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A Nuclear Iran - Revisited

Mitchel B. Wallerstein

In the five-year period since the publication of the special Syracuse Law Review symposium, much has changed and nothing has changed with respect to the Iranian nuclear weapons capability.  From a technical standpoint, Iran has continued to expand and improve its uranium enrichment capability, despite various covert efforts to use computer worms and other techniques to slow their progress.  From a diplomatic standpoint, the on-again/off-again multi-party talks on the Iranian nuclear program remain stalled, though the state parties met recently but failed to reach any breakthroughs.

At the same time, the Obama administration, together with the European 3 (Germany, France and the U.K.), have led a largely successful, multi-national effort to impose substantially tougher economic sanctions on Iran for its failure to answer the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) questions about—and grant access to—its restricted (and in some cases, clandestine) nuclear facilities, many of which it claims are closed military bases.  While it is too soon to know the actual impact of the new sanctions, which will among other things deny Iranian banks access to the global clearance system, it is already evident that the Iranian economy has been significantly affected and the value of the Iranian currency has plummeted.  But the question remains: will this added pressure be enough to finally get Iran to enter into serious negotiations to end its clandestine nuclear weapons development program—and if it is not, are the available military options any more viable now than they were five years ago?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have continued to assert, very publicly, that an Iran in possession of a nuclear weapon would represent an “existential threat” to the State of Israel, which simply cannot be tolerated.   In 2012, the Israeli rhetoric—and equally bellicose Iranian responses—have contributed to a significant ratcheting up of world anxiety about a possible Israeli air strike on the known Iranian nuclear facilities.  This, in turn, has resulted in a dramatic increase in world oil prices, due to worries that Iran may attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz should its nuclear facilities be attacked.

From a military perspective, the challenges that either Israeli or U.S. forces would face in mounting a successful mission to degrade, if not destroy, the known Iranian nuclear development facilities remain every bit as daunting as they were five years ago—and, in many respects, perhaps they are even more so.   During the intervening period, Iran has sought to improve its air defenses, and it appears to have dispersed its nuclear program to more sites, thereby complicating the targeting challenge.  But perhaps most importantly, Iran has developed a hardened, underground facility at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, where it has established a uranium enrichment program that reportedly is some 80 meters underground.  While above-ground facilities at Natanz, Isfahan, Parchin and other sites should be vulnerable to attack with the heavy ordnance known to be possessed by the Israelis, it is far less certain that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has the capability to destroy a deeply buried underground facility—especially when the distance that Israeli fighter aircraft must travel to reach their targets is so great that they likely would be able to mount only a single sortie. 

U.S. military capabilities and delivery options are, of course, much more varied and robust.  They include the new GBU-57 “Massive Ordnance Penetrator” bomb, which reportedly weighs some 14 tons and could be delivered by long-range bomber, as well as both conventional, inter-continental and submarine-launched cruise missiles.  Yet, even with these enhanced capabilities and much larger array of delivery options, most experts believe that it would require multiple sorties by the U.S. military to degrade, much less destroy, the most hard-to-reach targets.  And there is wide agreement that the Iranian government would be able to reconstitute the lost capabilities within two to four years at most.  There is also the additional complication that the international intelligence community lacks confidence that it has full knowledge of the location of all of the nuclear-related work that the Iranian government has underway or under development (e.g., the excavation and construction of the underground facility near Qom was only discovered by reconnaissance satellites a few years ago).

Beyond the significant military questions that arise in connection with targeting and successfully attacking the known Iranian sites, it is necessary to consider the likely Iranian military response to such actions.  Iranian government officials at the highest levels have already announced their intention to (a) attack U.S. and allied navy ships, military facilities, and military personnel in or adjacent to the Persian Gulf; (b) attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tanker traffic (which accounts for about 35% of the world’s seaborne oil supplies); (c) undertake terrorist attacks in the U.S. and other countries similar to attacks against Israeli targets that occurred recently in Bangkok and New Delhi; and (d) attack Israel using intermediate range missiles.  While it is likely that the U.S. and Israel could cope with these contingencies, they are almost certain to cause severe economic repercussions, including a likely immediate doubling of the price of oil, and social chaos.

This begs the basic question: given that it is essentially impossible to destroy completely the Iranian nuclear program, is the two to four year “respite” that would result from a military attack worth the costs when the likely Iranian military responses and global economic and social impacts are factored in?  And even this formulation of the problem is inadequate in many respects because it fails to take into account the foreign policy impacts in the Middle East and the larger Islamic world of the U.S. and/or Israel attacking yet another Muslim country, even if the attack is limited only to Iran’s nuclear facilities and does not involve “boots on the ground.”

The fact of the matter is that the Iranians have not yet—and may not—advance their military nuclear program into what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has called the “zone of immunity,” wherein they are actually enriching uranium above the 20% level, which is considered to be the technical threshold to eventual 90% enrichment, which is needed for a Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) bomb.  And it is also possible that the new round of economic sanctions just being implemented may finally force Iran to engage in serious multilateral negotiations as they are squeezed economically and their ability to conduct international banking and trade is highly constrained.  But even if the new sanctions fail to bring the Iranians to the bargaining table, a U.S. and/or Israeli military attack at this time seems neither smart nor strategic, because it has the potential to drag both countries into a new conflict in the Persian Gulf and to unleash a new round of anti-western Islamic reaction with all of the attendant risks of terrorism, both in the Middle East and in the U.S.

Moreover, there are still other options that can be pursued even if diplomacy continues to fail, including enhanced anti-missile and anti-aircraft defenses and an explicit strategy of “containment,” much like the one used successfully for decades against the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.  This would involve encircling Iran with multilateral air, land and naval forces, and making clear that any attempt to threaten or intimidate U.S. and European friends and allies in the Persian Gulf, or the larger Southwest Asian region would be met with a swift military response. 

At the same time, it is difficult to contest the Israeli argument that there are certain “red lines” that Iran should not be allowed to cross. Iran demonstrably in possession of nuclear weapons would be almost certain to set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.  These “red lines” would necessarily involve evidence of steps similar to those undertaken by North Korea when it crossed the nuclear weapons threshold—namely, withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and barring of inspections by the IAEA, evidence of uranium enrichment above the 20% level, testing of a nuclear device, and testing of medium or long range delivery vehicles.  At the present time, it appears unlikely that the Iranians will take these dramatic steps because of the economic and military consequences they are likely to engender.  Instead, in the absence of regime change, Iran seems likely to continue to maintain purposeful ambiguity regarding its nuclear weapons intentions and capabilities for as long as possible.  So, as noted at the outset, in the last five years much has changed – but nothing has changed.