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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Because the ultimate goal of prevention is to influence Tehran to change course, effective strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure may play an important role in affecting Iran's decision calculus. Strikes that flatten its nuclear infrastructure could have a demoralizing effect, and could influence Tehran's assessment of the cost of rebuilding. But the most effective strikes may not necessarily be against nuclear facilities. Iran is extraordinarily vulnerable to attacks on its oil export infrastructure. Oil revenue provides at least threefourths of government income and at least 80 percent of export revenues. Oil export facilities are extremely vulnerable; nearly all of Iran's oil goes through a small number of pumping stations and loading points along the country's Persian Gulf coast, readily accessible for attack from sea or air. If forced to cope without oil export revenues, Iran has sufficient foreign exchange reserves to get by for more than a year, but the political shock of losing the oil income could cause Iran to rethink its nuclear stance—in ways that attacks on its nuclear infrastructure might not.To be sure, in a tight world oil market, attacking Iran's oil infrastructure carries an obvious risk of causing world oil prices to soar and hurting consumers in the United States and other oil-importing countries. That result, however, need not be the case if sufficient excess capacity existed in countries ready to increase output to compensate for the loss of Iran's exports. Moreover, if the choice is between higher oil prices and a Middle East with several nuclear powers, higher oil prices and reduced economic growth are not clearly the greater evil.
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Israeli security experts have suggested an Israeli military strike could push back Iran’s nuclear program three or so years. U.S. military action, with our greater capability and easier access, would likely push it back further. The brief history of strikes against nuclear facilities suggest the delay could be longer. Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak’s reactor in 1981 was intended to set Iraq’s program back only 1-3 years, and yet the program had not been completed a decade later by the time of the first Iraq War. (The 1981 attack did drive the Iraqi program underground, and it progressed a great deal by the time of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War.) Syria had not reconstituted a nuclear program when its civil war broke out in 2011 – four years after Israel’s strike on a suspected reactor in 2007.
Iran, of course, has a much more extensive and hidden nuclear program than Iraq or Syria did. Still, a U.S. military strike on it could follow the same pattern. It has taken Tehran several decades and tens of billions of dollars to get this far with its nuclear program, and the government might well be reluctant to invest billions and decades more to recreate a program that could be destroyed again in a matter of days. Nuclear scientists – those who survived military action, and prospective new ones – might be reluctant to work in facilities that will be attacked again. This would especially be the case if it was clear U.S. military action wasn’t confined to a few days or weeks, but was could be carried out over a period of time necessary to ensure all relevant facilities were disabled or destroyed. Military action would likely also serve as a warning to other countries not to pursue nuclear weapons.
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The military option. If the scenario of military strikes is excluded, it will not necessarily mean than international pressure will stop, as the follow-up of the 2007 U.S. NIE has shown. UNSC Resolution 1803 was still adopted in March 2008, with more sanctions and only one abstention (Indonesia). But with this important option off the table, Iran will feel free to continue defying the international community in some way, shape, or form, particularly if eff ective sanctions are not adopted (see the earlier point on refined products). Iran's nuclear military program will go on. The world may well have to decide—and the West in particular, its reluctance notwithstanding—whether it prefers a nuclear-armed Iran or a military operation. It is doubtful that the American people will allow another military operation at a time when so much is going wrong in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. That said, if a military action means trouble for months or even years, an Iranian bomb would certainly mean trouble for decades. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to think twice before the choice is made. If there is one region where deterrence should not be tested, it is the Middle East. And Iran has to worry as well, because if it goes nuclear, not only conventional but also nuclear military buildups will take place in the region, essentially as a counter-reaction to its provocative policy.
The question of knowledge, then, is trivial. It can be bought on the open market. You can buy the truck driver’s book online. What’s important is the infrastructure—very little of which Iran produces on its own.
“The idea that Iran has developed a fully indigenous capacity to produce nukes and has mastered all these engineering and chemical disciplines is very far from true,” says Samuels. “What Iran really has is a 25-year-long campaign of smuggling, stealing, borrowing, and hiring everything that the society can’t generate for itself. I don’t know where the certainty it would only take them a few years to rebuild comes from. There are obviously a lot of other assumptions baked in there. It seems to me more likely that the enormous amount of energy and money they’ve spent the last 25 years is not replicable. Either you can make nukes all on your own or you can’t. The Iranians, unlike industrialized Western powers, can’t.”
The White House’s mantra that you can’t bomb knowledge is simply evidence that it has already accepted an Iranian nuclear bomb. Consequently, the idea that a military strike would set the program back only two or three years is not an assessment based in fact, but a political slogan meant to rally support for the president’s policy decision.
Whether a nation’s nuclear program is indigenous or not, the program is much more vulnerable before it actually produces a bomb. Once it has built a bomb, it is less vulnerable. Which is why it feels safe in producing more bombs.
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Attacking Iran is hardly an attractive prospect. But the United States can anticipate and reduce many of the feared consequences of such an attack. If it does so successfully, it can remove the incentive for other nations in the region to start their own atomic programs and, more broadly, strengthen global nonproliferation by demonstrating that it will use military force to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It can also head off a possible Israeli operation against Iran, which, given Israel’s limited capability to mitigate a potential battle and inflict lasting damage, would likely result in far more devastating consequences and carry a far lower probability of success than a U.S. attack. Finally, a carefully managed U.S. attack would prove less risky than the prospect of containing a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic -- a costly, decades-long proposition that would likely still result in grave national security threats. Indeed, attempting to manage a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a terrible option but the worst. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down and the United States facing economic hardship at home, Americans have little appetite for further strife. Yet Iran’s rapid nuclear development will ultimately force the United States to choose between a conventional conflict and a possible nuclear war. Faced with that decision, the United States should conduct a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, absorb an inevitable round of retaliation, and then seek to quickly de-escalate the crisis. Addressing the threat now will spare the United States from confronting a far more dangerous situation in the future.
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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.
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 ]