For Obama, the Clock on Iran Is Ticking — But How Fast?

For Obama, the Clock on Iran Is Ticking — But How Fast?

Iran’s ancient Persian New Year celebration is known as Nowruz, which literally means “new day”, and President Barack Obama marked the occasion on Friday with an unprecedented taped message to Iran’s leaders and its people offering “a new beginning” in relations between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic. Obama said he was “committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community,” and looked forward to an era of “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” By grounding his overture in the call for a ‘grand bargain’ that addresses all areas of conflict, and speaking of integrating Iran’s current regime into a responsible role in the international community, the President expressed an openness to accommodating some of Tehran’s key concerns. And his message was cautiously welcomed in Tehran. Although he avoided the knotty issue of Iran’s nuclear program, he did warn that “terror and arms” did not fit with the responsibilities attached to Iran resuming its rightful place in the community of nations.

While the broader rapprochement initiated by the Obama Administration could be integral to resolving the standoff over Iran’s uranium enrichment program, there’s some concern in Washington and beyond over how much time Obama has to find a diplomatic solution on the nuclear issue. The urgency of the nuclear question itself is a matter of some debate.

“From all the information I’ve seen,” CIA chief Leon Panetta said on
Capitol Hill last month, “I think there is no question that they are seeking
[nuclear weapons] capability.” Israel and more hawkish voices in
Washington concur, and stress that Iran has already crossed the key
technological threshold in what they portray as a headlong drive to attain
atomic weapons. But the U.S. military and intelligence community says that
while Iran is assembling a technological infrastructure that would enable it
to develop nuclear weapons, it has produced no weapons-grade materiel. In
fact, according to the Obama’s Director of National Intelligence Dennis
Blair, Tehran has not yet taken the fateful decision to actually use its new
technological capacity to develop weapons.

Admiral Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that
“the intelligence community agrees … that Iran has not decided to press
forward… to have a nuclear weapon on top of a ballistic missile,” adding
that “Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could
technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single
weapon is 2010 to 2015.”

Iran’s current uranium-enrichment efforts are strictly monitored by
international inspectors who have certified that they have produced only
low-enriched uranium , which can’t be used in weapons and is kept under
seal of the International Atomic Energy Agency . But the fear is that
Iran is developing “breakout capacity” — putting bomb development
within fairly easy reach if it opted to break out of the Non-Proliferation
Treaty and its inspection regime, and reprocess that LEU to bomb-grade

President George W. Bush often spoke of the need to stop Iran from
“mastering the technology” of enriching uranium, but that goal has been
rendered moot by Iran’s growing stockpile of LEU. The IAEA inspectors have
found that Iran had produced around 1,000 kilograms of LEU, which, if
reprocessed, would be enough to create a single, crude nuclear device. But
media reports spinning that fact as meaning that “Iran now has enough
uranium for a bomb” prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to make clear
that Iran was, in fact, nowhere near nuclear-weapons capability. To begin
reprocessing its current stockpile into bomb materiel would require kicking
out IAEA inspectors. Developing bombs and other aspects of a combat-ready
nuclear-weapons arsenal would take still more years. And the working
assumption of many involved in diplomacy around Iran’s nuclear program is
that if Iran signaled its intention to weaponize by ousting IAEA inspectors,
it would probably trigger a preemptive military strike by the U.S. or

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