President Barack Obama’s strategy of denying Iran access to atomic-weapons isn’t having its intended effect. Rather Tehran is dangerously close to possessing nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles which will fuel a regional arms race and could spark another war. It is time to issue Iran an ultimatum.
Last week President Obama vowed to maintain pressure on Iran. On May 22 he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee “We’ve imposed the toughest sanctions ever on the Iranian regime” and then he promised “We remain committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
But evidence is mounting that Obama’s talk and sanctions strategy isn’t stopping Tehran’s march to nuclear arms status. Consider what our intelligence community, the United Nations and others say about Iran’s escalating atomic missile program.
James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, testified “Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon” … “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons” and “it continues to expand the scale, reach and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload.”
Clapper’s warning is validated by two new reports from the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA reports it has new information regarding Tehran’s work on a nuclear warhead for a missile. The nine page report dated May 24 states its own inquiries showed “the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”
The IAEA indicates since its last report this February it has “received further information” related to these undisclosed military related activities, which it is currently assessing. Those concerns prompted IAEA director Yukiya Amano to demand of Iran “prompt access to relevant locations, equipment, documentation, and persons.”
Director Amano is especially concerned about seven weapons-related activities. The list includes experiments involving the explosive compression of uranium deuteride to produce a short burst of neutrons (a possible atomic trigger like that used by the Chinese), uranium conversion to produce uranium metal and missile re-entry vehicle redesign activities.
Harold Agnew, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory, told the New York Times the compression of uranium deuteride suggested work on an atomic trigger. “I don’t know of any peaceful uses [for uranium deuteride],” Agnew said.
Besides the weapons activities the UN report confirmed Iran continues uranium enrichment operations contrary to Security Council prohibitions. It continues to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (3.5% uranium-235) to 9,130 pounds and so far 125 pounds of 20% enriched uranium. The regime’s 8,000 known uranium enriching centrifuges continue to produce more and richer outputs every day.
Highly enriched uranium, the fissile fuel used in nuclear weapons, usually contains at least 90% concentration of uranium-235. Currently Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to produce four atomic bombs if it is further enriched. By comparison America’s very first uranium bomb, Little Boy in 1945, used 141 pounds of 80% enriched uranium-235.
The second UN report was leaked two weeks ago. That report by a panel of experts monitoring arms proliferation points an accusing finger at Iran. It states “Iran’s circumvention of sanctions across all areas is willful and continuing.” UN sanctions ban trading items that contribute to uranium enrichment and conventional arms like missiles.
The panel discovered prohibited activities being carried out by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps using a network of foreign suppliers and front companies. For example, South Korea seized rolls of phosphor bronze mesh wire bound for Iran which, according to the UN panel, could be used for Tehran’s heavy water reactor – a source for weapons grade plutonium. Singapore intercepted 302 barrels of aluminum powder from China which the panel said could be used to produce 100 tons of rocket propellant.
But Iran’s worst proliferation partner is fellow rogue regime North Korea. "Prohibited ballistic missile-related items are suspected to have been transferred between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran on regular scheduled flights of Air Koryo and Iran Air," the UN report said.
The Iran-North Korea collaboration was evident last October at a military parade staged in Pyongyang at which North Korea unveiled its new Nodong missile. The Nodong warhead has “a strong design similarity with the Iranian Shahab 3 triconic warhead,” according to Reuter’s news service. But Iranian officials reject the allegation it collaborates with North Korea.
Iran’s foreign ministry, according to Fars News Agency, disputes the UN report, arguing that Tehran does not need outside help. But that statement is contradicted by a report in the May 16 edition of the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun that contends North Korea recently sent more than 200 people to Iran to transfer military technology for developing Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
Iran and North Korea are motivated to collaborate by the mutually held view that atomic-tipped ballistic missiles are their best deterrent from regime change led by the U.S. That line of thought is voiced by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic weapon, who wrote in Newsweek “Had Iraq and Libya been nuclear powers, they wouldn’t have been destroyed in the way we have seen recently.”
That view likely prompted both nations to launch aggressive programs to field survivable mobile atomic weapons and build hardened and deeply buried facilities to hide those systems. Elbridge Colby, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses and an expert advisor to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, warns that states like Iran and North Korea are locating their “most valued assets underground in facilities effectively immune from missile, air, or naval attack.” Colby surmises these states armed with mobile atomic weapons could hold “the threat of nuclear attack over Washington to deter any attempt to disarm them or occupy their countries.”
Iran’s rapidly emerging threat is evidently credible which begs the question: Do we have the right strategy to deny the rogue atomic weapons?
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair criticized President Obama for being too soft on Iran, urging him to deal with a "looming and coming challenge" from the Islamic Republic, according to Agence France-Presse. "At some point,” Blair said, “we have to get our head out of the sand and understand they [Iran] are going to carry on with this [nuclear weapons program]."
What then should be Obama’s strategy to wean Iran from its atomic ambitions? Clearly the status quo – talks, sanctions, incentives – is not working. That leaves two options.
We can accept a nuclear-armed Iran and the risks that create for the region and America’s global interests. Otherwise, as Blair said, “they’ll carry on doing it [seeking atomic weapons] unless they are met by the requisite determination and if necessary, force.”
Obama’s strategy should include an ultimatum backed by visible attack preparations by a joint force that could conceivably topple the regime, achieve our political objectives and allow the IAEA unencumbered access to suspect nuclear facilities. Failing that, force will be ready and should be applied.
Maginnis is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and a national security and foreign affairs analyst for radio and television.