In case you haven’t noticed, the Iranian nuclear issue has lost a bit of urgency in recent months. Of course, the Obama Administration has long favored negotiation over any suggestion of military action–never mind that years of on-again/off-again talks have yielded nothing, except Tehran’s continued progress towards a nuclear weapons capability. And not surprisingly, U.S. intelligence estimates have generally predicted that Iran is 3-5 years away from getting a bomb, suggesting there is still time for diplomacy.
However, the most recent “mid-term” forecast didn’t come from the CIA, but rather, it was issued by Israeli intelligence. Late last month, the McClatchy news service obtained a series of Israeli intel estimates, predicting that Iran won’t be able to build a nuclear weapon until 2015 or 2016 at the earliest:
Intelligence briefings given to McClatchy over the last two months have confirmed that various officials across Israel’s military and political echelons now think it’s unrealistic that Iran could develop a nuclear weapons arsenal before 2015. Others pushed the date back even further, to the winter of 2016.
“Previous assessments were built on a set of data that has since shifted,” said one Israeli intelligence officer, who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition that he not be identified. He said that in addition to a series of “mishaps” that interrupted work at Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iranian officials appeared to have slowed the program on their own.
“We can’t attribute the delays in Iran’s nuclear program to accidents and sabotage alone,” he said. “There has not been the run towards a nuclear bomb that some people feared. There is a deliberate slowing on their end.”
Given the fact that the Mossad has long had accurate sources within Iran’s nuclear program, the recent intel assessments are certainly viewed as credible. And those reports are a likely reason that Israeli warnings about Tehran’s nuclear threat have been tamped down a bit over the last three or four months.
But what if Iran is, in fact, on the verge of getting the bomb–or already has that capability? Lee Smith raised that possibility in a recent article at Tablet magazine, noting recent trends in North Korea’s nuclear program. Pyongyang completed its most successful underground nuclear test last week, detonating a weapon that was apparently smaller–but more powerful–than previous DPRK nuclear devices. Given the close cooperation between North Korea and Iran in the nuclear arena, it stands to reason that if Pyongyang has the bomb, then Iran has it too, for all practical purposes. Smith notes the recent observations of an anonymous U.S. official, who spoke with The New York Times:
“…The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that “it’s very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.” Some believe that the country may have been planning two simultaneous tests, but it could take time to sort out the data.”
That other country (obviously) is Iran. Tehran has provided funding the the cash-strapped DPRK to keep its nuclear and missile programs going. Iranian scientists and engineers are frequent visitors to North Korean nuclear facilities, and Pyongyang sends its own experts to Iran. So, lessons learned through North Korea’s testing program will be quickly shared with Iran, and incorporated into Tehran’s development efforts.
Put another way, if Iran was expecting a successful test–and short-term perfection of a nuclear device that could be mounted on a missile–Tehran could afford to throttle back (slightly) on its own R&D program. No real need to spend money, time and effort on problems that have been solved by someone else. Besides, it’s no secret that Iran’s nuclear program has been targeted by Israeli and U.S. cyber-attacks, along with other, more conventional sabotage efforts.
In January, a blast ripped through the Iranian enrichment facility at Fordow, which is buried 300 feet underground. A high-level defector, a former senior official in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed the explosion trapped hundreds of nuclear technicians in their subterranean facility. While Israel never claimed responsibility for the blast, an official said he “welcomed” disasters that crippled key Iranian facilities.
So, with North Korea apparently on the way to perfecting a missile-deliverable nuclear warhead, Iran may be electing to wait for the technology to become available, or simply purchase a finished device from Pyongyang. As Mr. Smith notes in his article, the DPRK has been a willing supplier of components and entire weapons systems to Iran in the past. A few years back, North Korea sold the BM-25 missile system to Tehran, giving Iran an intermediate-range system capable of striking targets across much of Europe. The design is based on an old Russian submarine-launched ballistic missile, so modifying it to carry a nuke should be relatively easy. North Korean technology is also present in Iran’s primary medium-range missile (the Shahab-3), along with key elements of its nuclear program.
In fact, Iranian acquisition of an North Korean nuke is never more than a transport flight away. Iranian IL-76 transports (and even an aging Boeing 747) routinely fly between a military airfield near Tehran, and key locations in the DPRK, and North Korean IL-76s make frequent flights to Iran. These trips have been going on for years, but questions remain about the type of cargo being carried. Needless to say, a working nuke would easily fit in the cargo hold of an IL76, and both Pyongyang and Tehran have advanced denial and deception (D&D) programs that could conceal a nuclear delivery. But Israel (at least publicly) believes that Iran has not built a working nuke, or purchased one from North Korea. Still, that’s a calculation that could change–and change quickly–if Tehran decides to go with the off-the-shelf option. .