FPI Bulletin: As Obama Visits Israel, Iran’s Nuclear Threat Grows

March 20, 2013

As President Obama meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel this week, it’s critical that both leaders discuss—without any illusions—the Iranian nuclear program’s growing threat to Middle East security and global stability.

For nearly a decade, the United States and other world powers have used a dual-track strategy of diplomacy and non-military pressure in an effort to persuade Iran to halt weapons-relevant nuclear activities that it’s pursuing in blatant violation of international obligations.  However, the dual-track strategy has not yet succeeded in dissuading Iran from its quest for the capability to make a nuclear weapon on increasingly short notice. 

In one of the more alarming scenarios, analysts estimate that Iran—using only declared nuclear material and declared sites for uranium enrichment—already has the technical potential to produce nuclear explosive material for its first nuclear weapon in a matter of a few months.  What’s worse, if Iran has undeclared sites for uranium enrichment, analysts worry that Iran’s possible timeline for breaking out overtly—or sneaking out covertly—of the international inspections regime and building its first nuclear bomb could further shorten.

The question of whether Iran has declared all of its nuclear materials, equipment, and facilities is of critical importance.  For example, while Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper wrote in a March 2013 unclassified report to Congress that U.S. intelligence agencies “assess Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU [weapons-grade uranium] before this activity is discovered,” Clapper’s report remained completely silent on the possibility that Iran has undeclared—and therefore unsafeguarded—nuclear material.

U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should press the intelligence community on this omission.  The possibility that Iran has undeclared nuclear material and equipment is still very real, according to the world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Recall the recent controversy over Iran’s nuclear program began after the IAEA learned in 2003 that Iran had hidden—for nearly two decades—a host of nuclear materials, activities, and facilities that it should have declared to international inspectors.

In a February 2013 report, the IAEA warned once again that international inspectors are able to verify the correctness—but not the completeness—of Iran’s nuclear declarations to the Agency due to Iranian stonewalling:

“While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and [locations outside facilities] declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement, as Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation, including by not implementing its Additional Protocol, the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

Moreover, the IAEA reiterated that international inspectors “will not be in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran unless and until Iran provides the necessary cooperation with the Agency” as legally demanded by the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors and the United Nations Security Council.  However, Iran has adamantly refused to provide the IAEA with such “necessary cooperation” for nearly a decade and counting.

Even as the Obama administration once again tries nuclear diplomacy with Iran, some foreign policy pundits are advising the United States to “handle” Iran’s accelerating march to nuclear weapons-making capability “like North Korea” in the 1990s and early 2000s—which is to say, try to negotiate a diplomatic grand bargain, even if only to decrease tensions, but at the same time be prepared to accept a nuclear-armed Iran.  But as North Korea’s long history of nuclear and missile provocations in the Asia-Pacific illustrates, such advice on Iran’s nuclear program would be not just short-sighted, but dangerous for the United States and the Middle East.

Whatever President Obama may say during his trip to Israel, it’s clear that he still views diplomacy as a viable means to achieving the ultimate end of stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons-making potential.  But as the window rapidly closes for the United States, Israel, and other responsible members of the international community to halt Iran’s destabilizing nuclear ambitions, it’s urgent that Mr. Obama not give up his end to obtain his means.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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