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A nation must think before it acts.
The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is an awkward document, one subject to widely divergent interpretations, but providing a more benign assessment of Iran’s nuclear capabilities than probably is warranted. It judges with moderate to high confidence that Iran does not now have a nuclear weapon or sufficient fissile material to make one, but won’t rule out that it could have acquired a weapon or the necessary explosive ingredients from abroad.
According to the estimate, Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but just what activities are subsumed under the term “program” is unclear. For example, available intelligence might indicate that Iran suspended efforts to retrofit long-range rockets for nuclear warheads, but fail to detect continued clandestine procurement activities for fissile materials and other bomb components.
Moreover, the judgment that Iran’s centrifuge enrichment program faces major technical challenges and probably won’t yield enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) until 2010–2015 timeframe will strengthen the case for diplomatic approaches to Iran (as opposed to tougher sanctions and military strikes). Yet what lethal nuclear items Iran may already possess cannot be inferred from the performance of its uranium conversion and enrichment facilities and from the spotty intelligence that shaped the NIE. Indeed, Iran’s highly publicized nuclear energy program could serve as a convenient cover for a parallel small scale—but potentially lethal—weapons-building effort that relies extensively on black market operations to obtain strategic nuclear wares.
Iran’s black market dealings are shrouded in mystery, but its procurement networks for nuclear bomb ingredients have most likely focused on the former Soviet Union. Iran’s legal nuclear cooperation with Russia, for example, could mask and facilitate a variety of illegal transfers, and also give Iran plausibility regarding its motives and actions. Also, Iran, like other aspiring nuclear actors, may seek weapons components by means of smuggling chains that they either patronize or control. Most of what turns up in the international black market is useless for making nuclear weapons, but the few exceptional cases may be symptomatic of a wider universe of illegal nuclear deals. To cite some recent examples: in June 2003, an Armenian smuggler was caught at the border with Georgia carrying 170 grams of HEU. The material was enriched to 89 percent uranium-235, close to the standard used for nuclear weapons (above 90 percent). In early 2006 a Russian (North Ossetian) trafficker was apprehended in Georgia with 100 grams of HEU also enriched to 89 percent. (Whether the two shipments were part of the same cache is not known.) The smuggler told Georgian authorities that he had access to an additional two to three kilograms of the same material, but this claim has not been verified.
Finally, in mid-2007 British authorities reported disrupting an alleged plot by a British company to smuggle Russian-origin HEU to Iran by way of Sudan. According to an account in the London Observer, “A group of Britons was tracked as they obtained weapons-grade uranium from the black market in Russia. Investigators believe that it was intended for export to Sudan and on to Iran.” The investigators reportedly had evidence that the material was destined for Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The incident may represent the tip of the iceberg. As a British parliamentarian who monitors export control matters observed, “If one company is involved, how many others might be out there?”
Russia, of course, has long been a focus of proliferation concern. Since the collapse of the Soviet regime, the United States has been sponsoring an array of projects designed to tamp down the nuclear black market and keep dangerous materials and weaponry out of hostile hands. A particularly important tool has been the Materials Protection Control and Accounting Program (MPC&A), which provides security upgrades at nuclear materials and warhead storage sites and technological monitoring systems at key border crossings to interdict radioactive contraband. The upgrades are scheduled for completion in 2008. The above-mentioned incidents, though, raise doubts about the efficacy and performance of these defenses. Even the most modern security systems are vulnerable to insider theft, especially when senior personnel of the enterprise are involved. (The latter would know how to circumvent or defeat the various steps in procedures designed to contain nuclear material at authorized sites.) Also, it stretches credulity to assume that a few hundred radiation monitors deployed along Russia’s 12,500-mile border could intercept smugglers with the requisite technical skills and knowledge of the terrain to move their wares covertly.
Furthermore, nuclear material of consequence already could be “outside whatever fences and security barriers may have been installed”—a case of locking the proverbial barn door after some of the horses have already escaped. As of the end of the 1990s, MPC&A security upgrades had been completed at fewer than one-third of the Russian building sites believed to house weapons-usable HEU and plutonium. By this time—some 16 years after the breakup of the USSR—it is conceivable that enough material to make one or several weapons has escaped into black market channels and become available for sale.
Whether or not Iran (or other sinister actors) has been able to exploit gaps in Russian nuclear security to procure the ingredients for a bomb is an open question. Russian officials share Western skepticism about Iran’s near-term ability to develop a nuclear weapon, but some less publicized signals from Russia should be cause for concern. In a post 9/11 conversation reported by former CIA director George Tenet, Russian president Vladimir Putin told Bush that he could not account for the security of nuclear materials during his predecessor’s administration. (The well-publicized problems of the Yeltsin era—a near-bankrupt economy, disarray within the nuclear complex, and a rising tide of criminality and corruption—certainly provided a window for proliferation.)
Then, at a press conference in June 2002 General Yury Baluyevsky, now chief of the Russian general staff, made the startling announcement that “Iran does have nuclear weapons. Of course these are non-strategic nuclear weapons. I mean they are not ICBMs with a range of more than 5,500 kilometers.” Baluyevsky did not elaborate on how Iran acquired the weapons or the wherewithal to manufacture them. In a later statement, the general maintained that Iran would not be able to develop nuclear weapons either in the near or in the distant future,” but the context of the remarks indicated that he was referring to Iran’s indigenous enrichment program, which would explain the contradiction. Baluyevsky’ s assertion is compatible with the NIE’s judgment that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003; conceivably have gotten much of what it wanted by then.
Of course, it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction (or disinformation) in deciphering commentary on proliferation issues. Yet given Russia’s history of leaky nuclear stockpiles, the warnings about Iran have the ring of plausibility. While Western experts debate the sophistication and spin speed of Tehran’s centrifuges, Iran already could have obtained a nuclear weapons capability of sorts through clandestine transfers from the former USSR. The NIE’s conclusions substantially weaken the case for war with Iran (and rightly so)—but possibly for the wrong reasons. Consider that even a small number of “non-strategic” or defensive nuclear warheads in Iran’s possession could be delivered with devastating effect to Western targets via Iran-linked terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas. There is no hard evidence of such a capability, but the signs are disturbing enough to warrant caution in dealing with Tehran. Rather than risking a high-stakes military confrontation. U.S. policymakers should remain focused on isolating and undermining the Ahmedinejad regime, such as ratcheting up economic sanctions, disrupting the regime’s financial lifelines, and increasing support for opposition groups.