This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Iran has been much in the news the past few days and – as usual – not in a good way.
On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that the Islamic Republic had begun producing highly enriched uranium at an underground nuclear complex near its holy city, Qom.
The details are critical. To use uranium as fuel in a power plant, the percentage of its most volatile isotope must be raised to about 3.5 percent. Iran has been busy doing that for a long time, though its need for nuclear power is hard to buy – the country is floating on an ocean of petroleum.
Now it is enriching the reactor-grade fuel to 20 percent. Nuclear bombs require enrichment to 80 percent or more, but it is far easier and faster to enrich uranium from 20 percent to 80 percent than it is to enrich it from 3.5 percent to 20 percent.
In other words, Iran is positioning itself on the threshold of a nuclear arsenal. The alternative use for highly enriched uranium is the creation of radioactive medical isotopes; Iranian officials claim that’s what they’re doing, but medical isotopes aren’t commonly produced in hardened underground bunkers ringed by missile batteries and elite troops.
Even one nuke in the hands of terror-loving religious fanatics is one of the scarier scenarios the planet has to offer.
The Obama administration is rightly trying to avert that nightmare by cobbling together international support for sanctions that would cripple Iran’s ability to market its oil. Economic sanctions often accomplish little, but in this case they could really bite.
The Iranian government buys peace with its people by subsidizing jobs, food and other essentials. Eighty percent of its money comes from oil revenue. Threaten that oil revenue, and you threaten the heart of the regime.
Hence the sudden bluster from Tehran.
Responding to the administration’s push for sanctions, Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. That could conceivably jeopardize 20 percent of the international oil supply. But it would also stop 100 percent of Iran’s own oil shipments, which makes the threat look hollow.
Less hollow is the threat to an American citizen – Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, who had the misfortune to be visiting Iran when these tensions were ratcheting up. Iran announced Monday that it had secretly tried Hekmati and sentenced him to death for working undercover as a CIA spy. Hekmati’s parents say he was visiting his grandmothers.
If he was a spy, where’s the evidence? Why was he denied an independent lawyer? Why was the trial held behind closed doors?
He’s in a tough spot, and any American inclined toward tourism in the Islamic Republic ought to take note. But like the missile-rattling over the Strait of Hormuz, Hekmati’s predicament is evidence that Iran’s theocracy is genuinely scared of the net being tightened around it.
Good work, President Obama, and keep tightening.