Ambassador John Bolton Rationalizing Military Preemption against Iran

Hearing at the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, June 23, 2011

Iran and Syria:  Next Steps

Madam Chairman and Members of the Committee, I would like to thank you very much for the invitation to appear before you today to discuss next steps on Iran and Syria. I have a prepared statement, which I will summarize, and ask that it be inserted in the record.  I would, of course, be pleased to answer any questions that you or other Members of the Committee might have.

The Iranian nuclear weapons program, and its potential linkages to Syria, remains one of the most critical national-security challenges facing America, perhaps even the gravest near-term threat.  After nearly twenty years of fruitless U.S. and Western efforts to prevent Iran from achieving its objective of deliverable nuclear weapons, we are now at a critical point.  Iran is very close to reaching its goals, through its own efforts, its collaboration with North Korea and other rogue states like Venezuela that allow it to evade international pressure, and its hegemony over Syria, where the extent of its nuclear activities is largely unknown.  Even as Iran’s efforts rapidly near success, the United States may yet prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran.  But time is short, and we will surely fail if we continue to pursue our present policies.  Once Iran gets nuclear weapons, the Middle East and the larger world will change forever, and much to the disadvantage of the United St
ates, and its friends and allies worldwide.

IRAN

We should begin with blunt truths about Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Despite years of diplomatic negotiations, multiple layers of international sanctions, and creative efforts at disruption (including, most recently, the Stuxnet computer virus), Iran’s seemingly inexorable march toward nuclear weapons continues.  The Pasdaran, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, recently published on its website a story about the world’s reaction the day after Iran’s first nuclear test.[1]  Estimates based on publicly available information differ, but the theme underlying them all is entirely pessimistic, especially concerning Iran’s vigorous uranium enrichment program.  Iran is not only expanding its production capacity for enriched uranium, but is moving to ever-more sophisticated centrifuge designs that will allow its future enrichment production to be much larger than at present.  By almost all standards, uranium enrichment is “the long pole in the tent” when it comes to fashioning nu
clear weapons, and there is little or nothing, except imminent regime change in Tehran or external military intervention, that can prevent that outcome.  While more work is obviously required once the concentration of U235 isotopes has been enriched to weapons-grade levels (“HEU,” or “highly enriched uranium”), such as converting it into uranium metal, fabricating that metal into a form usable for a nuclear weapon, and then building the final weapon itself, it is uranium enrichment that is the principal process to be mastered.

The most recent Iran report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”), May 24, 2011, concludes that Iran’s production rate for low-enriched uranium (“LEU,” containing approximately 3.5 % of the critical U235 isotope) is now 105 kilograms per month.  That figure represents a 17 percent increase in production from the IAEA’s previous report in February of this year, and an 84 percent increase over 2009.  And these figures, of course, are based only on the Iranian enrichment capacity that the IAEA can verify.

Independent researchers across the political spectrum also confirm just how close Iran is to having nuclear weapons.  The Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control’s “Iran Watch” estimates that by April of this year, Iran had enough LEU for four nuclear weapons, assuming Iran further processed it into HEU, or weapons-grade uranium, (typically with U235 concentrations over 90 percent).  Using only the 8,000 centrifuges observed by the IAEA at Natanz, the Wisconsin project estimates that it would take 1.5 months to convert enough LEU into HEU to make one bomb, or six months to make four bombs.  All of the Wisconsin Project’s assumptions and calculations are spelled out transparently on its web page,[2] and are based on publicly available information, typically from the IAEA.  Should Iran have additional facilities not known to the IAEA, of course, with more centrifuges operating than those under IAEA observation at Natanz, its capacity to enrich to HEU would obviously be great
er, and the time required shorter.  In that regard, Iran recently claimed it would triple its production of uranium enriched to 19.75 percent U235,[3] allegedly for its Tehran research reactor, using the Fordow facility, deeply buried in a mountainside near Qom, and revealed by United States intelligence in 2009.

Using the May 24, 2011 IAEA report as a basis, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (“NPEC”) has published the latest in a series of reports estimating Iran’s proximity to weapons production.[4]  NPEC concludes that, “[w]ith Iran’s current number of operating centrifuges, the batch recycling would take about two months once Iran decided to initiate the process” to enrich enough LEU into HEU for one nuclear weapon.  Similarly, the Federation of American Scientists had concluded even earlier this year that Iran’s production of LEU had increased substantially over previous years.[5]

Other aspects of Iran’s weapons program have also continued unabated, and quite likely did so even after 2003, despite the conclusions of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (“NIE”) that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in that year.  The United States has still not explicitly rejected the 2007 NIE, including in the recently released 2011 update, although this highly politicized and poorly reasoned document has not withstood the test of time.  Leaders of the intelligence community, and now the Obama Administration, have been reluctant to reverse its erroneous conclusions publicly, but in substance, top U.S. intelligence officials and policy makers no longer operate in accordance with its conclusions.  Indeed, in substance if not in express terms, it was rejected as early as February, 2008, in Congressional testimony by Michael McConnell, the then-Director of National Intelligence.

Even publicly available information at the time the 2007 NIE was published contradicted its conclusion.  On September 15, 2004, for example, ABC News reported a story about Iran’s armor and artillery weapons-testing facility at Parchin, describing activity consistent with nuclear weapons development.  According to the report, Iranian scientists and technicians were testing detonation devices for the high explosives that surround a uranium or plutonium “pit” in the “physics package” of a nuclear weapon.”  Simultaneous detonation of the high explosives is required to ensure that the weapons-grade metal implodes in a way that ensures that the critical mass of fissile material produces the maximum possible explosive force.  No one ever contracted the ABC News story, which was reporting on contemporaneous, ongoing operations, not historical evidence.

Unfortunately, it is almost certainly correct that there is much else concerning the Iranian nuclear weapons program that has escaped our attention.  We should openly acknowledge that our intelligence on Iran is far from perfect.  Indeed, we are continually learning of Iranian efforts to build new nuclear facilities, hidden both from Western intelligence capabilities and from international inspectors from the IAEA.  What we don’t know is not good news.  There can be little doubt that whatever additional activities Iran is pursuing will only increase the likelihood that it is approaching a deliverable nuclear weapons capability, and must undercut any confident assertions that we know with certainty when Iran will in fact achieve its long-sought objectives.  The only prudent approach to assessing what we know and don’t know about Iran is that the risks are almost certainly greater than what we have in our intelligence base or what it discussed in our media and other public for
a.

One bright spot is that, fortunately, the IAEA has re-emerged under its new Director General, Yukiya Amano, from a disturbing period of willful blindness at its top level.  Amano has honestly and openly described Iran’s stonewalling and deception against the IAEA over many years.  He has been forthright in describing the potential weapons implications of what the IAEA has found during its years of inspections, and also, importantly, in characterizing what Iran has refused to answer, covered up or concealed concerning possible weapons-related activities.  The changing dynamic at the IAEA can only be applauded, although there are years of failure that Amano must struggle to overcome.

Moreover, even apart from its uranium-enrichment program, Iran is also poised in the coming years to take advantage of plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel for weapons purposes. The Bushehr nuclear reactor, is moving toward full operational status, under Russian control and supervision, and marks a historic milestone in the region.  It is the first commercial-scale reactor (1,000 megawatts gross capacity) in the hands of an avowed enemy of Israel that has been allowed to begin functioning.  Although supposedly “proliferation resistant,” it is still capable of producing sufficient plutonium from its spent fuel to provide Iran with an alternative path to nuclear weapons, as our own Department of Energy has concluded.  Tehran now claims that Bushehr will be connected to the national electrical grid in August, marking its full operation for commercial purposes, and there are plans for many more reactors to be constructed.

In fact, although the term “axis of evil” may have fallen out of use in recent years, the connection between North Korea and Iran, certainly with respect to ballistic missiles, and quite likely with respect to nuclear weapons, remains strong.  Whether there are also other countries, such a Venezuela and Burma, now involved in these clandestine nuclear activities remains certain but entirely possible.  Venezuela’s deposits of uranium, worldwide the second largest only to Canada among proven reserves, makes it an attractive partner for Iran and other rogue states.  Hugo Chavez’s increasingly close relations with Iran can only be troubling, not only because of the support Chavez provides to Iran’s successful campaign to evade international financial and other sanctions, but because of the risk that Venezuela will pursue its own nuclear program, and perhaps ultimately nuclear weapons.  Burma’s geographic location makes it an excellent place for vessels travelling between Iran an
d North Korea to stop and reprovision, and the country’s isolation could also facilitate the construction of facilities involved in its own or other countries’ nuclear weapons efforts.

Just a few weeks ago, Iran launched its second earth satellite (the first having been launched in 2009).  While there is still considerable work required before Iran would be able to mate a nuclear weapon onto a ballistic missile for delivery as a payload, Iran’s capabilities to do just that are accelerating.  And when we consider North Korea’s progress toward the same delivery capability, and the extent of cooperation between Iran and North Korea on missile development over the years, we should indeed be gravely concerned.

Just as one recent example of disturbing information, on May 25, the U.N. Economic and Social Council for Asia and the Pacific (“ESCAP”) decided to approve a “disaster information management center” in Iran, which the United States had consistently opposed since Iran first suggested it in 2006.  Since early warning about impending disasters is critical to mitigating the harm caused, remote sensing techniques by satellite are extremely useful in the disaster context.  Under this humanitarian guise, Iran will now undoubtedly benefit in enhancing its scientific capabilities in both satellite and missile technologies.  When these risks were raised with a State Department spokesman after the vote, he would say only, “Those are all legitimate questions. But we can’t talk about them.”[6]  Clearly, our government recognizes the risks involved here, but so feeble are our efforts that we cannot even prevent a country under multiple Security Council sanctions from winning designation t
o host such a center.

The unavoidable conclusion from twenty years of failure to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program is grim.  The most likely outcome is that Iran will, in fact, achieve a deliverable, nuclear-weapons capability, and much sooner than later.  I fear that many in the current Administration believe that, as undesirable as a nuclear Iran would be, it is a situation we can accept and live with.  Under this analysis, U.S. security guarantees to Israel, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (“GCC”) and others will allow us to contain and deter Iran, as we contained and deterred the Soviet Union during the Cold war.  I believe this analysis is fundamentally flawed.

First, whether or not Iran ever actually used nuclear weapons, its mere possession of them, or the perception that it possessed them, would radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East and beyond.  Linked with Iran’s aggressive financing and arming of terrorist groups  --  Hezbollah, Hamas, terrorists in Iraq and even the Taliban in Afghanistan  --  a nuclear Iran could dramatically increase its influence in the Gulf and the broader region, to the decided detriment of Israel, the GCC states and other U.S. friends and allies.  Iran’s aggressive pursuit of regional hegemony in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and among Palestinians and in the internal conflicts within Islam, will be immeasurable strengthened merely by possessing a nuclear weapons capability.

Second, American security guarantees in today’s environment are not likely to provide much reassurance.  The United States’ broad retreat from the Middle East  --  from Iraq and now quite possibly from Afghanistan  --  is hardly reassuring to others seeking security assurances.  And America’s disdain for Israel, its truest ally in the region, can hardly be comforting to those who have never enjoyed such close relations.   If this is how the United States now treats close friends, how will it treat mere allies of convenience when convenience disappears?  Our feckless and irresolute policy in Libya can hardly be helping either.

Third, the calculus of deterrence for the Iranian regime originating from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 is quite different from that for the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  On the psychological level, for example, a theocratic regime that values life in the hereafter more than life on earth is not likely to be subject to classic theories of deterrence, which rest after all on ending life on earth for the aggressor.

Moreover, deterrence during the Cold War existed between two superpowers with symmetrical destructive capabilities, whereas Iran even under the most expansive predictions will possess only a small asymmetric nuclear threat in the near term.  That means its nuclear weapons will not really be military, but will instead be weapons of terrorism, a threat not to military targets but to our innocent civilians.  Iran’s extensive record of funding and arming international terrorists, and itself engaging in terrorism, should be warning enough that its leaders are fully capable of nuclear terrorism as well.

And as if this were not sufficient, any realistic reading of Cold War history should not give us boundless confidence that deterrence is automatically successful, as any number of Cold War “near misses” proved just how fragile deterrence is as a concept.  No one has yet explained why we should comfortably allow our collective futures to be held hostage to the whims of religious extremists in Tehran or rogue regimes elsewhere.

Third, even if I am mistaken, and Iran can be contained and deterred, the Middle Eastern nuclear weapons threat doesn’t stop with Iran.  If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, then almost certainly Saudi Arabia will do the same, as will Egypt, Turkey and perhaps others in the region, and we risk this widespread proliferation even if it is a democratic Iran that possesses nuclear weapons.  Thus, in a very short period of time, perhaps five to ten years, the Middle East could contain half a dozen or more nuclear weapons states, an inherently dangerous and unstable situation.  Moreover, the risk that Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons might also fall into the hands of extremists, a risk dramatically heightened if instability in Afghanistan persists and permeates Pakistan, could also well play a destabilizing role in the Middle East.  It is precisely because of this enormous risk of the wider proliferation of nuclear arsenals that we must bend every effort to stop Iran in the first
 instance.

Economic sanctions certainly have a worthwhile role in undermining the regime in Tehran, hopefully weakening it over time until it falls.  There is little doubt that the regime is increasingly unpopular in Iran, that it is increasingly divided within itself, and that sanctions may well stoke the simmering discontent.  The problem, however, is that regime change will likely take time, probably more time than we have before Iran achieves a nuclear weapons capability.  We should not let the pursuit of sanctions obscure the reality that, while imposing economic costs on Tehran, they have not materially impeded the weapons effort.  We should, therefore, suffer no illusions that sanctions are a truly effective response to Iran’s continuing march toward nuclear weapons status.  It is worth remembering that North Korea is today the most heavily sanctioned nation on the planet, and it has successfully detonated two nuclear devices and continues to pursue aggressively its ballistic mi
ssile program.

Since diplomacy has failed,[7] since sanctions have failed,[8] and since disruptive efforts have failed, the only realistic alternative, and it is a decidedly unhappy one, is to use force pre-emptively against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  I have written extensively about this possibility elsewhere, and will not dwell on it here today, except to make the following points:

--  “An Israeli decision to use force, if it comes to that, will be neither precipitate nor disproportionate, but only a last resort in anticipatory self-defense.  Arab governments already understand that logic and largely share it themselves….  Nonetheless, the intellectual case for that strike must be better understood in advance by the American public and Congress in order to ensure a sympathetic reaction by Washington.”[9]

--  “However much they might publicly protest, nearby Arab states would privately welcome an Israeli attack.  These governments fear Iran’s nuclear program as much as Israel does, but they are powerless to stop it.  If Israel does the job, they are in a perfect place:  Iran’s nuclear program will be badly damaged, and they will have another opportunity to criticize Israel.  This also explains why Arabs will not interdict Israeli overflights to and from Iran.”[10]

--  Iran will likely retaliate, but its most likely strategic option will be to unleash Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel, rather than the more dramatic scenarios that have been suggested, such as trying to close the Strait of Hormuz.  Such retaliation enormously complicates Israel’s strategic calculus, but also demonstrates the danger of allowing Iran to actually acquire nuclear weapons.  Once that happens, any possible Iranian belligerence becomes that much more threatening and dangerous.[11]

The use of force is a decidedly unattractive option, but since the only other realistic assessment is that Iran will soon have a nuclear weapons capability, it has to be taken seriously.

There is little doubt in my mind that the Obama Administration will not use force against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  That means that the burden of decision will fall on Israel, which would face a literally existential threat should Iran achieve nuclear weapons.  Israel has never before, until the start-up of the Bushehr reactor, let any hostile state get close enough to achieving that objective to know what lies ahead.  But if Israel does not strike, we will have to consider the implications of a nuclear Iran, and a likely multi-polar nuclear Middle East.