Thursday, May 24, 2007

Just Keep Talking

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says he agrees with CIA estimates that Iran is "three-to-eight years" away from obtaining nuclear weapons, and encouraged the U.S. and other powers to engage in negotiations with Tehran.

According to IAEA Chief Mohammed ElBaradei, the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is "through a comprehensive dialogue." Mr. ElBaradei made the comments at a news conference in Luxembourg, one day after his agency released a new report showing that Iran is increasing uranium enrichment activities--in defiance of U.N. demands. The report also cautioned that the IAEA's knowledge of Tehran's nuclear activities is shrinking.

In other words, that "three-to-eight year estimate" may be a bit off. Like other aspiring members of the nuclear club, Iran has been proficient at hiding the scope and existence of key activities. Barely a week ago, IAEA inspectors expressed surprise at Iran's growing array of nuclear centrifuges, used to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) that can be used for weapons, if sufficient purity levels are obtained. A recent IAEA visit to the enrichment facility in Natanz revealed that Iranian scientists have 1,300 centrifuges in operation, with the ability to add another 1,700 by late June, and raise that total to 8,000 by the end of the year. Assuming that the Iranians can keep most of the centrifuges spinning (and raise the purity level to 90%), the time line for a bomb could be shortened.

It's also worth noting that these "public" time lines are based largely on observed activities. There is a chance that Iran has also established a covert nuclear program, pressing towards weapons development outside the scrutiny of the IAEA or western intelligence. While activity at declared facilities like Natanz complex, the Arak heavy water plant and the Bushehr nuclear complex can be monitored by technical means, critical nuclear research and development can also be accomplished in nondescript buildings the size of a warehouse--with virtually no external indicators.

North Korea used a similar approach in the 1990s, supposedly suspending its nuclear program under the "Agreed To" framework with the U.S. and South Korea. While the "official" site at Yongbyon sat idle, under the gaze of IAEA inspectors and those cameras that John Kerry harped about in the 2004 campaign, North Korea's program simply moved underground, and weapons development continued apace. Tehran is certainly aware of North Korea's successful deception effort, and may be using the same tactic right now.

While it's difficult to judge the progress of a covert program, it's doubtful that even an advanced effort would produce a weapon over the short term, say, within the next year. An expanded centrifuge array--producing HEU at required purity levels--could generate enough material for a bomb in about 12 months, but Iran still has to produce a workable weapons design, test it, and make the bomb small enough to be dropped by an aircraft, or carried by a missile. Those goals are not insurmountable, and with technical assistance from North Korea or the remnants of Pakistan's A.Q. Kahn network, Iran could certainly produce its first nuclear device in 3-4 years (perhaps a bit sooner), but within the time frame outlined by the IAEA.

As we've noted before, building a nuclear capability requires more than just the weapon. You need a delivery system (or systems), and a targeting database to effectively aim the device. And, Iran has not ignored those elements of its nuclear program. Tehran already has medium-range missiles (Shahab-3 variants) capable of striking Israel, and more recently, they purchased the BM-25 intermediate range system from North Korea. The BM-25 acquisition is particularly significant, since the original Russian version was designed to carry a nuclear warhead.

Additionally, Iran has been purchasing commercial satellite imagery of "areas of interest" for at least a decade, and is expanding its access to space-based intelligence systems. Those latter upgrades will improve Iran's ability to target its nuclear weapons, once they become available. More importantly, both the BM-25 and the upgraded imagery capability will be in place before the weapon is built, making it (literally) the final piece of the puzzle.

As for averting this conflagration-in-the-making, ElBaradei's solution is hardly new (or useful, for that matter). Iran's nuclear program has steadily progressed, despite three years of on-again/off-again talks with the EU-3. And, it doesn't take a diplomat to understand that Iran would welcome the chance to keep the talks going. Borrowing another page from Kim Jong-il's playbook, Tehran understands that the west now equates pointless negotiations with "decisive action." So there's no penalty for stringing along the world community for a few more years, while continuing with the nuclear work at hand.

In a recent WSJ column, former U.N ambassador John Bolton recently noted the folly of protracted nuclear negotiations with North Korea. Over the past 15 years, those efforts have produced two major agreements and we're still waiting for Pyongyang to live up to its end of those bargains. By continuing negotiations with Tehran--without tough sanctions or the threat of military action to back them up--we're headed down the same futile (and dangerous) path.

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