Expert Warns Iranians Feeling Good about Nuclear Progress

The Iranians are feeling good about their nuclear program, while Israelis are concerned about the lack of American follow-up options to previous sanctions, a Middle East expert warned on Tuesday. Using terminology from the stock market denoting positive movement, Ilan Berman said that if one listens to what the Iranians are saying “you will hear undoubtedly that they are very bullish on their nuclear program.”

The Iranian nuclear program has faced problems, including serious issues following the Stuxnet cyberattack on Iranian computers. But the overall picture depicted by Berman—vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council think tank—wasn’t very promising for the West.

Speaking in a conference call sponsored by The Israel Project, Berman also noted that Israel is concerned by the lack of “coercive” diplomacy against Iran by the US. The US has not gone far enough with additional sanctions beyond what was placed last year, not to mention the lack of a credible threat of military action on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“What [the Iranians] are seeing is a United States that, while it’s talking verbally about ‘all options being on the table,’ is signaling to everybody who will listen and everybody who will pay attention that all options aren’t on the table,” said Berman.

“So the Iranians think that their path to [regime] stability, engendered by a nuclear capability, is more or less unimpeded.”

That leaves the Israelis in a difficult position, particularly since Berman pointed out that they don’t believe they have the capacity to fully destroy Iran’s nuclear program in a single strike. Berman further pointed out that American officials know the sanctions that merely raise the cost of the nuclear program aren’t going to force Iran to stop it.

“The Iranians have to believe that there’s something—it may not be military, it may be additional sanctions, maybe something else entirely—but there’s something worse that’s coming down the pike unless they come to the table,” said Berman. “And so far we’re not seeing that formulation.”

It appears that unless the West undertakes dramatic action, the key could be whether the trampled Iranian protest movement that challenged the result of the 2009 election will force a change in Iran, before Tehran gets nuclear capability. So there is a potential advantage for Israel or the West to attempt to delay the program, although it appears uncertain if the receding “Green Movement” can capture the Arab Spring momentum.

Berman said that Iran did effectively beat back the Green Movement, and currently has the movement’s two most public leaders under house arrest. However, he noted the Iranian regime has “well-founded fears” about how long the Arab Spring might last and whether it will resonate with the Persian protesters. It remains unclear if the Iranian Green movement could really revive.

Berman said in light of the Arab Spring the Iranian government has been further combatting dissent in the country. This includes creating their own controlled version of the internet as a means of limiting access to the outside, as well as tightening their cultural screws in ways such as expanding gender segregation in schools.

“[Iran is doing] sort of a myriad of different things that they believe will insulate the regime and sort of inoculate it against cultural encroachment,” said Berman. “And in this case the cultural threat that the Iranian regime fears isn’t just from the West, as it has been in the past. It’s also from this wave of grassroots sentiment that’s sweeping the region.”

Meanwhile, the three separate programs that can lead to an Iranian nuclear weapon—the nuclear fuel program, the missile program and the space program—are all moving forward. Berman pointed out that though the space program is believed to be a civilian program for now, the rocket booster used in the program can be reapplied to one needed for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

That means nations outside the region won’t necessarily be out of reach. The Middle East expert said that if and when the three elements of an Iranian nuclear program come together, “the Iranian strategic threat is going to very quickly evolve from being a regional threat, to being an extra-regional threat.”

Berman was unwilling to make an exact prediction about when Iran could get the bomb, but his words still sounded like a warning.

“Right now, what you’re seeing is three parallel programs [nuclear enrichment, missiles, space program],” said Berman. “But increasingly I think it would be prudent to suspect that as these programs become more mature, Iranian officials, Iranian leaders and strategic planners are thinking about how to make those three intersect.”

(By Joshua Spurlock,, August 31, 2011)