A report on Iran’s nuclear program in the Wall Street Journal has alarmed lawmakers and outside analysts:
Moves by Iran to deploy more-advanced centrifuge machines for the production of nuclear fuel are raising new concerns that Tehran could significantly shorten the time it would need to produce nuclear bombs.
In recent weeks, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has notified United Nations inspectors that it has begun deploying what are described as second- and third-generation centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in the city of Natanz, according to diplomats briefed on the correspondence.
Tehran has also said that it plans to set up these advanced machines at an underground uranium-enrichment site run by Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, near the holy city of Qom, said these officials. Iran denies it seeks to develop nuclear weapons.
The more-advanced centrifuges, called IR-2Ms and IR-4s, are believed to be capable of enriching uranium at rates three times as fast as those Tehran currently uses, the IR-1s.
The Obama administration for months has been arguing that sanctions are “working.” But if the purpose of sanctions is to slow or halt Iran’s nuclear weaponization plans then the sanctions approach is an abysmal failure.
A senior congressional aide tells me: “Despite the U.S. significantly ratcheting up sanctions, the Iranian nuclear project now appears dangerously close to rocketing forward. If Teheran begins installing advanced centrifuges at Fordo, it represents a major, non-incremental advance by the Iranians — and thus demands a major, non-incremental response by the U.S. and the allies.” He suggests: “One obvious option would be sanctioning the Central Bank of Iran. Sooner than we had hoped, however, the President may indeed face the choice whether to accept a nuclear-armed Iran, or to take military action to set back this threat.”
A Republican aide authorized only to speak on background for his boss warns that this will impact Israel’s calculations. “This is a serious development because it means the United States, Europe, Israel and others will have a shorter response window if Iranian leaders decide to ‘break-out’ and produce weapons-grade uranium. Since the White House knows reports like this only speed up the Israeli clock — something the President doesn’t want to deal with before next November — this may force the Administration to actually try to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by imposing crippling economic sanctions.”
Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has been intimately involved in helping to craft sanctions efforts. But he, too, recognizes that sanctions alone are insufficient. He e-mailed me: “[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards are not distracted by debt-ceilings, Arab awakenings and re-election campaigns. They are driving ruthlessly forward on their nuclear weapon program while we delude ourselves into thinking that sanctions are a silver bullet that will stop them.” He contends, “Sanctions are an important part of a comprehensive Iran policy that needs to include the real threat of force. But where’s our Iran policy, how is it comprehensive, and who is in charge?”
In fact, with the departure of sanctions czar Stuart Levey from the Treasury Department and the administration’s lackadaisical stance toward everything from Syria to an increasingly aggressive Russia, it’s fair to say there is no one in charge of this or any other critical national security initiative.
As far as Iran goes, Dubowitz cautions that “if our Iran policy was truly comprehensive, we’d be doing everything possible to bring Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad down as Khamenei does all he can to keep Assad in power. If Assad crushes the democratic uprising, he will be like a wounded animal, even more dependent on Tehran for his survival. And we would have lost an enormous opportunity to weaken the Iranian regime.”
For now, it seems we lack an effective policy for halting Iran’s march toward status as a nuclear power. As Dubowitz puts it, “When it comes to countering Iran, we like to give the impression that we are further ahead than we are. But is the progress we’re making rhetorical or real?” The answer at this point is obvious.