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Iran's Nuclear Program
Some say the Pakistan/Afghanistan theater is the most vexing issue for President Obama, but hanging over the entire region, and then some, is the Iranian nuclear program.
I’ve been meaning to pass on the thoughts of former weapons inspector David Kay, as put forward in a Sept./Oct. 2008 article for Foreign Affairs.
Seeing as Kay’s piece was probably written mid-August, at the time he said “Iran is 80 percent of the way to a functioning nuclear weapon.” I imagine today he’d say 90 percent, or more, though he also concluded that for Iran to have enough weapons grade material for five bombs, they could be “two to four years away from accomplishing this.”
Kay adds, however, that Iran has made substantial progress in weaponization, and it’s largely public knowledge, as is the progress on the uranium enrichment front.
“Of course, even more is suspected; much is rumored by Iranian dissident groups but with no independent confirmation; and most of the important questions relating to plans, intent and progress on crucial elements of weaponization are simply unknown.
“And it’s the only partially understood and suspect activities that are most alarming. They include detection by IAEA inspectors of samples of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium; more extensive plutonium separation than Iran has admitted; weapons-design work; construction of a heavy-water reactor and its associated heavy-water production facility; design work on missile-reentry vehicles that seem to be for a nuclear weapon; and reports of yet-undiscovered programs and facilities. If all of these activities were reality, it would mean Iran is moving faster and is closer to obtaining nuclear-weapons capability than the hard facts imply. Obtaining that last 20 percent of elements needed to make a nuclear weapon would take perhaps only one to two years if these things were true, instead of the four to seven years needed if they were not.”
“What are Iran’s real intentions with regard to its nuclear activities? Does it really only seek to develop an indigenous peaceful nuclear-power program that covers the full fuel cycle? Is it after a virtual nuclear-weapons capability similar to Japan’s where all the elements are present except the final weaponization, testing and assembly? Is it hell-bent, as many believe, on acquiring and deploying actual nuclear weapons? Has a decision even been made at the highest levels of the Iranian government as to what it wants to eventually do?
“If Iran has made or will make a decision to acquire nuclear weapons, how long will it take and how many can it produce per year?
“How much foreign assistance was there and from whom did Iran get help? Did this help include advance nuclear-weapons designs that would make it unnecessary for Iran to do its own design and testing?
“Are there unknown clandestine nuclear facilities and, if so, how many doing what?
“What are the real capabilities of Iran’s various weapons-delivery options? Particularly its missiles?
“What are the command-and-control arrangements for Iran’s nuclear program and any nuclear weapons that may result? Where is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in this mix? Are we any better off if he is not in control? If nuclear weapons are acquired by Iran, how will it control them (physical security), command them (determined by when and against whom they should be used) and communicate this to those in control of the weapons, and provide warning as to when Iran may be about to come under attack (use them or lose them)?”
All of the above, Kay concludes, is why the entire issue is so contentious. No one knows where the program really stands.
“On the one hand, if we look at Iranian rhetoric, Tehran claims to only want to pursue a civilian nuclear program. On the other hand, they say they want to wipe Israel off the map. It’s difficult to know what to believe. Couple this with an indecipherable weapons program, and matters only get worse.
“What truly gets tensions running high, though, is that Iran views the world with an understandable and realpolitik skepticism and fear. Iran’s history is filled with eras of unbelievable glory almost always followed by invasions and subjugation. At times the light of the Persian nation has been so dimmed as to almost fade into the fog of mythology. Its neighbors and various ‘great powers’ have tried to conquer or convert it to something more to their liking. In the modern age it has endured British colonial superiority, American political subversion to remove a democratically elected government, and constant Saudi efforts to subvert and eliminate the Shia variant of Islam practiced in Iran. The result is a political culture that is, outside of Israel, the most cosmopolitan in the Middle East, but also deeply suspicious of all outsiders, and in many ways even other Iranians. Daily interactions, as well as all diplomacy, seem to be duplicitous and truth is infinitely pliable.”
Kay notes that for Iran, “the essential national security threat has never been Israel.” Israel doesn’t pose an ideological alternative and while it can “wreak terrible destruction,” it would only be in the final act of its own self-destruction.
The real threat Iran faces is from the United States. “Proof lies not in secret intelligence of U.S. war plans, but in seventy years of U.S. alliance building to surround Iran, a web of American military bases, forward deployments of military forces, rash acts by the United States (such as shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner) and Iran’s belief in a multitude of acts of U.S. political subversion – some observed, others suspected and a great many more imagined.”
“My humble best guess is that Iran is pushing ahead toward a nuclear-weapons capability as rapidly as it can. But, if Tehran believes that American – not Israeli – military action is imminent, it may well slow work on the elements of its program that it thinks the world can observe. Such temporizing would only be tactical. Its strategic goal is to maintain nuclear weapons as a counter to what it views as the U.S. threat. And, as of now, that threat is real in Tehran’s eyes. Iran appears not to see or believe that the United States is willing to accept the validity and survival of the Iranian revolutionary state.”
Then there is Israel. Kay and Israel itself observe, “an Iranian nuclear capability is seen as an existential threat to its survival as a nation. For Israel, words have meaning and Israelis remember the price Jews paid for ignoring the words of Hitler as he rose to power. When the president of Iran speaks of wishing for the destruction of Israel in a sea of fire, it cannot be dismissed as political pandering to the souk. Self-delusion with regard to those who say they want to kill Jews is not an admired political trait in Israel.”
“What seems to be most absent from the current discussion about Iran’s nuclear future, whatever it is and whenever it arrives, is the response to two questions. First, what policies will limit any advantage, political or military, that Iran might gain from such weapons? Second, how do we begin to craft, with all the states of the region – certainly including both Israel and Iran – political, economic and security arrangements that recognize their varied interests and concerns and their often very different perspectives of what these are? In the end, we need to decide how we can perform damage control and create arrangements that take into account states’ varied interests….
“President Charles de Gaulle of France is said to have pronounced that the United States would never be willing to respond to a Soviet nuclear attack on Paris with actions that would threaten the destruction of an American city such as Chicago. De Gaulle drew the conclusion that Europeans would have to build their own nuclear forces to meet this threat. The United States and the rest of Western Europe did not accept de Gaulle’s proclamation as fact. Quite the opposite, they created policies and military deployments that convinced the Soviets that any attack on Western Europe would result in a devastating American reply. In this shadow of security, Western Europe thrived and built new institutions, and eventually the Soviet Union collapsed. Why is it not feasible, along with all of the states in the Middle East, to create security policies that guarantee acts of aggression will not be allowed to threaten any state’s survival while beginning to build the economic institutions and policies that can create a future where war seems impossible?
“What is hard is the actual act of stepping off the shaky, and probably sinking, ship that we now stand upon to construct a very different vessel. This is one of those times in history where will is more important than brilliance, where determination to shape a different future is more vital than experience in the rituals of the past.”