Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities
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Iran's nuclear program contains many more elements, but the three facilities discussed above are critical for nuclear weapons development. Destruction of these facilities would have the greatest impact on Tehran's ability to manufacture nuclear weapons--the UCF by denying Iran the ability to make UF6 for enrichment, the Natanz facility for enriching uranium, and the Arak heavy water plant for use in plutonium production system. Of the three, the Arak heavy water facility is the least important--the plutonium production reactors at the site are not scheduled for completion for years, and thus the heavy water produced by the Arak facility will not be necessary until the reactors are completed-- while Natanz is the most important site for Iranian production of fissile material. The destruction of the Natanz facility is critical to impeding Iran's progress toward nuclearization.
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The foregoing assessment is far from definitive in its evaluation of Israel's military capability to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities. It does seem to indicate, however, that the IAF, after years of modernization, now possesses the capability to destroy even well-hardened targets in Iran with some degree of confidence. Leaving open the question of whether an attack is worth the resulting diplomatic consequences and Iranian response, it appears that the Israelis have three possible routes for an air strike against three of the critical nodes of the Iranian nuclear program. Although each of these routes presents political and operational difficulties, this article argues that the IAF could nevertheless attempt to use them. The operation would appear to be no more risky than Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor, and it would provide at least as much benefit in terms of delaying Iranian development of nuclear weapons. This benefit might not be worth the operational risk and political cost. Nonetheless, this analysis demonstrates that Israeli leaders have access to the technical capability to carry out the attack with a reasonable chance of success. The question then becomes one of will and individual calculation.