Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have uncovered one hidden Iranian nuclear program after another during the last two and a half years. Tehran has now acknowledged having concealed (for eighteen years) a wide range of nuclear activities. Some of them have few peaceful applications but are directly useful for nuclear weapons. This surprising nuclear progress fits a context, for the Iranian regime has also tested long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and its Supreme Leader has proclaimed that Israel is a cancer that should be excised by being wiped off the map.
Iran's nuclear program has attracted much attention from governments and from authors intent on highlighting the Iranian threat. Some books are scaremongering, ill-informed, or both; in contrast, the Timmerman and Venter books are solid accounts (as the forthcoming Iran's Strategic Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment from London's International Institute of Strategic Studies also promises to be).
Timmerman writes in a chatty style with much color about the various players, structuring his account around the interaction among the actors. Learning, for example, that German foreign minister Joschka Fischer is married to the daughter of an Iranian dissident illuminates the dynamics of policymaking. Timmerman's account is also extraordinarily well-informed, reflecting his years of association with the policy circles he describes. Unfortunately, he undermines his credibility by accepting too readily the accounts of some Iranian exiles, especially the defector Hamid Reza Zakeri, who tell hair-raising stories about Iranian hidden capabilities. Timmerman is correct that U.S. intelligence agencies have a bias against defectors, preferring assets they themselves cultivated, but Zakeri's accounts are at times suspiciously convenient. That said, Timmerman's Countdown is the book to read for an engaging peak behind the curtain.
Venter's Nuclear Option is the place to turn for technical details and footnoted references. It offers the most systematic exposition to date about Iran's nuclear program and its role in world affairs. After a solid introduction to the history and political culture of the Islamic Republic, with a solid exposition about Iran's support for terrorism, especially by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Venter carefully walks the reader through Iran's nuclear and missile programs. Along the way, he incorporates essays by leading experts from the Institute for Science and International Security (David Albright and Corey Hinderstein) and the Federation of American Scientists (Charles Vick). As might be expected from a South African author, Venter highlights the parallels between South Africa's successfully concealed nuclear program and what is known about Iran's efforts. Some of the most technical information is in appendices; nevertheless, his account does make for heavy reading.