Overshadowed in the media by the senseless violence in the Middle East and North Africa, you can’t help but wonder what new intelligence Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has that led to his demand for a tougher American stance on Iran this past weekend.
Without giving details, last week Netanyahu told CNN’s State of the Union: “They’re [Iran] moving very rapidly to completing the enrichment of the uranium that they need to produce a nuclear bomb. In six months or so, they’ll be 90 percent of the way there.”
Hammering home to the American audience how the regime in Tehran is a growing reason for concern, the same day on NBC’s Meet the Press he said: “It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today. You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?”
Netanyahu went on to call for the United States to establish “red lines,” clearly specifying how far Iran could go in expanding its nuclear program’s capabilities, including fissile-material stockpiles, before Washington would respond with drastic measures.
More than scolding the American president on his Iran policy, the Israeli prime minister sailed a warning shot across President Obama’s bow by saying, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red light before Israel,” according to the New York Times.
Beyond the straight—and often blunt—talk, what is even more interesting is the timing, which surprised many. Netanyahu certainly risked thrusting his relationship with Obama to even lower levels—if that is possible—by calling out the president during the waning days of a tight race for the White House.
While publicly available estimates for Iranian ability to actually build a nuclear weapon run from one to two years, it seems pretty clear that Israel is exceedingly nervous about the speed at which Iran is making progress on its nuclear program, which many see as having an unambiguous military dimension.
Though timelines may differ—indeed, this summer British spymaster John Sawers said publicly he believed Iran could build a bomb in the next two years—there is good reason to be worried about the state of Tehran’s program.
For example, Iran has a couple of uranium-enrichment facilities, which operate thousands of centrifuges, including a plant ensconced in the side of a mountain on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base near Qom.
According to the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has nearly 100 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity. This stockpile, if enriched to 80-90 percent purity—that is, “weapons grade”—means Iran probably already has enough uranium on hand for two to three weapons—maybe more.
The IAEA also has been concerned that Iran has been involved in a precision-explosives testing program at Parchin military base that is related to the development of a nuclear warhead. Of course, Tehran has not been very forthcoming on this issue or on its other atomic activities, all of which U.N. investigators would like to know more about.
Needless to say, Israel is probably concerned—and rightfully so—that Iran is on the brink of entering a “zone of immunity,” which would allow it to assemble a bomb at will, severely limiting the effectiveness of a military strike on Tehran’s nuclear program.
And while Iran already can cover the Middle East and parts of Southeastern Europe with its current arsenal of ballistic missiles, it is eagerly working on missiles with greater range. The U.S. Air Force estimated that Iran could have an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.
Unfortunately, after nearly ten years of negotiating with Iran over its previously undeclared nuclear program (at that time already twenty years old and in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Tehran is a party), diplomacy has basically failed. Unless, of course, you consider a seemingly endless series of meetings “progress.”
There were multilateral meetings with Iran last summer in Baghdad and Moscow to discuss the diplomatic impasse—not to mention a recent round of talks to try to just restart talks in Istanbul between the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
Other than diplo-speak proclamations—the meetings were “useful,” “constructive,” full of “common points”—not to mention replete with promises to meet again, these confabs have produced little more than allowing Iran to buy time to continue to develop its nuclear know-how.
Punitive economic sanctions were hoped to bring Tehran to its knees, forcing it to come to a diplomatic agreement on its nuclear program with the likes of the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany).
However, while there is little doubt that the economic sanctions have been biting, there has been no evidence to date that Iran is willing to curtail enriching uranium to ever-higher levels, beyond what is needed to fuel its Russian-supplied reactor at Bushehr (3-4 percent for nuclear fuel rods).
The bottom line is that there has been little to no progress on slowing Iran’s nuclear program. No wonder Netanyahu is edgy.
The increasingly tense situation has been made worse by overheated Iranian rhetoric. According to the Associated Press, IRGC commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari recently said that “Nothing of Israel would remain” should Israeli Defense Forces attack Iran.
Jafari also threatened to attack U.S. military bases in the region (Bahrain, Kuwait and Afghanistan) as well as take actions to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which some 20-40 percent of the world’s oil exports flow.
The opportunities for misperception and miscalculation between the United States, Israel and Iran that could lead to dire consequences are rife, especially while U.S. policy seems largely adrift.
Being adrift is bad enough, but like our Middle East policy in general—as demonstrated by the Arab Spring and Syria—it has been feckless in curbing Iran’s appetite for joining the once-exclusive nuclear-weapons club.
If a serious, concerted effort is not undertaken by the Obama administration, Iran is likely to become the tenth nation with a nuclear weapon, a situation many see as a game changer for U.S. interests in the Middle East—and beyond.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in The National Interest.