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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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.
At the end of the day, diplomacy may not be enough. The best explanation about why force has to remain an option comes from the IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei, who, on January 23, 2006, said "Diplomacy has to be backed up by pressure and, in extreme case, by force. We have rules. We have to do everything possible to uphold the rules through conviction. If not, then you impose them. Of course, this has to be the last resort, but sometimes you have to do it."To be sure, preemptive military force would be a highly undesirable option--but it would be less undesirable than the alternative, which could be both nuclear weapons in the hands of ideological hard-liners bent on confrontation and a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.
Does this mean that our only option is war? Yes, although an air campaign targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would entail less need for boots on the ground than the war Obama is waging against the Islamic State, which poses far smaller a threat than Iran does.
Wouldn’t an attack cause ordinary Iranians to rally behind the regime? Perhaps, but military losses have also served to undermine regimes, including the Greek and Argentine juntas, the Russian czar and the Russian communists.
Wouldn’t destroying much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary. Of course, Iran would try to conceal and defend the elements of its nuclear program, so we might have to find new ways to discover and attack them. Surely the United States could best Iran in such a technological race.
Much the same may be said in reply to objections that airstrikes might not reach all the important facilities and that Iran would then proceed unconstrained by inspections and agreements. The United States would have to make clear that it will hit wherever and whenever necessary to stop Iran’s program. Objections that Iran might conceal its program so brilliantly that it could progress undetected all the way to a bomb apply equally to any negotiated deal with Iran.
And finally, wouldn’t Iran retaliate by using its own forces or proxies to attack Americans — as it has done in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia — with new ferocity? Probably. We could attempt to deter this by warning that we would respond by targeting other military and infrastructure facilities.
There is little doubt that Iran will respond to a direct attack or even a naval blockade, but its options, heated rhetoric notwithstanding, are actually limited. What can it truly do? Attack U.S. ships, block the Persian Gulf? Maybe a pinprick to make it look good at home, but beyond that, the risks of escalation and the costs to Iran's economy are probably too great. Iran is extremist but most evidence to date indicates that it is not irrational. It may very well cause the United States greater difficulty in Iraq, a serious problem at a time when trends there have finally taken a turn for the better, and increased levels of terrorism can be expected against U.S. and Western targets. It is highly unlikely, however, that Iran would be willing to go beyond limited actions and risk direct military escalation with the United States, and it too has an interest in preserving the emerging order in Iraq. Moreover, U.S. preparations can greatly reduce, although not eliminate, the dangers of Iran's potential responses.
Obama’s stance implies that we have no choice but to accept Iran’s best offer — whatever is, to use Rice’s term, “achievable” — because the alternative is unthinkable.
But should it be? What if force is the only way to block Iran from gaining nuclear weapons? That, in fact, is probably the reality. Ideology is the raison d’etre of Iran’s regime, legitimating its rule and inspiring its leaders and their supporters. In this sense, it is akin to communist, fascist and Nazi regimes that set out to transform the world. Iran aims to carry its Islamic revolution across the Middle East and beyond. A nuclear arsenal, even if it is only brandished, would vastly enhance Iran’s power to achieve that goal.
Such visionary regimes do not trade power for a mess of foreign goods. Materialism is not their priority: They often sacrifice prosperity to adhere to ideology. Of course, they need some wealth to underwrite their power, but only a limited amount. North Korea has remained dirt poor practicing its ideology of juche, or self-reliance, but it still found the resources to build nuclear weapons.
Sanctions may have induced Iran to enter negotiations, but they have not persuaded it to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons. Nor would the stiffer sanctions that Netanyahu advocates bring a different result. Sanctions could succeed if they caused the regime to fall; the end of communism in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and of apartheid in South Africa, led to the abandonment of nuclear weapons in those states. But since 2009, there have been few signs of rebellion in Tehran.
Should the sanctions fail, a further ratcheting up of the pressure on Iran, short of actual military attack, could take the form of a naval blockade, preferably multilateral but unilateral if necessary. The blockade could be comprehensive from the outset or graduated (e.g., initially limited to Iranian imports of refined petroleum and then expanding over time). A partial air and ground blockade might also be feasible. Only if this, too, failed, would there be a need to consider direct military action.Some will oppose the option of a unilateral naval blockade on the grounds that it would constitute a violation of international law and even an act of war. So be it. Illegal development of nuclear weapons also constitutes a violation of international law, as does dealing a killer blow to the international nonproliferation regime and repeatedly threatening the annihilation of a fellow member state of the United Nations. The issue is not one of niceties or international norms, but of the cold world of realpolitik. A naval blockade may be the only way of ending the Iranian threat without having to resort to direct military action.For the economic reasons argued above, Iran would be extremely vulnerable to a blockade, and the prospects of its acquiescence to international demands are high. For the reasons argued in the next section, its military response can be expected to be quite limited. Iran talks a very good and scary game, but its behavior is far more cautious; even more importantly, its actual ability to respond significantly would most likely be very limited. Those who truly wish to deal with the problem but are wary of direct military action should give careful consideration to the blockade option.
Think of it as Plan B for Iran. The failure of diplomacy might lead the U.S. to turn to a weapon finally ready for real-world action after years of design and testing. The so-called “Massive Ordnance Penetrator,” or MOP, represents decades of military research, dramatically accelerated in recent years, focused on the problem of destroying targets buried deep underground.
That research once revolved around places like Russia, Iraq and North Korea. But in recent years, aided by a little-known military team of intelligence analysts, geologists and engineers, it has come to focus on Iran. More specifically, a uranium enrichment facility burrowed more than 250 feet into a mountain, about two hours’ drive south of Tehran.
Iran’s facility, known as Fordow, houses 3,000 centrifuges that can enrich uranium to a purity suitable for nuclear weapons. Fordow is not Iran’s only enrichment facility, or even its largest. But it is the best protected. And it would be all Iran needs to develop a nuclear weapon.
The mock desert target was almost certainly meant to simulate Fordow.
When Obama officials say that “all options are on the table” to stop Iran from getting a nuke, they are in effect speaking in code about the MOP. The MOP is what Secretary of State John Kerry was clearly referring to when he recently told Israeli TV that the U.S. has “designed and deployed a weapon that has the ability to deal with Iran's nuclear program.” When CNN recently put the question directly — can the MOP destroy Fordow? — to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, he was succinct: “Yes. That’s what it was designed to do.
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 ]