Why Details Matter: Iran and the Bomb
On August 30th, 2012, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference held in Tehran. “Iran has never sought nuclear weapons, but will continue to develop its peaceful nuclear energy program,” Khamenei stated to the representative officials of 120 nations of the world. “Iran’s motto is nuclear energy for all, and nuclear weapons for none.” Numerous Iranian officials, from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on down, have expressed similar sentiments concerning Iran’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology. The Treaty On the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which Iran has signed, clearly states that “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination”–in a nutshell, Iran is entitled to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy program. So why does the world vehemently oppose one of Iran’s basic rights as a sovereign nation?
The story begins in 1967, when in an “Atom’s For Peace” program under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States built nuclear reactors for civilian energy in dozens of countries to create international goodwill. At the time, Iran’s ruler was a friend to the U.S., so Iran was among those countries given a nuclear research reactor. In 1968, Iran joined the nations of the world in signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which countries without nuclear weapon capabilities agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons, gained the right to pursue peaceful nuclear programs, and submitted to the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) for inspection and regulation. Iran’s reactor required enriched uranium to operate; however, other countries supplied this nuclear fuel at discounted prices, preventing the Iranian government from pursuing local uranium production. A decade later, Iran’s Islamic Revolution occurred, replacing the Pro-Western shah with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei. Despite concerns, he publicly opposed a nuclear weapons program; as a result, when Iran began building nuclear research centers in the 1980’s, they went unopposed by world leaders.
Enter 1992. Russia agreed to build the Iranians an $800 million nuclear reactor in Bushehr, and to supply them with the necessary nuclear fuel. Many eyebrows were raised; after all, why would one of the most oil-rich countries in the world require nuclear energy to provide electricity to its people? Concerned countries such as the United States and Israel voiced opposition, but the reactor was nonetheless completed in 2001.
In 2002, controversy erupted when two undisclosed uranium enrichment facilities were discovered in Iran, and investigators discovered that parts for these facilities were secretly purchased on the black market. This revelation caused the IAEA to pressure Iran into allowing more checks and surprise inspections on its nuclear facilities. According to leading U.S. national security and defense policy expert Graham Allison, in 2004, inspectors discovered traces of highly enriched uranium at these plants, “including bomb-grade material enriched to 36% in one case, and 90% in another, for which Tehran has no plausible explanation.” Uranium enrichment is the process by which uranium-238 is converted into uranium-235, the type of uranium required for a nuclear weapon. Simultaneously, Iran’s Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani “admitted that the military was involved in Iran’s nuclear program, ”wrote Allison. Undeterred, Iran decided to build a complex enrichment facility in Arak, for the supposed purpose of producing medicinally radioactive isotopes.
However, the facility was also capable of producing enriched plutonium. Plutonium, like uranium, can be the main component in a nuclear bomb. IAEA inspectors were denied full access to enrichment facilities. Pressure mounted on Iran from the international community. Many countries even advocated for trade incentives to motivate Iran to ditch its enrichment efforts. Iran agreed, and voluntarily closed its enrichment plants. Unfortunately, the agreement was only temporary.
In 2006, Iran reclaimed its ‘right to uranium enrichment’ and began the process once again. This new attempt, in addition to continued violation of previous agreements with the IAEA, brought Iran into the crosshairs of the UN Security Council. UN sanctions followed disregarded calls to cease enrichment. Soon after, President George W. Bush signed the Iran Freedom Support Act, which imposed economic sanctions on nations and companies that aided Iran's nuclear program.
In 2008, a new IAEA report showed that Iran was using additional and more advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium. Centrifuges are used to spin uranium at high speeds to enrich uranium by separating out the desired uranium-235. Not surprisingly, the UN Security Council passed more economic sanctions on Iran. After satellite imaging discovered new hidden enrichment facilities in Qom and Fordow, a more substantial standoff ensued. During this whole time, Iran brazenly developed and tested its Shahab-3 missiles, capable of delivering heavy payloads over 1,000 miles. More importantly, in 2009, the IAEA identified an explosives containment test center in Iran’s Parchin military complex. Oddly, the facility has since been completely dismantled, with trucks even carting away topsoil to avoid traces of radiation from tests.
The intelligence community has released reports suggesting Iran has stockpiled up to 2,640 pounds of low-enriched uranium (LEU), and is in the process of converting that stockpile to Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU). HEU is any uranium enriched over 20%, and conventional wisdom agrees that 90% enriched HEU is required for nuclear-bomb-grade material. While the difference may seem significant, in reality the process of enrichment becomes much easier and quicker as the purity of the enriched uranium rises.
Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu emphasized this point in his speech before the UN on September 27th, 2012. With a cartoonish depiction of a bomb in hand, Netanyahu carefully drew a line marking Iran’s current enrichment level, calling them “70% of the way there.” According to Netanyahu, “It is based on the public reports of the IAEA…these are facts.” Netanyahu called for the world to draw a red line before Iran’s second stage of enrichment completion, after which Iran would be able to quickly create a bomb within weeks.
Due to the hostility of its Arab neighbors, Israel has always maintained a policy of zero tolerance for nuclear proliferation in its neighborhood, known as the “Begin Doctrine.” In 1981, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq constructed a nuclear reactor, Israel shocked the world by flying a legendary mission over thousands of miles, destroying the Osirak reactor to prevent Iraq from pursuing nuclear weapons. Similarly, in 2007, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a covert Syrian nuclear reactor under construction.
Ever since Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei declared Israel the ‘enemy of Islam’ after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the two countries have become de jure enemies. Subsequently, Iran has become the largest state sponsor of proxy terrorism in the world, supporting terrorist acts performed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has given them financial backing and military supplies, and has trained personnel to fight Israel. Similarly, Iran has supplied the insurgency in Iraq, and has been linked to Al-Qaeda.
On top of these provocations from Iran’s terrorist proxies, Iranian leaders have publicly called for the destruction of Israel countless times. Israel has been referred to as an “insult to all humanity” and “a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off” by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has called numerous times for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and for “Israel to be erased from the pages of history.” Iran’s chief of staff, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, stated recently that “The Iranian nation is standing for its cause and that is the full annihilation of Israel.” State-sponsored rallies denounce Israel as the “little Satan.”
In the face of such constant and public aggression in both word and deed, it is little wonder that Israel is afraid of such a country gaining nuclear weapons; in essence, Iran going nuclear would allow their threats to destroy Israel to become real, as one atomic bomb could wipe out nearly all of the country.
A nuclear-armed Iran has far greater consequences than a war between Israel and Iran. Many in the intelligence community believe a nuclear-armed Iran will create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Sunni-Shiite divide between Arab nations has already caused distrust and rivalry. Allowing a Shiite Arab country, Iran, to gain a nuclear bomb will immediately cause their Sunni neighbors to follow suit for protection. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise has noted that over a dozen countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Algeria, have already invested in nuclear technology for civilian reactors or have signed nuclear agreements. For these regional neighbors to follow in Iran’s path of nuclear proliferation would be simple, and even justified out of self-preservation. This arms race would create an entire region of nuclear-armed opponents all living in fear of imminent atomic annihilation. Right now, there are only eight declared nuclear-weapon-armed powers in the world. It is likely that this arms race would add dozens of countries in the volatile Arab world to this list.
But Iranian control of the Middle East has much more than a regional impact. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Iran is the world’s second largest national gas producer, and third largest crude oil exporter. Nearly a third of the world’s oil supply comes from the Middle East and 35% of sea-traded petroleum passes through the Straights of Hormuz, a narrow sea-lane easily controllable by Iran. Should Iran gain the clout of nuclear weaponry, it would be able to close off that oil supply at will. Global oil prices could skyrocket, hurting and perhaps crippling America’s already strained economy. A nuclear-armed Iran could hold the United State’s economic security in their hands.
Similarly, information released by the Department of Defense shows that the United States has tens of thousands of soldiers and civilian personnel stationed in bases and diplomatic missions across the Middle East. Many of them are located within missile range of the Shahab-3, and are avowed Iranian targets should Israel or anyone else attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
Most importantly, the largest threat to American national security should Iran produce nuclear weapons is a nuclear attack on the United States homeland. The principle of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, which deterred the U.S. and the Soviet Union from attacking one during the Cold War, might be ignored by the Supreme Leader of Iran and his political appointees. A history of brazen remarks, proxy wars, missile development, covert and illegal nuclear enrichment, and stubborn refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue despite punishing sanctions suggest that the Iranian regime has thrown caution into the wind. As the editor-in-chief of CNSNews, Terrence Jeffrey, put it, “A leader who believes it is his job to usher in an Apocalyptic age, where Israel is destroyed and Islam becomes the global religion, cannot be deterred from constructing, or using, a nuclear weapon. Therefore, an Ahmadinejad-led Iran must be pre-empted from obtaining one.”
Others, such as research scholar Kenneth Waltz, disagree. “Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is made not by "mad mullahs" but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders,” says Waltz. “Although Iran's leaders indulge in inflammatory and hateful rhetoric, they show no propensity for self-destruction. It would be a grave error for policymakers in the United States and Israel to assume otherwise.”
However, even assuming Iran to be a rational actor, should Iran gain nuclear weapons, the greater threat to America and the world community remains nuclear terrorism. How large of a threat does nuclear terrorism truly present? According to Graham Allison, a motivated terrorist group could easily take advantage of America’s high volume of maritime shipping and inadequate border security to smuggle in nuclear materials or a complete nuclear weapon. A simple bomb placed in a high volume pedestrian area, as a recent bomb scare in Time’s Square showed, could of course kill hundreds. But a dirty bomb, fused with nuclear material, could irradiate the city, causing evacuations, mass panic, and kill thousands. And a full nuclear bomb could kill millions and destroy much of New York City.
While Iran might hesitate to conduct a nuclear attack against another country for fear of reprisal, they could easily supply terrorists with nuclear capabilities. Waltz disagrees, stating that, “Some analysts even fear that Iran would directly provide terrorists with nuclear arms. The problem with these concerns is that they contradict the record of every other nuclear weapons state going back to 1945.” While proliferation of nuclear technology to terrorists may not have occurred, Iran could break the trend.
Iran has undeniably shown to fund, support, and initiate global terrorism against other nations. Thus, a nuclear-armed Iran represents much more than a potential existential threat of nuclear annihilation to Israel, America’s most vital and consistent regional ally. It poses a threat to the diplomatic stability of the Arab Middle East. It threatens U.S. servicemen and women around the world. It has the potential to topple the U.S. and indeed, the world’s economy. And it threatens the United States with an Iranian or terrorist attack of such proportions that September 11th will look like a footnote in future history books.
The author is a Campus Legislative Coordinator and board member of YUPAC, the Yeshiva University Political Awareness Club. Last year, YUPAC helped lobby Congress successfully pass the Iran Threat Reductions and Syria Human Rights Act, increasing sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.