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Iran goes nuclear: The handwriting is on the wall

Events in Iran are moving fast. Immediately after the U.S. presidential election, the EU-3 – Britain, France and Germany – announced that they had reached an agreement with Iran regarding nuclear fuel.

The EU-3 would provide Iran nuclear fuel of a grade useful only for peaceful energy purposes in return for which Iran would agree to comply with inspection from the International Atomic Energy Agency as proof to the world that the nuclear fuel was not being enriched to weapons grade.

Then the IAEA issued a 32-page report and Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the IAEA, made a statement to the world that “all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities.” Under questioning, El Baradei was forced to admit that the IAEA could not be absolutely certain that Iran had no clandestine nuclear weapons program.

Yesterday, the dialogue intensified. A group called the National Council for Resistance in Iran announced in Paris that Iran has a covert Defense Ministry nuclear weapons facility not disclosed to the IAEA. The NCRI identified a facility in a 60-acre complex in the northeast part of Tehran known as the Center for the Development of Advanced Defense Technology where it claims uranium enrichment began a year and a half ago.

The NCRI turns out to be a shadowy organization itself, one identified as the political arm of the People’s Mujahedeen, a group the U.S. government has designated as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a foreign terrorist organization. The problem is that information about Iran’s nuclear weapons program previously released by the NCRI has turned out to be true.

After the NCRI report was released yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell was questioned by reporters en route to Santiago, Chile, to attend the Asia-Pacific economic summit. Critically he revealed the following:

I have seen some information that would suggest they (the Iranians) have been actively working on delivery systems. You don’t have a weapon until you put it in something that can deliver a weapon. I’m not talking about uranium or fissile material or the warhead – I’m talking about what one does with a warhead.

So how does this puzzle fit together? The Iranians probably do not have a nuclear weapon ready to use today. What’s the proof of that? Simple. If the Iranians had a nuclear weapon, the mad mullahs would just use it. A missile launched toward Tel Aviv would change the Middle East permanently and Iran has sworn death to Israel.

Very probably, the mullahs are close to having a nuclear weapon and a workable delivery system. If they have been enriching yellow cake uranium for over a year, they may have enough to build one or two bombs. Looking closely at what Colin Powell said yesterday, the only problem seems to be getting the bomb mechanism sufficiently miniaturized to fit on one of Iran’s already tested Shahib-3 missiles. Maybe that takes three or four more months, possibly longer, but the clock is ticking and the success of the effort is not much in doubt.

What are the negotiations with the EU-3 about? A good hypothesis would be that the Iranians are merely lying to buy time. Maybe if the IAEA could be convinced for a while, Iran would get enough nuclear fuel to make operational the nuclear power plant the Soviets have built for them. This is the same path the North Koreans took when they made fools out of the Clinton administration – if John Kerry had won the election, the Iranians would have had another sympathetic ear in the White House. Kerry said as much in the first debate with President Bush.

The problem is Israel. Having lost over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, the Jews are not about to allow Iran to go operational with a nuclear capability. A pre-emptive strike by Israel seems inevitable, regardless of the operational complexity of taking out over 300 largely hidden and buried nuclear sites spread around Iran. The United States has already sold to Israel the bunker buster bombs that would be needed in such an operation. A combined Israeli strike of commandos on the ground and firepower from the air would be better done with U.S. cooperation, but the Israelis are unlikely to wait long for permission.

The State Department has had four years under President Bush to pursue diplomatic solutions. Nothing has worked. Iran continues to march toward nuclear weapons. President Bush has just decided to change command at the State Department and a weeding can be expected there as well as in the CIA. A tougher stance in the State Department and the CIA can be expected to line up to support military action in Iran if that’s what it comes to.

We do not have years more to solve the problem in Iran. The scenario may well begin to be played out as early as March, once we are past the inauguration and the new players in Bush’s second term are in place.