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Iran's Nuclear Surge Capacity

2:32 PM, Dec 23, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s comments concerning Iran’s nuclear program have caused quite a stir. In an interview aired on Monday, CBS News’s Scott Pelley asked, “So are you saying that Iran can have a nuclear weapon in 2012?”

Panetta Leon

Panetta replied, “It would probably be about a year before they can do it. Perhaps a little less. But one proviso, Scott, is if they have a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel.” In that case, Panetta explained, Iran could be on a “faster track” to developing nuclear weapons.

Pelley also asked Panetta about a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “Well, we share the same common concern,” Panetta replied. “The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us and that's a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it we will deal with it.”

Panetta left unsaid what he meant, exactly, by “deal with it.” And the Pentagon quickly walked back Panetta’s comments.

“The secretary was clear that we have no indication that the Iranians have made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon,” George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters. According to the New York Times, Little continued: “He was asked to comment on prospective and aggressive timelines on Iran’s possible production of nuclear weapons — and he said if, and only if, they made such a decision. He didn’t say that Iran would, in fact, have a nuclear weapon in 2012.”

There is no indication in the portion of the interview televised by CBS News that Panetta was asked about “aggressive timelines.” Perhaps that exchange took place before the clip that was aired. Even so, Panetta entertained a possible timeline that was less than one year. This is alarmingly soon.

Moreover, Little’s clarification is problematic and raises more questions than it answers. Namely, what does it really mean to say the U.S. government has “no indication that the Iranians have made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon”? In reality, this is gobbledygook.

The problem is that if, under certain scenarios, Iran is possibly only one year or less away from a nuclear weapon – as Secretary Panetta claims – then the mullahs have certainly decided to “develop a nuclear weapon.” Nuclear weapons cannot be developed overnight. Quite obviously, assembling a missile with a nuclear payload requires years of research and experimentation, as well as accumulated technical knowledge and skill. The decision to start down this path had to be made years ago.

As Weekly Standard contributor Michael Anton points out: Imagine someone argued that all of America’s efforts to build a bomb between 1940 and 1945, prior to testing, amounted to little absent a decision to put all the pieces together. No one would believe that, of course, but that is what Little’s argument, which has been repeated throughout the U.S. government, amounts to.  

And there is every reason to think that Iran has been “develop[ing] a nuclear weapon” for years. As the IAEA reported in November:

Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information.

The IAEA documented numerous aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons development, efforts that require coordination, funding, and – fundamentally – the will of Iran’s ruling elite. The point is to bring Iran to the verge of a nuclear capability, with only one last decision or two to be made – not a wholesale decision about whether or not the mullahs should develop a nuclear weapons capability in the first place.

The original Iranian nuclear program, which predated the mullahs’ rise to power, was conceived to offer just such a breakout capability. Here is how Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran’s foreign minister from 1967 until 1971, explained it in on the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 2004:

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