WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - Gen. James Cartwright, who is retired from the US Marine Corps and who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, suggested on Tuesday during a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council that Iran is currently in the process of constructing one or more nuclear weapons.
When the Obama administration was negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Wendy Sherman, the lead US negotiator, stated that the US aimed to “take the timeline for Iran to build a nuclear weapon from three months to one year,” Cartwright explained.
The Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA last May, he continued, and earlier this month—14 months later—Tehran announced that it had begun to exceed the limits set by the JCPOA for enriching and stockpiling uranium.
In other words, that timeline fits US estimates for the period that Iran would need to build a bomb.
Cartwright explained that there are three steps that Tehran would need to take to produce a nuclear weapon. One is to “restart construction on a heavy water reactor.”
Iran has threatened to do just that. Earlier this week, it suggested that its next step in rolling back its compliance with the JCPOA would be to restart work at its Arak heavy water nuclear reactor.
“Restarting the reactor is tough,” Cartwright said, but “it would be necessary for a sustained capability to build nuclear weapons.”
A second step Iran would need to take is to restart its “mothballed centrifuges.” That is not difficult.
The third step would be to deny the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the ability to conduct inspections. The IAEA is still present in Iran, Cartwright explained, but “it is being denied [access] on a regular basis.”
So “my opinion is that we’re already in break-out,” he concluded, and Tehran will proceed covertly, following “an event-based disclosure strategy, associated with building a stockpile.”
Another panelist, Dr. Dov Zakheim, who served as the Pentagon’s Chief Financial Officer in the George W. Bush administration, concurred. “In many ways, I’m on the same page as Gen. Cartwright,” he said.
Zakheim added another significant point, underscoring the lack of Western knowledge about the state of Iran’s nuclear program. The JCPOA did not even allow the IAEA to inspect Iranian military facilities, “which means that all kinds of stuff was going on there,” he said.
Tehran’s immediate objective, Cartwright suggested, is to advance to a point at which it will have “power and leverage” for negotiations with the US—somewhat akin to the position that nuclear-armed North Korea now enjoys.
Both Cartwright and Zakheim described the unique status that nuclear weapons have. They are not so much weapons of war: any party actually using them could expect a ferocious, hellish retaliation. Rather, nuclear weapons serve to protect “state sovereignty,” as Cartwright put it: ensure the security of the regime, as well as defend the country’s core territory from invasion by a conventional army.
As the third panelist, Ali Shihabi, a Saudi national, who began his career in banking and later founded the Arabia Foundation, put it, a nuclear weapon “is the ultimate security card” for Iran.
The panelists were generally pessimistic about the prospect of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Zakheim described the limits of what economic sanctions can achieve. “Look at the siege of Leningrad, the siege of Stalingrad, the Germans in 1944,” he said. “People will starve, rather than cave, and the Iranians are a proud people, with a long history.”
He suggested that the Iranians “need something to save face,” even as he acknowledged, “what that something is, is a very tough call.”
Cartwright added that even if military force—understood as aerial attacks, whether conducted by the US or Israel—were added to sanctions, it could delay Iran’s nuclear program, but would not prevent it.
The end result, in Cartwright’s view, will be an arms race, leading to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Zakheim suggested that Israel could not live with a nuclear Iran, particularly under the current, clerical regime. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 80 years old, however, and rumored to be in failing health.
“If Qasim Soleimani,” head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), “or someone else in the IRGC takes over,” Zakheim suggested, “those guys aren’t religiously motivated, they’re pure politics, military power.”
“That’s something the Israelis understand and can work with,” he said.
Shihabi, however, disagreed, noting the role that ideology—whether religious or secular—plays in legitimizing the exercise of power. Americans understand that, when it comes to a political ideology, like Communism. Indeed, Lenin had a term—“useful idiots”—for the naive, sometimes confused and disturbed, true believers, used and manipulated by the Communist leaders. But when it comes to a political religion like Islam, they do not see what Shihabi sees.
“You’re forgetting that [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards benefit from the theocratic approach,” Shihabi responded. “Using theocracy and using their ideology, they are able to indoctrinate adherents.”
“How are they spreading in south Lebanon?,” he asked. “How are they spreading among the Shi’a in Iraq? How are they spreading among the Shi’a, or Zayidis, in Yemen?”
Indeed, as Shihabi summarized it, “This is a Communist party on steroids.”
Editing by Nadia Riva