Military option could resolve Iranian nuclear crisis
Iranian nuclear targets would not be buildings as such but rather processes, and, given the aiming information now available, they could indeed be interrupted in lasting ways by a single night of bombing. An air attack could succeed while inflicting relatively little physical damage and no offsite casualties, barring gross mechanical errors that occur only rarely in these days of routine precision.
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Years of international pressure have failed to halt Iran’s attempt to build a nuclear program. The Stuxnet computer worm, which attacked control systems in Iranian nuclear facilities, temporarily disrupted Tehran’s enrichment effort, but a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency this past May revealed that the targeted plants have fully recovered from the assault. And the latest IAEA findings on Iran, released in November, provided the most compelling evidence yet that the Islamic Republic has weathered sanctions and sabotage, allegedly testing nuclear triggering devices and redesigning its missiles to carry nuclear payloads. The Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit research institution, estimates that Iran could now produce its first nuclear weapon within six months of deciding to do so. Tehran’s plans to move sensitive nuclear operations into more secure facilities over the course of the coming year could reduce the window for effective military action even further. If Iran expels IAEA inspectors, begins enriching its stockpiles of uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, or installs advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom, the United States must strike immediately or forfeit its last opportunity to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club.
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A nuclear Iran would impose a huge burden on the United States. But that does not necessarily mean that Washington should resort to military means. In deciding whether it should, the first question to answer is if an attack on Iran’s nuclear program could even work. Doubters point out that the United States might not know the location of Iran’s key facilities. Given Tehran’s previous attempts to hide the construction of such stations, most notably the uranium-enrichment facilities in Natanz and Qom, it is possible that the regime already possesses nuclear assets that a bombing campaign might miss, which would leave Iran’s program damaged but alive. This scenario is possible, but not likely; indeed, such fears are probably overblown. U.S. intelligence agencies, the IAEA, and opposition groups within Iran have provided timely warning of Tehran’s nuclear activities in the past -- exposing, for example, Iran’s secret construction at Natanz and Qom before those facilities ever became operational. Thus, although Tehran might again attempt to build clandestine facilities, Washington has a very good chance of catching it before they go online. And given the amount of time it takes to construct and activate a nuclear facility, the scarcity of Iran’s resources, and its failure to hide the facilities in Natanz and Qom successfully, it is unlikely that Tehran has any significant operational nuclear facilities still unknown to Western intelligence agencies.
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Even if the United States managed to identify all of Iran’s nuclear plants, however, actually destroying them could prove enormously difficult. Critics of a U.S. assault argue that Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed across the country, buried deep underground and hardened against attack, and ringed with air defenses, making a raid complex and dangerous. In addition, they claim that Iran has purposefully placed its nuclear facilities near civilian populations, which would almost certainly come under fire in a U.S. raid, potentially leading to hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths. These obstacles, however, would not prevent the United States from disabling or demolishing Iran’s known nuclear facilities. A preventive operation would need to target the uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan, the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and various centrifuge-manufacturing sites near Natanz and Tehran, all of which are located aboveground and are highly vulnerable to air strikes. It would also have to hit the Natanz facility, which, although it is buried under reinforced concrete and ringed by air defenses, would not survive an attack from the U.S. military’s new bunker-busting bomb, the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, capable of penetrating up to 200 feet of reinforced concrete. The plant in Qom is built into the side of a mountain and thus represents a more challenging target. But the facility is not yet operational and still contains little nuclear equipment, so if the United States acted quickly, it would not need to destroy it.
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Finally, the U.S. government could blunt the economic consequences of a strike. For example, it could offset any disruption of oil supplies by opening its Strategic Petroleum Reserve and quietly encouraging some Gulf states to increase their production in the run-up to the attack. Given that many oil-producing nations in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, have urged the United States to attack Iran, they would likely cooperate.
In arguing their case, U.S. officials acknowledged some uncertainty over whether even the Pentagon’s newest “bunker-buster” weapon — called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP — could pierce in a single blow the subterranean chambers where Iran is making enriched uranium. But they said a sustained U.S. attack over multiple days would probably render the plant unusable by collapsing tunnels and irreparably damaging both its highly sensitive centrifuge equipment and the miles of pipes, tubes and wires required to operate it. “Hardened facilities require multiple sorties,” said a former senior intelligence official who has studied the formerly secret Fordow site and agreed to discuss sensitive details of U.S. strike capabilities on the condition of anonymity. “The question is, how many turns do you get at the apple?” U.S. confidence has been reinforced by training exercises in which bombers assaulted similar targets in deeply buried bunkers and mountain tunnels, the officials and experts said.
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Iran, however, would be acutely vulnerable to military strikes against its economic infrastructure. Its economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, which provide 75 percent of its foreign exchange earnings. Nearly all of its major oil and gas fields are located in the exposed southwest corner of the country and in the Gulf -- where all six of its major oil terminals are also located -- and nearly all of its oil and gas exports pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The five main ports located on the Persian Gulf handle about 75 percent of all imports by tonnage, while Iran's sea lines of communication in the Gulf are vulnerable to interdiction along their entire length.
Yet, ultimately, the ability to destroy the Fordow does not depend on whether a bomb physically penetrates the cavern where Iran’s centrifuges are operating, several analysts said.
“There are good outcomes short of destroying” the centrifuge hall, Cordesman said in an interview. Strikes against more accessible targets — from tunnel entrances and air shafts to power and water systems — can effectively knock the plant out of action. Repeated strikes will also make Iran fearful of attempting to repair the damage, he added.
Other analysts stressed the particular vulnerability of centrifuges, machines that spin at supersonic speeds to purify uranium gas into the enriched form usable in nuclear applications. Almost anything that upsets delicately balanced machines — from shock waves and debris to power disruptions — can render them useless, said one former Pentagon official who also requested anonymity in discussing potential Iranian targets.
“If you can target the one piece of critical equipment instead of the whole thing, isn’t that just as good?” the official said. “Even by reducing the entrances to rubble, you’ve effectively entombed the site.”
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Iran's nuclear program contains many more elements, but the three facilities discussed above are critical for nuclear weapons development. Destruction of these facilities would have the greatest impact on Tehran's ability to manufacture nuclear weapons--the UCF by denying Iran the ability to make UF6 for enrichment, the Natanz facility for enriching uranium, and the Arak heavy water plant for use in plutonium production system. Of the three, the Arak heavy water facility is the least important--the plutonium production reactors at the site are not scheduled for completion for years, and thus the heavy water produced by the Arak facility will not be necessary until the reactors are completed-- while Natanz is the most important site for Iranian production of fissile material. The destruction of the Natanz facility is critical to impeding Iran's progress toward nuclearization.
Some experts oppose an attack because they claim that even a successful strike would, at best, delay Iran’s nuclear program for only a short time. But their analysis is faulty. Today, almost any industrialized country can produce a nuclear weapon in four to five years — hence any successful strike would achieve a delay of only a few years. What matters more is the campaign after the attack.
When we were briefed before the Osirak raid, we were told that a successful mission would delay the Iraqi nuclear program for only three to five years. But history told a different story.
After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed. This could be the outcome in Iran, too, if military action is followed by tough sanctions, stricter international inspections and an embargo on the sale of nuclear components to Tehran. Iran, like Iraq and Syria before it, will have to recognize that the precedent for military action has been set, and can be repeated.
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Iran's geographic girth lends itself to a country with large standing armed forces, but Iran's military today is weaker than it was in the wake of the revolutionary euphoria of 1979. The Iranians militarily lived off the Shah's US-provided arms and equipment to survive the Iran-Iraq War, but the war nearly exhausted their inventories and put enormous wear and tear on equipment holdings. They have managed to make due, in part, by cannibalizing American equipment to keep fewer armaments running, but these stopgap efforts are increasingly more difficult to muster to prolong the longevity of the military inventory. The Iranians also are using illicit means to bypass US restrictions on the export of military equipment to Iran. Iran has been hard-pressed to find direct external weapon suppliers to replace the United States. Michael Eisenstadt observes that in recent years Russia has been Iran's main source of conventional arms, but Moscow has agreed not to conclude any new arms deals and to halt all conventional weapons transfers since September 1999. The Iranians have made efforts to fill the void with indigenously produced weapons, but Tehran lacks the ability to produce high-performance conventional weapons platforms.Tehran must have shuddered when witnessing the American military slashing through Saddam's forces in the 2003 war. Iran already had a sense of its conventional military inferiority compared to American forces. Years ago Tehran received a direct taste of that from the American re-flagging operations in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, when the US Navy readily destroyed much of Iran's conventional naval capabilities, leaving Iran to harass shipping with irregular hit-and-run gunboat attacks. In the spring 2003 war, American and British forces accomplished in about a month what Iranian forces had failed to do in eight years of war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988. Tehran cannot fail to appreciate that Iranian conventional forces would have little chance of resisting a US military assault.
If diplomacy with Iran should fail, the U.S. is ready to defeat Iran's hardened and buried nuclear infrastructures with specialized ordinance and a sprawling agency devoted to the detection and destruction of hard and deeply buried targets.
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The author argues that while bombing Iran may not eliminate their knowledge of how to build a bomb it would definitely disrupt their technical capacity to do so and for longer than the Obama administration's estimates of 2-3 years.
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John Bolton argues that with sanctions and diplomacy likely to fail, only airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities "can accomplish what is required."
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The author argues that sanctions and diplomacy will only delay the inevitable progress of Iran's nuclear weapons program, making a military strike the most viable option.
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Matthew Kroenig reviews the progress made on a deal with Iran but argues that that the best way to keep Iran from developing nuclear capacity would still be to attack their infrastructure.
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Bennet Ramberg argues that the U.S. could learn from its Iraq war experience with Iran by recognizing that only with the use of military force was it able to force Iran into compliance with international nonproliferation demands. [ More ]
The authors argue that a military strike against Iran's sensitive nuclear facilities won't stop their nuclear ambitions without following it through with a military campaign to overturn the current regime.
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The author argues that the West, in making the assumption that "an immediate war, even one fought on favorable terms, is to be feared more than a looming cataclysm that is likely to occur at some indefinite point in the not-too-distant future" is making the same mistake that the world did when confronting Hitler in 1938.
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According to the recent IAEA report, Iran is closer to having nuclear weapons that was widely assumed. Once it does goes nuclear, Tehran will be almost impossible to stop. To prevent it, the Obama administration must use military force--and soon.
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Independent experts believe U.S. military action against Iran's nuclear program would involve extensive use of B-2 bomber aircraft to hit hardened uranium enrichment and warhead development sites and cruise missiles to neutralize air defenses and other relevant location. [ More ]