Inadequate intelligence on Iranian nuclear program for a successful military strike
There are many reasons to doubt that the U.S. has adequate intelligence on all of the relevant targets to successfully setback Iran's nuclear weapons program.
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Ahmadinejad aside, even casual observers must wonder how the world knows so much, in such exceptional detail, about Iran's once secret nuclear program, certainly as compared with what it knows of North Korea's program or what it knew of Iraq's at any point in time. Moreover, only a fraction of what it knows about the installations and processes at Arak, Isphahan, Natanz, and all the other places was uncovered by the much-advertised inspections of the IAEA; the recent Nobel Peace Prize won by its director Mohamed ElBaradei must have been a reward for effort rather than achievement. Satellite photography, too, is only part of the explanation, because one needs to know exactly where to look before it can be useful. The conclusion is inescapable that among the scientists, engineers, and managers engaged in Iran's nuclear program--most of whom no doubt hold the same opinion of their rulers as do almost all educated Iranians--there are some who feel and act upon a higher loyalty to humanity than to the nationalism that the regime has discredited. Iran's regime, extremist but not totalitarian, does not and cannot control the movement of people and communications in and out of the country as North Korea does almost completely, and as Iraq did in lesser degree.
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As if this accumulated evidence of the difficulty of destroying an enemy's nuclear weapons were not discouraging enough, the performance of the U.S. intelligence community prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed that things have not improved significantly. After 12 years of closely monitoring WMD-related activities in Iraq, most of which included having teams of UN inspectors on the ground there, U.S. intelligence spectacularly overestimated Iraq's holdings of WMD prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom. And North Korea, with its penchant for building important military facilities underground, its ruthlessly repressive regime, and its nearly complete isolation from the rest of the world, must be considered to be a "harder" target for outside intelligence than Iraq ever was.In short, pending some dramatic breakthroughs in intelligence collection techniques, no U.S. decisionmaker should be confident that U.S. and allied forces will be able to neutralize an enemy's arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery means prior to their being launched. Nuclear weapons and the missiles that deliver them are prized strategic assets, and enemy regimes can be expected to exploit a wide range of techniques to protect them, including hardening, dispersal, decoys, camouflage, and concealment. Even nuclear weapons would have only limited effectiveness against targets that are deeply buried or dispersed over a wide area.
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In light of the diminished efficacy of technology denial and the uncertain – if not dubious – prospects offered by diplomacy, preventive action (both covert operations and overt military action) might prove tempting as a means of imposing additional delays on Iran’s nuclear program and buying more time. Preventive action, however, would face formidable intelligence, technical, and political challenges. Effective preventive action will require detailed, accurate, and comprehensive intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. track record with regard to its ability to follow nuclear developments in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran is not particularly reassuring and raises doubts as to whether it can meet the high bar required for preventive action in Iran. It is also likely that significant portions of the Iranian program have been dispersed and remain hidden, complicating preventive action. Finally, the U.S. would have to deal with the possibility of international censure, an anti-American nationalist backlash in Iran (whose population has, until now, been generally friendly to the U.S.), and Iranian retaliation, which might take the form of a protracted and far-flung campaign of terrorism against U.S. interests around the world.
The story is very different, however, when it comes to destroying the full range of Iranian capabilities. There are no meaningful unclassified estimates of Iran's total mix of nuclear facilities, but known unclassified research, reactor, and centrifuge facilities number in the dozens. It became clear just this week that Iran managed to conceal the fact it was building a second underground facility for uranium enrichment near Qom, 100 miles southwest of Tehran, and that was designed to hold 3,000 centrifuges. Iran is developing at least four variants of its centrifuges, and the more recent designs have far more capacity than most of the ones installed at Natanz. This makes it easier to conceal chains of centrifuges in a number of small, dispersed facilities and move material from one facility to another. Iran's known centrifuge production facilities are scattered over large areas of Iran, and at least some are in Mashad in the far northeast of the country—far harder to reach than Arak, Bushehr and Natanz. Many of Iran's known facilities present the added problem that they are located among civilian facilities and peaceful nuclear-research activities—although Israel's precision-strike capabilities may well be good enough to allow it to limit damage to nearby civilian facilities. It is not clear that Israel can win this kind of "shell game." It is doubtful that even the U.S. knows all the potential targets, and even more doubtful that any outside power can know what each detected Iranian facility currently does—and the extent to which each can hold dispersed centrifuge facilities that Iran could use instead of Natanz to produce weapons-grade uranium. As for the other elements of Iran's nuclear programs, it has scattered throughout the country the technical and industrial facilities it could use to make the rest of fission nuclear weapons. The facilities can now be in too many places for an Israeli strike to destroy Iran's capabilities.
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Either way, it is critical to recognize that this assessment rests on two fairly ambitious assumptions. The first is that all of Iran’s sensitive nuclear facilities are known to Israel and/or the United States. History provides good reason to doubt that this is true. For the last several years the IAEA has been “unable effectively to monitor the R&D activities being carried out by Iran,” except at sites with safeguarded materials, meaning that the agency cannot address concerns about the existence of covert facilities. Yet, policymakers who adopt short time horizons may calculate that a delay of up to five years would justify the dangers of preventive military strikes.
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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In addition to the inherent difficulty of gathering information about a country with which we have had nearly no diplomatic or economic engagement for 27 years, there is reason to fear that what little intelligence we do have is of poor quality. According to James Risen of the New York Times, the entire Central Intelligence Agency network inside Iran was 'rolled up' in 2004 when a CIA operative accidentally sent a full roster of U.S. assets inside Iran to an Iranian double agent. This, according to Risen, left the CIA 'virtually blind in Iran.' Even before the 'roll-up,' a presidential commission concluded in 2004 that the U.S. intelligence community had 'disturbingly little' information on Iran's nuclear activities. That assessment was echoed in August 2006 in a report for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. That report noted that 'American intelligence agencies do not know nearly enough about Iran's nuclear weapons program.' Further, the report argued: "Improving intelligence collection and analysis to better understand and counter Iranian influence and intentions is vital to our national security. The Intelligence Community lacks the ability to acquire essential information necessary to make judgments on these essential topics, which have been recognized as essential to U.S. national security for many, many years."
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In reality, the difficulty of preventive strikes against Iran's nuclear program is closer to that described by Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan of the CSIS: To be effective, a military strike against Iran's nuclear efforts would virtually have to attack all probable and possible Iranian facilities to have maximum impact in denying Iran the capability to acquire a nuclear weapon or ensuring that its efforts would be delayed for some years. . . . The problem for anyone who starts a shell game is that some players either will insist that all shells be made transparent or else will proceed to smash all the shells.16 The implications of intelligence shortcomings would be severe. As Jeffrey Record of the U.S. Air War College has pointed out, 'an effective strategy of counterproliferation via preventive war requires intelligence of a consistent quality and reliability that may not be obtainable within the real-world limits of collection collection and analysis by the U.S. intelligence community.17 Although the analysis in this paper is based on open-source intelligence reporting, and it is possible that the classified materials contain a systematic intelligence picture of the Iranian nuclear program, it is far from clear that that is the case. Given the apparent intelligence shortcomings inside Iran, a policy of preventive war as counterproliferation seems unlikely to produce a decisive outcome.
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Perle's suggestion that six or eight B-2 aircraft could eliminate Iran's nuclear program in a single evening simplifies a complex situation with the assumption that we know where the relevant Iranian nuclear facilities are. Some Iran hawks explicitly point to Israel's 1981 strike against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor as a model. That analogy is strained at best. The attack against Osirak was a targeted strike at one above-ground facility located roughly 10 miles outside of Baghdad in open desert terrain. By contrast, Iran's known and suspected (to say nothing of unknown and unsuspected) nuclear facilities number as many as 70, some of which are in or around civilian population centers such as Tehran. Unlike the Osirak reactor, Iran's nuclear facilities are widely dispersed, and as Cordesman and al-Rodhan argue, 'many of Iran's research, development, and production activities are almost certainly modular and can be rapidly moved to new sites, including tunnels, caves, and other underground facilities.' Given that the 2002 revelations about the sites at Arak and Natanz came as a bolt from the blue, it is worth considering whether our ignorance pre-2002 has now been replaced by an ignorance of the latest developments inside Iran. The notion that we have a complete or near-complete target set for Iran's nuclear facilities is not supported by the available evidence.
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Our ignorance is, in fact, much broader. We do not know with any reliability the nature of Iranian command and control, either for the development programs or for the weapons' operational employment. We do not know the location or even the existence of the full array of laboratories and manufacturing plants. We do not know the extent of the program: Is it attempting to develop a dozen weapons, hundreds, or thousands? We do not know what Iranian doctrine envisions for their use. We do not know whether simple deterrence to ensure state survival is the political aim of their possession, or whether the Iranian government has grander, more aggressive ambitions. We do not know whether possessing the weapons will reassure Iran and make its behavior more stable and predictable, as has been the case with other possessor states (such as India and Pakistan), or more likely to provoke crises to test the political currency of the arsenal (as was the case with the Soviet Union). We do not know whether Iran will proliferate the knowledge and weapons to other states or terrorist organizations.Perhaps the most important thing we do not know about the Iranian nuclear program is when it will produce nuclear weapons. Intelligence estimates vary widely. The most recent assessment, representing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies (and, unsurprisingly, leaked to the Washington Post in an article published August 2, 2005) contains the longest lead-time of all: about ten years.