Iran's nuclear armament - the "point of no return" in summer 2009 ?

Posted in Iran | 04-Mar-09 | Author: Dieter Farwick

“The time for Barack Obamas policy of reconciliation, negotiations and consultations with Iran will run out.”
“The time for Barack Obamas policy of reconciliation, negotiations and consultations with Iran will run out.”
The 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, faces a wide range of worldwide and domestic challenges that he and his team have to address simultaneously. There is no timeout for any single problem. On February 10, the president declared that the "economy comes first." This message was intended to assure the American people that the president will try do find a solution for mitigating the consequences of the economic and financial crisis. It's also an attempt to regain trust and confidence in the government.

The solution of the financial and economic crises in the United States of America will decide the future of the country and the future of President Barack Obama. To avoid an even deeper recession is paramount for the foreign problems, too. The financial and economic status determines the leeway for foreign policy. The US will again demand a fair distribution of burden sharing from its allies and partners.

As recently exercised at the G 20 summit in London and at the NATO summit in France and Germany, Barack Obama presents his new foreign policy with changes in content and style. He prefers multilateral consultations and negotiations to former unilateral US decisions and actions. This is true for relations with Iran, too. Since becoming U.S. President, Barack Obama has addressed Iran twice. In his inauguration speech on 20 January Barack Obama said: "We will extend our hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." In an unusual video message related to Iran's Nowruz festival on 19 March he extended his hands to Iran: "We seek engagement that is honest and grounded on mutual trust." The reaction from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not very cooperative: "Minor changes will not end the difference between Tehran and Washington."

When Vice President Joe Biden declared that the new president might be tested within the first six months there were some questions as to the kind of challenge that Joe Biden had in mind. New reports about the status of Iran's nuclear program make clear which challenge Joe Biden was referring to: Iran. Those reports suggest that Iran might reach the "point of no return" already in summer 2009 - about a year earlier than previously expected. Then, Iran would be capable of producing nuclear weaponry within months.

The development in Iran causes great concerns in Israel. The Israelis perceive an Iranian nuclear armament as a lethal threat. There are signals that they might start a limited military operation against parts of Iranian nuclear facilities prior to the "point of no return" - even without U.S. support. There are controversial discussions within the Israeli government whether Israel should decide to attack parts of Iran's nuclear facilities - or not.

There are international studies about whether or not Israel is capable to launch an attack. Some experts believe that Israel is capable of attacking substantial parts of Iran's nuclear facilities in order to paralyze or delay the program for years. Other studies conclude that such an attack is too risky. The problem becomes even more complicated: If and when Iran decides to start the nuclear power plant with Russia's support in September 2009, any Israeli attack will become more questionable.

The risk assessment must also include possible Iranian counter actions with conventional weapons or with actions taken by Iran's proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. The equation of desirable benefits and possible own casualties and damages becomes difficult.

It is obvious that any military operation by Israel - with or without U.S. support - runs counter to President Barack Obama's intentions and prospective of his policy with regard to Iran - and the entire Arab world. If the red line is crossed by Iran in summer 2009 it becomes obvious: The time for Barack Obama's policy of reconciliation, negotiations and consultations with Iran will run out.

WSN wants to bring more clarity into the fog of the evolving crisis.

Dieter Farwick, Global Editor, took the opportunity to interview Dr.Hans Rühle - one of the best renowned experts in this field. German senior geopolitical and geo-strategic analyst Dr.Hans Rühle has been following international security affairs professionally for more than 40 years. As Head of the Ministry of Defense Planning Staff of Manfred Wörner, the former German Minister of Defense and former NATO Secretary General, he played an active role in German and international affairs. He is a renowned member of the international strategic community. With his expertise and knowledge of foreign policy and security affairs for more than four decades, he has carefully studied the development of Iran's nuclear energy program and its clandestine military development program.

His conclusions are alarming. Time is running out.

The year 2009 will challenge President Barack Obama with tough decisions that he will have to make after only a few months of being in office.

Hans Rühle: "In the case of a military option the cards would be dealt afresh"

Dieter Farwick: You have been following international security affairs professionally for more than 40 years. You are a renowned member of the international strategic community.

There are a lot of current and emerging crises around the globe. Why did you decide to focus on Iran in recent years?

Hans Rühle: After the end of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat faced by the West. Iran's apparent intent to go nuclear is particularly significant in this context. Here we deal with a Non-Proliferation Treaty member that is pursuing the bomb in plain sight and in open contempt of the international community, represented by the UN and IAEA. If Iran turns into a nuclear power, the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime is finished. For me as a German, all this and its expected domino effect is compounded by the fact that it happens in a region where Germany has a special responsibility with respect of Israel.

Dieter Farwick: At the end of 2007 the international strategic community was surprised by the conclusions of the National Intelligence Report (NIE). The report stated that Iran had stopped its nuclear development program already in 2003 and that Iran had most probably not restarted the program.

What is your view about the facts and figures and the assessment of this report that was highly welcomed by most observers?

Dr. Hans Ruehle: " Even the election victory of a "reformer" would make no difference to Iran's nuclear armament"
Dr. Hans Ruehle: " Even the election victory of a "reformer" would make no difference to Iran's nuclear armament"
Hans Rühle: The findings of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) are in stark contradiction to all previous assessments by U.S. intelligence services. To this day, these findings appear unreasonable. Accordingly the Israeli, French British and German intelligence services are not in concurrence with the 2007 NIE. In addition Israel points out that the real - and very different - facts were presented to President Bush during his last visit to Israel.

In the meantime, the U.S. intelligence community has revised some of its positions. For example, they are now more precise in stating that it is only the "weaponization" of Iran's program that was allegedly put on hold in 2003. However, the damage caused by the NIE cannot be undone anymore. There was much fertile ground for believing in the suggestion that essential parts of the Iranian nuclear program were terminated and the obvious conclusion that there is no reason to worry.

Dieter Farwick: Following your remarks: What was the motivation of the US intelligence services to publish a "soft" assessment on Iran?

Hans Rühle: Apparently the White House had asked not to produce a NIE that would entail a need for military action. It is also quite possible that the intelligence services went out of their way to comply with their anticipation of such a request. What was probably decisive, however, was the determination of the intelligence community as a whole to never again let itself be used for dossiers that justify war, as had been the perception in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq War. What may have also played a certain role is the conviction of U.S. intelligence services that they had successfully penetrated the computer network of Iran's nuclear planners, and thus gained substantial new evidence on the Iranian nuclear program. However, there are strong indications that the Iranians detected this "cyber invasion" early on and staged a strategic deception maneuver.

Dieter Farwick: How could Iran hide the clandestine program under the eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna? What is the current assessment made by El Baradei, the President of IAEA? What is the significance of the IAEA report from September 2008?

Hans Rühle: In 2003 an Iranian opposition group published the location of several Iranian nuclear installations. This came as a big surprise not only for the IAEA but also for all the intelligence services concerned. It became clear that Iran had deceived all observers for 18 years and was close to completing the full fuel cycle. In the meantime the installations that had been secret until 2003 are under partial safeguards of the IAEA. This applies in particular to the installations in Isfahan (conversion) and Natanz (enrichment).

In addition to the program that had been secret until 2003, there is however another weapons program, operated by the Iranian armed forces. This fact was also pointed out explicitly by the 2007 NIE. The remarkably critical statements made by the IAEA in its reports since September 2008 refer to information about that program of the armed forces. Its source is a laptop handed to Western intelligence services by an Iranian defector in the fall of 2003. The fixation of the debate on the program that was revealed in 2003, with the enrichment installation at Natanz of course being of special significance, fails to recognize that the bomb-building effort itself is carried on in the military program, most of which is still secret.

Dieter Farwick: What is your assessment of Iran's capability to launch a small nuclear bomb - probably at the top of the Shahab - 3-missile? When do you expect the "point of no return?"

Hans Rühle: If one defines the "point of no return" as the time when Iran has achieved all the material requirements for a nuclear explosive device which does not imply that they have built an operationally deployable warhead , then this should be the case around the middle of this year at the latest. Of course it is difficult to miniaturize a nuclear explosive device. This should not be a major problem for Iran, however. For many years, Iran has been in possession of a Pakistani manual for the construction of small nuclear weapons.

Dieter Farwick: Numerous Western states have officially declared that an Iranian nuclear weapon is not acceptable. The UN has imposed several sanctions - without any reaction from Iran. At the Munich Security Conference, Ali Larijani, official representative of Iran did not show any readiness for serious negotiations.

If it is true that "an Iranian bomb is worse than an attack on Iran," US President Barack Obama faces a tough challenge already in his first months in office. What are his options prior to the "point of no return? What does he know about the problem?

"Basically everybody would be happy if Israel "did the job"
"Basically everybody would be happy if Israel "did the job"
Hans Rühle: President Obama is now familiar with the issue. He also knows that he has got only limited time left to still prevent Iran's bomb. It is not clear what his strategy is. His extraordinarily accommodating offer to Iran in mid-March 2009 to open a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations looks like a trial balloon, nothing more. If Iran does not respond seriously to this offer, Obama too is likely to realize that diplomacy is no solution any more. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether he will choose the military option. One must rather assume that he will tolerate the Iranian bomb but at the same time provide Israel and certain other countries in the region with far-reaching guarantees in the sense of "extended deterrence."

It is uncertain if Obama is going to dramatically reinforce the sanctions against Iran along the line of his statements during the election campaign. He had spoken of the possibility to cut off Iran's gasoline supply. This type of sanctions would already have war-like character, as it would require a naval blockade. It would signal a creeping militarization of the conflict. In the end, Obama will be prepared to live with the Iranian bomb and gloss over the problem with ingenious rhetoric.

Dieter Farwick: The alternative seems to be either to "live with an Iranian bomb" or to paralyze or delay the military nuclear program. There is no need for a massive invasion into Iran; a smart operation with very limited "collateral damage" could be successful. The main question for the US President seems to be the political repercussions of his decision - including the relations with Israel, which have a clear threat perception.

What is most likely in your view: A US-Israeli air raid with special forces on the ground, an Israeli attack supported by the US or a "go it alone" by Israel? What are the most important repercussions of the three options?

Hans Rühle: The only military option to be considered is a comprehensive air strike against Iran's nuclear installations. This necessarily includes various forms of Special Forces operations. Such an attack would also include all targets that are relevant for the reconstitution of Iran's nuclear program, but not other facilities of the armed forces of Iran in the sense of a comprehensive disarming strike. The air strike option is feasible because all targets are known. In addition it should be pointed out that for preventing the Iranian bomb, one does not necessarily have to destroy all installations. There are "bottlenecks" that must be hit. This includes above all the facilities for conversion and enrichment. In this respect, the Israeli intelligence service assumes about 25 primary targets.

The military option is not so much a question of capability as of its military and political consequences in the region and beyond. Most likely it will only be the Israelis who are prepared to pay the price. The threats made by Iran in anticipation, some of them abstruse, should not be taken too seriously. Their efforts to obtain a nuclear capability is not really popular anywhere except with Hamas and Hezbollah.

Dieter Farwick: US Vice President Joe Biden announced at the Munich Security Conference in February that the Obama administration strives for consultation and cooperation with allies and partners as well as for multilateral actions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeated in Munich that an Iranian bomb is not acceptable. Do you believe that the Europeans will be happy to be involved in Barack Obama's decision-making process? What could and should the European allies do in support of the US and Israel in case of the use of hard power?

Hans Rühle: The willingness of the Europeans to support U.S. policy toward Iran only extends to a diplomatic solution, including limited sanctions. In the case of a military option, the cards would be dealt afresh. Even though Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel pompously declared that the Iranian bomb is unacceptable, it looks certain that Germany will not support a U.S. military strike except rhetorically. The traditional interventionist powers France and Britain, on the other hand, might indeed view the situation in the same way as the U.S. and Israel and may act accordingly. Basically everybody, including the U.S. administration, would be happy if Israel "did the job". This would make it easier for many to give their consent. Israel is undoubtedly affected by Iran's nuclear programme, and with his unfathomable remarks ("to wipe Israel off the map"), Iran's president has downright asked for an Israeli reaction.

Dieter Farwick: The elections seem to be very close to the "point of no return." What could perhaps be the impact of the outcome of Iran's presidential elections in summer 2009?

Hans Rühle: Since the religious leadership of Iran is now clearly siding with Ahmadinejad, the outcome of the elections in June should be obvious. With regard to Iran's nuclear programme, however, even the election victory of a "reformer" would make no difference. There is today not a single political force in Iran that would be willing and able to put the nuclear program at the disposal. From this perspective, one cannot exclude that the current president is going to seek success by celebrating the publicity effect of a "peaceful nuclear explosion" a short time before the elections, following India's example.