Behind the ‘Military Dimension to Iran’s Nuclear Program’

Behind the ‘Military Dimension to Iran’s Nuclear Program’

Iran has been secretly working on developing nuclear weapons since 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced for the first time Nov. 8 in a long-awaited report sent to the 35 member states of its Board of Governors and to the U.N. Security Council, and leaked to news agencies shortly after.

The Vienna-based agency cited what it called “credible” information to conclude that there is a “military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program.” The series of activities applicable to developing nuclear weapons included high explosives testing, the development of nuclear warheads for missiles, the development of an atomic bomb trigger, and evidence of a large metal chamber at a military site for nuclear-related explosives testing—which Iran has dismissed as metal toilet stalls.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, called the claims “absurd,” telling thousands of people in Shahr-e-Kord, “This nation won’t retreat one iota from the path it is on,” the Associated Press reported.

David Albright, a physicist, former U.N. weapons inspector, and president of the Institute for Science & International Security said in an interview with PBS NewsHour that the report also sheds light on some obstacles Iran has faced. “Their enrichment program isn’t working very well,” he said, “They’re more slowly deploying the advanced centrifuges than Iran had intended. So the long pole in the tent, the ability to make weapon-grade uranium, is not going so well in Iran.”

‘We should exhale, calm down’

World response has been varied. While France issued warnings of sanctions of “an unprecedented scale,” both Russia and China have urged for calm. Both of the latter countries are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and have the power to issue a veto on any further sanctions, which many expect them to do.

Iran is China’s third-largest crude oil supplier, shipping 20.3 million metric tons in the first nine months of the year, according to Chinese data. Overall trade between the two countries grew to $32.9 billion in value in the first nine months, up by 58 percent, Reuters reported. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei has called for the world to show “flexibility.”

“China advocates using peaceful means to resolve the Iran nuclear issue,” he said, according to Reuters.

In a column for the New York Times, Ilan I. Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, wrote that a peaceful solution is contingent on China’s involvement in tough sanctions. Berman faults China for turning “a blind eye to Iranian acquisition of sensitive technology and material for its nuclear program from Chinese sources” and wrote that companies that “enable [Tehran’s] nuclear process should be punished.” He lists sanctioning Chinese companies with economic ties to Iran, and economic penalties such as bans on United States-based energy projects, as measures that could work to persuade Chinese companies “to scale back their economic contacts with Iran.”

Although its economic ties to Iran are weaker, Russia has also shown a lukewarm response to the report. “We should exhale, calm down, and continue a constructive discussion of all issues on the Middle East agenda, including the Iranian nuclear program,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Tuesday, according to AP. At an Asian affairs summit this week, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, and Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao pledged to restrain Western influence and cooperate more with each other, the AP reported.

Sanctions, or not?

President Obama urged Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese Premiere Wen Jiabao at the Asia-Pacific summit to provide a united front and hit Iran with tougher sanctions. Various American officials have also made it clear that the U.S. does not favor a military strike. During a visit to Israel last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta cautioned Israel, “The most effective way to deal with Iran is not on a unilateral basis,” reported Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

Still, many have raised doubts about the real effectiveness of sanctions. “Iran is nearing success not least because of U.S. failures to deal seriously with the threat, including the dangerously naïve view that Iran could be negotiated out of its nuclear aspiration,” John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in an email to JointMedia News Service. “There are now only two alternatives: either Iran gets nuclear weapons, and soon, or someone shatters Iran’s program,” he continued. “This is a highly unattractive choice, but a real one.”

Ken Timmerman, president of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, believes that the only sanctions that would have “any possibility of getting [Iran’s] attention” would be to ban “the Central Bank of Iran from international financial markets, and to boycott Iranian oil,” he wrote in an email to JointMedia News Service. The world has kept mum about the latter option, he said.

Timmerman continued that deterrence, based on Israel’s own nuclear capability, is unlikely to succeed because Iran’s government is based on an ideological vision. “According to that vision,” he wrote, “Iran’s current leaders believe they can hasten the return of the 12th imam by launching an attack on Israel, no matter what devastation is wreaked upon them in return. We need to recognize this.”

Israel’s Response

Israeli politicians have conflicting views. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio Nov. 8, in an interview held hours before the IAEA report was released, that speculation about a potential Iranian war is “delusional.” Conversely, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Nov. 6 “the possibility of a military strike on Iran is more likely to be realized than the diplomatic option.” The Prime Minister’s office released a short statement Nov. 10, urging the international community to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The government had remained relatively silent during the days immediately following the report, and the release of the Nov. 10 statement is thought to be a result of the government’s dismay at China and Russia’s response to the report. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin was set to meet with Chinese Ambassador Gao Yanping Nov. 10. “China needs to understand that Israel is currently under threat,” Rivlin said.

Whether or not Israel is planning an attack, experts say it would be unlikely to succeed. The IAEA report says Iran has started moving nuclear material to an underground facility for the pursuit of sensitive atomic activities. Part of the problem, experts say, is that Israel doesn’t fully know the location of facilities like this one. Another issue is that an attack would not be a one shot deal.

“That would take at least a month of sustained bombing,” Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told Bloomberg Businessweek. “That’s not something Israel can carry out alone.”

Still, Israel has been busy building its defense, recently accelerating its development of the Arrow 3 missile-defense system. The Arrow 3—considered the most advanced anti-ballistic missile system in the world—is being phased into service and is scheduled to be operational in a year and a half, rather than 2015, the originally scheduled date.

Unlikely Allies?

In the wake of the political and media frenzy unleashed by the report, Israel has potentially gained some unlikely allies. Iran’s increasing nuclear ambitions have long made the Persian Gulf Arab States anxious, heightening the centuries-old Shiite vs. Sunni tension.

In one of the U.S. diplomatic cables exposed by wikileaks, Saudi King Abdullah urged the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” by attacking Iran and halting its nuclear program.

“I would be surprised if there is no knowledge about the Saudi positions (in Israel) or knowledge in Saudi of the Israeli positions,” said David Menashri, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, according to the AP.

One Israeli official told JointMedia News Service, “that’s not something I can talk about,” referring to whether there have been any steps to work with Saudi Arabia.

So, what options are on the table? Timmerman suggests weakening Iran from the inside. He wrote JointMedia News Service, “I have long believed that the most moral, and most effective strategy for us is to help the pro-democracy forces inside Iran to get rid of this regime. Failing that, we will have war—and probably at a time of Iran’s choosing, not ours.”

—With reporting from Israel Hayom/Exclusive to JointMedia News Service