On Goldberg, “Bomber Boys,” and why Iran probably has a covert site already
Image: Alex Williamson
Reading through Jeffrey Goldberg’s probe of Israeli officials’ view of military options against Iran, two things stand out.
The first is pretty important, and it’s that Israel has not yet clearly defined its red lines. Military leaders and Israeli officials spoke to Goldberg at length about how much time they would be willing to give “non-military options,” with their patience essentially running out early next year. But what they didn’t define clearly was any sort of triggering event. (Separately, some Israeli officials have said publicly that Russia’s delivery of the S-300 missile system would be such a red line, but Russian leaders have decided not to deliver the S-300 precisely because it would be inflammatory.)
So what is the actual “Point of No Return”? According to Goldberg’s sources, it’s an Iranian weapons “capability.” But that is a vague and ephemeral term; one could argue that Iran already has a weapons capability because of its stockpile of nuclear material — the hardest component of a weapon to obtain. One could even argue that Iran has had a weapons capability for years, given their technological know-how and the abundance of natural resources within their own borders.
Or, conversely, you could say that Iran will only have a weapons capability when they have the ability to fashion a deliverable nuclear weapon within a few short months (something Iran cannot yet do). This appears to be what Israeli officials have in mind, though it is nearly impossible to assess this sort of capability with any degree of certainty. So as red lines go, this one leaves a lot to be desired.
Which brings me to my second point. Odds are that Iran already has a covert enrichment facility separate from the one unveiled at Qom last year.
For all the hair-pulling over Iran’s known enrichment program, what should really concern people is the possible existence of a covert facility. That is because, so long as Iran continues to grant access to IAEA inspectors at its declared sites, these are really not worth worrying about. If Iran tries to divert fissile material from a declared facility, the IAEA monitors will find out and the world will assume Iran’s withdrawing from the NPT and building a bomb out in the open.
This is the purpose of IAEA inspections; similar to how a burglar alarm system on a house detects when someone tries to break in — though without actually stopping the burglar — the IAEA detects when declared nuclear material is diverted away from acceptable purposes and it is assumed the world will take some action in response. We can feel comfortable that this has not happened yet because each and every IAEA report on Iran’s enrichment activities has been able to verify the non-diversion of all safeguarded material at Natanz, Esfahan, and Tehran.
As the threat of attack grows, however, the need for Iran to have a secret backup facility becomes more and more powerful.
Think about it from Iran’s perspective: Israel and the US are issuing more serious threats now than any time in the past three years. These threats are aimed at Iran’s declared nuclear facilities that are operating under NPT safeguards. And as the Leveretts have pointed out, if the US or Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites, it will be because Iran is enriching uranium — something the NPT explicitly permits.
Now, it’s anyone’s guess whether US or Israeli intelligence agencies know where this covert facility is. Our record of spotting “secret” sites is pretty good. But finding out about Iran’s secret facilities is far less preferable than convincing Iran not to build them in the first place. We need Iran to be more transparent; not less. Iran needs more IAEA safeguards; not less.
A common refrain in Goldberg’s piece is “the best way to obviate a military strike on Iran is to make the threat of a strike by the Americans seem real.” But these threats cut both ways. If threatening military action drives Iran’s nuclear program deeper underground (both literally and figuratively), then they make the problem more intractable.
By reframing Iran’s declared and safeguarded activities as acceptable while maintaining a zero tolerance policy for unsafeguarded facilities or non-civilian activities (such as the production of weapons-grade uranium), the world can offer Iran a face-saving way out. This would allow Iran to hold onto the aspects of its nuclear program that it maintains are its sovereign right, while also providing assurances that the more serious threat of Iranian proliferation doesn’t actually come about.