Iran Crosses the Red Line

By Kenneth R. Timmerman | May 17, 2007

Iran has officially crossed the “red line” in its nuclear weapons development. That is the conclusion a team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors reached after a surprise inspection of Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz this past Sunday.

The inspectors gave the Iranians just two hours notice before they arrived on the scene, not enough time for the Iranians to hide suspicious or illicit activities.

Nor was it enough time, according to diplomats familiar with what the inspectors saw, for the Iranians to fake the 1,300 enrichment centrifuges humming away.

Until recently, Iran had been having difficulty in making the centrifuges work together in production lines known as “cascades,” IAEA Director General Mohammad ElBaradei has been telling IAEA Board members.

But presto! In just a few months time, the Iranians have mastered this challenging technology. “We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich,” ElBaradei told the New York Times in an interview that appeared on May 15. “From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact.”

There are two possible reactions to ElBaradei’s comments. One can applaud him for having the candor to proclaim these “facts” publicly instead of trying to hide them, as his predecessor, the blind Swede Hans Blix, liked to do.(Blix deserves a great deal of responsibility for the Iranian disaster, having closed his eyes when clear indicators of Iran’s prohibited nuclear activities were presented to him during the 1990s when he headed the IAEA).

Or one can chastise Mr. ElBaradei for not having used his Agency to do more to prevent what he now calls the “inevitable” from having occurred.

Mr. ElBaradei does deserve blame – but not for announcing Iran’s progress. He deserves blame for concluding that world attention should now be focused on making “sure [the Iranians] remain inside the treaty.”

The Iranian regime has broken the Nonproliferation Treaty repeatedly. It broke the treaty by pursuing a clandestine nuclear research and procurement program for 18 years, without notifying the IAEA of its activities. It broke the treaty by purchasing documents and equipment to manufacture uranium “hemispheres,” a polite way of describing nuclear bomb cores. Even the IAEA has acknowledged this.

In August 2005, the State Department’s Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation issued a legal “finding”  that “Iran is pursuing an effort to manufacture nuclear weapons, and has sought and received assistance in this effort in violation of Article II of the NPT.”

Now, when a member state violates the NPT, the treaty calls for them to be referred to the United Nations Security Council for judgment.

ElBaradei deserves blame because he repeatedly urged the Europeans (and the Bush administration) to put off that referral, on grounds that the EU3 – France, Germany and the UK – could negotiate Iran back into compliance with the Treaty. This was not only foolish, it was dangerous.

I have warned repeatedly against this rope-a-dope strategy. Noting the August 2005 statements of Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, Hossein Moussavian, that nuclear negotiations with the EU-3 had helped Iran by “buying time” so Iran could finish key nuclear facilities, I urged the U.S. to apply the treaty and take Iran immediately to the UN Security Council.

But ElBaradei said no, there was still time to negotiate. And EU leaders, spearheaded by then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, agreed. (To their credit, the German people ousted Schroeder in elections not long afterwards).

The real blame, however, lies elsewhere.

The IAEA has no enforcement powers. Any action to punish Iran’s leadership must be taken by the UN Security Council, or by sovereign nations acting on their own.

The Israelis have warned for years that once Iran “crossed the red line” of mastering enrichment technology, they would take military action. They have never said when, or how. But they have assumed, rightly, that any Iranian nuclear weapon would have ISRAEL written all over it, and are determined to prevent it from being built.

But why should we shuck off this responsibility on Israel? Israel has not helped Iran acquire nuclear technologies. Nor has Israel kept quiet as the Iranians continued to build weapons-related facilities. On the contrary, the Israelis have done their utmost to wake up the world to Iran’s nuclear progress and to the dangers that presents, sending teams of diplomats to quietly present the case to their counterparts around the world, and when that failed, sending out senior government officials to sound the alarm in public.

The real blame lies right here in Washington with our government, and especially, with our CIA and our State Department.

With Porter Goss gone, the CIA has returned to a delicious slumber when it comes to Iran. And they have been led back to Dreamland by their overseers at the Director of National Intelligence, whose brilliant analysts – many of whom are proud alumni of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research – concluded last year that Iran would not succeed in building a nuclear weapon until “early to mid- next decade.”

That five to ten year estimate is meaningless, of course. Its relationship to reality was similar to a child’s relationship to counting: one-two-too many!

Five to ten years, of course, meant never. Not soon. Not on my watch.

And yet it’s here. Now. On their watch.

The blame falls on Gen. Michael Hayden, and on his deputy Steven Kappes, for failing to muster Agency collectors and analysts to inject realism and urgency into the earlier estimates.

The blame falls on Gen. Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, who failed to fire the outlandish State Department holdover, Thomas Fingar, who wrote the Dreamland estimate that Iran was five to ten years away from nuclear weapons.

The blame falls on Condoleeza Rice, and especially on Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, for failing to take timely action to prevent Iran from “slow-rolling” the diplomacy, which they could see the Iranians doing from a mile away.

And the blame falls on President Bush, for failing to lead.

This was all so predictable, and so avoidable. And yet it happened – on Bush’s watch.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has promised a third round of “sanctions” at the United Nations. This is to substitute process for real progress– but hey, that’s what the State Department does.

ElBaradei and the New York Times are hoping that the U.S. will now see reason, and make accommodations with a nuclear Iran. But appeasement will only encourage Tehran’s leaders to become bolder and more brazen. (To Nick Burns’s credit, he has rejected that temptation.)

The way forward has been blazed by the Department of Treasury, and by courageous and imaginative state legislators in California, Maryland, and Ohio, and by the State Treasury of Missouri, Sarah Steelman.

Treasury has worked quietly behind the scenes over the past year to strike bilateral agreements with other countries to ban Iran from the international financial system. These efforts have gotten the Iranians’ attention.

The State legislators are working on Divest Terror bills that would ban state pension funds from investing in companies that do business in Iran. This has got the attention of some of the major companies, most notably DaimlerChrysler, which in response is furiously seeking buyers for its U.S. assets, in the vain hope it can retreat beyond the reach of U.S. institutional investors.

It has also gotten the attention of Democrats in Congress, who announced yesterday they were introducing their own Divest terror legislation, aimed at enabling the states to pursue these strategies.

How do we know that the financial and investment squeeze has been successful? Just listen to Abbas Bolurfrushan, who until March 2007 headed the Iranian Business Council in Dubai.

Until now, he said, economic sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States and multilaterally by the United Nations have had “little effect” on the Iranian economy.

“But the American government has persuaded a lot of international bankers to stop dealing with Iran, and most of them have taken this advice or these instructions. So the economic grip on Iranian banks has really had a lot of effect on international trade.”

Bolurfrushan was talking to the Council on Foreign Relations, which was hoping to use him as Exhibit A for lifting sanctions on Iran. But the impact of what he said went directly contrary.

When asked about reports in the Western press that Iran’s economy was suffering under sanctions, he responded candidly. “They might be a little overblown, but basically they are true. The economy is under pressure from the isolation of Iran economically and politically. And especially by the brain drain.”

The State Department believes we can increase the pressure on Iran, until the Tehran regime cries “uncle” and changes its behavior. Spokesman Tom Casey repeated this strategy on Tuesday, following ElBaradei’s revelations.

“[W]e do believe that we are on the right course, that there is time to resolve this diplomatically, and that we will -- through this combination of pressure and sanctions, with the opportunity on the other end to achieve negotiations -- be able to ultimately change their behavior and be able to reverse this program,” Casey said.

There is no time left to be polite. The United States must dramatically ramp up the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Tehran if it wants to have any impact at all on this regime’s behavior.

It’s time now to talk about an international trade embargo, and an international investment embargo. It’s time to talk about banning Iranian leaders from international travel.

More than anything, it’s time to get serious about helping the pro-democracy movement inside Iran. The one thing the regime truly fears is that the West will help spark a “velvet revolution” in Iran.

Now it’s time to actually do something to show that those fears are more than just mullah paranoia.