- - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Iranians have been working on the development of a nuclear capability since 1988 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini reversed himself and agreed with Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then acting commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to proceed with a previously discussed plan to arm the new Islamic state with nuclear weapons. This was a program that already had been contemplated during Shah Reza Pahlavi’s reign, and Ayatollah Khomeini refused initially to be drawn down that route.

By 2008 it was accepted in the nuclear intelligence community that Iran had accumulated enough U-235 to enable the creation of a first-generation implosion bomb. This would be a weapon similar to the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Going on the generally accepted basis that the amount of U-235 necessary to fuel a first-generation implosion bomb is 21.6 kilograms, this minimally enriched uranium could then be raised to weapons grade in an average of six months, more or less. This meant that by late 2011, Iran was able to have fueled and made ready for the next minimal technical step to make operational all the five implosion bombs now available.

The additional disturbing thing about this information is that since the end of the Bush administration, this ongoing process was well known but not exposed by the following Obama administration. It is hard to believe that the leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee did not have access to the same information — or could have. The strategic danger clearly was minimized by the National Security Council that had accepted the Western European view that actual use of such weapons was not feasible because they had to be delivered by airplane or ship, and these methods were routinely monitored by satellite and other forms of technical intelligence.

The Israelis already had made operational their own air-sea defensive monitoring systems for these first-generation implosion weapons. In fact, some science fiction novelists had incorporated these basic detection systems into their books. Why then did the powers in Washington refuse to recognize publicly Iran’s existing — though outdated — still potentially effective nuclear weapon capability? And why has this “head in the sand” approach still held sway?

The answer may rest in the fear of all parties — Iran included — that the surfacing of the already-existing proliferation is as potentially dangerous as actual military use of the devices in that it could precipitate nuclear exchange. Certainly, that may be one of the reasons the Israelis have not launched their much-discussed preemptive attack. They need Saudi logistical support for a full-scale attack and up to now the green light has not been given. Unfortunately for all, it is doubtful the Saudi kingdom will wait much longer to accelerate development of its own nuclear retaliation capability in light of Iran’s bellicosity and the limited time frame and vulnerable accord that Secretary of State John Kerry is credited with arranging.

The most dangerous route of nuclear attack on Israel is not air and sea. With the close association now of Iran with Bashar Assad’s Syrian government, the most logical method of transport of an Iranian first-generation implosion weapon would be over land from Lebanon. The Israelis obviously keep a priority on monitoring traffic passing through the Bekaa Valley and into the interior of Lebanon, but they never can be absolutely sure of the results of that surveillance.

This all adds up to an adaptation of the standoff created by the strategy of “mutually assured destruction.” The Iranians don’t want to admit they have a nuclear weapon capability. Even though that ability is antiquated in design there is no reason it couldn’t work. And the rest of the world does not want to admit they know about it. Hence the “head in the sand” approach by all concerned. The trouble with that strategic device is it encourages the Persians to develop more advanced systems covertly while waiting out the time period of the highly publicized nuclear accord.

It is not unreasonable to assume the Israelis realize that their existence depends on a first-strike strategy that will be totally effective. Short of that is a non-land-based limited retaliatory strike by them, or depending upon the United States to launch its own attack in retribution. In reality, absorbing even a first-generation implosion weapon attack on Israel is hard to envisage. For that reason, Israelis must maintain a very careful watch-and-wait policy. Non-public recognition of Iran’s existing, though modest, nuclear weapon mini-stockpile supports that strategy.

On Tehran’s side is the fact that Moscow has made it clear it will not countenance an Iranian first strike. If such an action were to occur, Russia would not defend Iran against U.S. retaliation. In consequence, it would appear that the strategy of all parties keeping their heads in the sand will continue — for there is nothing else to do if Israel and Iran play along.

George H. Wittman is the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.

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