The Second Reckoning
Last Thursday, The Wall Street Journal published a timely and important op-ed, written by former Senators Charles Robb of Virginia and Dan Coats of Indiana, and retired Air Force General Charles Wald. In their piece--which received almost no attention outside the Journal's editorial forums and he blogosphere--the three men warned that Iran is on pace to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon by next year. As they write:
Last year, a high-level Bipartisan Policy Center task force in which we participated concluded that a nuclear weapons-capable Iran would be "strategically untenable." Alarmed by how little diplomatic progress has been made, we have just updated that report. Not only has Iran continued its nuclear program unabated, but its regime has emerged from post-election turmoil more radical than ever.
The centrifuges at Natanz continue spinning. At its current pace, Iran's nuclear program will be able to manufacture enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 2010. A nuclear-armed Iran would not only pose a security threat to the U.S. and its allies. It would embolden Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups, destabilize the region, upset global energy markets, and spark a wave of proliferation across the Middle East. Moreover, if we do not act quickly and credibly to address this threat, we run the very real risk of Israel taking matters into its own hands.
Robb, Coats and General Wald believe its time for a new strategy on Iran, one that combines tougher sanctions with the threat of U.S. miliary action, if Tehran refuses to abandon its nuclear ambitions. They believe that any policy that excludes the military option is almost doomed to failure:
Given Iran's shortening nuclear timetable and diplomatic challenges for forging an international consensus on sanctions, we urge Mr. Obama simultaneously to begin preparations for the use of military options. Now is the time for the president to reinforce his commitment to "use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon," as he stated in February. We believe only a credible U.S. military threat can make possible a peaceful solution.
By showing that he has not taken the military option off the table, Mr. Obama may also be able to convince Israel to forgo a unilateral military strike while forcing Tehran to recognize the costs of its nuclear defiance. Furthermore, making preparations now will enable the president, should all other measures fail to bring Tehran to the negotiating table, to use military force to retard Iran's nuclear program. We do not downplay the risks of this option and recognize its complications, but we do believe it to be a feasible option of last resort.
The Bipartisan Policy Center is scheduled to release a more detailed report on Iran's nuclear program in the coming days. Many believe the document's findings will be similar to those presented last week by the U.S. envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In a statement to the organization's board of governors, U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies confirmed that Iran either has--or will soon have--enough low-grade uranium which could be converted to weapons-grade material, if the decision is made.
According to Ambassador Davies, Tehran is moving closer to a dangerous, "breakout" capability, which would allow it to reprocess existing uranium into weapons-grade material in a relatively short period, and use it in a nuclear weapon. However, Davies repeated President Obama's overtures for direct talks with Iran, and said the administration is committed to a negotiated resolution of the nuclear issue. The ambassador made no mention of potential military options, something the Obama Administration has largely shunned.
Of course, there is one problem with the negotiation strategy. Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, feeling his oats after stealing this summer's presidential election, has ruled out any talks about his country's nuclear program, saying the "issue is over," and vowing to "never negotiate" his country's undeniable rights. Ahmadeinjad said he is willing to discuss other issues, preferably in a broadcast forum.
It is true that many national leaders have initially rejected talks with their adversaries, only to enter negotiations at some future point. But the Iranian regime believes it survived a major test with the recent elections and is now operating from a position of strength. Getting Tehran to the table will take months (if not years) and don't expect any breakthroughs once the talks begin.
Indeed, it doesn't take a diplomat to understand that Iran's negotiation model will probably follow that of North Korea, which has successfully stretched out talks with successive American administrations since the mid-1990s. The net result? Pyongyang now has nuclear weapons, an expanded arsenal of medium and long-range missiles, and it is sharing that technology with other rogue states, including Iran. So much for the diplomatic approach.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama is locked in a battle over health care reform, and doesn't show much interest in the Iranian situation. A few months ago, the president suggested that Tehran would have "until the end of this year" to mull things over, and decide how it would respond to U.S. overtures. We apparently received our answer a few days ago, with Ahmadinejad's rejection of potential talks.
As President Obama contemplates his next move, those centrifuges at Natanz keep spinning, and Iran inches ever-closer to a nuclear weapons capability. If the health care debate represents Mr. Obama's first real moment of reckoning, then the Iran nuclear issue will be the second, pivotal issue of his administration. At this stage, both have something in common; a president who remains stubbornly wedded to policies that are doomed to fail.
ADDENDUM: And the good news keeps coming. During Friday's "midnight policy dump," the White House quietly announced that it is abandoning the Six Party Talks with North Korea. Instead, the U.S. will now negotiate directly with Pyongyang, the same sort of process that led 1994's "Agreed To" framework, a diplomatic disaster that allowed the DPRK to take its nuclear program underground. The technical breakthroughs that led to the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests were achieved during the 1990s, when Pyongyang had ostensibly abandoned its weapons program, in exchange for aid from the U.S. and South Korea.
Now you know the real reason behind Bill Clinton's recent trip to North Korea--you know the one supposedly conducted to free those journalists from AlGore's outfit, CurrentTV.
Finally, how about a nuclear threat even closer to home? Hugo Chavez announced over the weekend that his country will develop nuclear energy in cooperation with Russia. Never mind that Venezuela literally floats on a vast sea of oil. Mr. Chavez wants to be a member of the nuclear club, and interprets our refusal to confront Iran and North Korea as a green light for his own plans.