Intelligence community analysts have coalesced around three central notions about Iran's nuclear weapons intentions:
That Iran hasn't yet committed to building nuclear weapons. In a deliberate leak, the New York Times reported recently that all 16 American intelligence branches agree with this assessment.
That Israel doesn't have the science, technology, or military capabilities to successfully target Iran's nuclear facilities, with its Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, or IRGC, facility 200 feet underground at Fordow.
And, third, that any action against Iran's nuclear facilities will only delay the inevitable by one to three years.
Because I've written a science-heavy novel about a fictional confrontation with Iran over its nuclear intentions, I decided to go back to some of the critical researchers and centers that I leaned on for the book, Peace (Principalities & Powers). I wanted to test these concepts.
What I found surprised me. All three accepted notions may be wrong.
For instance, Iran has almost certainly made its decision: It may not have created weapons-grade enriched uranium yet, or built its first nuclear weapon, but that's only because it doesn't quite know how to put all the scientific, technical, and missile guidance pieces together yet.
The signs are evident--if you're willing to read through lengthy reports. The International Atomic Energy Agency inspection report made public late last year is as good a place as any. You have to go to the back, the annex, of that IAEA report to find the signs of Iran's commitment to a nuclear weapons program.
Iran has run sophisticated computer modeling of implosion, compression, and nuclear yield as recently as 2009. While it used non-nuclear material, it has now conducted high-explosive tests to see whether the devices it has developed actually work. The IRGC has built at least one containment vessel at a military site it controls where it can run these sorts of high-explosive tests. It has finished work on an initiation system that's used in any nuclear detonation, designed to make sure that there is uniform compression of an implosion device.
A former Soviet nuclear weapons expert has helped Iran develop both the initiation system and a crucial diagnostic system that can monitor these experiments. Iran has developed the ability to manufacture a neutron initiator--a sophisticated device that generates neutrons to start a nuclear chain reaction once it's compressed. It's also developed "exploding bridgeware detonators," or EBWs, which allow for simultaneous detonation necessary to create the implosive shock wave that unleashes the bomb's fury.
On the delivery side, Iran has already developed the precise high-voltage firing equipment that you'd need for just one thing: the ability to remotely detonate a nuclear payload in the air over a target. It's also developed the ability to make sure that its EBWs can fire over long distances. And on the missile side, it has a program in place now that can integrate a new, properly sized, spherical payload for the Shahab-3 ballistic missile that can accommodate the high-explosive and detonation systems.
There's a more recent, confidential IAEA quarterly report that made the rounds a week ago, according to reports, indicating that Iran has increased the number of centrifuges enriching uranium by a third in just one year, and that it plans to add thousands more in the near term. That same IAEA report also indicated that Iran has tripled its monthly output of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Given enough centrifuges, 20 percent HEU, or highly enriched uranium, can be brought to weapons-grade levels within a matter of weeks.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified recently that Iran is developing enrichment capabilities, but that intelligence analysis doesn't indicate a decision to proceed to developing a nuclear weapon. I'm sorry, but the annex of the IAEA report, all by itself, indicates otherwise.
The second consensus point among analysts is that Israel doesn't have the science, technology, or military capabilities to successfully target Iran's nuclear facilities; Israel doesn't have the right mix of long-range aircraft or non-nuclear bombs to destroy the underground enrichment facility at Fordow near Qom; not even the newest bunker-busting bomb in the Pentagon's arsenal, the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, can adequately handle this job.
But even publicly available, unclassified reports--like the recent Robb-Wald report from the Bipartisan Policy Center--don't support this. Israel has a direct, long-range route to Fordow, whether through Iraq or southern Turkey, and it now has enough GBU-28 "bunker-busters" (nearly 100 of them) to close the entry and exit points and render every centrifuge underground inoperable. That would be enough to halt enrichment activity at Fordow. Israel doesn't need to blow up the mountain, or destroy the facility.
Israel has enough GBU-28 bunker-busting bombs to "severely damage, though likely not completely destroy, Iran's known underground nuclear sites in a single well-executed operation," the Robb-Wald report concluded.
A Columbia University researcher wrote in Israel's Tablet magazine in November that one attack with multiple aircraft--all delivering something like the GBU-28s one after another in a single, precise, coordinated effort--would be enough to render the Fordow enrichment facility unusable. Such a precise, coordinated attack at one time is difficult. But it is not impossible.
And while it certainly isn't likely, European analysts have speculated publicly that 15 accurate strikes with the use of a "clean" atomic weapon--a tactical neutron bomb--could effectively halt Iran's nuclear weapons program now at every known facility.
Finally, on the belief among analysts that any strike simply delays the inevitable for a year or two, recent history alone doesn't support this notion.
A former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, wrote in Thursday's New York Times that analysts have simply forgotten what happened after Israel halted Iraq's nuclear program. Threats of sustained campaigns, alone, kept Iraq from starting its nuclear program up again. Now, 30 years later, Iraq still does not have a program. A similar analogy can be drawn in Syria.
The truth is that any developed country, Iran included, can build a nuclear weapons program from scratch in four to five years with sufficient scientific and technical resources. Given this, Yadlin wrote, a successful Israel Defense Forces campaign would, quite simply, re-start the clock in Iran. What happens after that is another question. But to state that a single mission does nothing more than delay the inevitable in Iran ignores evidence, common sense, and reality.
While I wouldn't presume to second-guess 16 American intelligence agencies--which, according to the New York Times, believe that nothing has changed from a 2007 consensus intelligence assessment that said Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years ago, all of the basic, publicly available evidence seems fairly straightforward to me. Iran is committed to a nuclear weapons program.
What President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other world leaders decide to do based on that information, for geopolitical, diplomatic, and military purposes, is another matter entirely.
But decisions at this level should always be made on the best science, technical, and intelligence evidence at hand, not on unsupported conventional wisdom that analysts have turned into talking points or groupthink that have made the rounds within intelligence agencies.