Nuclear War in Iran: Six questions to consider about whether and how it might happen.

Will Iran and Israel Go To War? Six Questions To Consider.

Will Iran and Israel Go To War? Six Questions To Consider.

Scrutinizing culture.
March 14 2012 4:54 PM

Six Questions About the Nuclear Crisis in the Middle East

The emotional factors, and the scientific ones.

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Israel has at least three “Dolphin”-class subs in service, each capable, according to some reports, of launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Two or possibly three are being built in the German shipyard at Kiel, the new ones believed to be ballistic-missile long-range capable. Subs are Israel’s prime second-strike capability. Questions have been raised about their refueling capacity, surfacing, and basing, especially now that—given the transition of power in Egypt—the Suez Canal may no longer be a reliable link. (The last public transit of Suez by an Israeli craft was in 2010, before the Arab Spring uprising.) Are they still out there? Their use could make all the difference.

According to one of my sources, “It’s been reported (but not substantiated) that there was a test of a sub-fired nuclear-capable cruise missile that hit a target 900 miles away: Haifa [Israel’s official sub base] is about 620 miles from the Iranian border.”

Make of that what you will. The capability looks to be there. Is there the will? Is there the emotion?


Q. What did Grand Ayatollah Khamenei mean when he called “nuclear weapons a grave sin” earlier this year?

This seems to me to be an underappreciated development, although I’ve been told he has said it before. But to choose this moment to say it? Perhaps the grand leader of Iran is preparing to back down from the nuke project (and to submit to the humiliating international inspections that would follow, since no one would trust their word alone anymore). Or perhaps he plans to claim there never was one because Iran would never commit the "grave sin" Israel has committed.

Or perhaps he is using some kind of sophistry to keep up the denial: “a grave sin,” but sometimes when those who possess sinful means threaten to use them, you must descend to their level.

Who can read what’s in his heart? And yet what’s in his heart may determine the future of the planet.

Q. Why should we trust any intelligence on the subject?

A. We shouldn’t. We shouldn’t trust anything, especially anything coming from the U.S. intelligence community, which is now caught in a 12-year cycle of overreacting emotionally to its past mistakes (and as a result skewing its estimates politically), and which has basically gotten everything wrong on the most urgent questions.

It failed to prevent 9/11 because it underestimated intelligence that might have made it possible to stop its perpetrators. It then overestimated the threat of WMDs in Iraq for an undetermined mixture of political and bureaucratic reasons. It then proceeded to swing the pendulum the other way on Iran in the now notorious 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which allowed the world to believe grievously understated Iranian aims with regard to its nuclear program. And now, if you believe the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S. intelligence continues to underestimate Iranian intentions and capabilities. Intentions and capabilities of course are the province of emotion. Often, as much as intelligence.

The story of the 2007 NIE deserves recapitulating because its misconstrual by the media, enabled, it seems, by nameless bureaucrats in the intelligence realm who made either an inadvertent or a deliberate error, has helped exacerbate the crisis we face now.

World opinion on the need to do anything about the Iranian bomb program relaxed after the 2007 NIE on Iran came out. Its press release concluded that Iran had halted its “nuclear weapons program,” though was "keeping its options open" for some unspecified future.

But as intelligence chiefs later strenuously made clear (most explicitly in a 2008 background briefing for national security reporters whose transcript I reprint in my book), the NIE’s classified contents claimed only that the Iranians abandoned one aspect of their nuclear program, not the whole program. (The three aspects of a nuclear weapons program are: obtaining the bomb-grade uranium or plutonium fuel; finding a way to fit it into an implosion triggered device for your warhead; and, finally, building a ballistic missile to deliver it long distances.)

And so the world lost five years before the International Atomic Energy Agency refuted the mistaken press release language by accusing Iran of continuing an enrichment pace that could only have military goals—and now it’s too late. Think what could have been accomplished if we put the tough sanctions we have now in place five years ago, when it might have meant something.

In fact, the actual text of the 2007 NIE (as opposed to its press release—the ignoramus or malefactor who wrote it hasn’t been identified, nor have his motives) claimed that the only aspect the Iranians had stopped was their warhead work, and that it had continued the enrichment of uranium fuel that would bring it closer to a bomb. And when you think about it, the other two aspects are the least necessary, because a compact warhead is not a prerequisite if you’re thinking truck bomb or container ship rather than missile.

The only thing absolutely necessary for destructive capacity is bomb-grade nuclear fuel. I know from personal communications with the national security reporters for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal that they—and many journalists—are aware of the 2007 NIE’s misconstrual. I heard the head of the U.S. intelligence community, Mike McConnell, discuss it at a dinner I attended in 2008. But there are still some reporters, pundits, and bloggers who cling to the 2007 press release language in their Pollyannaish world.

And now the denialists inside and outside the intelligence community have retreated to saying that Iran “hasn’t made the decision” to produce a bomb yet. Weasel words that could well mean they have acquired all the components necessary, they just haven’t given the order for final assembly—which could be a matter of weeks.

And thus the world lost its last slim chance—those five years in which sanctions and other means might have made a difference. It’s too late now. I know this will sound emotional, but face it: There are no solutions, at least none I see. No good solutions.

Only the potential for a final solution.

Video Explainer: Can a Missile Attack on a Nuclear Facility Create a Nuclear Explosion?