December 4, 2004 | Arizona Republic

Iran and the Bomb

A Nuclear Iran Poses Extreme Threat to U.S.

Armed only with boxcutters, the 19 al-Qaida hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001 killed 3,000 people and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to New York City, the Pentagon and the global economy.

This toll pales in comparison with the damage that would be caused by a “nuclear 9/11” – a terrorist state or group using a nuclear weapon against the United States or its allies. Detonation of a single small nuclear weapon in a U.S. city such as Phoenix could kill more than 500,000 and cause over $1 trillion in damage.

The risk of a nuclear 9/11 is high and rising. As Harvard Professor Graham Allison writes in his outstanding recent book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe: “On the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not.”

In the first presidential debate, President Bush recognized that “the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network.” The Bush administration's success in countering this threat will turn first and foremost on its handling of the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

The most important action we can take to prevent a nuclear 9/11 is to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program in its tracks. During the presidential campaign, Senator Kerry characterized the Iraq war as the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Unfortunately, what we were told about Iraq that turned out to be false – that it was a leading sponsor of anti-American terrorists and on the verge of developing nuclear weapons — turns out to be true of Iran.

There is a risk that the American people — having felt “burned” with respect to Iraq — might reflexively dismiss the Iranian nuclear threat. To fail to understand, and act upon, the dangerous nature of the Iranian regime and how close it is to acquiring nuclear weapons would be a tragedy of historic proportions.

Iran and a trio of European countries recently negotiated a temporary freeze of part of the Iranian nuclear program. Media coverage of this deal has shed too little light on the dangers of the Iranian program and on the tenuousness and limited scope of the temporary freeze agreement. The Bush administration's very important concerns about the negotiations, which it has watched from a distance, have been given short shrift.

The difficulty of reaching agreement on even this temporary partial freeze does not bode well for the long term. It seems likely that Iran will violate the temporary freeze agreement, as it violated a similar agreement reached in October 2003, or that follow-on negotiations will fail to extend the temporary freeze.

The United States will likely soon have to make an important decision regarding its willingness to tolerate an Iranian nuclear bomb. To understand the stakes and prepare for that day, it is critical to know why a nuclear-armed Iran would be extremely dangerous, how close Iran is to acquiring nuclear weapons, and what steps must be taken if we are to decisively avert the menace of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Iran's Track Record

A nuclear-armed Iran would be extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. Iran's hard-line fundamentalist regime continues to blatantly threaten the United States, which it routinely refers to as “the Great Satan.”

In May, on the first day of its new session, Iran's parliament broke into chants of “Death to America.” At Iran's annual military parade in September, a long-range missile had draped over it a banner proclaiming, “We will crush America under our feet.”

Three different sets of Iranian diplomats at the United Nations have been thrown out of the U.S. in just the last two years for suspiciously photographing infrastructure and transportation sites in New York City. Meanwhile, Iran is working on the Shihab 5 missile, which would be capable of hitting the continental United States.

This radical Iranian regime has a history of following through on its threats to attack the United States. This same regime held 52 US diplomats hostage from late 1979 to early 1981. It was also behind the 1983 suicide bombing by its Hizballah proxies of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon that killed 241 American servicemen.

Mohsen Rafiqdoust, then head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, four years later took credit for the attack as follows: “The United States has felt the impact of our might on its ominous body, and knows that both the TNT and the ideology which in one blast sent to hell … officers, NCOs and soldiers at the Marine Headquarters have been provided by Iran.” If Rafiqdoust assumed that it was safe to take credit for the attack after several years had passed, if he thought that the delay would mean Iran would pay no price for the attack, he was right, as no retaliation against Iran accompanied his statement of responsibility for the attack.

The 9/11 Commission Report makes clear that the Iranian government has continued its involvement in terrorist attacks against the United States. The Report points to “strong” evidence of Iranian government involvement in the June 1996 bombing by its Hizballah proxies of the Khobar Towers residential complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that housed U.S. Air Force personnel. Nineteen Americans were killed, and 372 were wounded. Yet Iran has also never paid a price for its sponsorship of this attack.

Most recently, Iran has provided safe haven to al-Qaida from Sept. 11, 2001 to the present day. Estimates of the number of al-Qaida members currently being harbored by Iran range to over 300, and are said to include 18 senior members of bin Laden's network including bin Laden's son and former security chief.

This year's State Department Global Terrorism Report declares that Iran continues to be “the world's most active sponsor of terrorism.” Iran earns this title not only because of its own terrorist acts and hosting of al-Qaida, but also because it provides Hizballah, Hamas and other deadly groups with “funding, safe haven, training and weapons.”

Meanwhile, both through these surrogates and directly, Iran continues to call for and work towards the destruction of Israel. At the same Iranian parade where a banner draped over one long-range missile threatened to “crush America under our feet,” a banner draped over another missile proclaimed “Israel must be wiped off the map.”

Former Iranian President Rafsanjani, in a speech at Tehran University in December 2001, specified that on the day Iran comes into possession of a nuclear weapon, Israel will cease to exist. He noted to the student audience that while “nothing will remain after one atomic bomb is dropped on Israel,” which is small in size, the fallout will “only damage the world of Islam.”

Why Mullahs Hate Us

Why do the Iranian mullahs hate the United States and want to destroy it? The fundamental reason is reflected in their nickname for the United States: “The Great Satan.” Satan in the Koran is neither a conqueror nor an exploiter but an insidious tempter. The Iranian regime complains about U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as U.S. support for Israel. But, for the Iranian regime, including Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is American culture's seductive effect on Muslims that represents the greatest threat to the kind of Islamic world they want to impose.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced the equally anti-American Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's Supreme Leader upon Khomeini's passing in 1989. In Supreme Leader Khamenei's famous keynote speech to the 1997 summit, hosted by Iran, of the world organization of Islamic governments, he complained to the assembled leaders of the 55 member countries that “the West has persistently exported to our countries the culture of laxness and disregard for religion.” “Western materialistic civilization,” he explained, “is directing everyone toward materialism while money, gluttony and carnal desires are made the greatest aspiration.” As Khamenei put it in an interview in May 2004: “the source of all human torment and suffering is the ‘liberal democracy' promoted by the West … liberal democracy is devoid of morality.”

The personal website of Supreme Leader Khamenei, at, reflects his continued abhorrence of the West and its temptations. For example, the website's front page on Nov. 28 featured Khamenei's explanation of why Iran bans satellite dishes: such equipment “makes it so easy to receive forbidden programs, and sometimes leads to other corruptive matters.” Less benignly, every speech in the website's archive consists largely of Khamenei expressing hatred toward the west.

For example, the most recent speech on the website speaks with anticipation of the fast-approaching day “when the Muslims will rise up hopeful and united” against “the aggressive powers, which have sucked their blood for 200 years and have demolished their honor and dignity” by, among other things, “dishonoring [the] dignity” of women.

Referring to the United States in a recent speech rolling out Iran's newest long-range ballistic missile, Khamenei crows that “the Islamic revolution stamped the expiry date on the forehead of that imperialistic and nihilistic government which espouses nihilism.” Thus, the Iranian regime seeks to destroy the United States both because of its foreign policies — what we do overseas — but also, and more fundamentally, because of U.S. domestic policies — who we are at home.

Chilling stuff, especially when one realizes that these are not the musings of a twisted backbencher in the Iranian parliament, but the featured speeches of the current supreme leader of Iran as it seeks nuclear weapons.

Special Danger of Iran's Surrogates

The danger of Iran possessing nuclear weapons is exacerbated by its use of surrogates like Hizballah. Iran orders groups like Hizballah to engage in those most outrageous of terrorist acts for which Iran decides to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability.

For example, the State Department and FBI have both held that Iran, working through Hizballah, was responsible for both the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina which killed 29 people, and the 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center in that same city, which killed 86 people, including several children. Unlike with the attack on the U.S. Marine Barracks in Lebanon, the Iranians have steadfastly denied involvement in this attack on an Israeli embassy and Jewish cultural center in a country far from the Middle East. As with other terrorist attacks in which Iran has been involved, Iran has also never paid a price for its involvement in these two Buenos Aires attacks.

If Iran acquires nuclear weapons and decides to use them against the United States or Israel, it is quite likely to turn to Hizballah once again, providing it with “both the TNT and the ideology” to do the dirty deed so that Iran can take credit only if it so chooses and once the dust has settled.

The self-assurance with which Iran organizes terrorist attacks is already chilling. Nuclear weapons would provide Iran with both the ultimate form of TNT and the ability to threaten massive retaliation against any country that might consider making Iran pay a price for a terrorist attack of any kind.

Iran today is the leading state sponsor of terrorism even without such a nuclear umbrella. The prospect of how confidently Iran could flout global norms if it had a nuclear umbrella is terrifying.

Iran's savvy in outsourcing some of its most egregious terrorist attacks to Hizballah, and then proceeding to deny responsibility for those attacks until years later, is matched by its savvy in insisting that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes while taking every imaginable step to use the program to develop bomb-making capability.

Iran is Gaming the System

Iran insists it needs nuclear energy as a source of electricity and that its nuclear program is “for peaceful purposes” and thus legal under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran's insistence that it needs to spend billions of dollars on a nuclear energy program when it has very little indigenous uranium but does have the world's second-largest oil reserves (after Saudi Arabia) and second-largest natural gas reserves (after Russia) is laughable. Iran's history of cheating on its nuclear nonproliferation commitments is a more serious matter.

Verifying that a nuclear program is really “for peaceful purposes” can be challenging, because the ingredients of a peaceful nuclear energy program can be nearly identical to those of a nuclear weapons program. For that reason, the NPT requires member states to abide by strict “safeguards,” which build confidence that a state's nuclear programs are peaceful by rendering them more transparent.

The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. bureaucracy assigned to monitor NPT implementation, has identified “many breaches of Iran's obligations to comply” with the safeguards Iran agreed to under the NPT. Unlike with Iraq, this IAEA assessment that Iran has violated the safeguards — as well as the conclusion by the Bush Administration and others that Iran is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons — is grounded not only in closely held intelligence information but also in public, un-contradicted evidence.

A tip to the West by an Iranian dissident group led to the discovery in 2003 that Iran had for the previous 18 years been hiding from the world, including the IAEA, entire facilities and major activities relating to its nuclear program. Iran's failure to disclose these nuclear facilities and activities to the IAEA over the course of those 18 years was a gross violation of Iran's safeguards obligations.

Why, if Iran's nuclear program was for purely peaceful purposes — which is allowed — would Iran conceal these major facilities and activities for 18 years, when such concealment is itself in violation of NPT safeguards?

Iran formally admitted the existence of the facilities and activities in an October 2003 submission to the IAEA that was supposed to be the correct, complete and final story of Iran's nuclear program. Only when confronted with irrefutable technical evidence from IAEA inspections did Iran confess that this purportedly correct, complete and final submission contained glaring omissions relating to the most weapons-friendly part of their program.

The types of nuclear facilities which Iran has chosen to construct, and the nuclear program development activities which Iran has chosen to undertake, are an additional source of concern, as they seem like poor choices for power generation but perfect choices for weapons development.

Desert Mirage

Now, Iran has agreed to freeze activity on one sensitive part of its nuclear program while it negotiates with Britain, France and Germany on the rewards it would receive for a fuller and more permanent freeze.

Iran's good faith with respect to temporary freezes has already been called into question by its breaking a similar agreement reached between it and the same three European countries in October 2003. In that case, Iran had by July 2004 broken the seals placed on its nuclear equipment by IAEA inspectors and begun to use that equipment in violation of its freeze commitment.

The new partial freeze agreement raises several concerns. The duration of the promised freeze was left unclear, with Iran hinting that one key part of it may last only until Dec. 15. Another problem with the new freeze agreement is its failure to cover several parts of the Iranian nuclear program, such as its heavy water facility, which can also be used to make nuclear weapons.

The agreement also failed to adequately address widespread concern that Iran may be hiding secret facilities in which it is continuing even its work of the temporarily frozen variety. The IAEA has announced as recently as Nov. 29 that it is “not in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.” This is of particular concern since so many key elements of Iran's nuclear program were kept secret for so long and came to light only when their existence was revealed by an Iranian dissident group.

In addition, the manner in which Iran negotiated the freeze agreement — time and again reopening the agreement to cadge additional concessions out of the Europeans — raises questions about Iran's good faith in the negotiations.

The freeze agreement seems to have also left by the wayside Iran's continued lack of compliance with six previous IAEA resolutions in which Iran was called upon to provide specific further disclosures, access and confidence-building measures. These previous IAEA demands are in nearly every case still “unmet” or “unresolved.”

In other words, Iran seems to be gaming the IAEA system — taking two steps forward with its nuclear weapons program, getting slapped back a step, then taking two additional steps forward. The last country that gamed the IAEA system like this was North Korea, which managed to so successfully game the system that it now has several nuclear weapons.

Expert assessments of how long it would take for Iran to develop nuclear weapons in the absence of a full freeze range from as much as five years to as little as a few months.

Averting Nuclear-Armed Iran

There are two possible options for decisively averting the menace of a nuclear-armed Iran: a rock-solid agreement in which Iran permanently and verifiably abandons its nuclear-weapons program or, as a last resort, a series of preemptive military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Britain, France and Germany — the three European countries that took the lead in negotiating with Iran the current and previous freeze agreements — are pursuing an agreement in which Iran would permanently and verifiably abandon its nuclear-weapons program in return for economic and other benefits. The two sides are scheduled to meet in mid-December to try to negotiate such an agreement. Iran has repeatedly announced, including after the current temporary freeze agreement was signed, that it will never permanently abandon its “inalienable right” to an advanced nuclear energy program, a program of the sort that could very quickly be altered to churn out nuclear-weapons material.

Under a rational analysis, Iran's leaders might nonetheless abandon their weapons program if they can be convinced that the net value (benefits minus costs) to them of abandoning nuclear weapons outweighs the net value to them of pursuing such weapons.

Similar negotiations have succeeded in convincing several other countries to give up nuclear weapons programs, and Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and South Africa each in fact once had actual nuclear weapons and were successfully talked into giving them up.

The Bush Administration has thus far focused on making clear to the Iranians the costs of pursuing nuclear weapons. The Europeans meanwhile have been offering the Iranians incentives to abandon their nuclear program. In other words, the two have been playing bad cop/good cop, with the Bush Administration waving a stick and the Europeans dangling carrots.

But U.S.-European coordination needs improvement. For example, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw recently unhelpfully declared of a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear program, “I think the prospect of it happening is inconceivable” and “I don't see any circumstances in which military action would be justified against Iran.”

Removing from Iran's calculus the threat of a preemptive strike is a mistake. As Princeton University Professor Bernard Lewis, the preeminent Middle East historian, has reported, the Iranians who held the American diplomats in Iran hostage from 1979 to 1981 later revealed in their memoirs that they originally intended to hold the hostages for only a few days. They changed their minds when President Carter made it clear that there was no danger of serious action against them. The Iranians finally released the hostages only because they feared that the new President, Ronald Reagan, might approach the problem “like a cowboy.”

At the same time, some carrots being dangled by the Europeans – such as membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) – are only meaningful with the concurrence of the United States, which has the ability to, for example, block Iran from entering the WTO. If Iran is to agree to abandon its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. must be part of the deal. In light of the existential nature of the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear weapons program, helping facilitate Iran's entry into the WTO — which already has 148 other countries as members — would be a small price for the United States to pay for a permanent and verifiable abandonment by Iran of its nuclear-weapons program.

A negotiation which includes potential U.S. trade and other such concessions could quickly determine whether it is possible to craft a deal which would convince Iran to permanently and verifiably abandon its nuclear-weapons program. Should such a deal prove impossible to reach, a preemptive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities will, as a last resort, become the only available option for decisively averting the menace of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Helping the Iranian people to rise up against the Khamenei regime is a worthy goal. But Khamenei's regime, although unpopular with many of its own people, seems solidly in control. On the current timeline, Khamenei's regime will acquire, and be able to use, a nuclear bomb long before any revolution ousts it, if one ever does.

Several factors, including Iran's history of threats and attacks against the United States, provide strong support for the legality under international law of a preemptive strike focused on neutralizing Iran's nuclear program. The risk of such an attack inciting the “Arab street” or insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan would be well worth taking — for an Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat and insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are not.

The Bush administration seems to be leaning towards outsourcing to Israel such a preemptive military strike. It has recently supplied Israel with warplanes capable of reaching Iran and “bunker buster” bombs capable of burrowing into the ground and destroying the thick walls around some of Iran's nuclear facilities. But the Iranian nuclear sites are a much more challenging target than the Iraqi “Osirak” reactor which Israel successfully demolished in 1981. The known and suspected Iranian sites are spread all over the country, and the worst possible outcome would be to attack the Iranian nuclear program and leave one or more bomb-capable facilities untouched and thus capable of manufacturing an Iranian tool of revenge.

While the Iranian facilities are at the far edge of Israel's range and capability, the United States has dozens of bombers in a better position to do the job right. Should negotiations fail and a preemptive strike become necessary, the United States must step up to the plate and do the job itself. Our very existence may depend on it.

Deterrence – which is predicated on the other side's unwillingness to sustain heavy casualties – worked during the Cold War because the United States and Soviet Union both had a sense of self-preservation that caused them to fear mutual assured destruction. This is not true of Iran's leadership, whose beliefs embrace death and martyrdom.

During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, this same Iranian regime sent thousands of its own schoolchildren — each armed only with a small plastic “key to heaven” — to their deaths in human waves across minefields to clear a path for its adult troops. These schoolchildren were members of the Basij militia, known for its religious zealotry and direct allegiance to the supreme Ayatollah.

Three weeks ago, at a peak of U.S. and European pressure on Iran to modify its nuclear program, Iran's leadership gathered tens of thousands of young Basij militia members together south of Teheran to chant “No to Compromise,” “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.” The spirit of the human wave attacks is still strong.

If Iran succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons, this regime that instills hatred in and readily sacrifices its own children, that is so fundamentally hostile to the United States, seems unlikely to hesitate to bring death to the children of America through a nuclear attack on the “Great Satan.”

If we do not draw the line at Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, there will be nowhere left to draw the line. We must either prevent an Iranian bomb, or watch the world descend into a hell where the exceptionally hostile Iranian regime has the power to destroy American cities, and we are left to count the days before Hizballah, the Basij, or the Iranian military itself goes ahead and does it.

– Orde Kittrie is a professor at the College of Law at Arizona State University. Before joining the ASU law faculty, he served in the U.S. State Department for 11 years, including as the Department's senior attorney for nuclear affairs. In that capacity, he negotiated five nuclear non-proliferation agreements between the United States and Russia and served as counsel for the U.S. Government's sanctions and other responses to the 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. The opinions contained in this article are not necessarily those of Arizona State University or its College of Law. The College of Law is the only accredited law school in the Phoenix metropolitan area and one of the nation's leading centers of legal education and thought.