunker-bomb-challenging Fordow facility. The Iranians, who deny that their nuclear program has any military component, certainly could have proceeded, with at least the implicit approval of the West, enriching to 5 percent or higher. And as long as the 5 percent stockpile, which is about 70 percent of the way to making bomb-grade uranium, continues to grow, the regime will have a rapid breakout potential, provided it can improve the quality of its centrifuges. Better centrifuges allow for much smaller cascades and more rapidly produced highly enriched uranium, and are the key to escaping large, targetable facilities, like Natanz and Fordow. The Iranians have had a devilishly difficult time manufacturing improved versions of the A.Q. Khan-delivered, Pakistani-designed P1 model. But they have, slowly but surely, progressed. They need time, which a confession would have bought them.

The clerical regime knows that the Americans and Europeans years ago debriefed defecting Iranian scientists about the ultimate objective of the Islamic Republic’s centrifuge program—a nuclear weapon. The defectors were explicit about what was clearly understood by all those setting up the Islamic Republic’s centrifuge manufacturing and the clandestine, dual-use import network in the late 1980s. Iranian officials now have a good idea—largely because the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and European diplomats have told them—what else we know about their nuclear-weapons research. The path to the bomb would probably have been slower with an official confession, but it would have, at a minimum, divided the West, and inclined the United States and France to recognize unofficially Iran’s “right” to uranium enrichment. No such “right” actually exists in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which only grants to its signatories the right to nuclear energy provided participating countries obey all of the articles of the treaty, including allowing IAEA oversight. And the French, much more than State Department officials, have insisted that Western negotiations hold to the letter of U.N. resolutions: Iran has no sovereign “right” to enrichment. 

Perhaps not even Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the duplicitous former president and now-fallen clerical majordomo who launched the atomic-weapons program, or his clever nuclear sidekick, the Scottish-educated cleric Hassan Rowhani, if they’d still held sway in foreign policy, would have been capable of admitting to weapons research. They certainly would have resisted the full implementation of the Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA unfettered freedom to examine any suspicious site in a signatory country. Iran’s foreign minister from 1981 to 1997, Ali Velayati, who remains a close adviser to the supreme leader, reportedly once equated the Additional Protocol to the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, in which Iran surrendered Armenia, much of Azerbaijan, and the Caucasus to Russia. For Iranians, that’s the pits. 

But European diplomats were almost begging Tehran to accept a watered-down version of the protocol, where the IAEA would inspect the Parchin military facility, which Western intelligence services have long suspected of housing weaponization research, and then applaud that progress but push aggressively no further. A -cleverer helmsman than Khamenei would have played with the IAEA about giving some access to Parchin—or other facilities in lieu of Parchin if the weapons research there could not be sufficiently wiped clean. But Khamenei, who has encouraged his minions to parade his reported anti-nuke fatwa, or juridical opinion, refused to wiggle. Neither he, nor his MIT-educated nuclear technocrat-turned-foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who’d been intimately involved in setting up Iran’s dual-use import network, or his war-ravaged, one-legged, deeply devout ideologue-turned-nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, realized that they’d pushed the Americans and the Europeans into a corner. 

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