Military option would not resolve Iranian nuclear issue
Even if Iran's nuclear facilities were severely damaged during an attack, it is possible that Iran could embark on a crash programme to make one nuclear weapon. In the aftermath of an attack, it is likely that popular support for an Iranian nuclear weapon capability would increase; bolstering the position of hardliners and strengthening arguments that Iran must possess a nuclear deterrent. Furthermore, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the NPT and, should it do so post-attack, would build a clandestine programme free of international inspection and control.
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The Fall 2004 issue of the Atlantic Monthly sponsored a war game involving Iran. Col. Gardiner, the retired Air Force officer and an expert war gamer, was asked to simulate a potential set of options for attacking Iran's nuclear program. A number of Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts were brought in to play the roles of secretaries of defense and state, CIA director, and White House chief of staff. After developing military plans and running them through the war game, Gardiner concluded: 'After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers. You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work.' Similarly, Newsweek magazine reported in September 2004 that both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency had conducted war games on Iran and that 'no one liked the outcome.' Gardiner would later conduct more exercises, increasing the number of aim points from 300 to 400, with at least 75 targets requiring penetrating weapons, only to conclude, once again, that the military option would not prevent eventual Iranian acquisition of a bomb. Ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey went so far as to argue on NBC's Meet the Press that 'the notion that we can threaten them with conventional air attack is simply insane.'
In return for all of these harmful effects, an attack on Iran would not even achieve the objective of ensuring a nuclear- weapons-free Iran. Only a ground invasion and occupation could hope to accomplish that, and not even the most fervent anti-Iranian hawks are talking about that kind of enormous undertaking. Panetta’s estimate that an aerial assault would set back the Iranian nuclear program by only one or two years is in line with many other assessments. Meanwhile, an attack would provide the strongest possible incentive for Iran to move forward rapidly in developing a nuclear weapon, in the hope of achieving a deterrent to future attacks sooner rather than later. That is how Iraq reacted when Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 1981. Any prospect of keeping the bomb out of Iranian hands would require still more attacks a couple of years hence. This would mean implementing the Israeli concept of periodically “mowing the lawn”—a prescription for unending U.S. involvement in warfare in the Middle East.
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And finally, the effects that a U.S.-Iran war would have on the prospect of gradual Iranian political and economic liberalization -- the factors most relevant to the eventual erosion of the clerical regime in Tehran -- would be dire. It is difficult to find Iranian dissidents who support an American attack on the Iranian nuclear program; even the hardline NCRI and MEK have said that they oppose military action. Nobel laureate and Iranian dissident Shirin Ebadi has warned that 'any attack on Iran will be good for the government and will actually damage the democratic movement.' San Francisco businessman Hamid Moghadam and Hoover InstitutionHoover Institution
The Hoover Institution seeks to improve the human condition by advancing ideas that promote economic opportunity and prosperity, while securing and safeguarding peace for America and all mankind.
[ More ] scholar Abbas MilaniAbbas Milani
Abbas Milani is a research fellow and codirector of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. In addition, Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. His expertise is US/Iran relations and Iranian cultural, political, and security issues.
[ More ], who founded the Iran Democracy Project, think that a U.S. attack on Iran would be a blow to the democratic movement inside that country. Milani has argued that 'an American or Israeli attack on the country would sound the death knell of [the democratic] movement.' Moghadam argues that the trouble is that the Bush administration 'doesn't know much about how things work in that part of the world, so it is misled by people who appear to know what they're doing.'
In terms of pursuing alternatives to striking a deal, I question the efficacy of undertaking military action against the Iranian nuclear program for two fundamental reasons.
First, strikes would probably not knock out much of Iran’s weapons-related work, such as the current state of nuclear know-how, low scale research and development related activity, and any specific weapons-related activity that is being undertaken in still-secret facilities. Depending on the scale and duration of military strikes, nuclear weapons-related capabilities probably would not be set back for more than a few years. In estimating the impact of military strikes on Iranian facilities, it must also be borne in mind that Iran has operated in an environment of systematic disruption of their program for many years. Iran has been hardened enough by a series of compromises, reported assassinations, and alleged covert action activity to be able to stay largely on track with where it wants to be.
Second, military strikes on Iran’s soil would help legitimize the regime’s argument to the Iranian people that they need the bomb to defend themselves from aggressive and vastly superior enemies. In assessing their national security options, the Iranians must consider that the US and Israel already possess nuclear weapons, have much more sophisticated armed forces, and vastly superior defense budgets.
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Destroying all of the Iranian nuclear program - not just weapons being readied for use - is a much more demanding task. The lack of information about the extent and location of nuclear facilities means we would be unlikely to destroy the entire program. We do know enough to get started, however, and activity intended to protect additional facilities after attacks began would likely provide additional helpful intelligence. Such a campaign - and it would be a campaign, not a single strike - would likely be of extended duration, requiring politically costly support from regional allies and incurring substantial civilian casualties. Operationally, we would need persistent surveillance and a dramatically improved battle damage assessment system than was operating during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Given the high probability of retaliation with residual Iranian nuclear forces, we will want more than one approach so that the combined probabilities of destruction are as high as possible.
When it comes to using force to prevent nuclear proliferation, the questions are practical ones: Does the use of force have a rea- sonable chance of success, and is it superior to available alterna- tives? In some instances, such as North Korea’s nuclear program today, those questions must be answered in the negative. But Iran is different. A U.S. strike, provided it is launched in time, could destroy Iran’s key nuclear facilities, set Iran’s nuclear program back a number of years, at a minimum, and, by changing a number of factors, including the calculations of Iran’s government, create a significant possibility that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons. To be sure, there are serious risks, but they pale in comparison to the dangers of living with a nuclear-armed Iran for decades to come, the further spread of nuclear weapons in the region and around the world, and an increased risk of nuclear war against Israel and the United States.
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In the unlikely event that all Iran's known nuclear facilities were destroyed in a military attack, it could re-establish a nuclear weapons programme:
- Using stored, fresh nuclear fuel to produce HEU in a small centrifuge facility to fabricate a nuclear weapon; or
- If either the Bushehr or Arak reactors were operational at the time of an attack, chemically removing plutonium from any irradiated reactor fuel elements that survive the strike and using it to fabricate a nuclear weapon (as detailed in Section One, a smaller quantity of plutonium compared to HEU is needed to construct a nuclear weapon).
This process could be hastened if:
- Iran has a stock of uranium hexafluoride concealed at a secret facility, it would then be possible to produce HEU in a relatively short time and resume its nuclear programme;
- Iran has secretly constructed a small primitive reactor, fuelled with natural uranium, to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons; or
- Iran purchased fissile material from the nuclear black market.
The US Congressional House Select Committee on Intelligence Policy admitted that the US intelligence agencies have inadequate intelligence on Iranian nuclear facilities; increasing the likelihood that, if Iran has constructed secret facilities, they will remain undiscovered, even after a military strike.
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The study does not find a single, clear “silver bullet” policy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The United States likely does not have any viable policy options that can eliminate the Iranian threat in the near term at acceptable cost, and without inviting substantial risks. Preventive military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure are unattractive and unpromising. They could trigger retaliation, upset alliances, destabilize regional states, and cost the United States mul- tilateral support for its nonproliferation policies, all without succeed- ing in eliminating Iran’s nuclear program over the long term. Preven- tive military force will likely only lead Iran to redouble its efforts and reconstitute its program.
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When discussing Iran, President George W. Bush commonly insists that "all options are on the table" -- a not-so-subtle reminder that Washington might use force against Tehran if all else fails. This threat overlooks the fact that the United States has no realistic military option against Iran. To protect its nuclear facilities from possible U.S. strikes, Iran has dispersed them throughout the country and placed them deep underground. Any U.S. attack would thus have to overcome both intelligence-related challenges (how to find the sites) and thorny logistical ones (how to hit them). (As the Iraq debacle has shown, U.S. intelligence is not always as reliable as it should be.) And even a successful military attack would not end the mullahs' nuclear ambitions; it would only motivate them to rebuild the destroyed facilities, and to do so with even less regard for Iran's treaty obligations.
I wonder if we in the news media aren’t inadvertently leaving the impression that there is a genuine debate among experts about whether an Israeli military strike on Iran makes sense this year.
There really isn’t such a debate. Or rather, it’s the same kind of debate as the one about climate change — credible experts are overwhelmingly on one side.
Here’s what a few of them told me:
“I don’t know any security expert who is recommending a military strike on Iran at this point,” noted Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton University professor who was a senior State Department official earlier in the Obama administration.
“Unless you’re so far over on the neocon side that you’re blind to geopolitical realities, there’s an overwhelming consensus that this is a bad idea,” said W. Patrick Lang, a former head of Middle East affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“Most security experts agree that it’s premature to go to a military option,” said Michèle Flournoy, who has just stepped down as the No. 3 official in the Defense Department. “We are in the middle of increasing sanctions on Iran. Iran is already under the most onerous sanctions it has ever experienced, and now we’re turning the screws further with sanctions that will touch their central bank, sanctions that will touch their oil products and so forth.
The authors argue that a military campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities would initiate a disastarous, decades long-war irrespective of technical capacity or whether Israel or U.S. initiates it.
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Defense officials and private analysts say that a military attack against Iran would only delay Iran's effort by a few years, even assuming use of the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator.
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Obama said that military action against Iran would not deter its nuclear ambitions and that he could prove that a “verifiable” agreement with Iran was the best way forward.
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Top US negotiator with Iran, Wendy Sherman, says US wants to ensure that it will take Iran at least ten years to get the materials necessary to create one nuclear bomb.
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The author challenges the assertion of Senator Tom Cotton that a bombing campaign against Iran "could be won easily in a few days" by pointing to the actual historical precedent of the operation "Desert Fox" Cotton refers to.
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The author disputes the feasibility of the various calls to attack Iran's nuclear program, but conceeds that "the sheer terribleness of it won’t prevent it from happening."
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Nicholas Kristof argues that it is false to presume there is a debate about whether or not a military strike would resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran as the majority of military experts are strongly against such a course of action.
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Iran would likely be a far more formidable adversary than any the United States has faced in decades. The U.S. should be very wary about launching military strikes.
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The authors argue that the military case for either the U.S. or Israel to strike Iran is too weak to justify the severe consequences that such an attack would have on international security.
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