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The Red Line for Iran

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Determining whether Iran is building a nuclear device, however, is exceedingly difficult. Panetta testified before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee on February 16: “If . . . we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it.” However, international inspectors have been routinely denied access to nuclear-related military facilities. Also, given the uproar over faulty intelligence over Iraq’s nuclear program preceding the 2003 war, U.S. intelligence agencies will be reluctant to declare any “slam dunks” without an unequivocal, even if hard to obtain, “smoking gun.”

Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies have never before predicted any country’s initial test of a nuclear weapon. Accordingly, if Iran sought to assemble a nuclear weapon, we would likely only detect it after the weapon was tested, by which time it would be too late.

If the administration’s intent is to prevent a nuclear Iran, it should draw a red line that is clear, verifiable and preventable before it is too late. The red line should be nuclear weapons capability, not the imperceptible turning of the screwdriver to assemble a weapon.

Michael Makovsky, a Pentagon official during the George W. Bush administration, directs the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Project, including its Iran Initiative, which recently released the report, “Stopping the Clock.” Blaise Misztal is associate director of BPC’s National Security Project.

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