Nuclear Weapons in Iran -- a Threat to Take Seriously
October 06, 2003
The Orlando Sentinel
Question: Is Iran trying to develop nuclear weapons?
Ilan Berman: Absolutely. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently found traces of highly enriched uranium in the country. This was confirmation of what a lot of people have suspected for a long time -- that the Iranians are trying to develop their own nuclear fuel cycle, so they can create and enrich radioactive materials on their own for a weapons program.
Q: What role has Russia played in supporting Iran's nuclear program?
A: The Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr has essentially been a Russian operation since 1998. Last summer, Russia hammered out a 10-year plan to build five additional reactors for Iran. Russia does everything with a wink and a nod -- that its help is only for "commercial" nuclear activity.
Q: Why have the Russians helped the Iranians?
A: After the Soviet Union collapsed, a wave of radical, violent nationalism with a religious tinge swept Russia's southern rim. The Russians knew the Iranians have a well-deserved reputation as a state sponsor of terrorism. So the Russians created this Faustian bargain to give the Iranians arms and missile know-how in return for Iran staying out of the Caucusus.
Q: How imminent a threat is Iran's nuclear program?
A: Conservative estimates place Iran acquiring a nuclear capability by the end of the decade. More realistic estimates put the window at anywhere from 18 months to three years. An Iranian nuclear capability, per se, is not the problem. If the regime changes and they're pro-American, it doesn't matter. But with the Iranian regime that we have now, a nuclear capability is certainly a problem.
Q: Who controls Iran?
A: The source of power is twofold. The public face of Iran is the president and the regular standing armed forces. The private face is an Islamic council and Islamic clergy that have their own separate structure of power. They're the ones who really call the shots. They have their own armed forces, the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard. It's the point of contact with terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
Very tellingly, Iran's most advanced intermediate ballistic missile is controlled not by their standing armed forces, but by the Republican Guard. So there's a potential for groups like Hezbollah to be fueled with very sophisticated weaponry. I would think this would be keeping people up nights in Washington.
Q: How realistic a possibility is an internal regime change in Iran?
A: This only works if the will of the people is stronger than the will of this increasingly disenfranchised ruling clergy, who control the weapons and the guns and the missiles. I don't think we're there yet.
There's a very narrow window of opportunity for internal regime change before Iran goes nuclear. Then, the chances for a peaceful domestic transition of power towards a more liberal, pluralistic, non-religious-based form of government decline dramatically, because the ruling regime gains all sorts of credibility internationally. They're a nuclear power, and they have stood down the United States.
Q: How would you like to see the threat from Iran addressed?
A: It would be really nice if the international community joined ranks on this issue. It's one thing for the United States to say our companies can't trade with Iran. That's a significant blow to the Iranian economy. But it's a substantially larger blow when everybody decides not to trade with Iran.
For that, you have to talk to the Russians. The Russian consensus that cooperating with Iran is a good idea is beginning to crumble domestically. A respected think tank in Russia recently estimated that by 2006, the Iranians could field an extended-range nuclear missile that would put 20 million people in southern Russia and Ukraine and Kazahkstan at risk.
Q: How can Russia be persuaded to drop its support?
A: My word to the Russians is that caution is in order. You've invested so much into this relationship with Iran, assuming it's going to be an asset. But politics change and countries change and strategic interests change. And all of a sudden Iran becomes a liability.
I think we're going to see a measure of our success in at least slowing down Iran's march toward nuclear capability in how much we can convince the Russians that Iran is actually a liability -- that the more you impede their progress, rather than facilitate it, the better. That's a start.
Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/opinion/orl-edpqa06100603oct06,0,4670266.story?coll=orl-opinion-headlines
"Iran's most advanced intermediate ballistic missile is controlled not by their standing armed forces, but by the Republican Guard. So there's a potential for groups like Hezbollah to be fueled with very sophisticated weaponry. I would think this would be keeping people up nights in Washington."
You would think so..........
Great post, Doctor. Thanks.