Ehud Barak: Iran Is About to Join the ‘Nuclear Club’

TThe effort to stop Iran becoming a nuclear power seems headed towards failure. In 2015, the U.S.-led agreement to delay Iran’s program failed to go far enough, and the 2018 U.S. withdrawal from that same agreement allowed Iran to ‘legitimize’ its persistent crawl toward ’threshold nuclear’ status – that is, having enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear device and the technology to make it a weapon. The threshold was 17 months away in 2018, Today, they’re likely only 17 days away.

It’s time to face reality.

This is why, nine months back, U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken stated that an agreement that was not reached within a few weeks might not be worth signing. That’s even more true today. Iran continued to enrich uranium, and it has become a country Russia is assigned to monitor. At this point, a new agreement would be useful mainly for appearances, providing both sides a ‘denial umbrella’ for domestic needs — for the U.S., avoiding tougher realities and choices, and, for the Iranians, keeping sanctions at the lightest level possible.

Iran will be a nuclear threshold state by the end of this year. It will take them 18-24 months to perfect their techniques in converting metal uranium into missile warheads. These steps are not easy to follow and can’t be stopped in any small workshop or lab. The possibility exists that even Iran becomes a nuclear threshold nation, the mullahs might choose to make it seem otherwise. They will remain under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, (NPT), in an effort to avoid heavier sanctions. However, this will not alter the fact. After more than 20 years of trying, Iran is about to cross the point of no return in becoming a member of the “nuclear club.”

This has been the mullahs’ ambition all along.

They followed the lead of Pakistani and North Korean nuclear leaders, and have succeeded in doing so. They were able to avoid the forced end of South African and Libyan nukes programs and their fates as the Iraqi- and Syrian nuclear weapons programs. These programs were destroyed in Israeli surgical air strikes in 2007 and 1981.

But in 1981 and 2007, those programs weren’t as advanced as the Iran’s program had been allowed to become.

For unexplainable reasons, after the US pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 neither the US nor Israel prepared an available military ‘plan B,’ a kinetic attack capable of delaying the Iranian program by at least several years.

But while this was probably achievable when Iran was 17 months away from successful “breakout,” the situation is totally different at 17 days. “Breakout” is shorthand for the decision, followed by action, to shift a nominally civilian nuclear program, one devoted to generating electrical power, to a program making weapons. The process involves enriching uranium 238, an isotope, to over 90% purity. The enrichment is done in centrifuges and the process of raising it from 60% to ‘weapon grade’ is much faster and simpler than the earlier processes. The last stage is more difficult and requires less space, sometimes in deep tunnels that are beyond reach of weapons. So even if you have excellent intelligence (which is not always the case) and you know in real time what is happening, you might find that you can’t do a lot about it. The US has seen it happen more times than once regarding North Korea.

It is clear that Israel, and (for certain) the US, can both operate above the Iranian skies against any site or facility and demolish it. This kind of attack cannot stop Iran from becoming nuclear, however, once Iran has become a threshold nuclear state. In certain cases, it could accelerate Iran’s rush towards assembling the bomb. It may also give them legitimacy for self defense.

In other words, unlike the surgical operations that were considered 12 years ago, or could have been considered 4 years ago–operations which could have substantially delayed the Iranian program (while risking a war with Iran)–the present possibilities bring all the risk of war (especially for Israel) with only scant likelihood of delaying the Iranian nuclear program.

Still, the US can deter Iran by issuing a diplomatic ultimatum that Iran must stop. It should be supported by the credible threat of large-scale war. Only that will guarantee a successful outcome. It is my hope that this remains realistic.

We face an even more serious threat to the Middle East’s security balance if we don’t. Iran has been a ruthless and bitter adversary, acting directly or through proxies in Iraq and Syria. Their ability to disrupt the normal flow of life and harass Israel is something I wouldn’t underestimate.

But, it is worth noting that it takes a long time to build a first nuclear arsenal. In the long-term, it becomes an existential threat for Israel. Realistically speaking it’s not about dropping a weapon on Israel. Although the Iranian mullahs might be fanatics or extremists, they’re not crazy. They don’t want to return to the Stone Age.

Actually, the reverse is true. Iran considers nuclear capability about regime survival. This assures Iran that no one, regardless of how fragile the regime may appear, will intervene in large numbers. Nuclear capability will also ‘balance’ their positioning vis-a-vis Israel and give the Iranians more freedom to sow conflicts and disorder all over the region.

A collapse of NPT is the most likely risk. If Iran chooses to go nuclear–a decision that the Iranian regime alone will make–Turkey, Egypt and in a different way Saudi Arabia will all feel compelled to go nuclear as well. While it might be a decade before they succeed and only two will, the possibility of a collapse of the NPT will push every other third-rate dictator to continue trying to save his own regime. What’s more, the road might open for the nightmare scenario, described by Harvard’s Graham Allison in Nuclear TerrorismThe theory is that more nuclear states are the better, so the higher the chance of terrorists using a nuclear weapon.

Now, how do we get there? First, look reality at the eye, and act upon it – not on wishes or delusions. Get ready for the next phase by thinking.

Even if a new deal with Iran helps to preserve the NPT it would still be useful. But Iran’s signature is less important than what the U.S. does. Washington should establish an informal group of states relevant to Iran, Israel included, and ensure that intelligence investments are high enough to minimize the chance of miss any important developments. A lot should be done with operational and diplomatic cooperation, from covert ops to public policy, to prepare much tougher sanctions as well as operational contingencies to be activated if or when Iran appears to rush towards assembling a weapon – that is, when it breaks out.

Israel needs to be able to conduct an independent strike on its nuclear program if the two governments agree. Because actual breakout of the nuclear program will likely occur when the US becomes embroiled in another crisis, such as Venezuela, South China Sea islands or Taiwan, or even an interregnum, the smaller partner must have the capability.

It is important to convince Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia that Iran’s nuclear blackmail has been properly addressed and they do not need to go nuclear.

Iran is not under the control of the Ayatollahs forever. These revolutionary movements tend to fall in the third generation. See, for instance, the Communist Revolution. Iran’s extremely young society will approach this stage within the next two decades. From the beginning of time, Iran’s people have been a powerful people and a great civilisation. They were Israel’s best friends in the region just 45 years ago. The Iranian Islamic Republic must be contained and we have to remain firm. They will fall and, hopefully, sooner rather than later. Let’s work together towards it.

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