Published by The Freeman Center
The Maccabean Online
Political Analysis and Commentary
While Diplomats Dither, Iran Builds Nukes
By JOHN R. BOLTON
August 5, 2008
This weekend, yet another "deadline" passed for Iran to indicate it was seriously ready to discuss ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Like so many other deadlines during these five years of European-led negotiations, this one died quietly, with Brussels diplomats saying that no one seriously expected any real work on a Saturday.
The fact that the Europeans are right -- this latest deadline is not fundamentally big news -- is precisely the problem with their negotiations, and the Bush administration\'s acquiescence in that effort.
The rationality of continued Western negotiations with Iran depends critically on two assumptions: that Iran is far enough away from having deliverable nuclear weapons that we don\'t incur excessive risks by talking; and that by talking we don\'t materially impede the option to use military force. Implicit in the latter case is the further assumption that the military option is static -- that it remains equally viable a year from now as it is today.
Neither assumption is correct. Can we believe that if diplomacy fails we can still take military action "in time" to prevent Iranian nuclear weapons? "Just in time" nonproliferation assumes a level of intelligence certainty concerning Iran\'s nuclear program that recent history should manifestly caution us against.
Every day that goes by allows Iran to increase the threat it poses, and the viability of the military option steadily declines over time. There are a number of reasons why this is so.
First, while the European-led negotiations proceed, Iran continues both to convert uranium from a solid (uranium oxide, U3O8, also called yellowcake) to a gas (uranium hexafluoride, UF6) at its uranium conversion facility at Isfahan. Although it is a purely chemical procedure, conversion is technologically complex and poses health and safety risks.
As Isfahan\'s continuing operations increase both Iran\'s UF6 inventory and its technical expertise, however, the impact of destroying the facility diminishes. Iran is building a stockpile of UF6 that it can subsequently enrich even while it reconstructs Isfahan after an attack, or builds a new conversion facility elsewhere.
Second, delay permits Iran to increase its stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU) -- that is, UF6 gas in which the U235 isotope concentration (the form of uranium critical to nuclear reactions either in reactors or weapons) is raised from its natural level of 0.7% to between 3% and 5%.
As its LEU stockpile increases, so too does Tehran\'s capacity to take the next step, and enrich it to weapons-grade concentrations of over 90% U235 (highly-enriched uranium, or HEU). Some unfamiliar with nuclear matters characterize the difference in LEU-HEU concentration levels as huge. The truth is far different. Enriching natural uranium by centrifuges to LEU consumes approximately 70% of the work and time required to enrich it to HEU.
Accordingly, destroying Iran\'s enrichment facility at Natanz does not eliminate its existing enriched uranium (LEU), which the IAEA estimated in May 2008 to be approximately half what is needed for one nuclear weapon. Iran is thus more than two-thirds of the way to weapons-grade uranium with each kilogram of uranium it enriches to LEU levels. Moreover, as the LEU inventory grows, so too does the risk of a military strike hitting one or more UF6 storage tanks, releasing potentially substantial amounts of radioactive gas into the atmosphere.
Third, although we cannot know for sure, every indication is that Iran is dispersing its nuclear facilities to unknown locations, "hardening" against air strikes the ones we already know about, and preparing more deeply buried facilities in known locations for future operations. That means that the prospects for success against, say, the enrichment facilities at Natanz are being reduced.
Fourth, Iran is clearly increasing its defensive capabilities by purchasing Russian S-300 antiaircraft systems (also known as the SA-20) directly or through Belarus. In late July, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and his spokesman contradicted Israeli contentions that the new antiaircraft systems would be operational this year. Assuming the Pentagon is correct, its own assessment on timing simply enhances the argument for Israel striking sooner rather than later.
Fifth, Iran continues to increase the offensive capabilities of surrogates like Syria and Hezbollah, both of which now have missile capabilities that can reach across Israel, as well as threaten U.S. troops and other U.S. friends and allies in the region. It may well be Syria and Hezbollah that retaliate initially after an Israeli strike on Iran\'s nuclear facilities, thus making further strikes against Iran more problematic, at least in the short run.
Iran is pursuing two goals simultaneously, both of which it is comfortably close to achieving. The first -- to possess all the capabilities necessary for a deliverable nuclear weapon -- is now almost certainly impossible to stop diplomatically. Thus, Iran\'s second objective becomes critical: to make the risks of a military strike against its program too high, and to make the likelihood of success in fracturing the program too low. Time favors Iran in achieving these goals. U.S. and European diplomats should consider this while waiting by the telephone for Iran to call.
Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).