Mort Zuckerman: Obama Must Act Promptly to Prevent a Nuclear Iran

The threat of military action is the only way to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

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The gravest national security challenge facing the United States is clearly how to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. It is also the most urgent.

Conciliation has failed. Diplomacy has failed. Coercion has failed. Covert action has failed. These efforts have no doubt delayed the regime in Tehran, but they have not deterred it. Iran has persisted with its two-track strategy of straight-faced denial that it is intent on becoming a nuclear-armed power and its secret determination to be one. Its stock in trade is deceit and lies.

[Photo gallery: U.S. Displays Military Power in the Persian Gulf.]

The collapse last week of a mission of U.N. nuclear experts, after the Iranians denied them permission to inspect a military site and refused to clarify other issues, underscores the need for prompt actions. These should include more forceful sanctions, a strong reassertion of the U.S. military option, and clear moves by the administration to back up the military threat.

The clock is running on atomic time. Iran is now about to cross the nuclear threshold. In January at its secret works beneath a mountain near the holy city of Qom, it started producing 20 percent enriched uranium. The next step is the 90 percent needed for weaponry. The Iranians have begun moving in more efficient centrifuges that are now so well protected that missile strikes may not be able to affect them. Iran is on the verge of entering what is referred to as a zone of immunity, and it is also seen close to having the ability to prepare more than one missile-ready device within about three months of a decision to proceed. This is critical because any military operation designed to abort Iran's nuclear efforts after the main facility becomes fully operational would be meaningless or irrelevant: It would be physically impossible to destroy it or so costly as to be prohibitive. The imperative of stopping progress will run into the impossibility of doing so.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

The coolest assessment is by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: "Iran's technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so." At the same time, there is no "eventually" about Iran's drive for offensive missiles. Iran, says Clapper, "has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East and it is expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile force, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload." So what have these missiles to do with the development of nuclear power for the "peaceful" purposes Iran professes?

Iran's missiles can reach not only Israel but capitals in Western Europe or even Moscow, a capacity that would give the Jewish state between 10 and 12 minutes warning. For the last several years, the strongest, most consistent pressure on Washington to act against Iran has come from its neighbors in the Arab world. WikiLeaks revealed that America's Arab allies have been just as adamant in private for the past few years as Israel, and they want America to use all means necessary to prevent a nuclear Iran. According to the leaked documents, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi described Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "Hitler" and said that "all hell will break loose" if Iran went nuclear. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, was cited as conveying the message from the Saudi king that he wanted the United States to "cut off the head of the snake," referring to Iran's leadership. Further, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine in 2010 that if the United States allowed Iran to cross the nuclear threshold, the small Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region would have no choice but to leave the American orbit and align themselves with Iran out of self-protection.