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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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.
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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.In the aftermath of an attack, following a political decision to change the nature of the nuclear programme to construct a bomb as quickly as possible, Iran could:
- Used stored, fresh nuclear fuel to produce HEU in a small centrifuge facility to fabricate a weapon.
- Chemically remove plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel elements - from the Bushehr or Arak reactors, if either were operational - and use it to fabricate a nuclear weapon.
- Assemble new centrifuges and produce highly enriched uranium (HEU). Some centrifuges might survive a military attack, but it is conceivable that Iran has stored additional centrifuges in secure locations.
This process would be hastened if Iran had a secret supply of uranium hexafluoride or if it had constructed a small primitive reactor, fuelled with natural uranium, to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. It is also possible that, post-attack, Iran could purchase additional needed materials from sympathetic states or on the black-market.
Almost no one believes that airstrikes can either permanently destroy the nuclear capacity of the Islamic Republic, or bring the Tehran regime down. Arguments in favor of a strike sometimes touch on the possibility of undermining the government, but these amount to flourishes, beats that an author has to hit on his or her way to making the core argument. And the core argument is this: the United States should regard itself on more or less permanent war footing with the Islamic Republic, and should expect to regularly use air and sea power in order to curtail Tehran’s ambitions.
If the United States launches a major strike on Iran, it can expect to launch another strike in a few years, and another strike a few years later. Each time, Iran will improve the security of its nuclear facilities, and each time, it will build sympathy within the international community. Washington will earn a reputation for bellicosity that will make Beijing and Moscow look like rank amateurs.
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It has been estimated by some that military strikes could set back Iran's nuclear programme by two or three years or, optimistically, destroy it altogether.37 There are several reasons to dispute this. As discussed above, a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities could kill a number of nuclear scientists and engineers, and may be designed partly to do just that, but it is very unlikely to destroy Iran's nuclear knowledge base completely. In time, surviving scientists would be able to repair damage done to nuclear facilities, or rebuild them completely, and resume the nuclear programme.Furthermore, it is to be expected that the Iranian population, including the scientific community, would unite around the current government and support any subsequent moves to attain a nuclear weapon for deterrent purposes. If Iran stood by threats to withdraw from the NPT, putting an end to IAEA inspections, there would be little prospect of international or domestic containment. Added to this, Iran is in the strong position of having the raw materials needed to resume a nuclear weapons programme.It is conceivable that, if the Iranian regime took the political decision to change the nature of its nuclear programme and embark on a crash nuclear programme, i.e. committing itself fully to building a nuclear weapon in the aftermath of an attack - using all available assets, including damaged nuclear equipment and materials, and purchasing additional supplies on the black-market - it could achieve this in less than two or three years.
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In the aftermath of a military strike, if Iran devoted maximum effort and resources to building one nuclear bomb, it could achieve this in a relatively short amount of time: some months rather than years. The argument that military strikes would buy time is flawed. It does not take into account the time already available to pursue diplomacy; it inflates the likelihood of military success and underplays the possibility of hardened Iranian determination leading to a crash nuclear programme. Post military attacks, it is possible that Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon and would then wield one in an environment of incalculably greater hostility. It is a mistake to believe that Iran can be deterred from attaining a nuclear weapons capability by bombing its facilities, and presumably continuing to do so should Iran then reconstitute its programme.
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Harden, or place deep underground, as much of the nuclear research and production equipment, as possible. Much of the technology needed to separate plutonium or to enrich uranium (e.g., centrifuge enrichment cascades) is complex and sensitive, and requires a fair amount of space and special handling capabilities. If this equipment can be placed in hardened or underground facilities, it will be much more difficult for the United States or other nations to hold it at risk. Similarly, if the program is dispersed to multiple sites around the country and undertaken at remote, nondescript facilities that are protected by a layered air-defense system, it greatly complicates the intelligence problem of identifying where fissile material or weapons are being produced and stored. It also reduces the likelihood of an attack - or at least, a successful attack - such as the one that the Israelis conducted in June 1981 against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. There is strong, tangible evidence that Iran has been pursuing these tactics, including a report from the IAEA indicating that parts of the Iranian nuclear R&D program were being undertaken in hardened, underground facilities, and in other facilities that had been kept entirely secret from IAEA inspectors - in some cases for as long as 18 years.
"Responding to a Nuclear Iran: A Defense Policy Perspective
." Syracuse Law Review
. Vol. 57. (2007): 457-. [ More (2 quotes) ]
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As if this accumulated evidence of the difficulty of destroying an enemy's nuclear weapons were not discouraging enough, the performance of the U.S. intelligence community prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed that things have not improved significantly. After 12 years of closely monitoring WMD-related activities in Iraq, most of which included having teams of UN inspectors on the ground there, U.S. intelligence spectacularly overestimated Iraq's holdings of WMD prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom. And North Korea, with its penchant for building important military facilities underground, its ruthlessly repressive regime, and its nearly complete isolation from the rest of the world, must be considered to be a "harder" target for outside intelligence than Iraq ever was.In short, pending some dramatic breakthroughs in intelligence collection techniques, no U.S. decisionmaker should be confident that U.S. and allied forces will be able to neutralize an enemy's arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery means prior to their being launched. Nuclear weapons and the missiles that deliver them are prized strategic assets, and enemy regimes can be expected to exploit a wide range of techniques to protect them, including hardening, dispersal, decoys, camouflage, and concealment. Even nuclear weapons would have only limited effectiveness against targets that are deeply buried or dispersed over a wide area.
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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