In U.S. House Testimony, Experts Urge Delicate Balance on Iran Policy

Iranian troops march during a military parade outside Tehran in April. U.S. experts on Wednesday expressed contrasting views over how the United States might employ military threats in response to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi).
Iranian troops march during a military parade outside Tehran in April. U.S. experts on Wednesday expressed contrasting views over how the United States might employ military threats in response to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi).

WASHINGTON -- A three-member panel of experts on Wednesday told House lawmakers that the United States should credibly threaten that it would take military action in response to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but differed on how Washington should calibrate its saber-rattling (see GSN, June 20).

“The twin goals should be preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons while avoiding military actions,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. “Ironically, to prevent war, Iran must believe, at its heart, that the U.S. will strike if it moves to build nuclear weapons.”

If Washington can convince leaders in Tehran that developing a bomb would result in an attack, “the United States can deter Iran from even trying,” the physicist and nuclear weapons proliferation expert said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. “But nonetheless, this puts U.S. policy on a knife's edge.”

Another witness said that while the Obama administration has pursued two important facets of Iran strategy -- sanctions and diplomacy -- the third “track” of the approach, military options, must be more actively readied.

“When it comes to credibly demonstrating that, if all else fails, force will be used if necessary to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability, we believe U.S. policy has fallen short,” said Stephen Rademaker, a former assistant secretary of State, describing the view of a task force on Iran for the Bipartisan Policy Center on which he served.

Senior diplomats from a group of six nations, led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, on Tuesday concluded two days of talks with Iran about its nuclear program.

Tehran insists its efforts are dedicated solely to peaceful nuclear energy production, medical needs and research.  However, Iran is widely believed to seek the capability to use enriched uranium to build atomic weapons.

On behalf of the so-called P-5+1 nations -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States -- Ashton called on Tehran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, hand over stored material and shut down the underground enrichment facility near Qum in northern Iran.

There was a useful information exchange at the Moscow talks, according to diplomats, but Iranian negotiators maintained their nation has a right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy without the sought-after restrictions. This was the third such gathering after earlier talks this spring in Istanbul and Baghdad, but it remains unclear whether another senior-level meeting will be held.

In Washington, joining Albright and Rademaker at the House committee’s witness table was former Senator Charles Robb (D-Va.), who co-chaired the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Iran task force.

The group in March released an 80-page report recommending that Washington make U.S. and Israeli military threats against Iran more believable through a number of actions, including providing Tel Aviv with 200 advanced bunker-buster bombs and aerial refueling planes (see GSN, Feb. 1).

“At this late date, it is only the threat of force, combined with sanctions, that affords any realistic hope of an acceptable diplomatic resolution,” the task force report states. “We recognize, however, that ultimately the rise of a democratic, responsible and peaceful regime in Tehran will be the only way to resolve this challenge.”

Israel might choose to attack Iranian nuclear facilities in the near term, before Tehran’s program becomes so extensive that their elimination exceeds Tel Aviv’s military capabilities, Albright noted. He discouraged such an approach as jumping the gun, saying in written testimony, “The United States should not encourage or aid Israel to attack Iran" (see related GSN story, today).

The Bipartisan Policy Center task force also argued that the United States should step up preparations for its own military action against the Persian Gulf nation through readiness exercises and other measures, while continuing to pursue a robust set of sanctions and diplomatic initiatives. U.S. and EU economic penalties against Iran will further tighten as of July 1.

“Our concern is that we don't think the Iranians actually believe” that military options against them remain viable, Rademaker told the House panel. “For every time that President Obama has said all options are on the table, there's been a statement by some other senior Cabinet official or some other official in the United States government suggesting that the military option really isn't a very serious option for the United States.”

U.S. officials and issue experts frequently say that military force cannot eliminate Iran’s advanced nuclear program; even after extensive bombing of all known atomic sites in the nation, a centrifuge facility could simply be reconstructed somewhere else.

“The military option is not a particularly satisfying option,” Rademaker said at the hearing, titled, “Addressing the Iranian Nuclear Challenge: Understanding the Military Options.” “It affords no permanent solution to the problem. … It would buy time.”

In fact, a drumbeat toward war -- or an actual attack -- could inadvertently hasten an Iranian decision to build a nuclear weapon, according to some analyses.  While Tehran has moved in that direction, to date it has neither tested nor declared a bomb. Some pundits suggest that Iran’s ruling clerics might be wary of sparking a regional nuclear arms race or a violent conflict that could result in the loss of their power.

“I don't see a consolidated base in Iran [that agrees] on building nuclear weapons, making the decision to do so,” Albright said. “I see a consolidated [base] or a near-consensus that they want the capability to do it.”

Yet, if Iran were to determine that it would soon come under attack, that could trigger “a decision to how it's going to secretly build nuclear weapons,” Albright said. “You may be faced with an adversary that is going to get nuclear weapons before you can attack. … And so you create an inevitability about an Iranian nuclear weapon that is not in our interest.”

One House committee member said it was difficult to imagine that absent more biting sanctions or military options, the Iranian regime could be persuaded to relinquish its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Representative Michael Conaway (R-Texas) appeared to reject “the idea that they would voluntarily give up this quest, and [deny themselves] the impact it has on their international standing,”

“I'm a Christian. Jesus Christ is my personal savior. I'm not giving that up for anything. That's one of those core beliefs,” the lawmaker said. “Is it a core belief that they want a nuclear weapon? … Will they ever really give this up?”

Another House lawmaker said he was concerned that the report by the Bipartisan Policy Center task force, led by Robb and retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, was aimed at generating pressure in favor of conducting military action.

Despite some progress achieved at the Moscow talks, “it seems like you all are ratcheting up the pressure to force the president to make a move that even he with his military advisers and superior intelligence assets do not think is important right now,” said Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “And this comes after the president has imposed sanctions that are unprecedented against Iran.”

As things stand, Iran has moved at a relatively measured pace on its nuclear program, apparently forsaking options for faster enrichment. It even temporarily suspended its enrichment efforts a decade ago.

Rademaker said in written testimony, though, that from February through May of this year, Iran was producing 3.5 percent enriched uranium at a rate faster than ever before, and more than three times the rate achieved prior to the Stuxnet computer worm that disabled some of the nation’s centrifuge operations.

Citing International Atomic Energy Agency data, he noted that Iran by May had produced 3,345 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium. With additional enrichment, this quantity could be sufficient for roughly two atomic weapons, according to Rademaker.

Albright said Iran today appears to lack a capability for secret “breakout,” in which the nation attains an enrichment level closer to the roughly 90 percent needed for a nuclear bomb. Iran could decide to quickly ramp up its centrifuge operations and, by the end of 2012, could have a capacity to produce a weapon within weeks or months, though estimates vary, he said.

Rademaker cited a more dire calculation, namely that by year’s end Iran could be in a position to produce enough bomb-usable uranium within just eight days -- if it so decided and under certain assumptions about already-stockpiled materials. If such a decision were made today, it could take 35 to 106 days to have enough nuclear material for a weapon, he said.

However, Iran has held off from this fast a pace of enrichment to date and Albright expressed some confidence that the international community would detect such a change within a period of days or weeks.

“It may not be [detected] the first day or the first week, but certainly by the second week, third week, either IAEA monitoring or U.S. intelligence will likely detect this kind of breakout and be able to respond,” said Albright, referring to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.

In written testimony, he said that Iran does not appear to have made a decision to build a nuclear weapon, but if such a decision is made, the nation “could build a crude nuclear device in a year.” This type of device could be detonated underground or delivered by aircraft or ship, he said.

Albright urged Washington to avoid inexorable steps toward war against Iran in advance of any weapon capability, but he did say the United States should prepare plans for how an attack could be quickly executed, should it ever become clear that Tehran is building a bomb.

Iran “needs to understand that if it tries to build nuclear weapons, the United States will stop it by using a wide variety of means that include a U.S. military response, despite the inherent risks of such strikes,” he said.

“We have to have the resolve to act, if necessary, or our ability to protect our allies, much less our own interests in the region and around the world, will be dramatically reduced and will simply kill the NPT,” said Robb, referring to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Iran is among the 1970 accord’s non-nuclear member nations, meaning it has agreed not to produce atomic weapons but can use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Iranian development of a nuclear-weapon capability would “cause nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and other regional partners to feel compelled to initiate their own nuclear programs,” the former senator said, “and we'll end up with two nuclear states without a neutral intermediary, facing what could be Armageddon” (see GSN, May 30 and June 10, 2010).

As difficult as it might be to contemplate such a scenario, this type of worst-case planning must be done, Albright said.

“While the [U.S.] policy should remain [focused] on preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons … I do believe we need to start thinking through, ‘What if they do?’” he told lawmakers. “Because we just heard why that world is going to be so dangerous. But unfortunately, if they do, we're still going to have to live in it.”

During the hearing, several lawmakers asked whether it was reasonable to assume that Washington could have any influence over Tehran’s calculus in determining whether to build nuclear arms.

Albright noted that the United States and its partners have already influenced Iran’s behavior in the past and could continue to do so going forward. He said the international community’s 2009 detection of enrichment work at Qum “stopped them cold.”

Iran was effectively forced to reveal the site’s existence to the International Atomic Energy Agency when it became clear that U.S. and allied intelligence had detected the secret enrichment facility. From then on, no clandestine work -- such as potentially producing weapon-grade material -- could be performed there without international knowledge, Albright observed.

He also said that U.S. partners in talks with Tehran, including Russia and China, have affected Iranian thinking.

“They have influence on Iran,” Albright said. “Iran would be much further along on nuclear weapons if that influence hadn't been exerted. … There's a lot going on beyond the negotiations to slow them down and deter them from breaking out.”

Rademaker emphasized that based on past experience, a serious U.S. military threat could effectively bring Iran into line on the matter.

“The last time that Iran perceived a credible threat that military force was going to be used against them, they suspended uranium enrichment. That was right after the Iraq war in 2003,” he testified. “The perception in Tehran, we believe, was that what had just been done to Iraq might happen to them.”

The U.S. intelligence community in 2007 concluded that Iran had suspended its covert nuclear weapons development program in 2003, though it has been left to analysts to speculate on Tehran’s motivations. The Iranians had not yet begun uranium enrichment at that point, but in November 2004 they agreed to suspend enrichment-related activities, including conversion of a precursor material.

Rademaker added that Iran resumed its military nuclear effort a few years later, once U.S. military operations became bogged down in Iraq. Tehran “stopped believing that there was a serious risk that the U.S. would conduct military activity against them,” he said.

U.S. intelligence leaders have assessed that there is no clear evidence that Iran has restarted its military nuclear program. However, concerns remain that the effort simply went to ground, allowing continued activities by selected individuals and entities to keep the bomb option open.

Representative Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), who chairs the House committee, struck a tone of bipartisanship during the session.

“This [U.S. policy on Iran] should not be politicized in any way, and it should be something that we do in a bipartisan way and that people understand that the House is under Republican leadership while the President is Democrat,” he said.

June 21, 2012

WASHINGTON -- A three-member panel of experts on Wednesday told House lawmakers that the United States should credibly threaten that it would take military action in response to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but differed on how Washington should calibrate its saber-rattling.