February 24, 2009

February 24, 2009 | Commentary on Middle East, Missile Defense

Atomic Ayatollahs: 10, 9, 8, 7...

Get this: The Obama administration has put plans for our missile-defense system in Eastern Europe under review - even as fresh signs pop up that Iran is closing in on nuclear and ICBM capabilities.

Talk about bad timing.

Washington has been telling our European allies that it's putting on ice the recently agreed-to system for defending against Iranian missiles. Meanwhile, a new report indicates that Tehran has reached a nuclear "breakout" capability.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report says Iran has produced as much as one ton of low-enriched uranium (LEU). That could be used for nuclear reactor fuel - but it could also be reprocessed within as little as a few months to make enough fissile material for at least one nuke, according to experts.

All Iran has to do is repeatedly run the LEU through the same centrifuges originally used to produce it; just a few passes will produce highly enriched uranium (HEU), suitable for weapon use.

The news is even more alarming because the IAEA, which has always been willing to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt about the "military dimensions" of its atomic aspirations, judged last year that Iran was working on a warhead for a nuclear device.

The nuclear-warhead program (Project 111) is meant to be mated to the Iranian Shahab-class ballistic missile, which is capable of ranging the entire Mideast and parts of southeastern Europe.

But Iran has bigger ambitions for its missile program. Just this month, it launched its first indigenously produced satellite. And, if you can launch a missile that can place a satellite payload into orbit, you have the wherewithal to hit a target anywhere on Earth with a warhead.

That is, Tehran is developing nukes and missiles that could reach the United States. Iran must still develop a multistage missile with sufficiently energetic engines to reach us - but its space program (run by the military) has made great strides in just a year.

In fact, Iran bested the projected date of its first satellite launch with this month's liftoff. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed last summer that it would send the satellite into orbit by the middle of this year.

Sure, Iran's nuclear breakout could be further away. The new director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, told Congress recently: "We judge Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame."

Then again, 2010 is just over 10 months away. Washington is seemingly willing to throw missile defense in Europe under the bus in the hope that Moscow can get Tehran to execute a U-turn on its nuclear (weapons) program. But that's a pipe dream - Russia can't, and Iran won't.

Unfortunately, time isn't on our side.

Missile-defense systems take time to deploy - in this case the building of missile silos in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. Each delay means one more day of not being able to meet the growing Iranian threat.

This deliberate vulnerability will limit US policymakers' freedom of action against a country that seeks Middle East hegemony, threatens such allies as Israel, and sponsors terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

To blunt these challenges, moving forward with missile defense now is a must.

Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East, Missile Defense

First Appeared in the New York Post