Striking Iran

October 16, 2009 Topic: Security Region: Persian Gulf

Striking Iran

A former top weapons inspector says Iran is a nuclear-weapons capable state. A military threat must be real.

Iran has achieved the effective status of a nuclear-weapons capable state. No matter what American policy makers want to believe, Iran has built a uranium-enrichment establishment, procured a workable design for a weapon, carried out work to enhance and validate that design, and developed longer-range missile-delivery systems. The revelation of the clandestine Qum enrichment plant strikingly demonstrated that there is more to the Iranian nuclear program than what we knew and what inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been able to discover during the past four years.

American policy sounds like a broken record, repeating over and over and over again that more and stricter sanctions will reverse these facts on the ground and Iran will be forced to give up its nuclear ambitions. The fact is, Iran's nuclear program has progressed considerably beyond where it was when President Bush first uttered what would become a useless policy prescription, and is now at a point where only a severely intrusive on-the-ground inspection regime-at least as tough as the one we carried out from 1991-95 in Iraq-could have any hope of verifying that Iran's nuclear program has stopped. Do American policy makers not recognize that Iran has cheated for more than twenty years on its nonproliferation promises and continued to refuse full and meaningful cooperation with international inspectors? No one should believe that the Islamic Republic would accept the type of inspections that would be required to provide confidence that it had walked away and surrendered its nuclear ambitions.

And how long will American policy makers insist that harsher sanctions are on the way? There is clear self-deception in the face of the visible evidence that the Chinese and the Russians have no intention of going along with really tough sanctions. If the latest round of talks allow Tehran to drag out discussions-while further enhancing its nuclear capabilities, and any meaningful sanctions continued to be postponed to avoid "poisoning the negotiations"-the consequences will be far greater than once again showing that the United States has misjudged Russia, China and Iran's real aims. The danger ahead is that Tehran will be so emboldened by the feckless nature of U.S. policy and the duplicity of Moscow and Beijing that it will push its nuclear program further and faster than it otherwise would have, and enter the dangerous arena of actually deploying nuclear weapons.

This is an outcome that threatens neither the United States or Israel, but puts in question the very survival of more than the Islamic Republic of Iran but the survival of the nation of Iran itself. No one should doubt that the most dangerous situation a state can face is to deploy a small, and untested, nuclear force, against a state that has a much larger and more capable, nuclear force and views its survival to be at stake. Iran is embarking on a course where any crisis, destabilizing action or even heated Iranian political rhetoric would place Israel and the United States under considerable pressure to take preemptive military action to destroy Iran's nuclear capability and its political leadership. Given the potential consequence of failure of such a military action, prudence would demand that the force used be overwhelming and broadly destructive.

The United States needs to speak less about the danger we and our allies would face from a small Iranian nuclear force, and instead speak clearly to Iran about how it risks its own destruction by continuing to rush its atomic program forward. And as we have been so wrong in understanding Iranian intentions and the determination of Russia and China to join us in stopping Tehran, we need to begin the diplomatic and military steps necessary to ensure that all of our friends in the region understand that American military might stands ready to guarantee that Iran will gain no advantage from whatever course it chooses to follow.


David Kay led the UN inspection after the first Gulf War that uncovered the previously unknown Iraqi nuclear program and, after the most recent Gulf War, led the CIA's Iraq Survey Group that determined that there had been no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at the time of the war. He is now a private consultant in Washington, DC. To read his early thoughts on Iran's nascent nuclear capabilities, follow this link to "Iranian Fallout" from the September/October 2008 issue of The National Interest.