TCS Daily

The Next Threat

By Jack Birnbaum - March 29, 2004 12:00 AM

While the "News Cycle" focuses its attention on a mid-level functionary's startling revelation that, had only everyone listened to him, this whole terror thing could have been averted (that is, had they listened then to what he's saying now, not to what he said before... oh well, never mind), let us avert our eyes from the posturing and finger-pointing for a moment and consider what to do about the next threat: a nuclear-armed Iran.

For those who haven't been paying attention to the danse macabre that has been going on between the Mad Mullahs and the International Atomic Energy Agency, a short review:

· At Bushehr, they are building a light-water reactor with the aid of the Russians, which (even if our Slavic friends are sincere in their promise to monitor it faithfully and recover all spent fuel) will be a source of practical expertise for the Iranians and allow them to claim they need to have a uranium enrichment capability to ensure fuel supplies. (These reactors run on uranium that has been enriched from the natural 0.7% U-235 to 2-5%; but if you just keep running the same enrichment plant, you can keep going to above 80%, which will work as the core of a nuclear bomb.)

· They've recently been caught red-handed and forced to admit that they have been developing two separate secret uranium enrichment programs for the better part of two decades.

· At Natanz, a secret gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment plant has been discovered, and traces of highly-enriched (weapon-usable) uranium were found there.

· At Arak, a secret (have you noticed the "secret" trend here?) heavy water production plant has been uncovered. Heavy water is used in the type of nuclear reactors that can run on natural, unenriched uranium (so if the enrichment part goes sour, they're still in business), and which are especially suited to produce plutonium (which, of course, is the other potential nuclear bomb core.)

· Iran has purchased parts for advanced uranium-enriching centrifuges and probably actual bomb designs from A.Q. Khan's Pakistani Nuclear Warehouse. As a matter of fact, it's beginning to look like they have a club membership card and are eligible for discounts and special members-only offers.

· The Iranians, of course, claim they have no plans to build nuclear weapons. No sir. They are merely spending billions of dollars to develop nuclear power as an alternative energy source for when their oil runs out, say, somewhere around the year 3015.

I won't bore you with more details of the straight-faced lies of the mullahcracy and the semi-credulous pronouncements of the international monitoring agencies, and of whether inspectors are being allowed in today, because it will change by tomorrow. If at this point you don't believe that Iran is on its way to a nuclear capability, you can stop reading and go check out today's comics page. For the rest of you, the question now becomes: What strategic problems does this bring, and what to do about it?

First, a nuclear Iran becomes a bigger player in local politics. It may make it harder for the U.S. to continue increasing its influence among the new states of Central Asia, and may, if and when alliances and times of conflict line up right, complicate things in the Indian-Pakistani conflict. But these are the least of our worries.

Perhaps less likely, but more importantly if it does eventuate, would be increased influence in Europe. The Shahab-4 missile, developed with the kind assistance of North Korea, could carry a plutonium-core nuclear bomb from Iran to Central Europe. Even the mullahs aren't crazy enough to do that, but just the existence of that capability may well affect European decision makers when they next discuss immigration, or headscarves, or the middle east conflict, or cooperation with the United States.

But the critical issues are not those. They are: the survival of Israel, and the threat of an untraceable nuclear attack on America.

Israel, of course, though they refuse to confirm or deny their possession of nuclear weapons, is widely understood to have a significant arsenal, estimated as perhaps 200 warheads, including some on submarines to ensure that they are not vulnerable to a first strike. But there is a terrible asymmetry here. Not in numbers of warheads and delivery capability; it will be a long time before Iran can match up. Rather, in geography. One or a few nuclear detonations could kill a significant percentage of the Israeli population and destroy much of its infrastructure; it would effectively be the end of the Jewish state, a second Holocaust. Iran, of course, is huge, its much larger population spread over a wide area. If and when the Lunatic Caucus in Tehran gets control of some nukes, they may decide that the glory of destroying the Zionist entity is worth the retaliation. As a matter of fact, in 2001 former Iranian president Rafsanjani explicitly and openly made that very threat.

And now, to us. Even Shahab-4's can't reach us; that isn't the threat here. The threat, of course, is that terrorists acting either independently (or as agents of Iran) will be supplied with fissile materials. While making an implosion-type bomb is likely to be well beyond the technical expertise of a terror cell, and plutonium bombs can only work that way, building a gun-type device (similar to what was dropped on Hiroshima), using highly enriched uranium, is relatively simple. (I could tell you exactly how easy it is, but then you wouldn't be able to sleep.) Another option would be to furnish the bombers with a ready-made device, but that would be a trickier proposition for the supplier, because if it is discovered before exploding it could be traced back to its origin.

So, then, what to do?

The Israelis well realize that an Iranian bomb poses an existential threat, and may decide to act just as they did in Iraq in 1981. But because of the greater distance and the multiple sites that would need to be taken out, a pre-emptive attack would be more difficult, less assured of success and result in more civilian casualties than the brilliant strike against the Osirak reactor. And they would have to also weigh the effects of the world condemnation and further isolation that would surely follow. (See the invective following their taking out of a known terrorist leader this week, and multiply a thousand-fold. It's quite a burden they bear, the Israelis.)

Forceful action by a coalition of nations united against terrorism was, of course, the original plan... Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, then Iraq, then pressure backed up by the credible threat of force to disarm the threats from Iran and North Korea. But it has all fallen apart, and it couldn't really have held together much longer, not really. Too many separate interests, too many ambitious politicians and sensationalizing media outlets, all now taking advantage of the missing WMD's in Iraq, not thinking through or caring about the consequences of their opportunism. But that's human nature, it has always been this way, and we have to deal with things as they are, not as we wish they were.

Support for a popular uprising against the theocracy in Iran has been part of the plan all along, and maybe it will still happen. If it does it will probably start out of nowhere, a butterfly flapping its wings in Isfahan, leading to a great storm that brings down the mullahs and restores freedom to the Iranian people. But we can only do so much to encourage it, and we have to be careful not to promise more support than we can deliver (see: Hungary, 1956; Kurds.) We can and should wish for it, but wishing is not a policy to stake our safety on.

Of course, we can just continue to play the inspections and diplomatic pressure game, and hope that the voices of reason in Tehran will gain the upper hand. But they haven't yet, and soon the mullahs will have their bomb. What then?

We will need to communicate to the Iranian government that a nuclear explosion anywhere on the soil of the United States or its allies that does not clearly originate elsewhere will be considered prima facie to have originated in Iran, and that we will respond accordingly with massive nuclear retaliation. (North Korea could be included as well.) We could make the promise publicly; this would evoke widespread hand-wringing and condemnation, but will have the advantage of making the threat more credible and enshrining it as part of official U.S. policy (thus making it harder for a new administration to retract.) On the other hand, such a public policy would leave itself open to the criticism that an American nuclear strike on Iran could be intentionally triggered by a third party, which could even be true (the Iranians of course will claim the Zionists would do it; but back in the real world, it is conceivable that a group such as al Qaeda could trigger their long-hoped-for confrontation between Islam and the West this way.)

Or the threat could be made privately, avoiding some of the complications but possibly lessening its effectiveness.

Any other ideas?

Jack Birnbaum is a physician and the author of the recently published novel "The Winter of Visions and Forgetting." He recently wrote for TCS on "Europe, Lost."


TCS Daily Archives