A diverse crowd, including Pat Buchanan’s American Spectator and Sy Hersh at the New Yorker, news outlets have been reporting signs of an imminent strike on Iran for a couple years now. The most recent stir was caused by German reporter Udo Ulfkotte, who claimed US officials were briefing our allies in Europe about plans for a military strike on Iran.
A lot of this rhetoric has been overheated. (Bill Arkin recently wrote a thoughtful post on the how strike planning has changed under the Bush Administration.)
Still, folks in the United States defense establishment have clearly begun to at least think about what a military option against Iran’s nuclear programs might look like. Newsweek recently reported “the CIA and DIA have war-gamed the likely consequences of a U.S. pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.”
In this post, I outline the parameters, challenges and prospects for a strike designed to eliminate just Iran’s nuclear programs. Overall, I think the prospects for a strike are mixed—a properly timed strike might delay Iran’s program by a few years, although there are good reasons to think that the long-term result of a strike would be to worsen America’s security.
What would a Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities Look Like?
Conventional wisdom states that Iran’s facilities are too dispersed to permit a strike like the one Israel conducted against Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981. (The Osiraq story is quite a bit more complicated than you might think.)
Iran’s facilities are more dispersed, but some key assets are probably quite vulnerable to an airstrike.
The Atlantic Monthly conducted a wargame that including plans for a strike. The Atlantic Monthly game envisioned a strike against “125 targets associated with nuclear and chemical and biological storage/production facilities” in Iran including “10 nuclear R&D site targets.” The total was about 300 aim points requiring about 20 penetrating weapons.
(The PowerPoint Slides are online in .pdf format.)
One can better understand the small target set for Iran’s nuclear facilities by looking at the list of facilities that Iran has declared (in some cases, under duress) to the IAEA:
List of Locations Releveant to the Implementation of the [IAEA] Safeguards
|LOCATION||AS OF NOVEMBER 2003||STATUS|
|TEHRAN NUCLEAR RESEARCH CENTRE||Tehran Research Reactor (TRR)||Operating|
|Molybdenum, Iodine and Xenon Radioisotope Production Facility (MIX Facility)||Constructed, but not
|*Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Laboratories (JHL)||Operating|
|*Waste Handling Facility (WHF)||Operating|
|TEHRAN||*<a href="http://www.isis-online.org/publications/iran/kalayeelectric.html||Dismantled”>Kalaye Electric Company pilot enrichment facility|
|BUSHEHR||Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP)||Under construction|
|ESFAHAN NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY CENTRE||Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR)||Operating|
|Light Water Sub-Critical Reactor (LWSCR)||Operating|
|Heavy Water Zero Power Reactor (HWSPR)||Operating|
|Fuel Fabrication Laboratory (FFL)||Operating|
|Uranium Chemistry Laboratory (UCL)||Closed down|
|Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF)||Under construction, first process units being commissioned for operation|
|Graphite Sub-Critical Reactor (GSCR)||Decommissioned|
|*Fuel Manufacturing Plant (FMP)||In detailed design stage, construction to begin in 2004|
|NATANZ||*Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP)||Operating|
|*Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP)||Under construction|
|KARAJ||*Radioactive Waste Storage||Under construction, but partially operating|
|LASHKAR AB’AD||*Pilot Uranium Laser Enrichment||Plant Dismantled|
|ARAK||*Iran Nuclear Research Reactor (IR-40)||In detailed design phase|
|*Hot cell facility for production of radioisotopes||In preliminary design stage|
|*Heavy Water Production Plant (HWPP)||Under construction Not subject to Safeguards Agreement|
|ANARAK||*Waste storage site||Waste to be transferred to JHL|
*Locations declared in 2003
Most of these facilities are quite vulnerable to airstrikes—including the Uranium Conversion Facility at Esfahan and the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz.
A major complication in strike planning concerns undeclared sites. Iran did not declare a facility at Parchin that David Albright and Corey Hinderstein believe “is a logical candidate for a nuclear weapons-related site, particularly one involved in researching and developing high explosive components for an implosion-type nuclear weapon.” Iran also did not declare a facility at Lavizan-Shian: When the site was revealed, the facility was bulldozed and the grounds scraped, possibly to defeat IAEA environmental sampling.
The existence of these facilities raises the questions of whether or not Iran has a parallel program of separate facilities. The evidence for separate facilities is sketchy. After Dafna Linzer reported that the revised NIE on Iran’s nuclear capabilities reflects “a fading of suspicions that Iran’s military has been running its own separate and covert enrichment effort,” a State Department official explained the distinction in some detail to Paul:
The State Department official added that Iran’s military is involved in the government’s nuclear weapons program in several other ways but did not elaborate. However, the official said that the military appears to be focused on activities such as organization, procurement, and funding. The United States does not know whether the military has been constructing nuclear facilities the official said, but added that there is no evidence of a “brick and mortar building” producing fissile material.
That said, the Robb-Silberman report identified shortcomings in intelligence related to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. DNI Negroponte just acted on one of the Commission’s recommendations, appointing S. Leslie Ireland as mission manager for Iran. But much of the problem appears to be lack of human intelligence related to the lack of living
and breathing assets in Iran.
The parallel program issue is the reason that some folks, including Michael Eisenstadt,, have been skeptical of the prospects for a military strike.
Natanz: Illustrative Scenario
This is an image of Iran’s centrifuge facility near Natanz. The boxes show the location of Iran’s underground bunkers for the Fuel Enrichment Plant.
Destroying this facility should not be difficult. Although the bunkers are buried, the exact locations are well know from images captured during construction.
Incidentally, Israel is in the process of buying 100 GBU 28s from the United States. A coincidence, I am sure.
The problem with hitting the Natanz facility is that, at this point, it is basically a pair of empty bunkers—Iran’s centrifuge components are stored elsewhere and would probably be moved in the event of an impending airstrike.
That raises an interesting question of whether it might be a better idea to let Iran install the centrifuges before striking the facility. The alternative is hitting every warehouse in Iran .
Esfahan: Illustrative Scenario
The Uranium Conversion Facility is large, vulnerable building—it appears to be the long building below the large smoke stack.
Esfahan has another feature, however, that suggests a serious problem. North of the facility, there are a pair of roads that clearly reveal entrances to tunnels within the mountain. (Der Spiegel claimed the tunnels housed a secret Uranium Conversion Facility.)
Unlike the underground bunkers are Natanz, I am not sure the IC has any idea what is in those tunnels or their precise location beneath the mountain.
Prospects for Success
I don’t think there is any doubt that the United States could delay Iran’s program by a couple of years, particularly if Iran had to rebuilt its Uranium Conversion Facility and Fuel Enrichment Plants (probably much deeper underground the second time).
There is certainly no reason to launch a strike now, with Iran’s program several years off and many facilities not yet complete. As the cases of Natanz and Esfahan illustrate, a strike now would be conducted with more uncertainty than I would like.
That might buy some additional time—but for what?
The result will likely be an Iranian nuclear program outside of IAEA safeguards. An Iranian bomb is not, yet, a foregone conclusion. The degree to which Iran’s nuclear program has become an element of the country’s domestic politics suggests that fissures exist within Iranian elites that create space for negotiations. Those fissures might be quite severe, as suggested by a curious incident recently when Iranian delegates didn’t show up for a meeting with IAEA DG ElBaradei. If I had to guess, the Iranians missed the meeting because they were probably riven internally and couldn’t.
If that’s true, an airstrike now would probably unite Iranians, galvanizing support for a bomb program. Our information about Iran’s bomb program after a strike would likely be much less complete than it is now, having had the benefit of several years of intense IAEA scrutiny.
Other folks have wondered if the risk from an Iranian fuel cycle under IAEA safeguards might not be better than a much larger crisis that could arise from an initial set of limited airstrikes.
Newsweek reports that participants have not been pleased with the outcome of airstrikes in IC sponsored wargames. An Air Force source told Newsweek that “The war games were unsuccessful at preventing the conflict from escalating.”
This is essentially the same outcome in the Atlantic Monthly game. Writing in the New Republic, my friend Mike Mazarr (who played SECDEF) expressed some very serious concerns about escalation:
Iranian leaders would have very real reasons to respond to “surgical” strikes with an all-out assault on U.S. interests designed to provoke the sort of decisive clash that everyone assumes Iran wants to avoid. And the resulting conflict would have far worse consequences for the United States than Iran’s ability to create weapons-grade nuclear material.
All and all, at least for now, I think it’s best to keep talking.