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Will world confront Iran?

Op-ed: Effort to curb nuclear Iran requires quick, firm action, but is West up to challenge?

Published: 11.08.11, 23:43 / Israel Opinion

The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows that Iran’s nuclear program has military aims. The report not only details up-to-date information about Iran’s uranium enrichment, but also the vast information accumulated by the organization on the ayatollah regime’s efforts to produce the bomb itself.

 

This is where the report’s main significance lies. It does not assert that Iran already possesses nuclear weapons or even provide an estimate of when such arms would be acquired, yet it decisively disproves Tehran’s claims that its nuclear program has peaceful aims. Hence, the very publication of the report constitutes an impressive diplomatic achievement for the United States and its allies, granting them a powerful political lever against Iran, and mostly against Russia and China (which object to so-called “paralyzing sanctions” that would threaten the survival of the Tehran regime.)

 

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The question now is how the West will be using this lever to curb Iran’s nuke program. The fairly well-established assessment at this time is that the West has a year or more to take steps that would prevent Iran from producing a nuclear device.

 

An up-to-date summary of the information available to the IAEA and Western intelligence services is that Iran currently possesses enough low-grade enriched uranium that would provide sufficient fissile material for 2-3 nuclear bombs. In order to produce enough material for one nuclear device (similar to the bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima,) Iran would need to enrich some 1,600 kilograms (roughly 3,500 pounds) of uranium to the 90% mark. Iran is believed to already posses the technological know-how to do this.

 

However, Tehran’s ability to rapidly enrich large quantities of uranium is still limited. The reason for this is that the number of centrifuges at its disposal is still rather low and totals several thousands. The bottom line is that given the current state of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, it would need at least two years to produce enough fissile materials for one to three bombs once it takes the decision to do so.

 

Will Iran develop nuke device? 

Meanwhile, Iran’s weapons program is at a much more advanced stage. The IAEA report indicates that Iranian scientists have been working for seven years now, and possibly more, on developing the bomb’s mechanism. This so-called implosion apparatus is designed to produce heat and pressure that would stimulate the nuclear chain reaction.

 

Based on available information, experts and Western spy agencies estimate that Iran is currently six months to a year away from completing the development of a first nuclear device. Once the development work would be done, Iran would need to test such device in order to ensure it works properly, as done by India and Pakistan for example. It’s unlikely that Tehran would settle for a computerized simulation of such detonation.

 

Once such device is tested, the world would know that Iran possesses military nuclear capabilities; the implication of this for the region and for Israel’s security would be fateful.

 

However, we must keep in mind that a nuclear device, even if tested and operational, does not constitute a nuclear weapon. It would be a giant object, the size of a small car, which can produce a nuclear explosion but is very hard to direct at its target. In order to turn a “nuke device” into a “nuke weapon”, one must minimize it and reduce its weight so it would fit on a ballistic missile or as a bomb that a fighter jet could carry for long distances.

 

Yet once Iran possesses a working nuclear device, regardless of how large it is, it would still be able to use it in order to target another state: For example, by placing it in a container and shipping it to a foreign port, detonating it using a remote control. Hence, even if Iran does not complete the development of a nuclear warhead, it would still possess a primitive nuclear device that can be used.

 

In other words, a successfully tested nuclear device would mean – for Israel and for the international community – that Iran has turned into a nuclear military power.

 

Counting on Saudis

For the time being, Iran is working towards fortifying and hiding its nuclear development and production sites underground, so that a potential Israeli or Western military operation would fail to secure its aims. Yet the West still has a window of opportunity of a year to a year and a half where it can exert economic and other pressure on Iran, without resorting to a military strike. Such moves comprise economic means that would threaten the regime’s survival, topped by a global boycott of Iran’s central back and an embargo on importing and exporting oil products.

 

The IAEA granted Iran a time-out to explain the report’s grave findings and urged Tehran to embark on discussions, without delay, in order to provide clarifications. The real aim of this time-out is to enable the US, the European Union, Russia and China to restart negotiations with Iran aimed at reaching a compromise that would halt Tehran’s nuke effort. Iran would likely jump at the opportunity and agree to dialogue, yet exploit it – as happened in the past –to buy time while advancing its nuclear program.

 

Another option available to the US and its allies is to adopt tough sanctions independently, not in the framework of the Security Council. However, as it turned out in recent days, America and the EU are not eager to impose such sanctions, because they would hurt the Iranian people first and foremost and possibly prompt them to rally around their government.

 

Another concern is that an oil embargo on Iran would prompt global oil prices to skyrocket, thereby indirectly also undermining the US and European economies. In order to avert this possibility, the US would have to convince Arab oil producers in the Persian Gulf to boost their production, to compensate for the loss of Iranian oil and avert a global price hike.

 

There is a good chance that Gulf states, headed by Saudi Arabia, would comply with the American request, and therefore there is still a good chance that the latest IAEA report would prompted substantive, effective pressure on Iran should Western steps be taken quickly and firmly. Otherwise, the military option will be placed on the agenda with renewed vigor, not only in Israel but apparently in the US and in other Western states as well.

 

 

 

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