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The Iranian Nuclear Threat

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A Military Option Against Iran is Fraught with Problems

February 20th 2008

Israeli Air Force
Israeli Air Force Jets

Iran’s determination to build and operate a uranium-enrichment plant poses difficult problems for those concerned about Iran acquiring a nuclear capability that could threaten its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf or Israel. The best approach for arresting Iran’s progress toward becoming a nuclear-weapon state is through a combination of creative diplomacy, sustained international pressure expressed primarily through targeted economic sanctions, and patience.


The threat that Iran could acquire a nuclear weapons capability if it remains on its present course is a serious one, regardless of how many years it might take them. Increasingly central to the debate about what to do is the issue of military force, whether and when it should be used and what it might achieve. An attack against Iran, large or small, is likely to worsen the already dangerous situation in the region and undermine larger U.S. strategic objectives throughout the world. Short of an invasion and occupation of Iran, an option no one is advocating, an attack on Iran is also a false promise because it offers no assurances that an Iranian nuclear weapons program would be substantially or irreversibly set back.

President George W. Bush, while apparently content for now to let diplomacy do its work, may not intend to leave office with Iran’s existing gas-centrifuge program intact and operating. Most recently, he warned that a nuclear Iran could “lead to World War III.” Vice President Dick Cheney stated in an October 22 speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the United States and other nations are “prepared to impose serious consequences” on Iran if it maintains its present course, adding, “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”


Israel’s recent bombing of an alleged nuclear reactor site under construction in Syria has reminded Washington and Tehran that Israel could attack Iran on its own if it believes that diplomacy has failed and that Iran is on the verge of having a nuclear weapons capability. The Bush administration, rather than allowing Israel to act on its own and knowing the United States would be subject to retaliation as well, may be pushed to launch an attack itself.


Two options for military attacks are often discussed. One involves air attacks against sites affiliated with Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, in particular those near Arak, Isfahan, and Natanz. The other involves launching a wider aerial attack across Iran targeting actual and suspected nuclear facilities, as well as military command and control, missile production and storage sites, and retaliatory capabilities. Setting aside the merits, costs, and risks of these approaches from military and political perspectives, it is important to examine the more narrow issue of what impact such strikes would have on Iran’s nuclear program.


Targeted strikes against the sites affiliated with Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle would certainly set back for a number of years Iran’s heavy-water reactor construction project at Arak and its ability to convert large amounts of uranium ore to uranium hexafluoride at Isfahan. They would also likely destroy Iran’s centrifuge plant at Natanz, notwithstanding its hardening against such attacks.

But the survivability of an Iranian nuclear weapons program does not rest entirely on those sites--knowledge and experience are transferable, centrifuges are replicable.  Iran could rapidly reconstitute its gas centrifuge efforts elsewhere at smaller, secret sites if it has not already begun to do so. More importantly, sites affiliated with the design and manufacture of centrifuges, the brain and heart of any centrifuge program, have been off limits to IAEA inspectors for over a year and may no longer be known to U.S. and Israeli intelligence.

Before the 2003-2005 enrichment suspension, Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing complex was highly dispersed in a variety of Defense Industries Organization facilities, companies owned by the enrichment program, and small private companies contracted to make specific parts. Any of these companies could still be involved, or a whole new set of unknown companies could be engaged in making centrifuge components. Intelligence about this vital part of the program is sparse absent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring of an enrichment suspension agreement and Tehran’s adherence to an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the agency

It should be assumed that Iran would remove key equipment and materials from its known nuclear sites in anticipation of an attack and may already maintain redundant capabilities for key centrifuge components. Iran’s uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan has already produced more than 330 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride, all of which is under IAEA safeguards. Given that fewer than 10 tons of this material is sufficient to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium, Iran needs only to ensure that less than 10 percent of its stock survives any raids in order to have enough material to make three nuclear weapons. In anticipation of military strikes, Iran could quickly move much of its uranium hexafluoride to safe sites, and some could find its way to a covert enrichment facility. Similarly, Iran could quickly evacuate key equipment, any enriched uranium, and components from Natanz.

In short, destroying the facilities without the equipment and materials would not set back the enrichment part of the program significantly. Moreover, rather than possibly delaying or making it impossible for Tehran to carry out a final decision to make nuclear weapons, an attack might force the Iranian leadership’s hand. Iran would almost certainly kick out IAEA inspectors and, freed of any international restraints, might well accelerate any weaponization efforts, launching a Manhattan Project-style undertaking in defense of the homeland. In such a case, the United States would likely be forced to launch and sustain a long, costly war against Iran.


In the case that the United States launched a broader attack, causing far more destruction of Iranian infrastructure and disruption of the leadership’s ability to retaliate, the United States would be faced with the same problem. There would simply be no assurance that Iran’s ability to make nuclear explosive material would be significantly curtailed as long as it possessed covert facilities or the means to build and operate them. Finding them would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.


This analysis leaves aside the other obvious, well-discussed downsides to a military attack against Iran, including the human costs, larger issues of its ramifications for U.S. interests in the region and the situation in Iraq, and increased instability throughout the Middle East as Iran retaliates, which it is fully expected to do. In addition, an attack would not only bring an end to the system of IAEA safeguards inspections in Iran but would dramatically reduce their credibility throughout the Middle East.


Not surprisingly, many U.S. military leaders have deep reservations about attacking Iran. Admiral William Fallon, current head of U.S. Central Command, said, “The constant drum beat of conflict is what strikes me, which is not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war and that is what we ought to be working for.” Later, in an interview with The New York Times, he said, “We will pursue avenues that might result in some kind of improvement in Iranian behavior,” including “a strategy to demonstrate our resolve.”


At all costs, the false promise of military strikes should be avoided. They could plunge the Middle East and the United States into a far worse war and make an Iranian bomb a certainty.


David Albright, a physicist, is president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, D.C., and a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq. Jacqueline Shire, a senior analyst at ISIS, was a foreign affairs officer at the Department of State between 1990 and 1998. This article originally appeared in Arms Control Today published by the Arms Control Association, a non-profit, membership-based 5013c organization. If you find their resources useful, please consider joining or making a contribution. More information be found at http://www.armscontrol.org.

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