Today's U.K. Guardian report on Iran's nuclear program is largely a rehash of points we've already made. Citing the recently-released IAEA report on Tehran's nuclear efforts, the Guardian notes that Iran now has upwards of 3,000 centrifuges in operation, an array that could produce enough enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon a year, assuming that sufficient purity levels are attained.
And, as the paper observes, the 3,000 centrifuge array may represent a "red line" for potential military action. Allowing Iran to operate the centrifuges for a sustained period--and add more to the operation--would allow Tehran to master the production of nuclear fuel, an important step in developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. has long stated that Iran will not be allowed to obtain nukes, but it's unclear at what point we would employ military force. Similar red lines exist for Israel, which views Tehran's nuclear program and long-range missile forces with growing apprehension.
In some respects, the IAEA report underscore the inability of that organization--and the larger international community--to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. Former U.N. arms inspector David Kay (who would never be described as a neocon or a John Bolton clone) said that the IAEA assessment tries to "put a happy face on a worsening situation."
"The main issue is that Iran now has 3,000 centrifuges," he said. "The report doesn't even judge the quality of the information being offered, but it's clear it is giving minimal answers."
Indeed, even the nuclear agency acknowledges that Tehran's cooperation has been "reactive rather than proactive." In other words, getting information out of Iran has been the inspection equivalent of pulling teeth. While the IAEA commended Iran for providing access to individuals and answering questions, it seems clear that such cooperation has been reluctant, at best.
So, do these events genuinely place the U.S. and its allies at a decision point for military action?
At this juncture, we still believe the answer is "no." Despite claims that plans for an Iran operation are "up to date," we have not seen a build-up of air and naval forces that would likely signal an attack. The U.S. has also done nothing (at least officially) to discourage on-going diplomatic efforts, included tougher sanctions.
However, progress on that track is decidedly slow; as the Guardian notes, a planned U.N. security council meeting on sanctions, scheduled for Monday, has been postponed because the Chinese delegation is unable to attend. Both Beijing and Moscow--with extensive economic and military ties to Iran--are urging more diplomacy before new sanctions are imposed. Both Russia and China remained opposed to any military action against Tehran.
Against that backdrop--and with U.S. military forces stretched thin by on-going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan--the Bush Administration appears hesitant to pull the trigger. That's one reason that Tehran remains bellicose in official statements on its nuclear program, and refuses to back down. At this point, Iran believes it has little to fear from pressing ahead with its nuclear ambitions, even if it has pushed the west to a decision time.