What's Missing From the Iran Debate

It would be impossible and foolish to predict what lies immediately ahead for Iran. Inflation runs rampant and domestic unrest is growing, but the leadership is banding together in support of the country's nuclear program. Threat assessment and war planning are (or should be) about best-guessing capabilities and intentions. When it comes to Iran, these calculations are difficult, but there are things we can -- and must -- figure out. Given what we know and what we can best-guess, it looks as if Iran is 80 percent of the way to a functioning nuclear weapon.

Every nuclear program needs raw materials, a way to refine them and, in the final stage, weaponization. Getting and enriching the materials is the hardest part; without this, a nuclear reaction is impossible. How does Iran's nuclear program measure up?

The situation is a bit murky, but we know, basically, that Tehran has a handle on the fissionable material. Iran imported significant amounts of raw uranium from China in 1991. It has also attempted to produce weapons-grade material, conducting secret enrichment efforts and acquiring designs, materials and samples of gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment from the A.Q. Khan network. Plus, over the past 18 years, the Iranians have developed and tested state-of-the-art centrifuges and enrichment techniques. If Iran's 6,000 forthcoming new-design centrifuges were working for a year, the program could produce about five weapons. My best guess is that they are about two to four years away from accomplishing this.

Next comes weaponization. The fissionable material must be converted into metal and packaged. Here again, Iran has made substantial progress. What remains is to produce these elements in adequate numbers and amounts; combine them in an engineering design that ensures that they work and that fits on a missile; and gain confidence that the resulting weapons will get the job done.

All of this is public knowledge, but the answers to most of the important questions relating to intent and progress on crucial elements of weaponization are unknown. It's the only partially understood and suspected activities of Iran that are most alarming. Signs of these activities include detection by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors of samples of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium; more extensive plutonium separation than Iran has admitted; weapons design work; construction of a heavy-water reactor and its associated heavy-water production facility; design work on missile reentry vehicles that seem to be for a nuclear weapon; and reports of yet-undiscovered programs and facilities.

If all of these activities are real, it would mean that Iran is moving faster and is closer to obtaining a nuclear-weapons capability than the hard facts suggest. Obtaining that last 20 percent of the elements needed to make a nuclear weapon would take perhaps one to two years, instead of the four to seven years needed if they were not.

While we know a lot more about Iran than we did about Iraq (before the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars), we still lack answers to the most important questions, including:

· If Iran has decided or decides to acquire nuclear weapons, how long will it take to do so and how many could it produce per year?

· How much foreign assistance has Iran received, and from whom did it it receive it?

· Does Iran have unknown clandestine nuclear facilities and, if so, how many? Doing what?

· What are the real capabilities of Iran's various weapons-delivery options, particularly its missiles?

· What are the command-and-control arrangements for Iran's nuclear program? Where is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in this mix?

This dirty-laundry list is one reason efforts to provide net assessments about where the program is have proved so contentious. The last U.S. attempt to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, in December, led to a comedy remarkable even by Washington standards. Yet we are talking about a country with known nuclear ambitions and a track record of violating international obligations in pursuit of that goal.

Despite the unanswered questions, we have some pretty frightening knowledge about Iran's nuclear capabilities. Less clear are its intentions.

Tehran often claims to want only to pursue a civilian nuclear program. But it also says it wants to wipe Israel off the map. And Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, along with Ahmadinejad, sees nuclear "power" as a symbol of national pride. It's difficult to know what to believe.

What truly raises tensions, though, is Iran's worldview. Iranians have learned to fear the power of others and to believe that they must ultimately organize their world in a way that lessens the power of the states that pose the greatest threat to them. And Iran's essential national security threat has never been Israel. It is the United States.

My humble best guess is that Iran is pushing toward a nuclear-weapons capability as rapidly as it can. But if Tehran were to believe that American -- not Israeli -- military action is imminent, it might slow work on the elements of its program that it thinks the world can observe. Yet such temporizing would only be tactical. Its strategic goal is to acquire nuclear weapons to counter what it views as a real U.S. threat. Iran appears to believe that the United States is not willing to accept the validity and survival of the Iranian revolutionary state.

Of course, Iran does not exist in a vacuum. How Israel and the United States perceive the threat, based on their own historical memories and strategic priorities, figures significantly in just how messy this may get.

The context within which these national strategies and decisions are interacting is being reshaped by two factors. First, oil prices have exploded, greatly enriching Iran and making clear to the West the economic and political pain and destruction that could come from a serious disruption in the flow of oil. Second is Iran's belief that it has gained a strategic advantage against the United States as a result of its being tied down in Iraq, and against Israel, because of the tactical blunting, if not defeat, of its military in Lebanon.

The United States must figure out and articulate its strategic objectives regarding Iran's nuclear program. At present, its actions and rhetoric are often as conflicted as those of the Islamic Republic.

And while not all would agree with Sen. John McCain's assessment that the only thing worse than a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran would be Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, few in the mainstream of American politics seem ready to go on the record with a plan for "the day after" that does not involve military action.

Two concerns seem to be most absent from discussion of Iran's "nuclear future," whatever it is: First, what policies would limit any advantage, political or military, that Iran might gain from such weapons? Second, how do we begin to craft, with all the states of the region -- including Israel and Iran -- political, economic and security arrangements that recognize their varied interests and concerns and their often very different perspectives on what these are? In the end, we need to decide how we can perform damage control and create arrangements that take into account states' varied interests.

Figuring this out is not rocket science. But we must begin the process of discussion, consultation, planning and acting that will lay the groundwork for a future far different from either the conflicts of the past or the current path toward a regional conflagration that may well involve nuclear weapons.

The United States, along with all of the states in the Middle East, has to create security policies that guarantee that acts of aggression will not be allowed to threaten any state's survival while also beginning to build the economic institutions and policies that can create a future where war seems impossible. While Iran's economy suffers, engagement is more feasible.

What is hard is the actual act of stepping off the (probably sinking) ship we stand on to construct a very different vessel. This is one of those times in history when will is more important than brilliance and when determination to shape a different future is more vital than experience in rituals of the past.

David Kay. He led the U.N. inspections after the Persian Gulf War that uncovered the Iraqi nuclear program. Later, he led the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, which determined there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at the time of the 2003 invasion. A longer version of this article appears in the September/October issue of the National Interest.