The Valentine’s Day announcement of new scientific and technological achievements in Iran’s nuclear program demonstrates the continued broadening and deepening of its capacities in this sensitive, dangerous field. While the race to achieve functional nuclear weapons is the most mesmerizing and immediately threatening aspect of Iran’s work, its continued march across the full scope of nuclear activities shows that Tehran is confident it will not soon be thwarted.
Iran is in for the long haul, belying the fancy that diplomacy or economic sanctions can work. The confirmation that the Fordo uranium-enrichment facility near Qom is fully operational and that its first domestically manufactured fuel rods are installed in the Tehran Research Reactor shows Iran steadily mastering the nuclear-fuel cycle. Perhaps we will next hear that the Arak heavy-water production facility is completed and functioning and that the nearby heavy-water reactor will, in fact, be inaugurated in 2013. Or that Iran’s ballistic-missile program has launch-tested vehicles capable of reaching targets in the Western Hemisphere.
Each successive step underscores that Iran’s carefully planned, systematic and increasingly operational nuclear infrastructure is not designed simply to show defiance of Western opposition and sanctions, as some contend. Remember, for example, the flurry of optimism about proposals to exchange Iran’s existing supply of low-enriched uranium so that a foreign nation could manufacture fuel rods for the Tehran reactor. Iran swatted away that initiative, not least because manufacturing fuel rods domestically always was part of its larger strategy to widen and intensify its nuclear capability.
Iran’s slow and steady progress for two decades has demonstrated beyond frantic rhetorical efforts at denial that diplomacy has not only been futile, but has provided Iran political cover and legitimacy while it pursued its nuclear objectives. Even more important, negotiations and the imposition of weak, ineffective sanctions have given Iran time to reach the point where its nuclear activities are broad and deep, and it is close to winning the strategically important race to the nuclear-weapons finish line. President Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper testified to the Senate in January that “the sanctions as imposed so far have not caused [the Iranians] to change their behavior or their policy.” Public assertions and actions by China, India, Turkey and others make clear that new financial and oil-related sanctions also will come essentially to naught.
This ongoing failure also demonstrates why the notion, still dominant in Europe and the Obama administration, that Iran can be trusted with a “peaceful” nuclear program if it renounces weapons capabilities is delusional and dangerous. There is no way to comprehensively monitor covert nuclear activities by a nation determined to hide them, as North Korea unfortunately has proved. For decades, Iran has lied about its objectives, obstructed international inspectors and flouted its supposedly solemn treaty obligations against pursuing nuclear weapons, all the while supporting international terrorism. Plainly, therefore, to all but the most naive, the Tehran regime is not to be trusted with sharp objects, let alone nuclear weapons.
The sedate pace of Iran’s nuclear program demonstrates its lack of concern for U.S. military action. Indeed, so confident is Tehran that it not only has conspired to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington on our own soil, but has been busily targeting Israeli diplomats in terrorist attacks and giving Europe a taste of its own medicine by cutting off oil supplies even before new European Union sanctions take effect. Sadly for America, Iran’s progress represents a bipartisan foreign-policy failure, extending over three successive administrations. The Obama administration’s only real distinction, embarrassing though it is, is to have carried Clinton and George W. Bush administration mistakes to their ultimate conclusion. Mr. Obama could well be remembered in history as the president asleep in the wheelhouse when Iran actually achieved both nuclear weapons and a fully indigenous nuclear fuel cycle.
Only one question remains. However sanguine Iran is about U.S. inattention, neither Tehran nor Washington really knows what Israel will decide to do militarily. The window for such action has been closing for years, and Israel may have waited too long. Given the size and growth of Iran’s program and the notorious inadequacy of our intelligence in that country, there is much we don’t know, and none of it can be good. Accordingly, even a successful Israeli strike could now be insufficient to halt Iran’s program for an extended period. And certainly, Iran has more than enough strategic warning to prepare its defenses.
Those in the White House who fear an Israeli attack more than Iranian nuclear weapons may prevail. But a world where Iran has nuclear weapons (and, inevitably therefore, so will others nearby) will be far more dangerous than a world after an Israeli military strike.
John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).