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 American imbroglio in Iraq is likely to constitute an inhibiting factor in the administration’s considerations, because public opinion in the US, and certainly in the world as a whole, will find it difficult to accept a military entanglement in yet another country. The lessons of the difficulties in Iraq are already leading certain American parties to question to what degree a nuclear Iran actually constitutes a significant threat to American interests, and whether a military attack will solve the problem. At the same time, only an operation limited in time and scope is contemplated, not a broad ground assault comprising a lengthy invasion and an extended presence of American forces in Iran. The administration can therefore assume that the internal response to its attack would not be overly harsh, particularly if it is able to justify its action as necessary. Alternatively, if a military operation in Iran is considered after the bulk of American forces have been withdrawn from Iraq, the administration may have a freer hand to take action in Iran, and may even opt to use such an action to prove that the Iraqi affair has not affected its deterrent ability.
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The second assumption deals with the operational feasibility of an attack, a question that has received excellent scholarly treatment elsewhere.86 Although the affordability and ubiquity of precision weapons available means that targeting states are likely to hit known targets,87 a factor that offsets improvements in military technology is that potential targets have learned from previous attacks and taken appropriate defensive measures. Just as Germany learned that it needed to better defend the Norsk-Hydro facility following the first Allied attack, Iran has learned from the Osirak and Al Kibar strikes that it should not concentrate its nuclear facilities in one location. Doing so makes it vulnerable to the possibility of a one strike success whereas disseminating the facilities makes each one less vulnerable. From a probabilistic standpoint, the more targets that attackers have to hit, the lower the likelihood of net success.
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In sum, given that Iran already possesses the requisite knowledge to enrich uranium—and this knowledge cannot be taken away—the best possible outcome of military force would be delaying Tehran’s ability to build nuclear weapons by around five years. Based on our survey of the historical record, it is far from obvious that military force would yield even this modest return. Policymakers should also be aware that multiple attacks against Iran might be necessary. We now know that Iraq terminated its nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, but this happened only after three different countries (Iran, Israel, and the United States) had attacked its facilities. a factor that offsets improvements in military technology is that potential targets have learned from previous attacks and taken appropriate defensive measures. Just as Germany learned that it needed to better defend the Norsk-Hydro facility following the first Allied attack, Iran has learned from the Osirak and Al Kibar strikes that it should not concentrate its nuclear facilities in one location. Doing so makes it vulnerable to the possibility of a one strike success whereas disseminating the facilities makes each one less vulnerable. From a probabilistic standpoint, the more targets that attackers have to hit, the lower the likelihood of net success.
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A military attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure could set back the program, but probably not prevent its recovery, unless the attack were somehow to topple the Iranian government and bring a very different ruling group to power. A military strike carries significant political and military risks. If time bought by setting back the Iranian program through military strikes would be used to good effect -- that is, if in the interim other disputes in which Iran is directly or indirectly involved were solved, or if Iran became a liberal-democratic mirror image of a Western democracy, preventive attack might look attractive. But there is no reason to believe that this will be the case, and the reverse is more probable. Small or large attacks on Iran will inject energy into Persian nationalism, strengthen the regime's argument that the West is a threat, and leave Iran with a grudge that it may express by deepening or initiating relationships with other states and groups hostile to U.S. purposes. Even regional states with something to fear from a nuclear armed Iran probably would not welcome a preventive attack, simply because the region is already so roiled with violence, much of it attributed to mistaken U.S. policies.
Failure to address the domestic political consequences of targeted attacks can undermine the value of whatever positive results the attacks may have been produced. For example, if the nuclear infrastructure of Iran were attacked, Iranian elites might solidify their desire for nuclear weapons. Unless Iran was then presented with incentives to abstain from acquiring nuclear weapons, it would likely continue down the nuclear path. Some observers suggest that repeated strikes could control subsequent risks, but this does not appear to be a lasting solution. States known to have pursued a nuclear weapons option, including Iran, Iraq, and Libya, have approached the United States with offers to trade their nuclear capabilities for a chance at rapprochement. Although targeted strikes may narrow the scope for negotiation, political engagement is vital for containing longer-term proliferation risks. As demonstrated by North Korea during the 1994–2000 Agreed Framework, engagement seems to be a more productive strategy than isolation for containing states on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons.
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First, some have considered very limited attacks on what seem to be critical nodes in a nuclear weapons production chainóespecially Iran's plants at Isfahan to produce uranium hexafluoride gas and its facilities at Natanz to process this gas through centrifuges in order to enrich its fissionable material content. One careful analysis suggests that even Israeli fighter-bombers, armed with precision guided weapons Israel is known to possess, could destroy these facilities, presuming that they could refuel from aerial tankers en route, and fly over Jordan and Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. For the United States, destroying these facilities would be a trivial matter. That said, the rest of the Iranian nuclear research and development effort would survive, and it seems likely that failing a change of government, Iran would persevere, and do so in a way that leaves the program less vulnerable. One might believe that a limited attack, however, would produce a relatively modest Iranian military response.
More troubling are, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the "known unknowns." There is no question that covert elements of Iran's nuclear program exist. After devoting so many resources to its nuclear program and suffering years of increasingly tough sanctions, it is entirely reasonable to believe that Tehran maintains at least a small pilot enrichment facility far away from the scrutiny of the international community. After all, hiding one from the world's eyes would not be difficult; the IAEA has very limited access to the workshops where Iran produces the components for and assembles its centrifuges and thus cannot precisely track the size and scope of Iran's enrichment activities. Further, Iran's capability to enrich uranium is a technical skill that cannot be bombed out of existence. Nor can the progress it has made on weaponization. Those aspects of the program would likely survive a limited bombing campaign along the lines advocated by Kroenig.
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The U.S. government appears to know very little about Iran's nuclear program. It is quite difficult to gather effective intelligence on a country with which America has not had commercial or diplomatic relations for more than two decades, and a successful attack against a nuclear program as dispersed and effectively hidden as Iran's apparently is would require very good intelligence. In 2002 the United States learned of startling advances in Iran's nuclear program after revelations regarding the Natanz enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water reactor were made very publicly by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq's (MEK's) political arm, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI). Given that these facilities would rank high on any list of potential targets in Iran, we must understand that the Iranian leadership knows that we know about them. Are Natanz and Arak still the key sites to strike in order to damage Iran's nuclear program? If so, the Iranians would be leaving themselves vulnerable to just the sort of U.S. air strikes that they fear. It is far more likely that the leadership in Tehran has taken into account that those locations would be first on a list of U.S. aim points and has adjusted their programs accordingly, by either diversifying the locations even further than they were or by relocating nuclear activity.
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Clearly, there are similarities between today’s concerns regarding Ira nian nuclear intentions and those circulating about the prospect of a nuclear-armed China in the 1960s. Problems associated with preventive military action to curb Tehran’s nuclear endeavors also closely resemble those identified vis-à-vis China. First, such efforts are extremely unlikely to permanently remove the nuclear threat. The general consensus is that while preventive attacks are likely to set back the Iranian program, they would not prevent its recovery. In December 2008, The Atlantic magazine collaborated with retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner in a series of war games focused on Iran. After close consideration of the location and physical features of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and a range of possible military options, Gardiner concluded that there was no permanent mili tary solution for the issues of Iran.18 It is also highly likely that preventive action would serve as a catalyst for increased Persian nationalism and pro vide impetus for the regime to resume nuclear efforts with increased vigor. From this perspective, military action would enforce the perception of a perpetually hostile West and the belief that a nuclear weapons capability is essential to deter Western aggression.19
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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.'
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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