The Iran nuclear weapons issue is hovering over all other uncertainties besetting the world. In recent weeks it has become more pressing and more ominous. Both the United States and Europe are implementing additional sanctions even as military intervention chatter grows in the background.
Why? The U.S. is in an election year, a time when foreign concerns are usually ignored. Europe has many other problems, and generally takes a neutral stance on Middle East issues. Why would it reduce its own oil supply – and raise oil prices - when its economy is shaky?
The answer may well be on the Iranian side.
First, does Iran want the bomb? The evidence says it does.
If nuclear power generation were its goal, it could obtain reactors and fuel, at competitive prices, from at least five suppliers. More importantly, there is no non-military use for uranium enriched above 10%. Iran is at 20% and going higher. The “peaceful use” fiction is not tenable.
The timetable is the next unknown. In this area there are two options.
The first is sequential development: procuring the nuclear explosive; building an initial device, and testing it; designing a warhead; testing the delivery system, and finally deploying the weapon(s). This is the reliable route, with each step building on the experience of the previous one. It is also the longest path. Predictions of Iran being “years away” from a working weapon were probably based on this scenario.
The alternative is both faster and riskier. First one determines the date at which the weapon is to be ready. Then, working backwards from that point, one determines when the development of each system component has to start. All programs then proceed in parallel until a weapon is assembled and fielded on the pre-set date.
Management of such a coordinated program is more difficult, as many parallel schedules must be maintained and much more can go wrong. But a switch from a (slow) sequential development to a (fast) parallel one, if kept secret long enough, can shorten the time to deployment and thereby surprise a potential adversary.
In this matter Iran has two main opponents: Israel and its U.S. ally. Of these, only the United States has the military reach to destroy the entire Iranian nuclear program. Therefore, from the Iranian viewpoint, the program must reach its goal at a time the U.S. is least likely to react.
That means a presidential election year, when the United States is absorbed by elections and least likely to “rock the boat”.
The next presidential term is not favorable to Iranian nuclear endeavors. If president Obama is the winner, he will be free of re-election concerns and at liberty to act forcefully. If a Republican wins, support for Israel will be even stronger and military action more likely.
So it is logical for Iran to have a ready nuclear weapon this year, before the election. To take potential delays into account the deadline would probably fall around midyear – say August 2012.
Past events show that Israel has a strong intelligence network inside Iran. It is likely they know what is going on in some degree of detail. This leaves them in a dilemma.
As mentioned earlier, only the United States has the military scope to “wipe out” the Iranian nuclear program with conventional armaments. Israel probably does not. A nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to Israel’s national existence, and Israel has a nuclear arsenal of its own, complete with delivery systems. Given Iran’s declared intention of “taking Israel off the map”, that arsenal could, in extremis, be used in a pre-emptive strike.
A summary of the Israeli intelligence has probably been provided to authorities in Washington and other capitals. This would explain the sharp tightening of sanctions, driven by the hope that Iran would capitulate before the mid-summer deadline.
Maybe it will. On the other hand the “Iron Triangle” of Mr. Ahmedinejad’s Presidency, the Revolutionary Guards and the Security Services might have grown strong enough to dictate to the top religious authorities.
This is the end game. It is our belief that Iran will be stopped. By what means, and at what cost, remains to be seen. We may see a very chaotic, and dangerous, summer.