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Friday, May 11, 2012

Rethinking Our Approach to Iran's Search for the Bomb

I  hesitate to recommend Rethinking Our Approach to Iran's Search for the Bomb by the Center for Strategic & International Studies' Anthony Cordesman as weekend reading, since its conclusions are just too sobering. On the other hand, the comprehensive report is rather heavy-going, and may be hard to find sufficient time to do it justice during the working-week. It is compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in strategic issues, and does a fantastic job of summing up all the most up-to-date and unclassified information available on Iran's nuclear program, with the added bonus of Cordesman's invaluable insight.
The veteran national-security expert has done much of the work for us by wading through hundreds of pages of the full versions of the last two International Atomic Energy Agency reports on Iran and other relevant documents, rendering them into something approximating laymen's terms. As he notes at the beginning of study, very few of those commentating on these affairs have actually read the entire documents, probably even less have the necessary qualifications to actually understand them. Any serious readers of this blog would do very well to make the time and read Cordesman, unless you have access to classified material, as this is the most important report on Iran you will read until something really big and new comes out. I certainly hope the Western negotiators who are about to meet their Iranian counterparts for the second round of the P5+1 talks in Baghdad, ten days from now, will have read it by the time they land in Iraq. It is probably much better than anything they will get in their briefing papers.
Parchin - AP - 2004 Satellite image showing the military complex at Parchin, Friday, Aug. 13, 2004.
Photo by: AP

Here is a short summary of the document. I hope I do it justice:
- Anyone who believes that Iran is not yet actively pursuing a nuclear-weapons program and merely developing the capabilities is committing an act of willful delusion. The intelligence supplied to the IAEA and verified by different "member countries," is clear on that Iran has been working on a wide range of projects for over a decade, all of which are specifically aimed at acquiring the capabilities necessary not only to enrich uranium to weapons-grade, but to assemble a nuclear advice that can be launched by long-range missile. Talk of a fatwa against nuclear weapons is just that: talk.
- Despite sanctions and international monitoring, Iran has received highly specialized instruments and equipment, benefited from the knowledge of foreign nuclear weapons designers and made impressive advance in its own scientific centers, so as to be able to carry out most of the necessary testing for a nuclear device, without actually creating a nuclear detonation. There has also been preparation for an actual nuclear test.
- The P5+1 talks will be useless if they continue to focus only on an Iranian commitment to curtail uranium enrichment for two main reasons. First, Iran is simultaneously advancing on multiple fronts of nuclear development and can continue even if it delays enrichment. Second, advances in centrifuge technology by Iran mean that it could well be capable of building a new network of smaller, easily dispersed enrichment installations unknown and unmonitored by the IAEA.
- A military strike on Iran, whether by the U.S, Israel or anyone else, may take out some of the key installations but the technological advances already achieved by Iran, mean that the damage will be limited and not prevent the continuation of the nuclear program. Only a willingness by whatever country attacks Iran to carry out a series of follow-on attacks can seriously endanger the nuclear weapons project.
- Iran will be extremely reluctant to abandon its nuclear program as it is a key element to the regime's entire regional strategy. In order to offset Iran's inferiority in conventional weapons when compared to other regional powers, it sees the nuclear option as its only way of fully countering that imbalance of force. Any future dealings with Iran or military strikes must take that into consideration.
Another researcher may have reached the conclusion that Iran has already achieved so much so as to render the situation irreversible. But Cordesman does not say that the West has totally failed in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. According to him, it must entirely rethink both its diplomatic approach and its military strategy in order to do so.
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