President Obama’s “hat-in-hand” approach to Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, over Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is not only degrading for America, but also for the office of the President of the United States. This comes on the heels of Mr. Obama being outmaneuvered by Russian President Vladimir Putin over Syria’s chemical weapons, which clearly has weakened Mr. Obama’s international image. However, our narcissistic president apparently is incapable of accepting that fact, as he was then rebuffed in a lunch that Mr. Rouhani refused to attend.
All the hype over Mr. Rouhani accepting a phone call in his limo en route to the airport from our president, which most likely was monitored by both Russia and China, is not the way the leader of a superpower should be conducting foreign policy. This is not a zero-sum game. This involves our national security, as well as that of our allies.
Iran has been relentless in pursuing its nuclear-weapons program in spite of crippling economic sanctions. On its current course, Iran is estimated to achieve a nuclear-weapons capability by mid-2014. If Iran were pursuing a peaceful nuclear-energy program, why then would they spend billions of dollars to develop underground nuclear facilities with advanced centrifuges and heavy-water reactors? Why would Iran double its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium and develop intercontinental ballistic missiles? Clearly, Iran has not gone to this tremendous expense to produce a few nuclear weapons that will sit on a shelf. We should remember the Persians started playing chess some 2,500 years ago. They understand that to be a nuclear power, particularly one that pursues aggressive regional and global objectives, they have to have a nuclear-weapons force. Although relatively small, that force must be capable of surviving a major conventional and/or nuclear first strike and then still be capable of retaliating.
In this era of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs), the most logical and cost-effective way for Iran to achieve a survivable nuclear force is to build deep-underground tunnel facilities. This would allow for day-to-day readiness with the ability to move quickly to open areas for launch during a crisis. This is precisely what they are doing with their underground uranium-enrichment centrifuge facility in Natanz and a second huge underground nuclear-enrichment facility in a mountain outside of Qom.
We have positive proof of these elaborate underground facilities. Our satellite coverage shows the extensive tunneling with multiple hardened exit ports connecting to road networks that lead to a variety of open spaces studded with shelters and revetments. This is a variant on what North Korea is doing, as well as the Chinese with their 3,000 miles of underground reinforced tunnels for their mobile strategic forces.
Clearly, the evidence proves Iran is building toward its objective force of nuclear-armed, mobile, underground-sited survivable missiles. Once developed, this capability can be exercised for credibility. Technology in mounting and warhead miniaturization is most likely being perfected in North Korea by on-site Iranian engineers and technicians. When all the pieces are in place, Iran will make its “undetectable breakout” across the “red line” not with just a few nuclear weapons, but with a credible force.
As we enter negotiations with Iran, we need to change our negotiating dynamics if we are going to seize the initiative and prevent Iran from achieving its objectives. When Mr. Obama declares that all options are on the table, including a military strike, regretfully no one, least of all Iran, believes him. However, there is one significant action we could take that would “checkmate” Iran’s deep-underground nuclear infrastructure: announce that we are reviving the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) program.
Such a dramatic announcement would not only restore Mr. Obama’s credibility, but would also seize the negotiations initiative. More importantly, Iran will understand their underground facilities are not survivable.
The concept for employment of RNEP is well known to the Iranians, as well as the Chinese, and would be a credible wake-up call that would be most welcomed by our allies.
In addition to reviving this program, we should announce further economic sanctions to put pressure on Iran’s foreign-exchange reserves and its balance of payments. As outlined in a report by Mark Dubowitz and Rachel Ziemda of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Press and Roubini Global Economics, these should include:
• Sanctioning a financial institution that provides Iran access to, or use of, its foreign reserves.
• Dramatically reducing permissible imports of Iranian crude-oil products.
• Blacklisting additional sectors of the Iranian economy owned or controlled by the government and/or the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC), including mining, engineering and construction centers.
• Vigorously enforcing gold sanctions to deny Iran access to gold to replenish its foreign-exchange reserves.
• Requiring a specified percentage of Iran’s escrow funds he spent only on humanitarian goods.
• Imposing tighter sanction on Iranian commercial exports that aren’t oil-related.
• Expanding the definition of crude-oil sanctions to include all oil products.
• Imposing additional sanctions against the holdings of Iran’s investment funds, and entities owned and/or controlled by the IRGC, the Quds Force, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other entities.
With the announced revival of the RNEP program, plus the additional economic sanctions, Iran’s nuclear-weapons program can be checkmated.
Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.