Obama to Iran: Let me be clear -- it's time to choose

Is it? Bush issued this same ultimatum maybe 500 times and yet here we are, still wringing our hands over whether Russia and China will agree to one more turn of the economic ratchet. Ask yourself: If you’re Khamenei, knowing per the North Korean example that the west will go on negotiating with you forever even after you’ve got the bomb, why not plow ahead and build one? Then you can come back to the table, nuclear leverage in hand, and bargain for some sort of treaty in return for sanctions being lifted. The One and the media may believe that the time for talk is over, but the grand lesson of the Iranian nuke kabuki over the past seven years is that it’s never really over. Especially since bombing isn’t much of an option:

My friend Olivier Knox of AFP reminds me that in May, former Bush State Department official Nicholas Burns testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Iran, and said: “Some continue to argue that the only way to halt Iran’s accelerating nuclear research effort is through American or Israeli air strikes. But, there is no convincing scenario where such use of military force would work effectively to end the Iranian nuclear program. Even worse, air strikes would undoubtedly lead Iran to hit back asymmetrically against us in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider region, especially through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. This reminds us of Churchill’s maxim that, once a war starts, it is impossible to know how it will end. An America that is already waging two difficult and bloody wars should be wary of unleashing a third. Choosing military power at this stage would surely be precipitous and unwise.”

That’s from Tapper, who reasons that because Iran’s been caught cheating three times, maybe they’ll finally give up on the nuclear dream. Er, isn’t it more likely they’ll conclude that since there’s no real penalty for cheating, they might as well keep on chasing it? Stalling for seven years bought them enough time to see a president who might attack replaced by one who certainly won’t; if the strategy ain’t broke, why fix it? Tapper’s logic makes sense if and only if you think that the Qom site is Iran’s only secret bomb-grade enrichment facility, which would mean that they now have no way of building a bomb on the sly (for the moment). But there’s no reason to believe that’s true: For one thing, as I’ve noted ad nauseam, U.S. intelligence suspects them of having up to 15 secret sites, and for another thing, the existence of the Qom site almost certainly implies the existence of at least one more as-yet-unrevealed facility to convert the uranium that Iran planned to enrich at Qom. Quoth the AP:

The revelation suggests a network of facilities, including ones with centrifuges that would enrich uranium at much higher speed and efficiency than previously known sites…

George Perkovich, an Iran expert at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested Iran must be building at least one other unreported facility, a uranium conversion plant to provide feedstuff for the newly disclosed enrichment plant. That’s because the Iranians’ known conversion plant, at Isfahan, is under IAEA oversight.

“Why would you have a secret enrichment plant under a mountain if you don’t have a secret conversion plant?” he asked.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow for nonproliferation at the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said there has been suspicion for some time — but no concrete evidence — that Iran had been working on a second uranium conversion facility to supplement the one at Isfahan, and he agreed that if Iran had an enrichment plant, it would also need a facility to produce the gasified uranium.

Bear in mind, too, that the Iranians have always been keenly aware of Saddam’s mistake in centralizing his nuclear program in one location at Osirak, which made it easy pickings for Israel’s air force. That’s why they’ve put their nuclear eggs in a bunch of different baskets spread out across the country — and if they were smart enough to do that, they’re almost surely smart enough to have built redundant facilities in case an IAF airstrike succeeded in taking out Natanz or Qom or some other secret enrichment site. In the very dry words of the Washington Times, “Some nuclear experts noted that the discovery of a clandestine site suggests that Iran could have many more.” No foolin’.

The Iran bit here starts at 3:05. For more background on how yesterday’s big announcement ended up being made yesterday, see either the Wash Times piece or the NYT’s similar report this morning. In a nutshell, U.S. intel knew about the site for years but not until this summer did activity there start picking up. Obama planned to go public with the info at some point to pressure Iran, Russia, and China about sanctions, but his hand was forced this week after Iran sent a surprise letter to the IAEA acknowledging the facility — which it did, or so the theory goes, because it finally realized that western intelligence had found out about the site and was about to expose it. Exit question: How’d Iran find out that we knew?

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