Giving Iran the Bomb
Bret Stephens - The Wall Street Journal 31 October 2006
Does the Bush administration seriously mean to give Iran a nuclear bomb?
Look carefully at confidential text of a forthcoming. Security Council
resolution, and the answer, it would seem, is yes.
This is a Halloween column, but it is not a prank. Through diplomatic
efforts spearheaded by Undersecretary of State Nick Burns, the
administration is prepared to endorse a European draft of a U.N. resolution
that Imposes limited sanctions on the Islamic Republic for flouting its Aug.
31 deadline to stop enriching uranium. The chances the resolution will soon
be voted and agreed on increased with last week's news that Iran has again
enriched uranium using a second "cascade" of 160 or so centrifuges. Iran
plans to operate 3,000 such centrifuges-which can spin uranium hexafluoride
to either reactor- or weapons-grade levels-by March of next year.
In an interview last month with this newspaper, Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice allowed that while a sanctions resolution would not satisfy
the U.S. on every point. It would usefully ratchet tip the pressure on
Tehran and pave the way, if necessary, for tougher Security Council action
later on. On Its face, the current draft of the resolution does just that.
After noting that the International Atomic Energy Agency "is unable to
conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in
Iran," the resolution forbids the sale or transfer of "all items, materials,
equipment, goods and technology which could contribute to Iran's nuclear and
ballistic missile programs." It also freezes the financial assets of
everyone and everything known to be involved in those programs.
But then we come to the Bushehr exception, so broad the Iranians could drive
a truck through it-or, to be more precise, a truck carrying 330 kilograms of
reactor-grade plutonium. That's enough to make about 55 Nagasaki-type atomic
Bushehr is a light-water nuclear reactor that Russia began building for Iran
in the mid-1990s over the objections of the Clinton administration. Ten
years on. The billion-dollar facility is nearly complete: All that remains
to make it operable is reactor-grade uranium, which Moscow promises to
supply by next October. In a sop to the Russians, the draft resolution
specifies that the prohibition on technology transfers to Iran "shall not
apply to supplies of items, materials, equipment, goods and technology, nor
to the provision of technical assistance or training, financial assistance,
investment, brokering or other services . . . related to the construction
of Bushehr I.
For years it was widely believed that a light-water reactor could not be
used - at least not covertly - to generate weapons-grade uranium or
plutonium. It was for this reason that President Clinton agreed to supply
two such reactors in 1994 to North Korea In exchange for freezing the
reactor at Yongbyong, which lent itself more easily to nuclear-weapons
production. But as Henry Sokolski of the Washing ton-based Nonproliferation
Education Center explains in a phone interview, the problem with that view
is that it is at least 30 years out of date. Iran could secretly remove fuel
rods of lightly enriched uranium pellets from Bushehr by substituting dummy
rods, something the IAEA would be unlikely to notice using current
inspection practices. It could then use Its 3,000 centrifuges to enrich the
uranium to weapons-grade levels in as little as five weeks.
That's not all. After a year's operation the Bushehr reactor would produce
the previously mentioned 330 kilograms of plutonium in the form of spent
fuel. That plutonium could be reprocessed at small and dispersed facilities,
completely hidden from the IAEA's view. And unlike uranium, reactor-grade
plutonium is only slightly less serviceable than the weapons-grade stuff
when it comes to building a bomb. "It would take as little as 10 days of
operation to get the first significant quantity [of plutonium] and then you
could get a bomb's worth every day," says Mr. Sokolski. "You're talking
about weeks, not months."
This means we need to radically re vise our estimates of how soon the
Islamic Republic will have all the ingredients and know-how it needs to
build a bomb. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte speculated In
June that Iran would, be there sometime between 2010 and 2015-long after
President Bush and presumably Mr. Negroponte are out of office. But as Mr.
Sokolski notes, once Bushehr is operational, Iran could go nuclear "before
the end of next year." We know that Iran already possesses a de sign for a
functional weapon, probably courtesy of the A.Q. Khan proliferation network.
Proponents of the draft resolution argue that the Bushehr exemption is the
only way the Russians will agree to any sanctions, and that an incremental
resolution is better than none. This argument is questionable on three
counts. Why would the Russians oppose the completion of Bushehr next year
when they refuse to do so today? Why should the international community
allow Iran to get a reactor when it is already in material breach of the
safeguards agreement of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?
Finally, why should the U.S. hand Moscow a bargaining chip for its broader
strategic ambitions, which are increasingly antithetical to America's?
Imagine If Vladimir Putin demanded that the U.S. abandon its support for the
embattled Republic of Georgia in exchange for his compliance on the Iranian
issue. Is that a trade-off George W. Bush would be willing to accept?
Tehran has grown shrill in its warnings that there will be "repercussions"
if any step is taken to halt its nuclear programs. Whatever. Its time the
Bush administration called Iran's bluff, and regained Its nerve, by taking
effective action in the face of the present danger. The Kabuki dance now
being played out at Turtle Bay is not that.