The Magazine

Radioactive Regime

Iran and its apologists

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The West and the Islamic Republic may finally be nearing the denouement of their nuclear standoff. As Tehran gradually replaces its first-generation centrifuges with more efficient models and improves the performance of all its machines, an undetectable “breakout capacity”—the time needed to enrich enough uranium for a bomb to weapons grade—is coming. Probably by mid-2014 the regime will have the ability to convert its 20 percent-enriched uranium to weapons grade too rapidly for the United States to stop it militarily. The Arak facility, meanwhile, which will produce separated plutonium, appears ready to go online by mid-2014. As David Albright, the nonproliferation expert at the Institute for Science and International Security, has tirelessly pointed out, a breakout capacity of three weeks would be almost impossible for Western intelligence, and even the IAEA with its weekly and spot inspections of the Iranian facilities, to detect. And supposing a breakout were detected, it is difficult to imagine Washington’s unwieldy foreign-policy process and cautious president gearing up a preemptive strike within 21 days.  

By 2015 the breakout period could well be one week. Olli Heinonen, the former number two at the IAEA and now at Harvard’s Belfer Center, worries that the regime may already have secret storage facilities for enriched uranium. IAEA inspectors privately confess that they don’t know where Iran is building its centrifuges (though they have educated guesses). It’s likely that neither the CIA nor the French foreign-intelligence service, the DGSE, which has been tracking Iran’s nuclear program fairly seriously for decades, has a better idea than the IAEA inspectors. According to a plugged-in French official, France has tried to put centrifuge production on the table at meetings with Tehran. Perhaps still hoping for a serious Iranian offer of bilateral talks with the United States and a deal on 20 percent enrichment, President Obama’s team has so far blocked Paris. But unless the production of centrifuges is somehow slowed and the Arak plutonium plant shuttered, the United States (and Israel) will soon have to choose to preempt or acquiesce.  

As we draw nearer to judgment day, those who have assiduously portrayed Iran as nonthreatening—or sufficiently hazard-free to dismiss military action—will surely try to take the foreground. Barack Obama has said unequivocally that he will not allow the Islamic Republic to develop an atomic weapon. He has alluded to the growing menace of a clandestine nuclear dash. “We have a sense,” the president said during the 2012 campaign, “of when they would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program, and that clock is ticking.” Democratic doves, Republican isolationists, and bipartisan “realists” may grow increasingly anxious that Obama, who prides himself on his toughness with drones and his long-standing concern about nuclear proliferation, just might mean what he says. It certainly appears that the president’s visit to Israel in March convinced Benjamin Netanyahu that Obama was sufficiently serious to quiet the prime minister’s anxiety about Washington’s intentions. (The extraordinary military and political challenges of an Israeli preemptive strike against the Islamic Republic may also have helped.)

But virtually no one in Washington takes the president’s threat at face value. Does anyone in Tehran? Given Obama’s manifest desire to extricate the United States from Middle Eastern adventures, his caution in Syria, his choice of dovish senior officials, his defense cuts, his parsimony in expressing his willingness to use force abroad, the queasiness of liberals about the legality of preemptive action, and the boldness of the Quds Force, the terrorist unit within the Revolutionary Guard Corps, in planning a bombing run against the Saudi ambassador in Washington in 2011 (the punishment for which was .  .  . more sanctions), Khamenei is no more concerned about this issue than the American left. 

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