Responding to Iran's Nuclear Challenge

Remarks at a Heritage Foundation Event on Iran's Rising Challenge: Nuclear and Energy Security Dimensions
July 25, 2007

Publication Type: 

  • Speeches and Testimony

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Gary Milhollin

Author's Title: 

Executive Director

Thank you for the kind invitation to speak to you today on the subject of Iran. My task is to explain how to stop Iran's nuclear program. I have been given about twenty minutes to accomplish this feat.

First, I should say that our best opportunity to stop, or at least slow down Iran's nuclear progress was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan was supplying the foundation for Iran's present centrifuge program. Khan was a known nuclear smuggler, having stolen designs from Europe for a uranium enrichment plant in the 1970s. Nevertheless, he was able to jet around the world on numerous trips that spread the means to enrich uranium to both Libya and North Korea, as well as to Iran, in the 1990s. Our intelligence agencies, which are our first line of defense against proliferation, either saw nothing or did nothing. This was a very expensive failure.

The International Atomic Energy Agency was inspecting Iran's nuclear sites during this time, but of course it was only inspecting the sites Iran had declared, and was only looking at the material that Iran allowed it to see. Iran, however, was doing its most important nuclear work in secret, so the IAEA too missed Iran's enrichment efforts.

Thus, Iran was able to start an ambitious centrifuge program in secret, and get it well underway, in violation of its pledges under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty without getting caught. A classic case of how little protection we really have against the spread of the bomb.

Our second opportunity was in 2003. Iran's secret sites were unveiled in August 2002, and in October 2003 the IAEA reported that Iran had been running a secret program for nearly two decades. Iran's work with nuclear material had unquestionable violated its inspection pledges under the nonproliferation treaty.

So what happened to Iran? Practically nothing. The IAEA could not bring itself to declare Iran in "noncompliance" of Iran's obligations under the treaty, and therefore send Iran to the U.N. Security Council, where sanctions could be voted. This was the second opportunity lost. Instead, a process of negotiation began, which did result in a couple of suspensions of Iran's enrichment program, but which never slowed down the program much.

In September 2005, after negotiations failed, the IAEA finally referred the case to the Security Council- a full two years after Iran's violations were clear.

The first U.N. sanction that was binding was passed in December of 2006. That was more than a year after the referral, and more than three years after the violations became clear. The message to Iran has been that punishment is not certain, and is not swift.

So today we have arrived at a point where we have two U.N. sanctions resolutions, which Iran is ignoring. This is not surprising because the sanctions are quite weak. They put a list of Iranian firms under a trade-ban and do some other minor things.

As it turns out, these resolutions are already being violated. Since the resolutions went into effect, my organization has tracked seven shipments into Iran to an entity with which trade is banned. The seven shipments probably are a small percentage of what is really going in, and there is no reason to think they will stop.

What about further U.N. sanctions? They are not being actively worked on, according to press reports. Why? Perhaps it is because Iran has agreed to let the IAEA inspect some things, which appear to be things that the IAEA had the right to inspect anyway. Thus, the diplomatic process at the United Nations has produced little, and appears to be leading nowhere.

And what has the United States been doing all this time? First, our government scoffed at the Europeans for negotiating. Then, we half-heartedly supported them. Finally, we have endorsed the negotiations, while not participating in them directly. In effect, our policy has been to hope this nasty problem would go away while we were busy next door. A couple of years ago, our government even put out information to the effect that Iran was as much as ten years away from the bomb. That was clearly wrong. Our government was trying to get the public to believe that "If we can't fix it, it's not broken."

After missing our two best chances, we are now faced with alternatives that are much more expensive, and even frightening.

What are they?

A) Stay the present course, which consists of muddling about at the U.N. That simply won't do it. Iran could have 2,000 centrifuges running by the end of this year. That is not certain, but it is a definite possibility. In a year's time they could enrich enough material for a bomb, if configured to do so. Or, more likely, they could begin building a stockpile of low-enriched uranium that would give Iran a "breakout" potential. That is, Iran would have a stockpile of uranium that could be raised to bomb grade within a short time of a decision to do so. This would confer upon Iran a "virtual arsenal." In sum, Iran's progress on the ground has far outstripped the pace of diplomacy. The best that can be said for the activities at the United Nations is that they are creating the impression that we are doing something.

B) Military Action - Bombing is an uncertain business. The best precedent for seeing what might happen if we bombed Iran is to look at what happened when we bombed Iraq during the first Gulf War. We missed Iraq's most important nuclear site because we did not know it was there. We found that out because inspectors went into Iraq after the bombing. Will Iran allow inspectors in after it is bombed? Probably not. We won't know whether we have hit the important stuff. We also won't know what Iran will do in retaliation. And we won't know whether we will have the military means to respond to that retaliation-given the poor condition of our defense forces at this time. Bombing would be a step into the unknown. We have not done well recently in predicting the outcome of our military actions in the Middle East.

C) Economic Isolation - We could try to isolate Iran economically. Iran would have to walk up the hill Libya walked up, look into the future, and decide that the prospects were so bleak that it made sense to give up the bomb. That would require real economic pain for Iran. So far, there is no strategy I can see for inflicting it. European taxpayers are still subsidizing loans. Foreign companies are still investing in Iran's oil fields. America does not have a crash program to reduce its own oil imports. America is not taxing gasoline the way Europeans do. America is not requiring higher gas mileage from its automakers. America is not expanding its military forces to be able to handle Iraq and Iran at the same time. America has not announced any policy that would result in Iran's isolation. Thus, there is no formula for convincing Iran to change course. Our government is bereft of ideas on this point. That is not really acceptable. We need an effective policy, and we need it now, because time is running out.