Three Reasons not to Bomb Iran -- Yet
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Still, in spite of all the industrial assistance it received, it is not clear that the Iranian nuclear organization can manufacture centrifuge cascades of sufficient magnitude, efficiency, and reliability. There are many talented engineers among the Iranian exiles in the United States and elsewhere in the world, but perhaps not so many in Iran itself. Besides, demanding technological efforts require not just individual talents but well-organized laboratories and industrial facilities. Organization is indeed Iran's weakest point, with weighty consequences: after a century of oil drilling, for example, the state oil company still cannot drill exploratory wells without foreign assistance. In another example, even though the U.S. embargo was imposed almost 25 years ago, local industry cannot reverse-engineer spare parts of adequate quality for U.S.-made aircraft, which must therefore remain grounded or fly at great peril--there have been many crashes. Similarly, after more than sixty years of experience with oil refining at Abadan, existing capacity still cannot be increased without the aid of foreign engineering contractors, while the building of new refineries with local talent alone is deemed quite impossible. Dan must import one third of the gasoline it consumes because it cannot be refined at home.
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In contemplating preventive action, the technical issue may be quickly disposed of. Some observers, noting that Iran's nuclear installations consist of hundreds of buildings at several different sites, including a number that are recessed in the ground with fortified roofs, have contended that even a prolonged air campaign might not succeed in destroying all of them. Others, drawing a simplistic analogy with Israel's aerial destruction of Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor in June 1981, speak as if it would be enough to drop sixteen unguided bombs on a single building to do the job. The fact is that the targets would not be buildings as such but rather processes, and, given the aiming information now available, they could indeed be interrupted in lasting ways by a single night of bombing. An air attack is not a demolition contract, and in this case it could succeed while inflicting relatively little physical damage and no offsite casualties, barring gross mechanical errors that occur only rarely in these days of routine precision.
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The fissile U-235 isotope of uranium that is needed for bombs is only 1.26-percent lighter than the mass of U-238 that comprises 99.3 percent of natural uranium. To extract it, only very fast centrifuges are of any use, turning at the rate of at least 1,500 revolutions per second, a hundred times as fast as a domestic washing machine. Things that turn that fast easily break apart, and the detailed design is also far from simple: to reduce friction that would otherwise generate enough heat to melt the whole thing, the electrically powered rotor must spin in a vacuum, with a magnetic bearing. The Japanese, who are generally believed to be somewhat more advanced than the Iranians in such matters, encountered considerable difficulties with their centrifuge plant. Nor could Khan possibly sell enough centrifuges to Iran: to separate U-235 for a bomb in any reasonable amount of time, many centrifuges must be set to work at once. With the design now in Iran's possession, it would take at least 1,000 centrifuges working around the clock for at least a year to produce enough U-235 for a single cannon-type uranium bomb. Those 1,000 centrifuges must first be manufactured and then connected by piping into so-called "cascades"--and they must not break down, as poorly made centrifuges certainly will. (Of the 164 centrifuges that Iran already had in motion when the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] shut down the cascade in November 2003, fully a third crashed when the electricity was turned off.) Nor is it easy to keep the cascade running correctly: because uranium hexafluoride becomes highly corrosive in contact with water vapor, it can easily perforate imperfect tubes--and any leaks will promptly damage more of the plant.
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By the same token, however, it is irresponsible to argue for coexistence with a future nuclear-armed Iran on the basis of a shared faith in mutual deterrence. How indeed could deterrence work against those who believe in the return of the twelfth imam and the end of life on earth, and who additionally believe that this redeemer may be forced to reveal himself by provoking a nuclear catastrophe? But it is not necessary to raise such questions in order to reject coexistence with a nuclear Iran under its present leaders. As of now, in early 2006, with American and allied ground and air forces deployed on both sides of Iran in Afghanistan and Iraq, with powerful U.S. naval forces at sea to its south, with their own armed forces in shambles and no nuclear weapons, the rulers of Iran are openly financing, arming, training, and inciting anti-American terrorist organizations and militias at large. Under very thin cover, they are doing the same thing within neighboring Iraq, where they pursue a logic of their own by helping Sunni insurgents who kill Shiites, as well as rival Shiite militias that fight one another. If this is what Iran's extremist rulers are doing now even without the shield of nuclear weapons to protect them, what would they do if they had it? Even more aggression is the only reasonable answer, beginning with the subversion of the Arabian oil dynasties, where very conveniently there are Shiite minorities to be mobilized. These, then, are the clear boundaries of prudent action in response to Iran's vast, costly, and most dangerous nuclear program. No premature and therefore unnecessary attack is warranted while there is still time to wait in assured safety for a better solution. But also and equally, Iran under its present rulers cannot be allowed finally to acquire nuclear weapons--for these would not guarantee stability by mutual deterrence but would instead threaten us with uncontrollable perils.
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Although the world now knows him for his persistent denial of the Holocaust and his rants against Israel and Zionism, at home Ahmadinejad's hostility is directed not against Iran's dwindling Jewish community but against the Sunnis. Lately, moreover, his ultra-extremism has antagonized even many of his fellow Shiites: he is an enthusiastic follower of both Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, for whom all current prohibitions are insufficient and who would impose an even stricter Islamic puritanism, and of a messianic, end-of-days cult centered on the Jamkaran mosque outside the theological capital of Qum. More traditional believers are alarmed by the hysterical supplications of the Jamkaran pilgrims for the return of Abul-Qassem Muhammad, the twelfth imam who occulted himself in the year 941 and is to return as the mahdi, or Shiite messiah. More urgently they fear that in trying to "force" the return of the mahdi, Ahmadinejad may deliberately try to provoke a catastrophic external attack on Iran that the mahdi himself would have to avert.
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Ahmadinejad aside, even casual observers must wonder how the world knows so much, in such exceptional detail, about Iran's once secret nuclear program, certainly as compared with what it knows of North Korea's program or what it knew of Iraq's at any point in time. Moreover, only a fraction of what it knows about the installations and processes at Arak, Isphahan, Natanz, and all the other places was uncovered by the much-advertised inspections of the IAEA; the recent Nobel Peace Prize won by its director Mohamed ElBaradei must have been a reward for effort rather than achievement. Satellite photography, too, is only part of the explanation, because one needs to know exactly where to look before it can be useful. The conclusion is inescapable that among the scientists, engineers, and managers engaged in Iran's nuclear program--most of whom no doubt hold the same opinion of their rulers as do almost all educated Iranians--there are some who feel and act upon a higher loyalty to humanity than to the nationalism that the regime has discredited. Iran's regime, extremist but not totalitarian, does not and cannot control the movement of people and communications in and out of the country as North Korea does almost completely, and as Iraq did in lesser degree.