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Nukes & Terror: The Threat from Iran

Iran is one of the foremost, self-proclaimed enemies of the West and one of the most serious threats to stability in the Middle East.

The Iranian government's extreme interpretation of Islamic law, and its anti-Western philosophy, inspires the rise of Islamic extremists across the world. Iran is also one of the principal state sponsors of terror, proudly delivering weapons to Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists, and the regime also continues to provide safe haven for many international terrorists, including senior al-Qaeda leaders Yasin al-Suri, Saif al-Adel and Abu Muhammad al-Masri. Moreover, Iranian agents have acted to perpetrate anti-Western and anti-Israel terrorist attacks in more than 20 countries around the world over the past two years. Iran has been implicated in the July 2012 bombing in Bulgaria that killed 5 Israeli's, the February 2012 attacks on Israeli representatives in Georgia and India, the failed strikes in Thailand and Azerbaijan against Jewish targets, and the foiled attempt to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. in October 2011. Israel's Mossad security service also noted that Iran was behind foiled plots to attack Jewish and Israeli targets in Kenya and Cyprus as well.

But above all these concerns, the most menacing threat Iran poses to international security is its harnessing of nuclear energy for the purpose of developing a nuclear bomb.

In 2005, Iran made its first advance in the production of enriched uranium and subsequently established a secret nuclear research center to train scientists in all aspects of atomic technology. Intelligence released in 2012 shows that Iran has now amassed some 10,000 functioning centrifuges and is streamlining the uranium enrichment process so that they can convert their five tons of low-grade fissile material into high-grade, weapons-ready material. Analysts believe it would take Iran nine months, from the moment an order is given, to assemble their first explosive device and another six months to reduce it to the dimensions of a missile payload.

Iran continues to develop long range missiles, but already has weapons capable of reaching Israel, parts of Eastern and Southern Europe, the Arabian peninsula, and American bases in the Middle East. In July 2012, a report released by the US government and signed by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta showed evidence that Iran is continually boosting the accuracy and lethality of its existing missile systems. These improvements are in tandem with regular ballistic-missile training that "continues throughout the country" and the addition of "new ships and submarines," the report found. This report also repeated the long-standing international assessment that Iran, with "sufficient foreign assistance, may be technically capable of flight-testing" an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.

There is now little disagreement as to the intentions of the Iranians.

In the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) report from November 2011, the UN agency confirmed that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and reiterated the need to address this situation as soon as possible. Director General Yukiya Amano said "It is my responsibility to alert the world. From the indicators I had, I draw the conclusion that it is time to call the world's attention to this risk."

The question has now become how to respond.

As U.S. President Barack Obama noted, the threat from a nuclear Iran affects not just "one country's interests or two countries' interests ... [but] the entire internatioanl community," and therefore cooperative international measures must be taken to stop Iran's progress.

In the United States, President Obama has imposed sanctions against companies doing business with Iran, the Treasury Department has worked to freeze Iranian financial assets and new measures have been passed by Congress to halt transactions with Iran's Central Bank. Obama's administration has also made clear they will not accept containment of a nuclear Iran and have drawn red lines for possible military intervention. "The United States ... does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in January 2012. "If [Iran] proceeds ... with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it."

In Europe, Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Nuclear Forces, is convinced that if the Iranians fully develop their nuclear program, "they will most likely be able to threaten the whole of Europe." In repsonse to this sense of urgency, France, Germany and Great Britain are spearheading European Union efforts to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In January 2012, these efforts scored a major success when the EU voted to embargo Iranian oil imports and to freeze the assets of Iran's central bank. "We will not accept Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran has so far had no regard for its international obligations and is already exporting and threatening violence around its region," British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a joint statement. Following this lead, in March 2012, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) cut off all business with Iran, effectively stopping transactions with nearly 30 Iranian banks and their subsidiaries worldwide.

Across the Arab Middle East, the Iranian nuclear program is raising grave concerns, primarily with regards to Iran's intentions for regional dominance. In 2009, then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said, "A nuclear armed Iran with hegemonic ambitions is the greatest threat to Arab nations today." In 2011, Saudi Arabian government officials noted, "We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons ... If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us." Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal expouned, noting that if Iran achieved nuclear weapons it would "lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences." Those consequences are clear - nuclear proliferation across the Middle East. Already, at least twelve Arab nations, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and the UAE, have begun to explore nuclear energy.

For Israel, a nuclear armed Iran is not tolerable. Not only would Iranian nuclear weapons create an existential threat to Israel's existence (Iranian Chief of Staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi said, "The Iranian nation is standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel"), it would also limit Israel ability to protect itself from Iranian terror proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In May 2012, IDF intelligence reported that Iran, together with Syria and Hezbollah, had nearly 65,000 rockets and missiles assembled within striking distance of Israel. Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak noted that if Iran gains a nuclear capability, then retaliating against an attack from Hamas or Hezbollah "would be tantamount to an attack on Iran," and would thus restrict an aggressive range of operations. Therefore, in the words on PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is "determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons; we leave all options on the table; and containment is definitely not an option."

Barak has made clear that Iran is closing in on its "immunity zone" - the point when its accumulated know-how, raw materials, experience and equipment (as well as the distribution of materials among its underground facilities) would mean any military strike would fail in derailing the nuclear program. It is well past time to more stringently implement an international sanctions regime sufficiently punitive to convince the Iranian leadership to abandon their project. In the absence of such sanctions, or if they are shown to be ineffective, a joint military response, as undesirable as it is, will most likely be only other option.