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.
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.
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Because the ultimate goal of prevention is to influence Tehran to change course, effective strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure may play an important role in affecting Iran's decision calculus. Strikes that flatten its nuclear infrastructure could have a demoralizing effect, and could influence Tehran's assessment of the cost of rebuilding. But the most effective strikes may not necessarily be against nuclear facilities. Iran is extraordinarily vulnerable to attacks on its oil export infrastructure. Oil revenue provides at least threefourths of government income and at least 80 percent of export revenues. Oil export facilities are extremely vulnerable; nearly all of Iran's oil goes through a small number of pumping stations and loading points along the country's Persian Gulf coast, readily accessible for attack from sea or air. If forced to cope without oil export revenues, Iran has sufficient foreign exchange reserves to get by for more than a year, but the political shock of losing the oil income could cause Iran to rethink its nuclear stance—in ways that attacks on its nuclear infrastructure might not.To be sure, in a tight world oil market, attacking Iran's oil infrastructure carries an obvious risk of causing world oil prices to soar and hurting consumers in the United States and other oil-importing countries. That result, however, need not be the case if sufficient excess capacity existed in countries ready to increase output to compensate for the loss of Iran's exports. Moreover, if the choice is between higher oil prices and a Middle East with several nuclear powers, higher oil prices and reduced economic growth are not clearly the greater evil.
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Israeli security experts have suggested an Israeli military strike could push back Iran’s nuclear program three or so years. U.S. military action, with our greater capability and easier access, would likely push it back further. The brief history of strikes against nuclear facilities suggest the delay could be longer. Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak’s reactor in 1981 was intended to set Iraq’s program back only 1-3 years, and yet the program had not been completed a decade later by the time of the first Iraq War. (The 1981 attack did drive the Iraqi program underground, and it progressed a great deal by the time of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War.) Syria had not reconstituted a nuclear program when its civil war broke out in 2011 – four years after Israel’s strike on a suspected reactor in 2007.
Iran, of course, has a much more extensive and hidden nuclear program than Iraq or Syria did. Still, a U.S. military strike on it could follow the same pattern. It has taken Tehran several decades and tens of billions of dollars to get this far with its nuclear program, and the government might well be reluctant to invest billions and decades more to recreate a program that could be destroyed again in a matter of days. Nuclear scientists – those who survived military action, and prospective new ones – might be reluctant to work in facilities that will be attacked again. This would especially be the case if it was clear U.S. military action wasn’t confined to a few days or weeks, but was could be carried out over a period of time necessary to ensure all relevant facilities were disabled or destroyed. Military action would likely also serve as a warning to other countries not to pursue nuclear weapons.
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The military option. If the scenario of military strikes is excluded, it will not necessarily mean than international pressure will stop, as the follow-up of the 2007 U.S. NIE has shown. UNSC Resolution 1803 was still adopted in March 2008, with more sanctions and only one abstention (Indonesia). But with this important option off the table, Iran will feel free to continue defying the international community in some way, shape, or form, particularly if eff ective sanctions are not adopted (see the earlier point on refined products). Iran's nuclear military program will go on. The world may well have to decide—and the West in particular, its reluctance notwithstanding—whether it prefers a nuclear-armed Iran or a military operation. It is doubtful that the American people will allow another military operation at a time when so much is going wrong in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. That said, if a military action means trouble for months or even years, an Iranian bomb would certainly mean trouble for decades. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to think twice before the choice is made. If there is one region where deterrence should not be tested, it is the Middle East. And Iran has to worry as well, because if it goes nuclear, not only conventional but also nuclear military buildups will take place in the region, essentially as a counter-reaction to its provocative policy.
The question of knowledge, then, is trivial. It can be bought on the open market. You can buy the truck driver’s book online. What’s important is the infrastructure—very little of which Iran produces on its own.
“The idea that Iran has developed a fully indigenous capacity to produce nukes and has mastered all these engineering and chemical disciplines is very far from true,” says Samuels. “What Iran really has is a 25-year-long campaign of smuggling, stealing, borrowing, and hiring everything that the society can’t generate for itself. I don’t know where the certainty it would only take them a few years to rebuild comes from. There are obviously a lot of other assumptions baked in there. It seems to me more likely that the enormous amount of energy and money they’ve spent the last 25 years is not replicable. Either you can make nukes all on your own or you can’t. The Iranians, unlike industrialized Western powers, can’t.”
The White House’s mantra that you can’t bomb knowledge is simply evidence that it has already accepted an Iranian nuclear bomb. Consequently, the idea that a military strike would set the program back only two or three years is not an assessment based in fact, but a political slogan meant to rally support for the president’s policy decision.
Whether a nation’s nuclear program is indigenous or not, the program is much more vulnerable before it actually produces a bomb. Once it has built a bomb, it is less vulnerable. Which is why it feels safe in producing more bombs.
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Attacking Iran is hardly an attractive prospect. But the United States can anticipate and reduce many of the feared consequences of such an attack. If it does so successfully, it can remove the incentive for other nations in the region to start their own atomic programs and, more broadly, strengthen global nonproliferation by demonstrating that it will use military force to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It can also head off a possible Israeli operation against Iran, which, given Israel’s limited capability to mitigate a potential battle and inflict lasting damage, would likely result in far more devastating consequences and carry a far lower probability of success than a U.S. attack. Finally, a carefully managed U.S. attack would prove less risky than the prospect of containing a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic -- a costly, decades-long proposition that would likely still result in grave national security threats. Indeed, attempting to manage a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a terrible option but the worst. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down and the United States facing economic hardship at home, Americans have little appetite for further strife. Yet Iran’s rapid nuclear development will ultimately force the United States to choose between a conventional conflict and a possible nuclear war. Faced with that decision, the United States should conduct a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, absorb an inevitable round of retaliation, and then seek to quickly de-escalate the crisis. Addressing the threat now will spare the United States from confronting a far more dangerous situation in the future.
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Years of international pressure have failed to halt Iran’s attempt to build a nuclear program. The Stuxnet computer worm, which attacked control systems in Iranian nuclear facilities, temporarily disrupted Tehran’s enrichment effort, but a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency this past May revealed that the targeted plants have fully recovered from the assault. And the latest IAEA findings on Iran, released in November, provided the most compelling evidence yet that the Islamic Republic has weathered sanctions and sabotage, allegedly testing nuclear triggering devices and redesigning its missiles to carry nuclear payloads. The Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit research institution, estimates that Iran could now produce its first nuclear weapon within six months of deciding to do so. Tehran’s plans to move sensitive nuclear operations into more secure facilities over the course of the coming year could reduce the window for effective military action even further. If Iran expels IAEA inspectors, begins enriching its stockpiles of uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, or installs advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom, the United States must strike immediately or forfeit its last opportunity to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club.
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 ]