Playing nuclear chicken

It is difficult to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle in an Iran that has ambitions that involve not only the destruction of Israel and the expansion of its power in the Middle East, but its full emergence on the stage as a world power. I have read a number of respected military and political leaders (such as Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey) state that “ the Iranian regime is a rational actor.” But I believe the question must be asked: If the leadership in Iran (President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) is organized to accomplish the goals identified above, how best will they achieve their mission? Is there a rational path to power and the obliteration of one’s opponents?

It appears that the desire of Iran to emerge from its identification as the epicenter for the dissemination of terror, its thirty year isolation and the increasingly crippling sanctions that have been/are being applied depend on its acquisition of the nuclear know-how to place its own counter demands on the region and the world. Iran watched Iraq threaten the region, invade Kuwait and participate in three wars including a long and costly war with Iran and ultimately contribute mightily to the overthrow of its own regime.

On December 14, 2001 moderate Iranian leader Hashemi-Rafsanjani made a speech that included a dire warning to Israel:

If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave any thing in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.

In the same speech Rafsanjani went onto threaten the United States and Israel with the following words:

War of the pious and martyrdom seeking forces against peaks of colonialism will be highly dangerous and might fan flames of the World War III.

“Jews shall expect to be once again scattered and wandering around the globe the day when this appendix is extracted from the region and the Muslim world”, Mr. Hashemi-Rafsanjani warned, blaming on the United States and Britain the “creation of the fabricated entity” in the heart of Arab and Muslim world.

These words rang somewhat hollow a decade ago in the midst of the Second Intifada at a time when Israel, the United States and Western powers knew Iran’s atomic energy program was still in its infancy. But today according to a recent study by David Albright and Andrea Stricker for the United States Institute of Peace entitled “Iran’s Nuclear Primer:”

Iran has produced approximately 2,400 kg of 3.5 percent low enriched uranium (LEU) as of May 2010, and 17 kg of 19.75 percent uranium as of June 2010 at Natanz. Iran continues to refine its ability to efficiently produce 19.75 percent enriched uranium and to expand its centrifuge efficiency, as well as the numbers in operation.


Iran has enough low enriched uranium (LEU) to produce about two nuclear weapons, if it decided to enrich the LEU up to weapon-grade.


Other undeclared enrichment sites may be under construction. Iran announced it will begin construction on the first of 10 new sites in March 2011. But Iran lacks the capability to outfit 10 enrichment sites.


A parallel nuclear program could be used for breakout. A secret enrichment site using diverted low enriched uranium from Natanz would require approximately 2,000 P-1 centrifuges to produce about 25 kilograms to 40 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium in one year. The upper bound would require the P-1 centrifuges to operate better than they currently do at Natanz. However, Iran is working to improve the P-1 centrifuges’operation and in parallel to develop more powerful, reliable centrifuges. Operating with 1,000 centrifuges, a covert enrichment site using P-1s could produce about 40-70 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium per year, starting with 20 percent enriched uranium.


A nuclear weapon test device could require less than 20 kg of weapon-grade uranium. A nuclear warhead for a missile may contain as much as 25 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium.

It is clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have done everything in their power to convince President Obama and the international community that it is serious in its willingness to launch a pre-emptive strike on the Iranian nuclear program in hopes that the international community will respond with a system of sanctions and other actions tough enough to inspire the Iranians to terminate their program and eliminate its nuclear material and capacity. All this has not moved the Iranians toward agreement in the P5 +1 talk this week in Baghdad. And to make matters worse and even more pressing the International Atomic Energy Association just announced that Iran is producing a higher level, 27%, of enriched uranium at its underground plant near Qom.

All this points to an Iranian desire to gain a “break out” capacity to produce weapons grade enriched uranium and join the Nuclear Club as a full member. Since Israel has sworn to prevent such an occurrence and has acted twice in the past, (at Osirak, Iraq in June 1981 and at al-Kibar Syria in September 2007), it is not unlikely that they will act once again by launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran before election day, (November 6, 2012), in the United States.  Given the body of information above the question is whether Iranian leaders have calculated rationally that they can withstand a strike by Israel against their nuclear facilities and that such a strike would in fact create numerous allies from the regional and international community that they would not gain in the absence of surviving such an attack. In its aftermath and by carrying out a policy of limited warfare against Israel Iran would have a green light to rehabilitate its nuclear program and to develop into a major regional and international power with support from a variety of nuclear states.


The words here represent the beliefs of the author and should not be construed as the policy of the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace.

About the Author
Larry Snider is President of the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace, an NGO based in Philadelphia that brings the faiths together to learn about and from each other and to build a new constituency for Middle East Peace.