Joshua PollackOn Bombing the Bomb

This morning’s Washington Post features an op-ed on Iran policy by former U.S. Senator Charles (Chuck) Robb and retired U.S. Air Force general Charles (Chuck) Wald. It’s a serious, earnest statement, but also seriously flawed.

The gist of what The Two Chucks have to say is this: we cannot “compel Iran to terminate its nuclear program” unless we threaten to bomb it. Only if we do threaten to bomb it — in addition to imposing sanctions and holding the door open to diplomacy — will we have any real hope of success. This shift to a “triple-track strategy” must be made swiftly, because Iran “could achieve nuclear weapons capability before the end of this year.”

Call it the “Say it with JDAMs“ school of nonproliferation diplomacy. Unfortunately, it overlooks a couple of the key puzzle pieces needed to understand the situation.


First and most importantly, you can bomb an enrichment facility, but you can’t bomb an enrichment program. (Or not one as well-developed as Iran’s.) It’s not like a reactor, with billions of dollars’ worth of hard-to-replace capital piled up in one spot over the course of several years. Instead, it’s thousands of interchangeable pieces that can be brought together and operated more or less anywhere.

To illustrate the point, here’s an interior view from Iran’s centrifuge facility at Natanz:

Any one of those centrifuges — the tall, silvery tubes in the picture — and the piping connecting them can be replaced in short order.

What’s more, the entire complex could be buried in wreckage, and the centrifuge workshops would simply start sending their products to a different location.

Bomb the workshops — if you are lucky enough to locate them — and new workshops could be set up before very long.

Following this line of reasoning leads you to a realization that Iran’s capacity for precision engineering would have to be bombed somehow. That’s not a problem with a solution.


Second, Robb and Wald are mistaken about when Iran will achieve “nuclear weapons capability.” The Iranians could start producing highly-enriched uranium for bombs before you go to bed tonight. They could have started years ago, in fact. That they have not done so, as far as anyone knows, renders the art and science of timeline-ology, as Robb and Wald are practicing it, more or less moot.

(It helps to recall that the timelines sometimes discussed by representatives of the Intelligence Community reflect features such as how much time it takes to set up a new clandestine facility like the one at Qom, as opposed to anything special happening at the big showpiece facility at Natanz.)


Perhaps you’re wondering: So if we can’t bomb their enrichment program, why haven’t the Iranians already started making bomb material? What’s holding them in check?

One possibility is, maybe they’ve decided they don’t want to, or feel they don’t need to.

A second possibility is, they think the price of forging ahead would be too high. The sanctions are bad enough as it is.

A third and related possibility is that they think that the price might involve not just the bombing of an enrichment facility here or an air defense system there, but a much more comprehensive sort of attack, one that would threaten the regime’s grip on power.

Here is where we might start a different sort of conversation about the utility of threats. As Tom Schelling pointed out some decades ago, threats are much more useful for trying to deter action than for trying to compel action. After all, if Iran were to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or kick out inspectors, then they would have crossed a line, not the other side. It is much easier to justify the use of force in response to a grave provocation than in terms of a technological timeline generated with a spreadsheet somewhere, and subject to a variety of assumptions.

In the meantime, certain advantages accrue to the United States and its allies from not dropping JDAMs. One is that the international community can continue to monitor Iran’s nuclear programs, albeit not as well as it should. To start bombing would probably mean losing that access, since the Iranians would probably respond by leaving the NPT and rebuilding their centrifuge facilities in secret somewhere. In short, the real Iran “nuclear timeline” has to do with leadership decision-making more than technical milestones. Bombing might well accelerate that timeline, not slow it.


  1. hass (History)

    You can’t bomb a program, you also can’t bomb a hypothetical capability to do something in the indefinite futurem and thus far that’s all Iran is accused of doing: obtaining the theoretical capability to make a nuke at sometime. The same could be said for 40 other countries right now, and more to come. It took Pakistan of the1960s and 70s just 5 years to make a bomb. If the Iranians wanted a bomb they would have had one by now. They have instead repeatedly offered to voluntarily place addition restrictions on their nuclear program that go well beyond any legal obligation, such as the offer to open the program to multinational participation (which would effectively make it impossible for them to secretly divert the program to make bombs.) So, why all the talk that supposedly the “only option” in dealing with Iran is bombings? Because this conflict really has nothing to do with nukes and that’s just a pretext, as WMDs in Iraq were pretextual. So the technical facts of nuke programs in Iran make no real difference to the issue.

  2. A3

    Let me offer a few additional points for consideration.

    Regarding the notion that Iran “could achieve a nuclear weapons capability before the end of this year.”

    I have news for the Chucks. Iran has that capability now, and they have had it for a long time; long before they ever amassed 1000 kg of LEU. All Iran has ever needed are centrifuges, UF6, and time — and the U.S. seems to be giving Iran plenty of the latter with its weak engagement strategy .

    Second: Why hasn’t Iran made a bomb? Well, let’s look at the boundary conditions:

    Although Iran can make a bomb, doing so now would only invite attack. Iran can’t make a bomb fast enough to render an attack futile; current estimates are that it would take Iran about a year just to generate the necessary HEU. To make a weapon’s worth of HEU faster than an attack could be planned would require either a commercial-sized plant or a covert one. As we have seen in IAEA reporting, Iran’s on-lining of centrifuges has stalled and efforts to replace IR-1s with second- and third-generation machines are underway, so there is clearly no concerted effort to build a commercial-size plant immediately. As for a covert plant, my guess is that Iran doubts its ability to keep things secret after the U.S. and others found Qom so readily.

    In short, Iran knows that now is not the time, and that attack would be forthcoming if it tried. It does not need the U.S. or Israel to articulate this, and doing so won’t serve any purpose. That also means there is no need to attack Iran now. We can wait it out and make the most of negotiations and rapprochement in the mean time. Certainly can’t hurt.

    What about attacking ‘preemptively’ just to get this problem out of the way? That’s no good either. Not only is it unnecessary, it would be counterproductive because (1) it would incentivize and justify a nuclear weapon, just as Osirak resulted in a concerted effort by Iraq to make a weapon; and (2) for all the reasons Josh mentions above, attacking now would just drive the program further underground leading to whack-a-mole counterproliferation games.

    Those are the ‘structural’ reasons, but I think there is a far more important factor that we tend to forget. Iran probably has no immediate reason to build a weapon. There is little doubt that Iran had a nuclear-weapon program. It started shortly after the Iran-Iraq war, a war in which Iran suffered horrific attacks with chemical weapons from its immediate enemy and neighbor. It did not start the program in response to Israel’s nuclear weapons, which have existed since circa 1960, nor in response to U.S. enmity, which has never threatened to be militarily existential. The most probable explanation is the real and serious threat Iran had on its border.

    In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam, and thereby neutralized that threat. Lo and behold, the 2007 NIE tells us that Iran terminated its weaponization program in 2003. Coincidence? I doubt it. Clearly, Iran would like to maintain the option to have a nuclear weapon, as does several dozen other countries. We ought to be able to live with that, provided we can convince ourselves that Iran is not feeling existential threats. Perhaps the best place to start, then, is by talking to Iran, no to threaten it with JDAMs.

  3. bradley laing (History)

    —-Is this the right place to ask for more information about the arrest of a Russian Wonk?

    —-(In these comments section, I mean.)

    Mr.[Igor V.]Sutyagin, who was arrested in 1999, was one of the most prominent in a series of academics who were put on trial in Russia for spying. The academics’ defenders called the charges fraudulent, saying that the F.S.B., the main successor to the K.G.B., was trying to reassert itself under Mr. Putin by creating a spy mania.

    The arrests were seen as a warning signal from the security services that working with foreigners was dangerous.

  4. Dr. Strangelove (History)

    Well said. But you’re mistaken in one tiny aspect: “The Iranians could start producing highly-enriched uranium for bombs before you go to bed tonight.” That is not correct. To step from HEU with 20% of 235U to HEU with more than 90% 235U the Iranians have to rearrange their cascades and to change the piping. That would cost them some weeks or a few months. Also they had to change the cylinders containing the product (UF6) because the cylinders for LEU or HEU with not more than 20% 235U would be too big and could eventually become critical. So if you want to know what sort of enriched uranium they are producing just check the cylinders.:-)

  5. Anne Bazuin (History)

    The present Iranian regime is developing nuclear bombs and rockets carrying nuclear warheads. Economical and financial sanctions may slow down the development, but will not stop this. Early experiments with radioactivity were started by the Curies in1898 and nuclear warfare started, and ended, in august 1945. Since than, there is some sort of nuclear equilibrium. The Iranian regime should know that when they start a nuclear war, this may lead to the destruction of their country.
    Anne Bazuin 10 juli 2010

  6. Nick (History)

    Talk of a threat of military strike is a violation of UN Charter Article 2 paragraph 4, but unfortunately like many other treaties that we don’t like, we ignore it and DC officials boast about its existence as the only choice to deal with Iran. Don’t make any mistakes about it, hitting Natanz would be a declaration of war by US. Incidentally, it will be recorded in the history books as the largest and most populated country US has ever attacked, including individual countries during the two big wars.

    All of this threat mongering to wipe out Natanz will at most delay enrichment by one year. The reason Fordo site was initiated was for exactly the same reason, to show that the delay will be shortened from 3 years to probably around 1. And how many other sites are there? Ancillary R&D sites are scattered all over city of Tehran with more than 15 million people, are we to believe that we can hit those sites and avoid civilian causalities.

    November election is around the corner and Iran bashing is fashionable in Washington. After all that is the only thing both sides of the isle fully agree on.

  7. M Ahmed (History)


    Would taking out Iran’s Uranium Conversion and UF6 production plant help in seriously disrupting its enrichment program?

  8. Chris Nelson (History)

    Adult supervision at its best. “Pair” this with Lugar’s evisceration of Romney on START. Good work Josh! Chris

  9. Carey Sublette

    Fourth possibility: they are not ready yet.

    Breaking out into nuclear weapons production is a fateful irrevocable step and they likely feel a need to have “all their ducks in a row” – the ability to move rapidly to field a credible deterrent force. The kind that would prevent “a much more comprehensive sort of attack”.

    I have always argued on the Iran issue that timeline-ology as usually practiced is nonsense. There is no special or predictable milestone when Iran will pass the point of “no return” when they go nuclear.

    Iran has successfully acquired a nuclear weapons option – this was the true point of no return, now well in the past – which they will not relinquish, although it may be possible to keep them from exercising it.

    But they will insist on keeping the option, and the passage of time only strengthens it. They can afford to “make haste” slowly.

  10. amir

    That’s a good point, I think it is a kind of equation, if the price that Iran is paying while it is not building the Bomb exceed from a certain point then probably it start building the Bomb. I mean if West press Iran with Sanction, Bombardment and other punishment more and more then there would be no logical Reason for Iran to not build the Bomb

  11. Josh (History)

    M Ahmed asks about uranium conversion facilities. I would have tried to address this, but the post was getting long and I was running out of time.

    I’m not sure if there’s much of a literature out there on the detectability of such facilities. But just as a point of comparison, if we can trust reports that North Korea sent UF6 to Pakistan, that raises the question of where their U conversion facility with a UF6 line might be. (There’s no known UF6 line at Yongbyon.) It seems that we don’t know.

    Nick raises the question of the legality of threats. This is part of what I mean about the difficulty of justifying the use of force in the absence of a serious provocation. Under those circumstances, it would be difficult to win support, either domestically or internationally. (Note that the UNSC Resolutions are written in such a way to avoid authorizing the use of force.)

    Of course, we should not conflate the opinions of retired officials with those of the government. The President and other senior officials are very careful not to raise the question of the use of force. Clearly, if it were otherwise, Robb and Wald would not have seen any reason to submit this op-ed.

    (I don’t think that stating that “All options are on the table,” as the Secretary of Defense has done, is specific or overt enough to constitute a threat; it’s more like a statement of the obvious.)

    Carey raises the issue of readiness. This points back to the questions of weaponization R&D and the “how many SQs are enough” question. Perhaps also to the issue of the preparation of new sites. One could try, as the IC has done, to build a timeline based on some of these factors, sprinkling in certain assumptions about leadership outlook in Tehran. Perhaps needless to say, it’s not a comfortable situation.

  12. George William Herbert (History)

    In terms of other facilities –

    There are a lot of significant holes in the ground (underground complexes) in Iran. Many many smaller bunkers, and a fair number of larger tunnel entrances. If one feels like playing amateur sleuth one can spend some time looking for the less well concealed among them on Google Earth and get reasonably good results.

    The hard part is figuring out which, if any, are associated with the nuclear program. For that, we need either insane luck, leaks from inside Iran, or national-grade external intelligence programs.

    The worst credible case is that most of the new big holes dug since Natanz went online are space intended for use as additional buried enrichment sites. Worst worst case is that there are already centrifuges spinning in some or all of them.

    Whether the actual situation is that bad is unclear. Unfortunately, they have a lot of mountains to tunnel into.

    One additional issue –

    It is possible to terminate a large national nuclear weapons program by bombing. The program doesn’t just depend on factories and technical know-how. It also depends on a functional industrial civilization.

    A ruthless external military intervention short of invasion might, for example, destroy the entire electric power grid (generator stations plus major transformer and transmission lines) and petroleum facilities (both storage and production). Rendering Iran no longer a functional modern industrialized state would terminate their ability to continue the program in short order. I am sure it would violate at least some interpretations of the laws of warfare to do that, but it’s doable in a physical sense, and would not involve killing many people directly. In terms of indirect effects, in some ways what sanctions in Iraq between 91 and 2003 and in North Korea intermittently are similar in magnitude. An awful lot of people suffered and many died due to those. But humanitarian outcry didn’t stop the sanctions.

  13. Josh (History)

    To all:

    I recognize that this is a very difficult topic for many readers. But I feel that it is important to engage the ideas that Sen. Robb and Gen. Wald have put forward on their own terms. So let us please contain our emotional outbursts.

    I have removed some of the more colorful language from some comments, in some cases a little belatedly.

  14. Allen Thomson (History)

    Perhaps inspired by George William Herbert’s post about lots of significant holes in the ground in Iran, I’m reminded of a question:

    Among the proliferators proven and suspected, Iran seems to be the only one to have chosen the HEU-only route, at least so far. Why is that, and what are the chances there’s a parallel plutonium program that’s gone undetected? Remember, the al Kibar alleged plutonium production reactor in Syria went unrecognized for almost six years even though the building was above ground and conspicuous by the oddity of its location.

  15. Norman (History)

    Robb and Wald may be retired officials but Dennis Ross, middle east advisor to the National Security Council, is anything but. Ross was a co-task force member with Wald and Robb on the 2008 Bipartisan Policy Center report ( If one reads that report, it closely corresponds to the recent triple-track US policy: increasing sanctions (and gaining allies to do so) including on refined petroleum and energy, diplomacy insisting on zero uranium enrichment, and displays of military force (e.g. our apparent buildup of naval-marine forces in the Persian Gulf region).
    If the US continues to follow that report as its playbook, the next steps will be an embargo or blockade on gasoline or oil shipments, and that failing, overt military action. (Ross “facilitated” a statement mentioning blockade as an option and signed by Obama representatives in 2008, when he was at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).
    If the 2008 report is truly the US blueprint, then it is significant that the report also rejects international supervision of or any kind of uranium enrichment in Iran, even with enhanced inspections, as not supplying sufficient guarantee against increasing Iranian nuclear capability.
    Isn’t it time for the arms control community to restate the reasons why an internationally supervised nuclear program combined with the Additional Protocol and additional methods of verification is the best possible solution to provide nuclear security without war? This achievable approach seems to be below the radar of our mainstream media and political discourse.

  16. Josh (History)


    The 2008 report is obviously not the blueprint of the Obama Administration’s policy. That is the point of the Robb-Wald op-ed, which calls for adopting it as such.

  17. Allen Thomson (History)

    Responding to an off-line comment, I should say that my question concerning a plutonium track is meant to address the possibility that there’s one not involving the Arak reactor and perhaps closer to operation.

  18. h

    There are some missed points here Joshue:

    1- Building a centrifuge is not absolutely depends on precision engineering for making rotors but it also needs measurement instrument, power amplifier and etc which should have been imported from mostly western sources. There are reports which indicate that each centrifuge is enjoying at least 130 parts which can not be produced domestically and obtaining them getting much harder everyday.

    2- Related to above from engineering point of view manufacturing of accurate and reliable measurement instruments such as pressure gauge and etc is not something which could be done in short notice because of national emergency with crippled ideological management system. We hear about seizing such materials around the world everyday, so setting up a workshop for assembling centrifuge is totally different from having a factory with daily centrifuge output which they don’t have yet. Islamic Republic is not an industrialized country on this issue: it’s “semi” industrialized. This facts applies more or less on ballistic missile program. During WWII Allied put a lot of pressure on Nazi war industry by destroying their bearing production plants and it worked with certain results.

    3- Though they seemed to be good at “hiding” things but as it happened to Ferdu site they are not yet good enough. And as it happened to Iraq after a direct action (1991) and daily readiness to do so, with united gesture more aggressive intelligent gathering means could be used. Also the pressure from less freedom of action will affect their efficiency much more than what predicted.

    4- It is pretty obvious that Islamic Republic currently just gathering the “know how” to reach a certain point when they can do it whenever it wants. I think the answer to “what should we do about Islamic Republic on its nuclear program?” does not lied under the “ how much does it cost preventing them being nuclear?” but I think it can be find under the question “ how much will it cost if they become nuclear?”. In less than a decade we can see NPT fall down in the neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia just like domino. We are hearing same news these days as far as south east Asia about Burma. Islamic Republic with its apocalyptic vision of the world will try not to use it just as deterrence insuring its safety (as they have intended) but after a certain point it will try to use it as a leverage to expand their dominance around the middle east and fixing things that day would be much harder if it could be done at all.

    Also I need to notify Thomas that some analysts believe that the syrian reactor was actually part of Islamic Republic nuclear program and exposed by moles inside that.

    P.S: By the way I am living in Iran, so I can not be assumed natural on this topic. But as a personal life time experience I know they are not reasonable, they are not negotiable and more than everything they are ambitious while dangerously overestimating their power and position.

  19. Josh (History)


    Thanks for the very interesting comment.

    Yes, it is apparent from a variety of criminal cases — most recently in Canada — that acquisition activities for certain components continue, notably including pressure transducers. Unhappily, from my point of view, these activities seem to be succeeding by hook or by crook; enough, in any case, that several thousands of machines have been assembled so far. So unless global export controls become much harder to beat…

  20. Josh (History)


    Thanks for the very interesting comment.

    Yes, it is apparent from a variety of criminal cases — most recently in Canada — that acquisition activities for certain components continue, notably including pressure transducers. Unhappily, from my point of view, these activities seem to be succeeding by hook or by crook; enough, in any case, that several thousands of machines have been assembled so far. So unless global export controls become much harder to beat…

  21. h

    First I need to apologize to everyone for a lot of shameful grammar and dictation mistakes in my last comment; writing down an English comment about a technical subject around 4 A.M is a practice that I shall not try it again.
    But about the effectiveness of sanctions and the abilities of crooks to supply them with required instruments I can not be totally in agree with you. The supplying network before U.S has implied tougher approach around 2006 mostly based on Iranian merchants with dual citizenship whom toke the small risk for the big gain. After several criminal cases which happened during past four years, finding such merchants is getting more difficult because the risk has became too high in comparison to the profit. As an example, I have seen here serious difficulties in acquiring much less sensitive materials such as Caterpillar dozer spare parts during past 2~3 years. Another point is that the diplomacy track which Islamic republic taking in recent years left them nearly no friends around who can afford the risk of getting infected with the same disease by going some kind of proxy shopping. Therefore Islamic Republic everyday has to rely more and more on its diplomatic missions and its officials undercover around the world to access what it needs. What happened to the so called reporter of Islamic Republic National Broadcasting Company in Rome a few months ago is an example. Confining and tracking such people is not an impossible task for counter intelligence sector.
    Please note that foreign merchants who deliver goods at the capital of a hostile government exist only on TV series and movies, though even if there are such people, they need to do the negotiation on foreign soil by so called embassy staffs which can be exposed.

    The whole point is that what Islamic Republic gathered for its nuclear program during past 20 years is not easily replaceable in terms of equipments and instruments.
    What is remained at stake is they already have something between 8000 up to 20000 centrifuge machines. If international community first can stop them from using or even owning such machines in short term and second they seriously seeking a solution for long term the threat can be naturalized. None of those can help us independently. If there is no short term solution, the long term is useless. In my point of view the gap in manufacturing capability for measurement instruments and other imported items can be filled within somehow 4 up to 7 years if Islamic Republic insists on walking the same path after short time solution adapted. Though there is no indication I gauss they may have been already started to fill the gap if they are not too busy with domestic political problems. That’s the time the world has for a long term solution after adapting a short one.
    The most dangerous fact is The West let them go up to 20% enrichment and it was a grave mistake. That is not only sending a wrong message but also letting them advancing more and more faster beyond the red line, even if it’s not seemed too dangerous when you and me using a scientific calculator and a calendar.

  22. Bill Ford (History)

    Mad dogs that believe the Mhadi is coming as a result of a new world war are not going to practice real politik. they are going to try and build the bomb and then use it. Stop them or face worst consequences.

  23. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Also I need to notify Thomas that some analysts believe that the syrian reactor was actually part of Islamic Republic nuclear program and exposed by moles inside that.

    Yeah, I know. The problem is that the idea is plausible but the evidence is lacking.

  24. anonymous (History)

    It keeps me up at night worrying that the Islamic Republic has purposefully idled a large portion of their declared centrifuge capacity and hidden/disguised their higher efficiency (>IR-1 SWP) centrifuges to make it appear it would take several months rather than weeks to produce 2 weapons pits. Assuming a completed warhead development program with warheads just waiting for the pits, what is to stop the Islamic Republic from temporarily blocking or fooling the existing safeguards monitoring equipment (fake video feeds for example) so as in a very short time (two or three weeks) to enrich and then manufacture the one missing link, the pits for the weapons.

    This leads to instant credible threat followed by the rapid full view manufacturing of additional warheads, and leads to the new status quo — multiple weapons in the hands of the current Islamic Republic leadership. As other have commented, this is unlikely to be a stable situation and could lead to a full scale arms race with multiple state actors and possibly a terrorist component.

    I believe that this potential outcome is unacceptable to almost reasonable people not aligned with the current leadership of the Islamic Republic.

    The destruction of the power grid, especially to the sparsely populated underground enrichment facilities, may be the only way to stop such a plan. A sustained campaign against the portion of the rural power grid (the transmission wires) that delivers electricity to known underground sites like Natanz and potential underground sites like Qom might be achievable while sparing the population. The current leadership would use propaganda to claim great hardship for the civilian population, but it could be successful as it would allow the vast majority of Iranians to go on with their daily lives intact and unharmed. It is a humanitarian option that could otherwise spare the world a potential great tragedy if Iranian nuclear weapons were detonated in a population center or used for black mail.

  25. Josh (History)


    I don’t think there’s credible evidence that the Iranians have deliberately made the IR-1s underperform. To the contrary, they have tried to impress the outside world with their capability to the greatest extent possible. And presumably, it will improve with time.

    The clandestine facility problem continues to concern me more than the rapid-breakout-at-Natanz scenario, for a variety of reasons.

  26. anonymous (History)


    The rate of growth of Iranian SWP at Natanz is lower than what one would have estimated by straight lining centrifuge production and installation since the big push in 2007/2008, even assuming IR-1’s. With higher efficiency models, it is far below what one would estimate. Is this deliberate or is it a series of technological difficulties that the Iranian atomic program cannot surmount. I believe that Iran has an excellent nuclear engineering program and I cannot sell them short on their ability to install and operate one or several dispersed world class facilities. So there is risk that there is significant additional capacity in plain view at Natanz sitting idle, or elsewhere in undeclared facilities.

    The tactical strategy of disguising or hiding SWP capacity for use in a breakout would be rational for the current Iranian leadership if nuclear weapons possession was their goal.

    The hypothesis fits Occam’s Razor. And it keeps me up at night.

  27. George William Herbert (History)

    Most recent anonymous’ comments – that a reasonable explanation for the slower increase and/or leveling out of Natanz’ capacity is centrifuges being delivered elsewhere – voice a comment I’ve heard whispered in fear in private.

    No way to know, short of a miracle or national intelligence methods, or another defector. I can’t see through rock.

  28. Sineva (History)

    One of the themes I`ve often seen repeated here is the danger of a nuclear/nuclear armed Iran touching off a regional nuclear arms race,personally I would have thought that if this was going to happen it would have been in the 60`s after Israel was known to have the bomb or at the latest the 70`s,I imagine that there would have been various attempts by the arabs to obtain these weapons/technology but these were failures,in short the arabs learned to live with an israeli bomb probably because they had little other choice in the matter and I imagine that would probably be the case with Iran today,after all just who is going to supply the US vasel states like Egypt or Jordan or Saudi with the technologies for building bombs? Israel,the US,perhaps China or Nth Korea?,as vassel states I would think that their options in that dept would be very limited unless they chose to break with the US,part of the price of being a vassel is that your options/freedoms of action are limited in certain ways.Now I could possibly imagine the Saudis and pakistanis having some secret deal to provide warheads but realistically I don`t think that the pakistanis would be so stupid or reckless to do something like that not after the a q khan scandal.I could possibly imagine the US selling Egypt light water reactors,tho` I doubt Israel would allow that,but I could not for one minute imagine the US allowing Egypt control over the fuel cycle.I`m curious as to what others think about the likely hood of a middle east nuclear arms race

  29. Allen Thomson

    On the notion that there might have an Iranian connection with the alleged Syrian reactor project, this just serendipitously came along:

    Telephone interview with US Ambassador to the IAEA Glyn Davies, by Manal Lutfi; in Vienna; date not given:

    Al-Sharq al-Awsat Online
    Tuesday, July 13, 2010 T12:11:18Z
    Document Type: OSC Translated Text


    (Lutfi) Do you suspect a link between the Dayr al-Zawr reactor and Syrian-Iranian cooperation?

    (Davies) I do not think this is where the problem lies. We have no information in this regard. However, the problem here is North Korea’s role in building the Dayr al-Zawr reactor. We are convinced that Syria is working illegally with North Korea to circumvent the nuclear non-proliferation system. There are some very important questions, especially for the region if a country suddenly and secretly starts to cooperate with a rogue state, that is North Korea, which has withdrawn from the nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty in a secret effort to acquire nuclear capabilities. This will lead to a series of questions toward Syria over the reason why they are doing it secretly.

  30. Mark Gubrud


    What is the evidence for your contention that the al-Kibar site remained undetected (and unidentified) until shortly before its destruction? My own unsupported guesswork is that Syria received a Stop Work order from Uncle Sam pretty early on, and that the project was dormant when bombed by Israel (mainly as a political statement). I’ll give up on that hypothesis as soon as I see any evidence that it is incorrect.

  31. mamadali

    I agree with some aspects of anonymous’ hypotheses: Iran is no doubt playing possum, which they have done so for decades and in the true tradition of Persian psyops. However, in my opinion, this means that any ‘direct action’ is true folly. Iran, in that case will respond (dis)porportionately. Don’t forget, the leaders come from the Iran-Iraq war generation and they learned a hard lesson and their response strategy will be to leave a very long term impression. Any miscalculation or under-estimation will be paid for in spades.

  32. Andy (History)


    It all depends on what you mean by “undetected” and “unidentified.” The US knew about the site for several years, but didn’t come to the conclusion it was a reactor until about 9 months before the strike. Work continued at the site during that 9 month period (which we know from satellite imagery), so that would seem to indicate the project was not dormant.

  33. Allen Thomson (History)

    > What is the evidence for your contention that the al-Kibar site remained undetected (and unidentified) until shortly before its destruction?

    What I actually said was, “the al Kibar alleged plutonium production reactor in Syria went unrecognized for almost six years even though the building was above ground and conspicuous by the oddity of its location.” The evidence is clear that the US had not identified the building as housing a reactor until April 2007, although it was being monitored, probably by satellite imagery.

    This is going to be a bit lengthy, but read through the material below and see what you think it says.


    Reflections on Service
    A Conversation with Former CIA Director Michael Hayden
    Mark Mansfield
    Studies in Intelligence
    Volume 54, Number 2 (June 2010)

    [Mansfield:] You strongly advocated publicly disclosing the role intelligence played in detecting the nuclear reactor in Syria. Why did you advocate this?

    [Hayden:] It was a very complex political problem. First of all, when we became aware of it, it became very important to keep it secret. Arguably secret, because it had to be dealt with in a way that didn’t create a war in the Middle East. And the more public it became, the more difficult it would be for the Syrians to act responsibly. So no question that it needed to be kept secret.


    [Hayden:] …remember it was discovered largely in April [2007] and destroyed in September [2007].


    Office of the Director of National Intelligence
    Background Briefing with Senior U.S. Officials on
    Syria’s Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea’s Involvement
    April 24, 2008

    SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL 1: Our evidence goes back an extended period of time. We have had insights to what was going on since very late ’90s, early 2000, 2001 that something was happening. Our issue was pinning it down and being more precise. We had increasing appreciation for what was happening in the 2003, 2006 timeframe. But we still couldn’t quite pin it down, as will become apparent to you when we show you more of the physical evidence that you’ll see in just a moment.

    In the spring of last year, we were able to obtain some additional information that made it conclusive. And so, we engaged in this policy process of now that we have the evidence, what do we do about it? The evidence concluded a nuclear reactor, as I mentioned, constructed by the Syrians, started probably in 2001, completed in the summer of 2007. And it was nearing operational capability.


    Now, as early as 2003, we judged that the interactions probably were nuclear-related, again, because of who it was we were seeing in these interactions. But we had no details on the nature or location of the cooperative projects. We assessed the cooperation involved work at sites probably within Syria. But again, we didn’t know exactly where. So we had this body of evidence, kind of – almost like a cloud of, boy, there’s something going on here but we can’t get a whole lot of precision about it.

    We received indications in ’05 that the Syrians and North Koreans were involved in a project in the Dayr az Zawr region of eastern Syria, but again, no specific information on the nature or the exact location of the work. But you can see, as evidence mounts, more confident there is cooperation, more confident it involves nuclear-related people. And now, we’ve got a fairly good sense as to where the center point of the cooperation might be.

    Imagery searches of the region revealed a large unidentified building under construction in a remote area near the Euphrates River near a point that we call al Kibar. And there you see the photo. The first time we saw it was after this evidence – look out there – remember ’05, ’06 timeframe – take a look there. We identified the facility. And once again, sometimes the present illuminates not just the future but can illuminate the past. We looked back on historical imagery that found that the only high-quality imagery we had was of a building that looked pretty much like this. It was externally complete.

    And it’s hard to figure out looking at that building what its purpose is. And it certainly didn’t have any observable, externally observable characteristics that would say, oh, yeah, you got yourself a nuclear reactor here – things like a massive electrical-supply system, massive ventilation, and most importantly a cooling system. We acquired information, though, in the spring of ’07 that enabled us to conclude that this non-descript-looking building in al Wadi, near the Euphrates River in eastern Syria was indeed a covert nuclear reactor. The information included photographs of the interior and the exterior of the building located in Dayr az Zawr showing key features of the reactor.


    CIA Director Hayden Announces Findings on Covert Syrian Reactor
    Statement to Employees by Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General Mike Hayden Announcing Findings on Covert Syrian Reactor
    April 24, 2008

    Last spring, we acquired information confirming that a building in eastern Syria was a covert nuclear reactor using North Korean technology. We had suspected the two nations were cooperating on nuclear technology as early as 2001, and although imagery had revealed the existence of the building, it lacked features associated with a nuclear installation.The new information included photographs of the interior and exterior that offered our first unambiguous indication that the building was a nuclear reactor.


    CIA watching for al-Qaida ‘succession crisis

    By PAMELA HESS – 12 hours ago [Accessed 2008-05-28T13:30Z]


    On other topics, [CIA Director ]Hayden said:


    • Even without Israeli intelligence, the CIA would have known by last July that a building in Syria’s western desert was meant to be a secret nuclear reactor when a pipe system from the Euphrates River to the building was constructed.

    “That was a powerful cooling system going to a building with no visible heat source,” Hayden said. Israeli jets destroyed the building in August 2007, although Syria has denied it was a nuclear facility.


    February 1, 2009

    Eliot Cohen
    Former Counselor to State Department & Senior Adviser to Sec. Condoleezza Rice, 2007-09

    COHEN: I think the – it’s not a very exciting story, but it’s a reassuring story. It was in the spring of 2007, the Secretary called me to her office and she said, ’Well, there are only two people in the State Department who know what I’m about to tell you; I’m one and you’re now the other. We think we’ve found this North Korean nuclear reactor in Syria’ and my jaw dropped. And I had been reading a lot of high-speed intelligence, but this had not come up. It was kept in very, very narrow channels, which were just opened a little bit. And she asked me to lead our response to it and what then ensued was a whole summer of discussions in the sit room at the White House and what’s called the Deputies Committee level, that is basically the people at the Undersecretary rank more or less and it was a very small group initially, it expanded somewhat as time went on. There was the Undersecretary of Defense for policy, you had the head of plans of the joint staff, you had a couple of senior intelligence officials, one or two people from the NSC staff.

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