EDITORIAL: Tehran’s nuclear trigger

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A smoking-gun document has emerged that indicates Iran is closer than ever to developing a nuclear weapon. Top-secret technical notes leaked from deep within the Iranian nuclear program - and making the rounds of Western intelligence agencies - detail research on a neutron initiator, a device that sets off a nuclear detonation. It is the smoking gun’s trigger.

The Islamic republic has long argued that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes, but there is no peaceful use for the neutron initiator. It is not a “dual-use” technology; it only sets off bombs. Iran apparently has been working on the initiator since at least 2007, coincidentally the same year that a National Intelligence Estimate from the United States Intelligence Community determined that Iran had no intention of seeking nuclear weapons. In light of this and other revelations, that finding needs a serious rethinking.

The timely revelation about Iran’s secret program comes as the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council prepare to discuss possible responses to Iran’s nuclear obstinacy. The case for determined action is growing, and the bill of particulars is long. In addition to Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran is still the world’s largest state sponsor of global terrorism and supplies arms to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan that are used to kill American troops. Iran has tested a rocket that could be the basis for an intercontinental ballistic missile, and the International Atomic Energy Agency recently confronted Tehran with evidence that Iranian scientists have experimented with an advanced nuclear warhead design. And the human rights nightmare inside the country continues to intensify.

There are some signs of life in U.S. policy toward Iran. The Treasury Department reportedly is implementing a plan to target front groups operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s feared paramilitary enforcers, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization. The Revolutionary Guard uses a network of front groups to evade international sanctions, in part to sustain Iran’s nuclear program. Washington plans to expose and potentially shut down these illicit conduits.

President Obama also seems to be awakening to the seriousness of the issue. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the president reiterated his commitment to upholding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, calling it a “centerpiece” of his foreign policy. He said it was “incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran … do not game the [nuclear arms control] system.” Tehran, however, is willing to ditch the system altogether. In a Nov. 30 editorial in the hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari, who represents Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, questioned whether Iran should stay within the bounds of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime. “Isn’t it time for Iran to pull out of the NPT?” he wrote. “This is a serious question and needs a logical answer.”

The greatest national security challenge that will face the Obama administration is coming, and Mr. Obama will either shape events or be shaped by them. He said in Oslo that “those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.” However, the United States has been standing idle for years, and time is running out. Even the much-criticized 2007 National Intelligence Estimate said Iran would be “technically capable of producing enough [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.” According to our calendar, that window opens about two weeks from now.

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