Ehud Barak: Iran is about to join the “nuclear club”

JEfforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power are at an all-time low, seemingly headed for failure. The 2015 US-led deal to delay Iran’s program did not go far enough, and the 2018 US withdrawal from that same deal allowed Iran to “legitimize his persistent pursuit of “nuclear threshold” status – that is, having enough uranium for a nuclear device and the technology to weaponize it. In 2018, they were about 17 months away from that threshold. Today they are probably only 17 days old.

It’s time to face reality.

It’s for good reason that nine months ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that if a deal wasn’t done in the coming weeks, it might not be worth the hassle. to be signed. This is even truer today. Iran continued to enrich uranium and went from being a country Russia was tasked with monitoring to supplying Russia with armed drones. At this point, a new deal would be useful mostly for appearances, providing both sides with an “umbrella of denial” for domestic needs — for the United States, avoiding tougher realities and choices and, for the Iranians, by keeping the sanctions at the lightest level possible.

This summer, Iran will transform itself into a de facto nuclear state on the threshold. Yes, it will take them another 18 to 24 months to hone their skills in processing uranium metal and packing it into a missile warhead. But these steps can be performed in a small lab or workshop and cannot be easily followed, let alone stopped. It may well be that even if and when Iran becomes a nuclear threshold country, the mullahs would choose to pretend otherwise, remaining within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime in order to avoid even harsher sanctions. . But that won’t change reality. After more than 20 years of trying, Iran is about to cross the point of no return by becoming a member of the “nuclear club”.

This has always been the ambition of the mullahs.

They successfully followed in the footsteps of North Korea and Pakistan, which defied the world and went nuclear. They also averted the forced end of the Libyan and South African nuclear programs, and the fate of the Iraqi and Syrian programs, destroyed by Israeli surgical air raids in 1981 and 2007 respectively.

But in 1981 and 2007, these programs were not as advanced as the Iranian program had been allowed to become.

For inexplicable reasons, after the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018, neither the United States nor Israel prepared an available military “plan B”, a kinetic attack capable of delaying the Iranian program. for at least several years.

But while this was probably achievable when Iran was 17 months away from a successful “breakout”, the situation is totally different at 17 days. “Breakout” is shorthand for the decision, followed by action, to transform a civilian nuclear program, devoted to the production of electricity, into a program for the manufacture of weapons. The aim is to enrich the uranium 238 isotope to more than 90% purity. Enrichment is done in centrifuges and the process of increasing it from 60% to “weapon grade” is much faster and simpler than previous processes. This last step requires smaller spaces, possibly in very deep tunnels out of reach of any weapon. So even if you have excellent intelligence (which you don’t always have) and know in real time what’s going on, you might find that there’s not much you can do about it. It’s happened before in the United States, more than once, regarding North Korea.

So the reality is this: Israel and (surely) the US can operate in the skies of Iran against this or that site or facility and destroy it. But once Iran has become a de facto threshold nuclear state, this type of attack simply cannot stop Iranians from going nuclear. Indeed, in certain circumstances, it could hasten their rush to assemble this bomb and provide them with a measure of legitimacy for self-defense reasons.

In other words, unlike the surgeries that were contemplated 12 years ago, or might have been contemplated 4 years ago – operations that could have significantly delayed the Iranian program (while risking a war with Iran) – the current possibilities run the full risk of war (especially for Israel) with little chance of delaying Iran’s nuclear program.

The United States can still dissuade Iran from going nuclear with a diplomatic ultimatum to stop the program, backed by a credible threat of full-scale war. Anything less than that cannot guarantee a result. I hope this remains realistic.

Otherwise, we face a new and serious change for the worse in the security balance of the Middle East. Iran is already a tough and bitter rival, operating against Israel and others directly and by proxy in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, while spreading terror, chaos and insurgency wherever they go. can. I would not for a moment underestimate their ability to harass Israel and others, to disrupt normal life, or their wish to see Israel defeated.

However, when it comes to nuclear capability, keep in mind that creating a preliminary nuclear arsenal can take a decade or more. It only becomes a potential existential threat to Israel in the longer term. Realistically, this is not about dropping a weapon on Israel. Iranian mullahs are fanatics and extremists but not stupid or crazy. They don’t want to end up in the Stone Age.

Rather the opposite. For Iran, nuclear capability is about the regime’s ability to survive. He assures that no one will dare to intervene on a large scale in Iran, no matter how vulnerable the regime. The nuclear capability will also “balance” their position vis-à-vis Israel and give the Iranians more freedom to sow conflict and disorder throughout the region.

The most realistic risk, first and foremost, is the potential collapse of the NPT regime. 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 also feel compelled to go nuclear. It could take a decade or more, and probably only two will succeed, but an eventual collapse of the NPT regime will encourage every third-tier dictator on earth to try to protect his regime in the same way. Moreover, the road could open for the nightmare scenario, described by Graham Allison of Harvard in Nuclear terrorismthat the more nuclear states there are, the greater the risk of a crude nuclear device falling into the hands of a terrorist group.

So what to do? First, look reality in the eye and act on it – not on wishes or illusions. Start thinking and preparing for the real new phase.

If a new deal with Iran, however dubious, preserves the NPT, it would still serve a useful purpose. But Iran’s signature is less important than what the US is doing. Washington must establish a small club of affected states, including Israel, and ensure that high investments in intelligence minimize the risk of missing crucial developments. Much needs to be done with operational and diplomatic cooperation, from covert operations to public policy, to prepare for much tougher sanctions as well as operational contingencies to be activated if or when Iran appears to be rushing to assemble a weapon – that is to say when it bursts.

Israel should also be given the means to carry out an independent attack on the nuclear program, if both governments are convinced that it is absolutely necessary. The smaller partner should have this ability because a true breakout will most likely occur when the United States is absorbed by a crisis elsewhere, whether in Venezuela, the South China Sea islands, Taiwan, Ukraine or in an interregnum.

Particular attention should be paid to the belief of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region that they are adequately protected against Iranian nuclear blackmail and that they have no need to become nuclear themselves.

The Ayatollahs will not control Iran forever. Usually, these revolutions tend to collapse in their third generation (see communist revolution, among other cases). Iran’s extremely young society will approach this stage in the next two decades. The Iranian people have been a great people and a great civilization since the dawn of history. They were Israel’s best friends in the region just 45 years ago. We must stand firm and contain the Islamic Republic of Iran. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, they will crumble and a new chapter will open. Let’s work together towards this.

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