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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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sites at Arak and Natanz came as a bolt from the blue, it is worth considering whether our ignorance pre-2002 has now been replaced by an ignorance of the latest developments inside Iran.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.
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(1) Clandestine facilities Given Iran's stated plans in 2006 to install 3000 centrifuges at Natanz, it can be reasonably assumed that Iran has component parts for many more centrifuges than are operating currently. A clandestine Iranian enrichment facility, prepared in advance, containing say, 6,000 P-1 centrifuges could produce about 20 kg of highly enriched uranium in three months, enough for a nuclear weapon. If P-2 centrifuges were available, the time could be reduced to about six weeks. The larger the number of centrifuges used, the shorter the time taken to produce sufficiently highly enriched uranium.Obviously, the time required to get a clandestine enrichment operation up to speed would depend upon the extent of prior preparations. Under clandestine conditions and unlike the current programme, Iran could seek outside technical and material support to overcome difficulties. The extent to which a decision to accelerate a clandestine programme would change the nature of Iran's nuclear programme should not be underestimated. People forget that the Manhatten Project produced a nuclear weapon in four years from a much lower level of scientific and technical understanding.
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There are numerous problems with the strategy of preemptive air strikes whether they are conducted by Israel or the United States. Iraq's Osirak facility was one easily identified, above-ground site. There are numerous nuclear-related sites in Iran many of which are in or near major population centers, maximizing the probable number of civilian casualties in an attack. Indeed, thousands of innocent Iranians would likely perish in a campaign of air strikes. Moreover, there is no certainty that we have identified all of the relevant targets. There could be many other covert facilities, since Tehran has had nearly three decades to pursue its nuclear activities. Worst of all, some of the installations may be in reinforced, underground locations. Taking out such sites with conventional weapons would be problematic at best. Although some ultra-hawkish types have apparently mused about using nuclear 'bunker busters' for the required strikes, crossing the nuclear threshold is a momentous step that could come back to haunt the United States in multiple ways.
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The United States would be operating with a less-than-perfect intelligence picture of Iran's nuclear weapons infrastructure, however. The Iranians cannot have escaped learning the importance of diversifying and building redundancies into their nuclear weapons program components in light of Israel's preemptive strike on Iraq's nuclear power facility. They managed to hide Iranian uranium reprocessing developments from the outside world for some time and have undoubtedly tightened security to stem further exposures of their nuclear weapons program. In the aftermath of any American air strikes against their nuclear infrastructure, Iran undoubtedly also would redouble its efforts to conceal and build redundancies into its nuclear weapons infrastructure to make follow-on American attacks more difficult.
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Another major issue that affects timing is the conspicuous absence of reliable intelligence about Iran. A report by the House Intelligence Committee found that we have serious gaps in our knowledge of the Iranian nuclear program. Paradoxically, those gaps in intelligence produce not caution, but further pressure to attack. U.S. intelligence agencies do not know the locations of all of Iran's facilities; they are not certain how far Iran has gone with enrichment. They know that Iran's nuclear program bears a striking resemblance to the Pakistani program, but they do not know whether Iran has acquired technology that might put it ahead of current estimates. Some U.S. officials say that Iran is ten years from a weapon. The Pentagon, we are told, is operating under the assumption that Iran could have a weapon in ive years. Some Israeli estimates say that Iran could have a weapon in three years. John Negroponte, the U.S. director of national intelligence, recently said that Iran could not develop a nuclear weapon until some time in the next decade. But the next day, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he did not trust estimates of the Iranian program. The very ambiguity of the intelligence picture has become another argument for military options, because even if U.S. policymakers could agree on a firm policy red line, there would be no way of determining if and when Iran crossed that line. Vice President Cheney's espoused calculation for dealing with global threats is that if there is even a 1 percent chance of a country passing WMD to a terrorist, the United States must act. Because there is a 1 percent chance Iran could pass WMD to a terrorist, the Bush administration finds itself obliged to reject nonmilitary options.
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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.