February 8, 2010

Iran to enrich uranium to 20 percent - no surprise

Iran continues its march toward acquisition of a nuclear weapon with its announcement that it will begin enriching its stocks of low-enriched (three to five percent) uranium to a level of 20 percent.

Not surprisingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has blamed the decision to enrich the uranium to the higher level on the West. This is typical Ahmadinejad. Iran refused to honor an agreement that it accepted just a few months ago, and now blames the failure of the agreement on the West. Without the agreement, Ahmadinejad claims that Iran has no choice but to enrich the uranium itself.

The Iranians claim that they require the higher enriched uranium to fuel its medical research reactor - that patients in Iranian hospitals are at risk of not having needed isotopes. They do need higher enriched uranium for the reactor, but it is hyperbole to claim that patients are at risk - sanctions allow medical needs to be met. The West was willing to agree to Iran shipping its low enriched uranium to Russia for enrichment to 20 percent, then to France to be machined into the fuel rods that will work in the reactor. Iran agreed, then reneged - somehow this is now the West's fault. Clever - play the victim card.

Okay, bottom line analysis here. Iran NEVER had any intention of exporting its uranium. The export proposal was a clever way of legitimizing its requirement for higher enriched uranium. Knowing that the French fuel rods could not be used for anything other than fuel for the research reactor - the rods are specifically made that way - the Iranians had no intention of rendering their stockpile of uranium unsuited for any other purpose.

The Iranians are developing a nuclear weapon - all they really need is enough fissile material for the warheads. They already have the requisite know-how - that is readily available from the likes of Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan and the North Koreans. The basic question is how long will it take for Iran to develop a weapon?

The the question becomes, what are we - or anyone - going to do about it? The Israelis regard a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to the state of Israel. I am of the opinion that if Iran continues down its current path unchecked, as it appears to be doing, the Israelis will feel that they have no choice and launch a risky and difficult military operation. I also am of the opinion that the Israeli military - as capable as it is - may not have the wherewithal to stop the program. An Israeli attack will certainly set off a chain of events in the region that will involve Iran's allies and proxies, notably Syria, Hizballah and possibly Hamas, as well as American forces in the area.

What about the United States? Unfortunately, on the Iran issue, this administration has staked its reputation on its engagement policy. It is willing to talk to Iran while the Iranians have made it perfectly clear that all they are ever going to do is talk, and agree to more talks. Five United Nations resolutions, three sanctions protocols, numerous meetings and empty promises - when is the President going to get it? They are developing a nuclear weapon and they are not going to stop just because he is willing to "engage."

The Iranians are also aware that effective sanctions are not likely, given the failure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to persuade the Chinese to support the sanctions - she has barely been able to get lukewarm support from the Russians.

The Iranians are winning this one, Mr. President. They have outmaneuvered you at every turn, and show no signs of changing course. While you and Mrs. Clinton talk, they are enriching uranium - now to at least 20 percent purity - and continuing their research and development towards a weapon. Even your intelligence people have woken up and retracted the misguided 2007 analysis that Iran was not working on a weapon.

I hope you have a plan other than sending Secretary of Defense Robert Gates out to make statements like, "No U.S. president has reached out more sincerely, and frankly taken more political risk, in an effort to try to create an opening for engagement for Iran - all these initiatives have been rejected."

Exactly. When is that going to sink in? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? I fear that this administration will still be trying to "engage" Iran right up to the day Tehran announces its first nuclear weapons test.

Call me cynical.