Iran - Violations, Escalation, Options

January 10, 2006

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Raymond Tanter


Iran Policy Committee

The opportunity to join my colleagues, Alireza Jafarzadeh, President, Strategic Policy Consulting Inc. and Paul Leventhal, founding President, Nuclear Control Institute, is an occasion for which I am most grateful.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, who as then-Washington spokesman for the Iranian opposition in 2002, made initial disclosures of Iran's secret nuclear program, presented new evidence of covert nuclear weapons work by the Government of Iran. And Paul Leventhal treated constraints on and opportunities for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its efforts to conduct effective inspections in Iran.

My task is to discuss implications of Iranian violations of the nonproliferation regime on likelihood of war and options for preventing Iran from building the Bomb. In this respect, there are three elements in my presentation: violations; escalation; and options.


Iran's violations of international agreements spark an action-reaction process of escalating rhetoric and capabilities in the region, and prompt a need for the international community to rethink its options for containing or confronting the regime.


The Iranian resistance exposed one of the first nuclear-related violations by the Government of Iran in August 2002 at the Natanz nuclear site. A private company then released satellite imagery in December 2002, and the IAEA initiated inspections in February 2003, finding some centrifuge machines.

But by February 2004, the Natanz site had just about disappeared into underground locations. A comparison of satellite images of Natanz in 2002 and in 2004 is revealing of the depth in which the regime would go to conceal its violations of the nonproliferation regime. And as Alireza Jafarzadeh states, covert construction continues at the Natanz site, construction bound to lead to escalation.


Doomsday Clock

During the Cold War, a metaphor for escalating tensions between the superpowers was the Doomsday Clock. After the Soviet Union conducted its nuclear tests in 1949, the clock moved closer to midnight to symbolize impending doom of nuclear war. The clock moved back and forth during the Cold War. But after the end of that East-West conflict and demise of the USSR, the last time the clock moved closer to midnight was in 2002 to reflect the doom felt in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC.

Although the managers of the clock focused on 9/11 terrorists, the clock's timekeepers downplay state sponsors of international terrorism, such as Iran. In this respect, the clock failed to move closer to midnight after the revelations by the Iranian resistance about Tehran's efforts to build uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, about which both Jafarzadeh and Leventhal have spoken.

So when Iran cheats on its international obligations to report suspect activities that might be construed as nuclear-weapons related, the clock remains frozen.

What changes the time on the Doomsday Clock?

At issue is what moves the Doomsday Clock: too little nuclear disarmament, vulnerability of nuclear materials to international terrorists, and too much unilateral action by the United States, instead of multilateral action favored by the keepers of the Doomsday timepiece.

What should move the clock are such things as Iranian-sponsored terrorism, moves by Tehran to build the Bomb, and the regime's "Islamo-fascist" ideology that requires export of the Iranian Revolution to sustain the theocrats in power.

Recall that the President of the Iranian regime, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for Israel to be wiped off the map in October 2005. He had visited a covert nuclear site in Natanz during July. Such hot rhetoric coupled with intensified efforts to resume uranium enrichment operations at Natanz is a source of escalating tensions in the Middle East region.

Also remember that in August 2005, after Ahmadinejad assumed power, the regime restarted operations at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan.

Accelerating Iranian capabilities and motives stemming from Tehran's fascist ideology combine to pose a growing threat to moderate Arab state neighbors of Iran as well as to Israel.

While President Bush has used the term Islamo-fascists to name individuals, such as Osama bin Laden, Bush has not yet employed this phrase to describe state sponsors of terrorist, such as Iran.

I am hopeful that the President might use Islamo-fascist in January 2006 to describe Iran as he did in 2002, when he classified Iran as a member of the Axis of Evil.

The smiling face of an Ayatollah overlooking missiles is a template for an Iran that is an Islamo-fascist state.


Given the threatening capabilities and motivations of Iran, the question arises as to options available to the international community. Among the alternatives are diplomacy, military strikes, and regime change.


While I support the diplomatic option, negotiations without the threat of force to back up the diplomacy is liable to be perceived by Tehran as weakness and an invitation to the regime to expand and escalate. If western diplomatic concessions appear as appeasing the Government of Iran, then it is likely to continue accelerating its quest of the Bomb and a clash with the State of Israel is a near certainty.

I am hopeful the handshake of Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich in 1938 that came to symbolize appeasement will not be recalled by historians fifty years from now as a forerunner of the handshake of Secretary General Kofi Annan with President of the Iranian regime, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Military Strikes

Developments in Natanz and Isfahan suggest that Tehran seeks a full nuclear fuel cycle, which would be as useful for making the Bomb as for making nuclear power. It is hardly conceivable to me that the Government of Israel will allow Iran to even approach having a complete nuclear fuel cycle, from which Tehran might be able to build the Bomb on short notice.

Because of long distance, underground location of sites, and dispersal of sites, preventive military strikes by Israel are unlikely to succeed in destruction of Iran's nuclear sites. That said, however, military action by Israel remains a live option, despite its difficulty.

Regime Change

Given failing diplomacy and apparently infeasible military action, regime change may be a way to address the Iranian threat. Regime change has at least two aspects: hard or soft landing.

Assuming resistance by the theocrats in power, a hard landing is the most likely scenario. But even a hard landing might not be as violent as the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

In light of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, exiles and dissident Iranians might be able to facilitate regime change in the manner in which Ukraine moved from totalitarian rule to democracy. But the dissidents of today can hardly become leaders of a democratic Iran of tomorrow if the main Iranian opposition groups are on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations lists of the United States Government.

So a prerequisite for regime change, whether it is hard or soft landing variety, is to remove the National Council of Resistance of Iran and the Mujahedin e-Khalq from the terrorist list. Not only do these organizations fail to commit terrorist acts but they are the leaders of pro-democracy forces within and outside of Iran.