Military strike could speed-up rather than reverse Iran's nuclear program
An attack on Iran's nuclear facilities could have the preverse effect of increasing their timetable for developing nuclear weapons. Assuming that the military strikes do not destroy all of Iran's facilities and their nuclear supplies, Iran will be able to overtly embark on a crash course towards nuclear weapons with more international support.
An attack could also rally domestic Iranian opinion around weaponization. Currently, there seems to be consensus among Iranians that the country has a right to a robust civilian nuclear program, but there is no domestic agreement yet on the pursuit of nuclear weapons. An attack could tilt the internal debate over the nature of Iran’s nuclear program in favor of those advocating for a nuclear deterrent to prevent future attacks. And, depending on the target set, a strike could also produce significant Iranian casualties, increasing popular support for a regime that is otherwise struggling to maintain its legitimacy. As a result, there is a risk that a strike would doubly backfire by driving Iran to go for the bomb while strengthening the regime.
To prevent Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program after a strike, the United States would have to be prepared to encircle an even more hostile adversary with a costly containment regime – much like the twelve-year effort to bottle up Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War – and be prepared to re-attack at a moment’s notice. Moreover, in the absence of clear evidence that Iran was dashing for a bomb, a U.S. strike risks shattering international consensus, making post-war containment more difficult to implement. And, with inspectors gone, it would be much harder to detect and prevent Iran’s clandestine rebuilding efforts.
In short, far from being a substitute for containment, a military strike could be the prelude to a decades long containment commitment against an even more implacable nuclear foe.
In May 2013, retired Marine Corps General James Cartwright and former chief of Israeli defense intelligence Amos Yadlin reiterated the limits to U.S. military action in a policy note for the Washington Institute.
“Mechanically damaging the program is not an end in itself since no amount of bombs can destroy Iran’s nuclear know-how,” they wrote. Cartwright, who retired in August 2011 as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was involved in contingency planning against Iran.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that” after a U.S. attack “there would not be hundreds of centrifuges left intact, or at least that hundreds could be assembled from the parts that remained salvageable,” Greg Thielmann, senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association and a former State Department intelligence official, said in an e-mail
“With no inspectors on the ground and a united Iran establishing nuclear weapons as a very high priority, I would think it could recover its position in three to four years, no matter how impressive the U.S. air campaign.” Thielmann said.
The technical and political characteristics of Iran suggest that an attack can have a more transformative impact than in the Iraqi case. First, unlike Saddam's Iraq the Iranian regime has competing sources of power.
So far, these groups do not appear to have reached a consensus resulting in a decision to acquire nuclear weapons. An attack is likely to facilitate such a consensus.
Second, Iranian nuclear establishment has learned its lessons from Osiraq. The decentralized and concealed Iranian nuclear complex is more robust than the Iraqi infrastructure was in 1981. Nevertheless, an attack on Iran's nuclear fuel production and enrichment facilities in Isfahan and Natanz would require Iran to either re-build these facilities or develop an alternative (assuming they do not already have secret facilities offering these capabilities).
Advocates of the strike option suggest that the delay caused by an attack buys valuable time. This begs the question: time to do what? After an attack, three options remain: more strikes, containment or regime change. In the Iraqi case, between 1991 and 2003 air strikes were largely ineffectual, containment crumbled and regime change proved disastrous. Containment and further strikes are unlikely to dissuade a determined Iranian leadership from acquiring nuclear weapons. Regime change is no longer an option.
An attack may intensify the Iranian nuclear challenge and make it more difficult in the longer term. If Tehran cannot be persuaded to abstain from the Bomb, it is time to learn to live with the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
With regard to Iran, there is no reason to believe that an attack on the facilities in Bushehr, Arak, or Natanz would have any different consequence than the Osirak example. Such an attack would likely embolden and enhance Iran's nuclear prospects in the long term. In the absence of an Iranian nuclear weapon program, which IAEA inspectors have yet to find, a preemptive attack by the United States or Israel would provide Iran with the impetus and justification to pursue a full blown covert nuclear deterrent program, without the inconvenience of IAEA inspections. Such an attack would likely be seen as an act of aggression not only by Iran but most of the international community, and only serve to weaken any diplomatic coalition currently available against Iran.The most troubling aspect of such a scenario is that, unlike Iraq in 1981, Iran is not dependent on foreign imports for nuclear technology and already has available the raw materials, and most of the designs and techniques, required to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Iran has the necessary know-how and has already produced every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. Furthermore, Iran has uranium mines in Yazd and is in the process of constructing milling plants to manufacture yellow cake uranium and conversion plants that convert it to UF6 gas. Iran has also begun manufacturing its own gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Even if Natanz, Arak, and Bushehr were destroyed in a preemptive strike, Iran probably has duplicate equipment that can be activated and has the know-how to produce more, to pursue a more vigorous and unabated nuclear weapons program in the long term.
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Furthermore, Iran could acquire weapon-usable nuclear material (plutonium or HEU) illicitly on the nuclear black-market. Because the amount of fissile material needed for each nuclear weapon is small (the size of an orange, in the case of plutonium) it would not be difficult to smuggle it into Iran. Iran may also be able to acquire weapon-usable fissile material from another country.Therefore, it is possible that a military attack on the Iranian nuclear programme would not delay it by a significant time period if, as expected, the Iranians anticipated a military attack, made preparations for a rapid recovery and, after it, withdrew from the NPT and undertook a post-attack crash programme to acquire nuclear weapons.In fact, if Iran devoted maximum effort and resources to building a nuclear weapon post military strikes, it could achieve this in less than two years.
With regard to Iran, there is no reason to believe that an attack on the facilities in Bushehr, Arak, or Natanz would have any different consequence than the Osirak example. Such an attack would likely embolden and enhance Iran's nuclear prospects in the long term. In the absence of an Iranian nuclear weapon program, which IAEA inspectors have yet to find, a preemptive attack by the United States or Israel would provide Iran with the impetus and justification to pursue a full blown covert nuclear deterrent program, without the inconvenience of IAEA inspections. Such an attack would likely be seen as an act of aggression not only by Iran but most of the international community, and only serve to weaken any diplomatic coalition currently available against Iran. The most troubling aspect of such a scenario is that, unlike Iraq in 1981, Iran is not dependent on foreign imports for nuclear technology and already has available the raw materials, and most of the designs and techniques, required to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Iran has the necessary know-how and has already produced every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. Furthermore, Iran has uranium mines in Yazd and is in the process of constructing milling plants to manufacture yellow cake uranium and conversion plants that convert it to UF6 gas. Iran has also begun manufacturing its own gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Even if Natanz, Arak, and Bushehr were destroyed in a preemptive strike, Iran probably has duplicate equipment that can be activated and has the know-how to produce more, to pursue a more vigorous and unabated nuclear weapons program in the long term.
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Delaying the onset of a potential weapons program by years might be possible if enough damage is inflicted on Iran's nuclear facilities. However, there is an equal and perhaps greater likelihood that this attack could motivate Iran to accelerate its nuclear program. Also, if Tehran had not already decided to build nuclear weapons, an attack would probably compel it to do so. Further more, Iran would almost certainly not feel restrained to stay within the NPT and would kick out IAEA inspectors. The United States and its allies would then confront a black box similar to what they experienced after UN weapons inspectors left Iraq in late 1998. In the Iraqi situation, the absence of inspectors over a four-year period of time fostered worst-case thinking and fears that Hussein had resurrected his nuclear program. Those fears were partially behind the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Three years later, the United States remains bogged down in Iraq with no clear endpoint in sight.
"Making the Right Call: How the World can Limit Iran's Nuclear Program
." Arms Control Today
. (March 2006): 6-12. [ More (4 quotes) ]
Many attack proponents argue that U.S. military strikes against Iran would embolden resistance to the government. If this were true, there would be much to recommend them. But nothing is more likely to spur support for the Islamic Republic regime than repeated air strikes by the United States or under its auspices. Large-scale bombing campaigns didn’t break support for North Vietnamese or North Korean regimes, or for the German or Japanese governments during World War II. Rather, they hardened17 support for them. Iran showed gruesome fortitude and chilling cohesion during the Iran-Iraq War, when it sent waves of youths into mass infantry attacks, and nothing in Persian history or today’s Iran gives reason to think Iran would do anything but rally around the flag of the Islamic Republic when under attack.
Netanyahu’s proposed solution for dealing with Iran — a targeted attack — also builds on a historical lesson from Iraq. Unfortunately, it is the wrong lesson. In 1981, Israeli pilots destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor complex as it stood on the verge of becoming operational. As Avner Cohen, an expert on nuclear weapons, recently wrote in Haaretz, this decision resulted from Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s flawed interpretation of intelligence. (His decision was strongly opposed by Shimon Peres, then defense minister and deputy prime minister.) Israelis tend to credit this attack for denying Iraq a nuclear weapons capability. However, sources that have emerged since 2003 demonstrate that the attack created an unprecedented Iraqi consensus about the need for a nuclear deterrent and triggered a more intensive effort to acquire them. By the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq stood on the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability. What is known about Iran’s nuclear program suggests an attack could have similar consequences. Iran’s erratic nuclear advances over the past decade suggest that there is no consensus about whether and when to develop a nuclear weapons capability. While it is possible that Iran could develop fissile material for a nuclear weapon within weeks or months, such a high-risk move would require a consensus that does not currently exist in Tehran. Instead, Iran is edging closer toward a nuclear weapons option. An attack is one of the very few events that could create consensus in Tehran that it is necessary to develop nuclear weapons sooner rather than later.
The historical record suggests that nuclear proliferation risks cannot be easily eliminated by targeted air strikes. Strikes can buy time, but to what end? The short-term benefits of destroying key nodes in the nuclear infrastructure of a state suspected of proliferation seems appealing to states seeking to counter proliferation, but potentially counterproductive long-term consequences suggest that this approach is not a silver bullet. Attacks on states that are advancing toward a complete nuclear fuel cycle or that have already crossed that technical threshold can produce new risks. In the former case, such attacks may have mixed effects and could elevate proliferation risks in the long term. In the latter case, the targeted state may accelerate its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. In addition, preventive attacks can create a false sense of security in the outside world and drive nuclear weapons programs to underground sites. Both sets of developments make it more difficult to grasp, and cope with, the long-term proliferation risks posed by the targeted state.