- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Two milestones last weekend marked Iran’s emergence as a regional hegemon. On Saturday, Russian technicians began loading fuel rods into the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, and on Sunday, Iran unveiled an unmanned long-range drone aircraft dubbed the “Ambassador of Death.” The events highlighted Iran’s progress in both nuclear-weapons development and the means to deliver warheads across the Middle East.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry called the developments at Bushehr “totally unacceptable,” though despite intense rumors last week of an imminent military strike, Israel has yet to take concerted action. The United States also has declared as “unacceptable” a number of things it has accepted, such as North Korea’s growing nuclear-weapons stockpile. It remains to be seen if the word carries more weight in Israel.

The cliche of the day from the Obama administration is that “Iran’s nuclear clock has slowed,” but this would be news to the mullahs. Iran is producing enough weapons-grade material to make a bomb every nine months, and this rate is accelerating. In February, the Islamic republic began enriching uranium to higher and more dangerous levels than it had previously. There is no evidence that Iran’s technical capacity to make nuclear weapons has diminished, the strategic logic of nuclear weapons has not changed, and Tehran’s desire to pursue regional hegemony is undiminished. Absent solid evidence to the contrary, the notion that Iran is moving less rapidly toward its nuclear goals is simply the O Force’s hope masquerading as change.

The United States claims sanctions are starting to have an impact on Tehran’s decision-making, but on Aug. 18, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the regime would not negotiate its nuclear program while sanctions were in place. “If superpowers want to threaten and put pressure and impose sanctions and show an iron hand,” he said, “and, on the other hand, seek to sit at the negotiating table, this is not a negotiation, and we will not have this kind of negotiation with anyone.” The ayatollah is telling President Obama, in essence, unclench your fist, and we will extend an open hand. Maybe. Otherwise, Iran will pay any price, bear any burden to get nuclear weapons.

The new Iranian drone bomber, which looks strikingly like a modified version of a Nazi V-1 rocket, was hailed by Tehran in Orwellian terms as “an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, [which] has a main message of peace and friendship.” Iranian drones are an increasing threat. In March, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in congressional testimony that Iranian drones are “a concern because it is one of these areas where, if they chose to - in Iraq, in Afghanistan - they could create difficulties for us.” The Tehran Times gloated that Mr. Gates was just “envious” of Iran’s drone program.

Some action seems to be occurring under the public radar screen, suggesting other countries are paying attention. There are unconfirmed reports that Reza Baruni, the mastermind of Iran’s drone program, was assassinated earlier this month when his heavily guarded villa in southern Iran was bombed. On the same day, three unarmed drone aircraft reportedly crashed into the containment dome of the Bushehr reactor, causing minor panic among townspeople. Perhaps “unacceptable” means something after all.