There was a time when nuclear capability was generally defined as having a domestic stock of the technology and material to build a nuclear weapon. By that standard, Iran is nuclear capable. Recently, Western news organizations, seemingly following Western or at least US policy-makers have discarded that definition and replaced it with a new one whose terms are not publicly known. Here is a recent example from the New York Times:
In any case, no new processing site would pose an immediate threat or change the American estimates that it will still take Iran one to four years to obtain the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Given the complexity of building and opening new plants, it would probably take several years for the country to enrich uranium at any of the new sites.To understand nuclear capability, it may be helpful to invent a hypothetical scenario where it may come to play and from that example see what "nuclear capable" means.
Let's imagine that in April 2010, Hosni Mubarak dies. That's actually plausible, but let's add two implausible elements. Let's imagine that Gamal Mubarak also dies and that there emerges in Egypt an anti-American or anti-Western politician or political group that after capturing the imagination of Egyptians, is able to remove any US influence on Egypt's political/succession system. In this scenario, by July 2010 we have an Egypt that has escaped the US' Middle East colonial structure.
This independent Egypt, of course, will not participate in the US/Israeli project of starving Gaza as a way to punish or pressure Hamas and allows humanitarian aid to flow freely into Gaza across the Egyptian border. What this leads to though, is a hostile Hamas that is securely in power, regaining popularity and an increasing threat to Israel.
Inevitably reports will begin surfacing that Gaza is developing less crude military systems: longer ranged rockets and air defenses. If the situation continues on its current course, Gaza will become a base from which anti-Israeli forces could, in any future conflict, render Tel Aviv unlivable by current first world standards.
For this exercise, let's say that by April 2011, the situation is intolerable and Israel's military and strategic community has as a primary objective preventing the current situation from continuing. But without an Egypt that is willing to take orders from Israel transmitted through the United States, Israel does not have good options. One option is to invade and seal Gaza itself. But the July 2006 and December 2008 wars have shown that Israel is not good at holding hostile territory at acceptable cost.
An independent Egypt in this situation would, by images of starving and bombed Palestinians, be pushed by these events toward hostility with Israel. And a hostile Egypt can make life very difficult for the Israeli occupation from the Sinai. If the Sinai becomes a base from which hostile forces can harass and impose costs on the Israelis in Gaza, Israel is forced to either accept the losses or capture the Sinai.
This is the point - April 2011 according to the scenario being drawn - where Israel's nuclear weapon comes into play. Israel has the option of having retired intelligence or military officers say that Egypt is playing a dangerous game that could result in the destruction of Cairo. By making the hint, Egypt's strategists have to decide if they are willing to take the risk that Israel's leaders may be crazy, genocidal, enough in this situation to actually use nuclear weapons on Egypt's capital.
Israel's ability to make the threat puts tremendous pressure on Egypt's strategists, even if they are hostile, to restrain their support for Gaza. An Israeli objective of holding Gaza may well move from the realm of impossible to the realm of possible just because of this restraint. In fact without ever using a nuclear weapon, Israel's weapon can shape decisions in its region in its favor.
That is the point of Israel's nuclear monopoly. Because of Israel's weapon, and it does not have to actually be used, Israel can avoid a situation such as a hostile Egypt arming Gaza or preventing an Israeli occupation of Gaza. This is the type of situation that could, if not avoided, render Israel non-viable.
But we have not considered Iran in this scenario.
If the hint of a nuclear attack aimed at deterring Egypt was made in April 2011, it has been clear that hostility between Israel and Egypt would rapidly increase one way or another by April 2010 or July 2010 at the latest. Under these circumstances Iran's strategists would recognize that Iran, to support Egypt and Gaza's Muslims, should begin tangibly improving its nuclear capability. Not in a theoretical sense as now, but in a practical sense.
In July or August 2010, Iran can both silently push its uranium production to the maximum capacity at Natanz and publicly announce to the IAEA that is it moving its current stock of uranium to three sites, two under mountains and one deep beneath Tehran. The IAEA will resist the move of the uranium, but Iran really does not need IAEA permission to do it and there is nobody who can stop Iran if it makes the decision.
Will the US bomb Iran over a legal and disclosed move of its uranium stock? In the middle of a developing crisis in Egypt? No. But Iran would be prepared to retaliate if it was attacked. Iran's government and almost all Iranians would still consider it an unprovoked attack and respond accordingly.
By April 2011, an Israeli retired intelligence officer says in a newspaper interview that Egypt is courting the destruction of it capital by behaving provocatively in support of Gaza. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that the days of Israel bullying the region are over. Its capital could be destroyed just as Egypt's can.
In this scenario, not only has neither Israel or Iran used a nuclear weapon, neither has even explicitly threatened to use a weapon. The power of nuclear weapons is not primarily that they can destroy cities, it is mostly that they allow their owners to make hints and threats that impact the decision-making of their adversaries. In an important sense, all nuclear weapons are virtual their value is less in their use than in their impact on the calculations of the adversaries of their holders. Iran can have a virtual weapon effectively close to the equivalent of Israel's without paying to build one or even leaving the NPT. Even if Iran has ratified and implemented the Additional Protocols.
But the scenario in which Iran can issue a counter-threat is significantly different from the scenario in which it cannot. Egypt's decision makers do not have to wonder only if Israel's leaders are genocidal, but also are they suicidal. The pressure on Egypt to submit to Israel's demands and restrain their support for Gaza is drastically reduced. Without an Iranian counter-threat, Israel could, with difficulty, hold Gaza despite a hostile Egypt. With an Iranian counter-threat Israel could not.
In this scenario, it takes time for a crisis to develop to the point where any threat is made. This is plausible. If a crisis begins unfolding today, Iran does not have to have a credible nuclear option today. Iran has to be able to consolidate its nuclear capability over the months during which the crisis escalates.
It is possible to draw comparable scenarios for any of the three critical colonies - Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. If one or more becomes independent of US indirect colonial rule, Israel's nuclear monopoly gives Israel additional if crude options to deter them, preventing unacceptable strategic situations from developing.
But if a crisis involving one of the three critical colonies or any state in the region were to develop at a plausible pace today, then Iran will be able to issue a somewhat credible nuclear counter-threat, neutralizing any threat Israel could issue, by the time the crisis has fully erupted. Because of that, there is no reasonable sense in which Iran is not nuclear capable today.