OpinionMiddle East

Tehran’s weapons of mass distraction

They conceal Tehran’s development of weapons of mass destruction.

An Iranian flag over a missile, April 2022. Credit: Mohasseyn/Shutterstock.
An Iranian flag over a missile, April 2022. Credit: Mohasseyn/Shutterstock.
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Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

In 1993, a massive truck bomb exploded at the World Trade Center, the first major international terrorist attack on American soil.

Five years later, two massive truck bombs struck two American embassies in East Africa. That was not long after Osama bin Laden, in an interview in southern Afghanistan with reporter John Miller, vowed to continue waging jihad against the United States.

Two years after that a boat packed with explosives struck the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen.

Despite all this and more, it came as a terrible shock when, on Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda operatives hijacked passenger jets and used them to murder nearly 3,000 Americans on American soil.

“This country simply was not on a war footing,” then-White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

This brings me to the recently issued “Annual Threat Assessment” of the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In it, the ODNI acknowledges that the Islamic Republic of Iran “has greatly expanded its nuclear program, reduced IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] monitoring, and undertaken activities that better position it to produce a nuclear device, if it chooses to do so.”

But the assessment adds: “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities necessary to produce a testable nuclear device.”

Are you sure, guys?

Because my FDD colleagues, Andrea Stricker, a nonproliferation expert, and Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert, are dubious.

Last week, the Institute for Science and International Security (known as “the good ISIS”) revealed that at Natanz, south of Tehran, the regime is constructing deep tunnels and underground rooms in which it could produce weapons-grade uranium.

“If Tehran is allowed to complete this facility and move its enrichment infrastructure inside, we will enter a new and potentially irreversible era of the Iranian nuclear threat,” said Richard Goldberg, who served as the Director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction for the National Security Council and is now a senior advisor at FDD. 

He added: “Completion of this facility must be added to the list of red lines for the United States and its allies.”

Iran’s rulers seem unconcerned. Ali Akbar Salehi, the former chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, recently boasted that Tehran has surpassed “all thresholds of nuclear science and technology. Imagine what a car needs. It needs a chassis, an engine, a steering wheel, a gearbox. You’re asking if we’ve made the gearbox. I say yes. Have we made the engine? Yes.”

The good ISIS calculates that Tehran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for seven nuclear weapons in about a month.

Should that happen, it would represent a significant failure of diplomacy, policy and strategy over many years by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

The only significant pause in Tehran’s nuclear weapons program came in 2003, in the wake of America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran’s rulers then agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, declare their other nuclear activities and grant the IAEA broader access to their nuclear facilities. But as soon as they perceived that American guns weren’t aiming at them, they violated these agreements.

In 2015, President Obama concluded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, under which Iran effectively got paid to temporarily limit its uranium enrichment while advancing other aspects of its nuclear-weapons program.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and, over the two years that followed, exerted significant pressure on the Iranian economy. In 2020, he ordered the killing of Tehran’s terrorist mastermind, Qassem Soleimani, and suggested he might target the regime’s nuclear program, too.

President Biden began lifting pressure on Iran’s rulers in 2021. Since then, he’s delivered tens of billions of dollars of Iranian frozen assets and waived other sanctions. Unsurprisingly, Iran’s expansion of highly enriched uranium production has occurred entirely on Biden’s watch, not Trump’s.

At the same time, Biden’s envoys have been attempting to persuade Iran’s rulers to agree to a watered-down version of the JCPOA.

Last Friday, Rafael Grossi, director general of the IAEA, suggested that would be useless. “The spectrum of that agreement is clearly superseded at this point,” he said. “The Iran of 2015 is not the Iran of 2024.”

My FDD colleague Mark Dubowitz worries that the wars now being waged against Israel by Tehran’s proxies and clients in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen are “weapons of mass distraction”—impeding a competent assessment by both Israelis and Americans of the threat that would emerge should Iran’s rulers obtain atomic weapons of mass destruction.

Yes, some Israelis perceive only too well that they are wrestling with the multiple tentacles of an octopus while the beast’s head rests comfortably in Tehran. But, at the moment, they don’t appear to be acting on that perception.

And is anyone in Washington giving serious thought to what it will mean for America’s national security if the Islamic Republic goes nuclear right now, as it strengthens its alliances with the anti-American rulers of China, Russia and North Korea?

Is anyone imagining the possibility that these regimes might—sooner or later—demand the United States end its support for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and South Korea, and perhaps also acquiesce to Houthi control of the Red Sea, Iranian sovereignty over the Strait of Hormuz and Beijing’s dominance in the South China Sea?

The alternative, they’d imply, might be nuclear war.

No doubt some voices on the right would then call for “restraint,” while some voices on the left would insist on a “diplomatic solution”—both euphemisms for American surrender, defeat and decline.

Osama bin Laden would get that. And he would be pleased.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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