February 6, 2006
Behind the Urgent Diplomacy: A Sense Iran Will Get the Bomb
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 — Hours after the United States and Europe prevailed in a contest over officially reporting Iran's history of clandestine nuclear activity to the United Nations Security Council, President Bush issued a statement on Saturday from his ranch, saying that the overwhelming vote showed "the world will not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons."
But even some of Mr. Bush's own advisers say that may prove an overstatement. Behind the diplomatic maneuvering, many of the diplomats and nuclear experts involved in the West's effort believe that stopping the program cold is highly unlikely, and probably impossible. They acknowledge that a more realistic goal now is to delay the day that Iran joins the nuclear club.
"Look, the Pakistanis and the North Koreans got there, and they didn't have Iran's money or the engineering expertise," said one senior official who is instrumental in putting together the American strategy. "Sooner or later, it's going to happen. Our job is to make sure it's later." By that time, he said, the hope is that a changed or different government is in power in Tehran.
In part, this is the newfound realism of an administration that has learned some hard lessons in Iraq, and is no longer quite so eager to talk about pre-empting what it regards as looming threats.
But the goal rises from a growing understanding of the damage wrought by the clandestine nuclear network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer who began supplying the Iranians with designs, prototypes and equipment in the late 1980's, beneath the radar of American intelligence agencies. By the time Dr. Khan and the Iranians split in the mid-1990's, apparently in a dispute over money and advanced technology, Iran was already well advanced on the learning curve.
The evidence assembled by United Nations inspectors in the past two years — in inspections that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says will now end — indicates that the country has assembled an impressive network of new suppliers, built the basic facilities it needs, and identified the critical technologies it must master. Yet by virtually all assessments, that hasn't been enough. The Iranians still have several years of work ahead of them, a judgment restated last week by John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence. The painstaking process of actually manufacturing the material to make a fuel usable in weapons, by enriching uranium or reprocessing spent plutonium from power reactors, is a lot harder than it looks in the movies. There is some evidence the Iranians have encountered technological roadblocks.
"The obstacles give us some time, and you have to hope that we use it well, so that the current domestic consensus in favor of the nuclear program in Iran will break," said Robert J. Einhorn, who served as a top nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration and the early days of the Bush administration. "The vote yesterday was impressive, and now it is about making Iran realize that none of this is cost-free — and that the result will be a change in the character of the regime, or at least a conclusion that this is a losing proposition for them."
While the United States has shared with foreign governments some of its own evidence and studies about Iran's nuclear program, the administration knows that after the debacle over the faulty intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, someone else must take the lead in assessing how close Iran is getting to a weapon. What has propelled the issue forward in the past few days were the declarations by the atomic energy agency itself, including officials who were openly skeptical about Mr. Bush's case against Iraq three years ago. For years the agency and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, stayed publicly neutral on the question of whether Iran's program was peaceful, as it insists, or intended to build a weapon.
Dr. ElBaradei, whom the Bush administration tried to oust from his job only a year ago, circulated a report that pointed to links between Iran's ostensibly civilian nuclear program and its military. The report characterized designs that inspectors had found in Iran, supplied by Dr. Khan's network, as clearly "related to the fabrication of nuclear weapon components." Those designs sketched out how to perfect uranium spheres, a shape that can be imploded to set off a nuclear explosion.
Those discoveries were so helpful in bolstering the case that Russia, China, Egypt, India and Yemen, among others, lined up against Iran in the 27-to-3 vote of the board of the United Nations nuclear energy agency. While it is possible that the mounting pressure may exploit fissures within Iran between those who want the bomb and those who value integration with the West, it may also set up a nationalistic response. And Iran's leaders have already noted that four other countries that the United States said should never become nuclear powers — Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea — have all made the leap and are now, with the exception of North Korea, largely accepted as members of the nuclear club.
Moreover, few see that Washington has many options. "Can you delay the onset of the Iranian bomb? Maybe," said Charles Ferguson, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. But even taking military action against Iran's known nuclear sites, he said, could "stimulate them to cross the nuclear Rubicon because you've showed your hand, you've showed that you're willing to use military force to try to damage their nuclear program."
That may be where the debate is headed. Mr. Bush, in his public statements, has begun reiterating that all his options are on the table, words that have shades of his comments about Iraq three years ago. But he has been deliberately less fiery, mindful of not fracturing the coalition he has built. His aides, in contrast, have been sent out in recent days with stronger messages about what the world would look like if Iran had a bomb. And in Munich this weekend, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, staking out a position that is more hawkish than anything the Bush administration has said in public, put the predicament this way:
"There is only one thing worse than military action," he said, "and that is a nuclear-armed Iran."
Beg to differ. The only thing worse is if they're fools enough to launch at Israel.