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News Opinion Editorial

Iran and the bomb

A report this week on Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program by the International Atomic Energy Agency leaves little doubt that country's ruling clerics remain determined to acquire the means to produce a bomb. That poses a dilemma for the Obama administration, which so far has tried to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions through diplomatic negotiations and targeted economic sanctions. But if the IAEA report is to be believed, that approach clearly isn't working.

The IAEA investigators cited what they called compelling evidence that Iran has continued to pursue a range of advanced technologies that are needed to construct a nuclear weapon but that make little sense in the context of a civilian nuclear power program. Among them are designs for nuclear missile warheads, triggering devices for initiating a nuclear chain reaction and computer simulations of the complex processes involved in using conventional explosives to compress uranium fuel to the critical mass that causes it to detonate.

Mindful of the deeply flawed intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country, the IAEA report goes out of its way to buttress the credibility of its findings. Investigators described documents leaked from Iranian weapons labs, interviews with foreign scientists who worked on the Iranian program and information gathered by foreign intelligence services as well as the agency's own on-site inspections at Iranian nuclear facilities. Taken together, the report is the strongest indication yet that Iran's drive to become a nuclear power has not abated.

And while the report appears to corroborate a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran stopped a highly centralized effort to build a bomb in 2003 (possibly in response to fears it might suffer the same fate as Iraq), it leaves open the possibility that critical elements of that program continued after being dispersed among university labs and government installations around the country. Such a dispersal would make the program less likely to be detected as well as less vulnerable to attack should Israel or the United States ever seek to destroy it with air strikes.

Meanwhile, Iran has continued to enrich uranium, despite what now appears to have been a temporary slowdown in production caused by the Stuxnet computer worm that attacked its centrifuges last year. That attack, most likely orchestrated by Israeli or American intelligence agencies, was part of the long shadow war the U.S. has been waging to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, but it may not prevent Iran from acquiring the capability to assemble a weapon in the near future.

The Iranian government quickly denounced the IAEA report as a fabrication dictated by the U.S. and its allies to justify tighter sanctions and force the country to abandon its nuclear program. In a speech after the report was released, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vehemently denied his country was pursuing nuclear weapons while simultaneously threatening to bring down "Armageddon" on any country that attacked it. The president's tone of belligerent defiance was all too typical of Iran's dismissive response to questions about its nuclear intentions.

The Obama administration has opposed military action against Iran's nuclear facilities on the quite reasonable grounds that any halt in the program would likely be temporary and because there is no assurance that even a sustained campaign of air strikes could destroy all the nuclear sites scattered around the country, some of which are buried deep underground.

Moreover, America would have to reckon with the fact that currently there's no global consensus for a military strike against Iran. Russia and China, Iran's strongest backers, are still smarting from what they consider NATO's overreaching in Libya after they abstained from the Security Council vote authorizing military force to protect civilians there. They are unlikely to sign on to a new round of economic sanctions against Iran, let alone military intervention.

Finally, any attack on Iran by Israel or the U.S. would further destabilize what is already one of the most volatile regions in the world. At a time when a spike in oil prices or a disruption of supplies could seriously damage the fragile economies of Europe as well as the U.S., it will be hard to convince our allies to support a military action that might easily spin out of control and engulf the Mideast in turmoil for years to come.

The U.S. must do all it can to press China and Russia to recognize the grave dangers a nuclear-armed Iran poses to their own interests in the region and persuade them to urge Iran's leaders to return to the bargaining table. President Obama also needs to impress on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the grave risks involved in any Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, which his government considers (not without reason) an existential threat.

Whether either Mr. Netanyahu or Iran's fractured and erratic political leadership would heed calls to change direction before a confrontation becomes inevitable is anyone's guess. Certainly recent history offers little cause for optimism. But with its options rapidly narrowing, that may be the most the U.S. can hope to accomplish under the circumstances as it seeks to defuse an increasingly dangerous situation.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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