As the White House hails a breakthrough in its diplomatic effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program, several under-reported facts cast a shadow over any real, or imagined, success. President Obama’s assurance that “every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off” for Iran flies in the face of reality.
As recently as last Friday, Germany’s Domestic Intelligence Service– the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or BfV– reported that even as negotiations continued, Tehran used front companies to approach several German and EU corporations in an attempt to purchase computers, network servers, high speed data cable, cameras and pumps for its nuclear and missile program.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assessment that the Iran nuclear deal is a “stunning historic mistake” is borne out not only by Iran’s obvious desire to cheat, but by numerous well-sourced reports that indicate that Iran is already in possession of nuclear weapons.
The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the prestigious journal Arms Control Today have all previously reported on Iran’s purchase of ex-Soviet nuclear weapons on the black market— facts that now seem to have been conveniently forgotten.
Should these reports be credited? I can state that the US Government, or at least part of the government, considers these reports to be true. I have worked as a contractor, counter-terrorism analyst and counter-proliferation subject matter expert for the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, as well as the special operations and the intelligence communities. I was the principal author of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Annex to the National Counterterrorism Plan. In that document, and in other classified white papers and assessments, the reality of Tehran’s nuclear arsenal is acknowledged as fact.
In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union fell apart, its widely scattered arsenal became the target of a covert acquisition program launched by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Concentrating first on the Muslim Republics of the former USSR, and later Ukraine, IRGC operatives paid corrupt government officials and military officers to make available dozens of warheads and delivery systems which were later transferred to Iran.
How certain is this information? As early as 1992, Paul Muenstermann, deputy director of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) stated that Tehran’s first purchases included nuclear warheads and medium-range nuclear delivery systems from Kazakhstan. According to the BND report, these weapons included a highly miniaturized 152mm nuclear artillery shell, two warheads adaptable to SCUD tactical range ballistic missiles, and one free fall nuclear bomb. Other transfers followed.
In 2005, an aide to Ukraine’s prosecutor general confirmed the illegal sale of other weapons to Tehran, telling the Los Angeles Times that six highly sophisticated Kh-55 medium range, air launched nuclear cruise missiles were sold to Iran by the regime of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. These weapons were transferred in two groups, in May and June of 2001, and were diverted from a much larger shipment of Kh-55s illegally sold by Ukraine to China. The same source claimed that other nuclear transfers were “blocked” by Ukraine’s security services.
Exactly how many weapons may have been diverted to Iran? The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimated Ukraine’s Soviet era nuclear arsenal at 3,000 warheads of all types. Of these various types, Kh-55 cruise missiles comprised roughly a third. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the FAS reported that Ukraine claimed to have destroyed a staggering 482 ex-Soviet Kh-55 missiles, and repatriated an additional 582 Kh-55s and their warheads back to Russia. As the destruction of these weapons cannot be confirmed by hard physical proof, several arms control analysts have postulated that dozens, and possibly hundreds of supposedly destroyed Ukrainian warheads may have been diverted to Iran.
In April 2005, State Department officials told the prestigious journal Arms Control Today that the real threat of these transferred weapons lay not in their imminent use by Tehran, but in the technical details they would give Iranian weapons designers. Even the lowest yield weapons, like the 152mm ZBV3 artillery projectile, have been of inestimable value to Iran’s efforts to produce and manufacture indigenously designed warheads. Ten years have passed since that assessment, a decade in which Iranian technicians have worked night and day to replicate these weapons.
Nor has Iran lagged on the production of delivery systems. At present, Tehran is estimated to have more than a thousand tactical and theater range ballistic missiles. Iran’s aspirations for a true inter-continental ballistic missile have resulted in four successful space launches, placing satellite payloads into orbit in 2009, 2011 and 2012. On February 2nd of this year, Iran placed a fourth satellite payload into orbit, using a two stage Safir rocket, a variant of its first line Shahab-3 ballistic missile. This weapon has a range of more than 1,250 miles and places all of Israel and parts of Europe within reach. By replicating ex-Soviet warheads and reverse engineering and mass-producing Kh-55 and other missile delivery systems, Iran has already achieved not only a first strike, but a second and third strike capability. All of this was accomplished despite sanctions, and before a single day of negotiations.
The status of these weapons has yet to be mentioned by the US delegation—and may never be mentioned by the White House. But Tehran has made repeated boasts and threats of its nuclear capability, stating on numerous occasions that it will turn Israel into “a lake of fire.” In 2010, an editorial in Kayhan, a newspaper under the direct supervision of Iran’s supreme leader, warned that if Iran were attacked, there would be nuclear blasts in American cities. Were this mere rhetoric, one would not expect to find plans for just such an attack in Iranian military manuals. Yet in March of this year, Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and Director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum revealed that western intelligence had acquired and translated Iranian strategic documents that endorsed the use of high altitude nuclear blasts to produce an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) to disable US power systems.
Iran presently holds four American citizens as hostages. Saeed Abedini, a Christian minister from Idaho, was arrested charged with ‘undermining the national security of Iran’ for meeting with Christian relatives during a 2012 visit to Tehran. Amir Hekmati, a former US Marine, was arrested in August 2011, also while visiting family. Convicted of espionage, Hekmati was initially sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison. The arrest of Jason Rezaian, the Tehran bureau chief, of the Washington Post came in July, 2014. Rezaian was charged with “collaborating with hostile governments,” “propaganda against the establishment” and, of course, espionage. He remains in custody, and is being held incommunicado. Most pathetic is the case of Robert Levinson, a businessman and former FBI agent who was arrested in 2007 during a trip to an free-trade zone on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf. Though the Iranian government initially denied any involvement in Levinson’s disappearance, state-run Iranian press later published pictures of a haggard and disheveled Levinson in custody. He too was charged with espionage.
Like the Iran’s weapons, none of these hostages have been mentioned by US negotiators. It can only be hoped that some secret codicil of any US–Iran agreement would include the release of these innocent people.
Even as the White House hails its “historic” reproachment with Iran, troubling details remain undetermined and unexplained: a scheduled inspection of Iranian nuclear sites, the custody of already produced nuclear fuel and weapons materials, and, incredibly, a stated goal of providing US aid to build new Iranian reactors.
President Obama’s claim that any negotiated settlement with Iran would be a an “executive agreement,” and not a treaty, has opened him to charges that he is attempting to circumvent the Senate’s constitutional mandate to advise and consent on matters relating to foreign policy. It also lays responsibility for any such agreement squarely at his door.
The wisdom of any deal with Iran will not be judged by the Senate, or the American people, but by history. After decades of supporting and exporting terror, the coming decades will show if Iran can be trusted with the most terrifying weapons known to man.
Chuck Pfarrer is a former Assault Element Commander at SEAL Team Six. He is the New York Times bestselling author of SEAL Target Geronimo: Inside the Mission to Kill Osama Bin Laden, and Warrior Soul: The memoir of a Navy SEAL. Pfarrer serves presently as an Associate Editor of The Counterterrorist Journal and is a distinguished fellow of the US Naval Special Warfare Institute.