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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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.
But this war planning denied to the president and American strategy the option of interrupting Iran's nuclear efforts by a stealthy overnight attack against the handful of buildings that contain the least replaceable components of Iran's uranium hexafluoride and centrifuge enrichment cycle—and which would rely on electronic countermeasures to protect aircraft instead of the massive bombardment of Iran's air defenses. That option was flatly ruled out as science fiction, while the claim that Iran's rulers might be too embarrassed to react at all—they keep telling their people that Iran's enemies are terrified by its immense might—was dismissed as political fiction. Yet this kind of attack was carried out in September 2007, when the Israeli air force invisibly and inaudibly attacked the nuclear reactor that Syria's Assad regime had imported from North Korea, wholly destroying it with no known casualties. To be sure, an equivalent attack on Iran's critical nuclear nodes would have to be several times larger. But it could still be inaudible and invisible, start and end in one night, and kill very few on the ground. The resulting humiliation of the regime might be worthwhile in itself—the real fantasy is a blindly nationalist reaction from a thoroughly disenchanted population. In fact, given the probability that an attack could only delay Iran's nuclear efforts by several years, the only one worth considering at all is the small, overnight strike.
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Although the United States has a major problem of overstretch affecting its Army and Marine Corps, an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be undertaken almost entirely by the Air Force and the Navy. To have the maximum impact, it would be done by surprise, utilising land-based aircraft already in the region, long-range strike aircraft operating from the United States, the UK and Diego Garcia, and naval strike forces involving carrier-borne aircraft and sea-launched cruise missiles. At any one time, the US Navy keeps one aircraft carrier battle group on station in or near the Persian Gulf. Such groups rotate, and there are periods when two are on station, providing over 150 aircraft, together with several hundred cruise missiles.4 Similar numbers of land-based aircraft could be assembled with little notice, given the range of US bases in the region, and B-1B and B-2 bombers could operate from outside the region. In particular, the specialised facilities required to operate the stealth B-2 aircraft are now available at Fairford air base in Gloucestershire.
In 1981, Israel sought to one-up the World War II template by striking the critical linchpin to Saddam Hussein’s suspect program, the Osirak reactor. The Israelis believed that would end the nuclear threat. The attack came after a slew of other efforts — diplomatic demarches, public relations assassination and sabotage — collectively failed to halt construction of the French-engineered plant. The flawless airstrike destroyed the reactor — and with it Baghdad’s source for nuclear weapons plutonium. But it did not end Iraq’s weapons ambitions. In the decade that followed, Iraq dramatically increased nuclear funding and personnel. Baghdad turned away from the plutonium to a concealed uranium path to the bomb. It explored multiple enrichment technologies — but the lack of scientific expertise, advanced technology and sophisticated management led to labored progress. All the while, however, Iraqi officials feigned fidelity to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Then the 1991 Persian Gulf War blew away this facade. U.S. aircraft hit numerous industrial and suspect targets in Iraq, including locations that harbored much of the secret atomic venture. It was only after the war, however, that the international community realized the program’s scope — uncovering some 40 nuclear facilities that housed three enrichment programs, as well as a plutonium separation facility. Investigators destroyed all suspect sites and carted off all nuclear material by 1994. The effort was not easy. It had to overcome the continued hostility of Iraqi officials and efforts to hide and deceive. But, in the end, the inspectors got the job done. Iraq had no nuclear infrastructure when the United States invaded in 2003.
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In contemplating preventive action, the technical issue may be quickly disposed of. Some observers, noting that Iran's nuclear installations consist of hundreds of buildings at several different sites, including a number that are recessed in the ground with fortified roofs, have contended that even a prolonged air campaign might not succeed in destroying all of them. Others, drawing a simplistic analogy with Israel's aerial destruction of Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor in June 1981, speak as if it would be enough to drop sixteen unguided bombs on a single building to do the job. The fact is that the 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 is not a demolition contract, and in this case it 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.
As Iraq showed, only inspectors on the ground, who are able to interrogate scientists, retrieve records and destroy and remove nuclear remnants, can complete the job of nuclear disarmament. Policymakers would do well to adopt the template relying for guidance on the Security Council’s 1991 authorization resolution. Key elements required Baghdad to unconditionally surrender nuclear weapons, material and technology to IAEA custody for removal — rendering harmless any remnants, while keeping inspectors on the ground to assure compliance and prevent reconstruction. Were Washington and its allies to publish their intent to rely on these principles, this would put Iran on notice that any ideas that it could absorb a military strike and rebuild the nuclear enterprise will come to naught. This could add strong leverage to our continuing efforts to get Iran to halt its suspect nuclear activities.
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 ]