Editorial: Coming to a Warhead?

The most recent report by the United Nations-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed the worst fears of Israel and most of the Arab states in the already volatile Middle East: Iran is making continued and substantial progress toward its goal of developing nuclear weapons.

In Monday’s New York Times, Isabel Kershner cites the IAEA report’s conclusions that “Iran had worked on experiments with explosives to start a chain reaction that ends in nuclear explosion.” Along with many iterations of warhead plans, Iran has had “nearly five metric tons of low-enriched uranium and at least 70 kilotons of 20 percent enriched uranium, enough, experts said, to potentially produce three of four cores for nuclear devices with further enrichment.”

Because of the repeated threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to “wipe Israel off the map,” and the continued defiance of the theocratic regime headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Israel legitimately considers a nuclear-powered Iran to be an existential threat. There have been reports (unverifiable according to the Times article) that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked its Cabinet to authorize a possible military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities-a highly dangerous mission with no guarantee of success.

Kershner’s reporting indicates Israeli officials have been frustrated because they perceive that “Western powers have been dragging their feet on action to stop” Iran’s drive towards becoming a nuclear power. She quotes Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University as indicating that sanctions must be combined with the threat of military action to create the potential for Iran to reverse course.

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One thing has become clear in the midst of the increasingly dangerous situation. The program of on-again-off-again talks between Iran and various other countries, combined with ineffectual efforts to gain United Nations Security Council backing for a resolution against Iran with real teeth, has utterly failed. Russia and China have consistently threatened to use their veto power against any effective resolution. President Barack Obama, at last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hawaii, reportedly made no progress when he raised the issue with his Russian and Chinese counterparts.

Meanwhile, Israel has reportedly obtained from the United States “bunker-busting” bombs, which could be used to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities even if they are buried far beneath the ground with concrete walls to protect them. Israel did successfully destroy Iraq’s nuclear plant at Osirak in 1981 and took out a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. But those attacks were against single-plant facilities, while Iran is believed to have scattered its nuclear facilities in numerous locations, making it much more difficult to score a single knockout blow to this dangerous program.

The Iran threat has emerged as an issue in the Republican presidential primary campaign. In last week’s foreign policy debate on CBS, GOP candidates expressed a variety of views, from a flat assertion by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that he would “not allow” a nuclear Iran, to Texas Congressman Ron Paul stating a neo-isolationist, libertarian stance that he would oppose any military action to stop Iran.

At a time when the United States is winding down its long military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the aftermath of the NATO-led effort, which helped topple Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, there is understandably little stomach for taking on yet another crisis, such as Iran’s nuclear threat.

Failure to act decisively is really not an option. Both Israel and moderate Arab states take Iran’s push to develop nuclear weapons very seriously, and so should the Western powers. If the United Nations is prevented from acting because of the ever-present threat of vetoes by Russia and China, urgent efforts to get the European Union to cooperate on truly crippling sanctions against Iran, coupled with a credible NATO threat to use military force if all other options fail, must be on the table.

If they’re not, then Israel is much more likely to act, with or without us.