According to the Associated Press, this past weekend "technicians assembled two small uranium enrichment units at Iran's underground Natanz complex."
The article, which cited diplomats and officials linked to the International Atomic Agency as sources for the information, went on to say that "two cascades of 164 centrifuges connected in series had been set up in recent days" by the Iranians. It explained their next step would involve "dry testing" and "spinning" of gases inside these devices would produce "enriched" uranium that would not produce much energy but would be right "for the fissile core of nuclear warheads."
How long will it take for Iran to get to the point where it will have such warheads? Experts differ. A front-page news analysis published in Sunday's New York Times sought to downplay the urgency of the situation.
Writing of Tehran's program as a "boast" more about political showmanship than anything else, the Times article noted technical difficulties encountered by the Iranians made the declarations on the subject by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were a mixture of "domestic political posturing and outright bluffing."
No Idle Boast
But for those who read the piece closely, this spin should have been overshadowed by the same article's reporting that "nuclear experts outside the United States government say that if Iran is successful in its latest move … it could potentially yield fuel for an atom bomb in in two or three years, faster than American intelligence has reported."
Different estimates for the Iranian timetable to nuclear weapons can be found. But given that the Iranians are no longer allowing monitors to inspect their facilities, no one should approach this subject lightly. "Boasting" or not, there is no longer any question or doubt about where the Iranians are heading. And there is not much doubt about Tehran's goal: a weapon for use against the State of Israel and the West.
Though there are some who prefer to pretend the religious fanatics who hold power in that country are rational actors, relying on the good sense of the ayatollahs to protect us against another Holocaust seems less than prudent. You needn't be a hawk or a fear-monger to understand that Iran simply must not be allowed to have nukes.
And whether we have a year or a few years to stop them, confronting the Iranian regime must be one of the overriding priorities of American foreign policy for the foreseeable future.
But there is no escaping the conclusion that a serious American initiative to stop Iran is by no means a given.
Talk of "weapons of mass destruction" that turned out not to be there in Iraq has made it hard to even raise the issue of Iranian nukes today. The cynicism that characterizes any discussion of foreign conflicts these days and the bitter divisions over the war in Iraq may well make effective action against Iran impossible.
Evidence for this conclusion was readily supplied by the same New York Times in its Feb. 1 editorial titled "Bullying Iran."
The notion that a country that is actively plotting genocide of another nation in its region (while simultaneously promoting Holocaust denial and defying international law in order to acquire the means to carrying out the crime), while also playing a major role in fomenting sectarian warfare inside Iraq is the victim rather than the bully itself, is absurd.
But the worldview of the Times, and the elite establishment opinion-makers it seems to represent, is that in the wake of the Iraq quagmire, any confrontation of Islamists has become illegitimate. "Engagement," even with an expansionist, nuclear Iran or its partner in terror-sponsorship in Syria is, apparently, to be preferred to anything that smacks of another foreign adventure.
At this stage of the Iraq war, it's easy to point out the mistakes made by the administration, both before and after the toppling of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. But, like many a dim-witted general, it appears the Times is more intent on fighting the last war rather than the next war.
Scoff if you like at the memory of the talk of Saddam's WMDs, but there isn't much guesswork going on about Iran's nuclear program or the consequences of it attaining its goal. Nor can even those who are most adamant about the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq view Iran's efforts to dominate that country without trembling for the future of the region.
But if America is now too demoralized by the perception of stalemate or defeat in Iraq, then action on Iran may well be impossible.
The point is, like it or not, the debate over Iraq and the real possibility of an American withdrawal — which would be perceived as a crushing defeat for the United States — cannot be divorced from the question of containment of Iran. Opponents of the war cannot ignore the question of Iran and still pretend to be offering a rational alternative to current policies.
Newly confident Democrats, who rightly smell victory in 2008, and cowardly congressional Republicans, who are beating a hasty retreat on the war now that it's no longer popular, aren't thinking much about the next conflict right now.
But they need to, because even if, as the optimists insist, the Iranians are behind schedule on their nuclear program, the winner of the 2008 election — whether a Democrat or a Republican — won't be able to evade the coming confrontation sometime during his or her first term in office.
Right now, it's hard to get anyone to talk about anything but stopping the war in Iraq, and the effort there may well be doomed. But the disgust with the bloodshed in that country cannot be allowed it to be the touchstone of our foreign policy.
Fanning the Flames
Many who feel the Iraq war to be a costly mistake understand the nature of the Iranian threat. But once you have unleashed the genie of cynicism and disbelief in force, it is hard to get it back. Having worked so hard to delegitimize the American effort in Iraq, those fanning the flames of anti-war sentiment will be hard-pressed to reverse course on Iran, even if they wanted to. The impulse to downplay the awful nature of the Iranian regime and the potential costs of appeasement of them — just like that of our Iraqi opponents — is not something that can be easily switched off.
War with Iran is not inevitable. There is a chance that serious sanctions that are rigorously enforced by all of our "allies," combined with threats that are backed up, might still tip the balance in Tehran and convince its leaders to back away from the abyss.
But in the absence of a public consensus that understands the nature of the threat, even that long-shot scenario may not be possible.
Obsessed as we are now with Bush's mistakes on Iraq, history may judge us even more harshly if our inability to focus on Iran allows its march to nuclear Armageddon to proceed unhindered.