Mark HibbsIAEA Inspectors’ Risk in Iran

In a phone call at one o’clock in the morning on March 17, 2003, the U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA, Kenneth Brill, advised IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei to remove his inspectors from Baghdad immediately.  The following day, the IAEA gave orders for personnel to leave Iraq. On March 19, the U.S. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Fast-forward nine years. We’re now moving into the fifth month of Iran-P5+1 diplomacy without any progress, Prime Minister Netanyahu is urging the powers to declare negotiations a failure, and the drums of war are once again beating in Jerusalem.  So it’s no surprise we’re closing out the summer–and for good reason–by revisiting all the potential downsides of an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear installations.

Until now, one little item on that list has gotten scarce attention outside the classified world: the messy diplomatic situation Israel would encounter if any IAEA personnel were to be casualties of an airstrike on Iran. (It must also be said that the same dilemma would confront the U.S. should, as this account suggested last week, Washington in the more distant future would react to a serious Iranian escalation by taking matters into its own hands).

Might IAEA personnel potentially be at risk in Iran should Israel or the U.S. bomb Iran’s nuclear sites?

According to the current situation on the ground in Iran and what the fine print of the IAEA’s inspection protocols permits the agency to do in the field, without the IAEA having advance guidance or knowledge of whether a military incursion will take place at any specific time, the answer is, in theory, yes.

Iran’s Subsidiary Arrangements

There are IAEA safeguards personnel in Iran 24/7/365. They are there to carry out safeguards inspections at 16 declared facilities plus, if deemed necessary, at nine hospitals in Iran that hold nuclear material. The 16 facilities include at least three places I assume would be prime targets of an Israeli air attack in Iran: Natanz, which hosts the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) and the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP); the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP); and Esfahan, home to Iran’s Uranium Conversion Plant (UCF).

The IAEA spends quite a bit of time visiting all three sites. Inspectors are not in the plants all the time, but they enter them frequently and routinely. At Fordow and Natanz, the IAEA carries out two kinds of inspections: “announced inspections” and “short-notice announced inspections.” At Esfahan and all other sites the IAEA carries out only “announced inspections.”

Meaning what, exactly?

Well, the model protocol for NPT parties’ comprehensive safeguards agreements, including Iran’s, Infcirc/153, says this in paragraph 83 under the rubric “Notice of Inspections”:

The Agency shall give advance notice to the State before arrival of inspectors at facilities or material balance areas outside facilities…(c) for routine inspections… at least 24 hours in respect with the facilities referred to under sub-paragraph 80(b) and sealed stores containing plutonium and uranium enriched to more than 5%, and one week in other cases.

Sub-paragraph 80(b) refers to facilities “with plutonium and uranium enriched to over 5%.” So for the three enrichment plants where IAEA inspectors are currently putting in most of their time and effort, any routine announced inspections would have to be notified by the IAEA one week before the inspection takes place, with the exception of inspections the IAEA would carry out related to the verification of Iran’s enrichment of Iran to 20% U-235 at PFEP and at Fordow, where the at least 24-hour notification rule would obtain.

What about the “short-notice announced inspections” that the IAEA may carry out at Natanz and Fordow? For these we should start with the IAEA’s Safeguards Glossary, where in paragraph 11.7 we’re informed that a “short-notice inspection” is “an inspection performed at a facility… for which less advance notice is provided by the IAEA to the State than that provided for under Infcirc/153.”

That doesn’t tell us how much advance notification the IAEA would have to give Iran, however, because the details of how the IAEA must proceed would follow from confidential subsidiary arrangements that are part of each country’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Olli Heinonen, who was in charge of the IAEA’s inspection effort in Iran from 2005 until 2010, said here that, generally, “short-notice” means “typically about two hours.” The details of individual safeguards agreements vary. But I have it on good authority that Iran’s subsidiary arrangements in fact permit the IAEA to conduct a short-notice inspection upon two hours’ notice.

Were the IAEA to want to carry out a short-notice inspection at Fordow or Natanz, it wouldn’t tip its hand in advance and would want to be prepared. That would imply that, in order to reap the advantage of surprise, inspectors would have to be pretty close to the enrichment plants at the time Iran would be informed for the inspection to have any value. If inspectors were, say, in Tehran, it would take several hours for them to truck out to Natanz. The farther away they are, the less surprise.

We might conjecture that, absent perfect foresight or guidance, if the IAEA takes seriously the threat that Israel sometime during the rest of this year might launch surprise air strikes against Iran’s enrichment plants, it would not want to put its inspectors at risk by requesting from Iran short-notice inspections at those installations. If the IAEA were to undertake an inspection at Fordow or Natanz, it might move safeguards personnel into locations which were about to be bombed in an airstrike the IAEA didn’t know was about to happen.

How much advance warning?

Take a look at the map of three possible Israeli incursion routes into Iran that Paul-Anton Krueger published here.  His suggestion that there might have to be several waves of attacks for an attack to succeed has more recently been taken up in considerable detail by Richard Silverstein, who claims to have been informed about how a complex attack on Iran would unfold. I find it hard to believe that Silverstein has documentary evidence from IDF about how an Israeli attack would proceed. But if Silverstein is generally correct that the attack would proceed in a complex manner, a certain amount of time might elapse between an initial incursion into Iran, meant to paralyze Iran’s electrical distribution system and its communications infrastructure, and an airstrike on Iran’s enrichment plants. How much time? Only the architects of such an invasion plan would know. And it would be a fair guess that IDF planners are not talking to any outsiders.

Some observers believe that the “wave” theory has merit. Ronen Bergman’s account of Iran-Israeli covert warfare suggests that that is how Israel might proceed. In 2007, when Israel carried out an attack against an alleged reactor at Al-Kibar in Syria, according to some people, in addition to seven attack aircraft, it started with unmanned aerial vehicles to disenable infrastructure. Against Iran, Israel would have a number of options. Ballistic missiles, UAVs, cruise missiles, and special operations might be deployed in a battlefield array. It feels safe to conjecture in any case that an attack on Iran would not be the kind of “surgical” strike that Israel carried out in destroying the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981.

Then there is the detailed analysis provided by Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan at CSIS. If an Israeli attack were to be carried out against a large number of targets beyond Iran’s nuclear sites, as they suggest, the scale of operations might be drawn out over a period of several days or even weeks. If that were to happen, any IAEA personnel in the country might be able to conclude in advance that an attack on Fordow or Natanz was imminent because their electric power was cut off and their computers didn’t work. If on the other hand, Israel were to launch Jericho-3 ballistic missiles against Iran’s enrichment plants, a prospect discussed by Cordesman and Toukan, without having advance warning IAEA personnel could be in line of fire.

Iran and Iraq

So to keep IAEA personnel out of harm’s way, would the U.S. or Israel in advance of launching strikes against Iran, as Brill did in 2003, dial up IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and tell him that he would be well advised to move his inspect0rs out? A lot of people seem to believe there would be a discreet conversation at some point.

Powers attacking Iran would want to remove IAEA personnel including for the reason that, if they didn’t, they would thereafter be excoriated by member states of the IAEA and the U.N. for exposing international civil servants to a surprise attack. But if the attackers intended to keep Iran in the dark, they would have to consider that if they informed the IAEA of their plans, a subsequent exodus of IAEA personel from Iran might signal to Iran that an attack was imminent.

It’s inconceivable that the IAEA would not do everything possible to get personnel out of Iran prior to a surprise attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. But the IAEA must be careful in going about it. If after such an attack information were to leak, or if Amano were compelled to reveal that he had been warned by surprise attackers to withdraw his inspectors, and if the IAEA had chosen not to pass that warning on to Iran, Iran might conclude afterwards that the IAEA was party to an invasion of Iran. Any IAEA personnel still in the country would be at severe risk. If IAEA personnel were out of the country, there would be no direct repercussions, but the IAEA’s relationship with Iran would be over.

Should the IAEA in coming weeks or months, or at any future time, decide on its own to avoid these dilemmas by pulling out all safeguards personnel from the country in view of escalating tension between Iran and its adversaries, that step would challenge the IAEA to maintain continuity of knowledge in Iran, as Iran’s uranium enrichment program and other activities remain on autopilot.

Been there, done that

Prior to March 19, 2003, the U.S. had been steadily building up to prepare its invasion of Iraq for months. It wasn’t a secret. I recall preparations being broadcast in real time by reporters on U.S. warships steaming toward the Middle East. I’ve been assuming that the timing of any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would remain a deep secret and probably not be signaled in advance by drum-rolls warning Iran to cease and desist or else get bombed. Maybe that assumption is wrong. Were a determined adversary to secretly give Iran an ultimatum to, say, suspend enrichment inside 30 days or face military consequences, and at the same time inform the IAEA that Iran had been so warned, perhaps the IAEA could then judiciously remove its personnel from Iran, and thereafter breathe a sigh of relief, while the Supreme Leader mulls his response.

But Israel would not take risks in a military campaign for the sake of making life easier for the IAEA’s relationship with Iran. So how to get inspectors out of the way of flying bombs without compromising any of the parties involved?

The Vienna missions, their capitals, and the IAEA Secretariat, I’m told, know how to do it. What’s more, it has been done before: in Iraq, in the former Yugoslavia, and maybe even previously in Iran.

In any event, the prospect of having personnel in the line of fire is unnerving to the IAEA and its member states. In March 2005, Iran presented to EU negotiators this proposal under the rubric “Elements of Objective Guarantees.” Note item 4 b. “Continuous Presence of On-Site IAEA Inspectors, which can include EU-3/EU nationals, at the UCF and Natanz.” Some people in Vienna will tell you that this item made some diplomats at the outset a little wary: Did Iran’s interlocutors really want to make a blanket commitment to Iran to station personnel 24/7/365 at installations which were increasingly becoming a flashpoint of international tension?


  1. Dan Joyner (History)

    Really intresting post, Mark. Highlighting the rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma this would be, for the IAEA and for the states involved, in the event Israel or the US decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

    One thought I’d offer – if Israel were to attack one of these facilities without warning the IAEA, and ended up killing IAEA personnel, this would add to the violations of international law taking place by making Israel also responsible for the unlawful killing of an employee of an international organization. A similar situation was the subject of one of the International Court of Justice’s first cases – the Reparations case of 1949. The case involved the killing in 1948 of Count Folke Bernadotte, a swedish diplomat, coincidentally in Jerusalem, by suspected Jewish extremists. The ICJ ultimately decided that the UN had independent international legal personality to bring a claim against the state of Israel, which was not a member of the UN at the time.

    So if Israel were to kill IAEA staff while attacking Iranian nuclear facilities, the IAEA would also then be faced with the dilemma of whether, and how, and how strenuously to pursue an international legal claim against Israel in its independent capacity as an international organization. This could also put Amano in a tight spot politically and diplomatically.
    Dan Joyner

  2. @FHeisbourg (History)

    Thank you for an important post. Another precedent, for what it’s worth: the issue of casualties to the French technicians working on the Osirak reactor. My recollection (and I emphasize that I’m relying on my flawed memory, not hard data) is that French techies had a very early morning meeting, called at short notice, at the opposite end of the (large) reactor compound at the time of the Israeli raid.Even so, one French technician was killed in the attack.

    Keep up the good work, Mark.

    François Heisbourg

    • mark (History)

      Thanks, Francois, much appreciated, especially coming from yourself.

      I guess the example you provide illustrates that if Israel concluded that its security was at stake, it was ready and willing to take the risk that foreign personnel would be killed.

      The international diplomatic community takes care of its own. There would be a hue and cry in New York and Vienna if UN agency personnel were killed in an attack. Since Iran is under nuclear sanctions, if any foreign personnel got in the way of bombs at an enrichment plant, the world would probably conclude that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. That wasn’t true for Osirak, of course, there were no sanctions standing in the way of French industry contributing to that reactor project. There were also some casualties in the attack that Iraq carried out against Bushehr before it was finished.

      I got some offline comments from a reader who attached this link:
      to point out the extent to which Israel might be prepared to go if it concluded it had to go to war.

  3. Amin (History)

    Hi mark

    Is there a translation of

    To English at all? seems like a rather interesting article to read, albeit i’m not too sure about the third option which was to fly fighter jets through Saudi territory.. as recently the Saudis announced that they would intercept IAF planes

    *note* The Saudi’s have in the past contradicted there statements in private regarding Iran…

    • mark (History)

      Amin, I’ll see if there is a translation immediately available…I’m terribly busy but you’ll hear from me.

    • mark (History)

      Amin, I checked with Paul. There’s no English translation. Here’s my translation of the boxes on the map describing the three routes:

      North Route: The jet fighters would fly through Syria along the Turkish border, then through Iraq or Turkey. Transgressing into Turkish territory would probably have severe political consequences.

      Central Route: The Israeli Air Force would probably have to cross through the airspace of Jordan, with which Israel has a peace treaty. Since the US pullout from Iraq in November 2011 Israel would probably have a free hand. In addition this is the most militarily favorable and shortest route.

      South Route: This route has come up in reports saying that Saudi Arabia would give Israel overflight rights, but would deny any participation. This route is attractive to Israel because the jets wouldn’t have to fly over any other country’s territory.

  4. Anon (History)

    “Might IAEA personnel potentially be at risk in Iran should Israel or the U.S. bomb Iran’s nuclear sites?”

    This is a good question.

    But it begs the meta-level question: would such an attack even be legal? Paul Pillar and other experts disagree —

    “Former British diplomat Peter Jenkins (who had been Britain’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency) notes a glaring but seldom remarked-upon aspect of the voluminous talk in Israel, the United States and other countries about a possible military attack aimed at Iran’s nuclear program: such an attack would be a blatant, flagrant violation of international law. The charter of the United Nations is very clear in prohibiting the offensive use of military force, regardless of the nature of the underlying dispute. An armed attack conducted in the name of setting back a technical program that possibly could lead in the future to development of a weapon that other states, including the one doing the attacking, already have does not even come close to constituting self-defense as also mentioned in the U.N. charter. ”

    What should one make of this? Might such an attack be illegal?

    • Johnboy (History)

      “What should one make of this? Might such an attack be illegal?”

      There is no need to put a question mark in there, because any such attack would be a “preventive war”.

      A case can be made for a “pre-emptive attack”, sure, but attacking Iran to prevent it having the capability to build a weapon (i.e. a weapon that They Don’t Actually Have Yet) would definitely fail that test.

      It would be akin to the Royal Navy attacking Kiel Navy Yard in 1900 it prevent the Kaiser from building dreadnaught battleships.

      Or the USA attacking the USSR in 1946 because Stalin was working so hard to reverse-engineer Fat Man and Tall Boy.

      Every one of those cases would be a war of aggression, and the Rome Statute defines that as a crime against humanity.

      They don’t come much more “illegal” than that.

    • Dan Joyner (History)

      There is no serious disagreement on this question among independent international legal scholars. By far the majority view is that such an attack would be illegal. I lay out the reasons for this conclusion at the below link, and a number of other international legal scholars add their essential agreement in the comments.

  5. archjr (History)

    Great questions raised, and some answered. I believe the runup to an attack, god forbid it should occur anytime soon, will provide timely warning for Amano to pull the inspectors out, which act in itself might provide an opening for last-minute diplomacy.

    • Anon (History)

      What is the object of diplomacy? Seems like Iran already offered to shelve 20% enrichment and the P5+1 could not take yes for an answer.

      Even if diplomacy fails, it is not the end of the world: there is no nuclear weapons development program in Iran. Just some enrichment to LEU (<20%) level.

      This is basically a charade based upon the Iraq War model, courtesy of many of the same people.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      And R265 is pixie dust too?

      Pull the other one, it has bells on it.

    • Anon (History)

      Sorry I did not understand your remark.

      The DNI has said he has high confidence that Iran has not restarted its low level research (possibly legal) into nuclear weaponry.

      The IAEA said such research was stopped “rather abruptly” in 2003.

      Panetta says to the question: “Is Iran building a bomb?” — No.

      So there is high confidence evidence that there is no nuclear weapons work in Iran now.

    • Johnboy (History)

      George: “And R265 is pixie dust too?”

      Well, yeah, according to the available evidence (as opposed to the accusations) it is.

      George: “Pull the other one, it has bells on it.”

      No thanks, because if you believe the nonsense about R265 then I’d have to say that someone else has beat me to it….

  6. Andy (History)

    The key question is, what times do the inspectors conduct inspections?

    It seems quite likely to me any Israeli raid would come during hours of darkness, probably between midnight and 3am local time, ideally (from an Israeli perspective) on a day with a low lunar illumination.

    I still don’t consider an attack very likely unless something fundamental changes though.

    • Richard (History)

      Inspections at Facilities are conducted during normal operating hours. If a Facility chooses to operate 24/7 it is possible. On the other hand, if a Facility has normal working hours, the inspections will occur during those normal operating hours.

  7. hass (History)

    So let me get this straight: we are seriuosly talking about an attack on facilities that are subject to IAEA monitoring, even “short term” surprise visits, which are not part of any weapons program, and which Iran has offered to allow even more inspection? Has the world gone mad? What would be the point of that? And seriously, is the lrgal question here about the fate of inspectors rather than the civilians working in a civilian nuclear facility, or even the question of whether such an attack would be legal to start with?

  8. Moe_DeLaun (History)

    The principal actors have been spoiling for this fight since 1979, and will have their way, d**n the rest of us.

    Will China react to chaos in the Gulf be thrashing around the South China Sea? What about the downwinders in Pakistan and India? (No, not nookyular, but the hazmat from burning cities)

    If we weren’t stuck on the surface of a finite sphere, I’d let the Middle East grind itself up without a whisper on the Net. I’m sick of their determination to hurt each other, and to drag the rest of humanity into their 3000-year-old beef.

    • Hass (History)

      You know Moe, if the people of the Middle East had it their way, they’d want to keep the US and Israel and the UK and the rest of you lot out of their affairs too — going back to the crusades. Iranians in particular, considering our lovely history of things such as backing Saddam and toppling Mossadegh in ’53 and destroying their democracy back in ’07 too.

  9. Jon (History)

    It comes down to what we determine is worse, a nuclear Iran or the repercussions of an attempt to prevent this. So if Israel or the US strikes and it’s illegal, what about the illegality of Iran building nuclear weapons in the first place? Of any government, I do believe the US is quite concerned about reducing any civilian casualties and would therefore provide warning for IAEA inspectors to leave.

    • Anon (History)

      Nice fake argument.

      There is no evidence Iran is building nukes.

      In fact there IS EVIDENCE — with HIGH confidence — that the DNI has that Iran stopped its RESEARCH into nuclear weapons rather abruptly in 2003.

    • hass (History)

      This is a false choice. Iran has no nuclear weapons program.
      The IAEA welcomed the NIE’s conclusion that there was no nuclear weapons program post 2003, but the IAEA very specifically said they had no evidence of a nuclear weapons program prior to that date either:
      “With respect to a recent media report, the IAEA reiterates that it has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon programme in Iran.”

    • Anon (History)

      Yes, that is why I said possible research level program: using pencils and computers to do modeling of a nuclear explosion in, say, a graduate level nuclear physics class is not a nuclear weapons program.

      There has NEVER, ever been any diversion of fissile materials to a nuclear weapons program in Iran.


      And that is all that is needed to satisfy the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement.

      Yes, there was “clandestine” program to enrich U, but this is because the IAEA was politicaly maneuvered by the US government to deny Iran the help it requested with enrichment technology — something the IAEA WAS willing to help Iran with until the US intervened extra-judicially.

      Mark Hibbs knows all about it since he wrote up the documentary evidence in the respected Nuclear Fuel journal [“U.S. in 1983 stopped IAEA from helping Iran make UF6”, by Mark Hibbs, Bonn Nuclear Fuel August 4, 2003 Vol. 28, No. 16; Pg. 12 ]

      — read it here:

      Have a nice day bombing Iran.

    • anon2 (History)

      We have a Baysian choice ex-ante.

      There are two possibilities ex-ante; either 1) Iran HAS an intention and plan to build nuclear weapons at the appropriate breakout point (“zone of immunity”); or 2) Iran HAS NO INTENTION to build nuclear weapons now or ever.

      Despite what Anon says, and what the DNI said in an old report intended for public consumption to meet some objective that we cannot know from the outside, there exists are non-zero finite probability of (1). Let’s say for the sake of argument that the risk is 15%.

      If path (1) is true, then there are additional possible future paths that follow, including path 1.a) use the nuclear weapons to “knock Israel off the face of the map”; path 1.b) use the weapons to destroy the major population centers of the “Great Satan” United States (New York, Miami, Chicago, LA, and Washington) and Israel together or; path 1.c) retain the weapons as a deterrent.

      Lets say that given path 1, the probability of 1.a is 10%, and the probability of 1.b is 5%.

      The decision maker(s) in both the United States and Israel when faced with this event tree ex-ante may choose to minimize the risk of an unacceptable outcome, such as 1.a or 1.b. This would lead to an attack, that would indeed under international law be illegal.

      But if we changed the probabilities, such that the ex-ante probability of path 1 was now 99%, and that given path 1, the probability of path 1.b (the destruction of Israel and the United States) was 99%; what would a rational decision maker do? The answer is clear — preempt the attack by removing the nuclear weapons before they are completed. This has nothing to do with law or legality. It has to do with rationality.

      So, it is a matter of what the risk assessment is, not of law. Clearly at the time of the old 2007 NIE, the risk assessment was low of the completion of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Clearly now the risk assessment, despite what the 2007 report said, is higher. How much higher is not clear, but there is a risk and as Iran insists on enriching to 20% at multiple sites, the risk grows.

      Therefore, in my opinion, Anon, quoting the 2007 NIE and International Law is just obscuring the actual decisions that need to be made. As both of us are Anon, I cannot be sure what your motive is, but I hope that it is like mine, that people in all three countries can continue to live together in peace.

      To get there, we need a negotiated settlement right now, and should not sit back on an idea that law or old NIE reports is going to allow the possible completion of a weapon with subsequent possible nuclear conflagration. To get there both sides must give.

      My hypothesis which will be proven or not in the next two years is that Iran is indeed sprinting towards the bomb and using the negotiations to forestall an attack until they reach the zone of immunity. In this case, the negotiations will fail and either 1) Iran will complete one or more nuclear weapons; or 2) the allies will attack individually or together. Path 1 leads to the possibility of path 1.a/1.b, and I don’t want to move out of the city to survive.

    • Anon (History)

      Anon2 is wrong on several fronts.

      The DNI’s quote is from a senate hearing on the 2011 NIE.

      Yes, there is risk in nations developing nuclear infrastructure.

      Here is the point: That risk is calculated into the NPT.

      If you don’t like to have that pesky risk go negotiate a new treaty.

      The treaty you have allows for the risk you mention.

    • Anon2 (History)

      “Anon2 is wrong on several fronts.
      The DNI’s quote is from a senate hearing on the 2011 NIE.
      Yes, there is risk in nations developing nuclear infrastructure.
      Here is the point: That risk is calculated into the NPT.
      If you don’t like to have that pesky risk go negotiate a new treaty.”

      Or if the reality is that the risky counterparty is unwilling to negotiate to a deal/treaty/anything and has a high probability it is sprinting for the bomb, the above decision tree stands.

      Also, the 2011 senate NIE only changes the probability assessment that has been made public, perhaps for “cover your behind” purposes by the same bureaucrats that wrote the 2007 quoted public text. The 2007 NIE public statement may have also been influenced by a desire to continue negotiations. It would appear as if this strategy has failed, although it is not too late to come to an agreement. The decision makers have their own probability assessment, based upon both classified NIE raw data (i.e. not the public sound bite), and other sources of information.


    • Anon (History)

      Actually, you are still wrong: Iran was willing to give 20% enrichment — even though it need not do so under its NPT rights, but the West could not take “yes” for an answer:

      And, like I said, any nuclear capability — especially the HUGE civil nuclear capability ALLOWED under the NPT implicitly has risk that such a program MAY, in the FUTURE be extended to a weapons program.

      That risk exists with Brazil and Argentina and Japan and 37 other countries.

      The difference with Iran is that Iran is an enemy of the West. Period.

      So, AGAIN: Here is the point: The risk is calculated into the NPT.

      If you don’t like to have that pesky risk *****go negotiate a new treaty*****.

      The treaty you have — called the NPT — allows for the risk(s) you mention.

      Too bad for you.

      Let me know if you are still confused.

    • Anon2 (History)

      “Actually, you are still wrong: Iran was willing to give 20% enrichment — even though it need not do so under its NPT rights, but the West could not take “yes” for an answer”

      It’s not clear what was offered between negotiators despite the public articles that have been written since. If I had been a negotiator for the United States I would have agreed to a 5% Iranian enrichment program with safeguards at an observable location, all other things being equal. I don’t know what was offered back and forth and with what strings and assurances. It appears to me as I have said that Iran was simply using the negotiations to get time to sprint and complete initial nuclear deterrent.

      “[The NPT] implicitly has risk that such a program MAY, in the FUTURE be extended to a weapons program”

      That is my point Anon, the decision tree is based upon risk that may not be acceptable to the United States or Israel, both places with large and vulnerable civilian populations.

      “… Too bad for you…Let me know if you are still confused.”

      If a nuclear detonation occurs in my City, it is too bad for me and perhaps 200,000 of the other people within the immediate zone of complete destruction. I hope we can agree on prevention of nuclear catastrophe as being of highest importance.

      “Still confused.” I must say that I dislike condescending comments like this thrown my way — can’t you try and persuade me and others of your point without going there? I am actually very clear on what the risk is and on what the decision tree should be if I were a decision maker. My decision tree is cognizant of the shortcomings of the NPT as has been negotiated and signed. The NPT is better than nothing, but not sufficient to prevent catastrophe. This is for future negotiators to work through.

      Lastly, I am getting tired of commenting and I am going to give you the last word. I’m not a paid professional in this area, just an interested party, so I am signing out.

      My last comment: I hope that our respective countries can work this out together in a peaceful way, and perhaps engage each other positively in all areas so as to become “friends” instead of adversaries.

    • Anon (History)


      yes, we are in agreement:

      ” This is for future negotiators to work through.”

      My point exactly.

      Threats of an illegal attack are unhelpful and will likely lead to an Iranian nuke.

      It is for future negotiators to make a better treaty. End of story.

      If you don’t like what Iran is doing — draft a treaty you like, and then ask Iran to sign it. OK?

  10. Robert Kelley (History)

    Hi Mark, Actually the evidence is a bit more empirical than you’ve noted. In June 1993 I was awakened by the sound of cruise missiles striking Baghdad while we of IAEA Action Team mission 21 were sleeping in the Sheraton hotel. The noise was caused by Bill Clinton’s cruise missiles striking the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in retribution for the alleged plot to kill George Bush 41 on a visit to Kuwait. Several Iraqi civilians were killed. Naturally I called Vienna as chief inspector and reported our situation to Maurizio Ziffereo, the Action Team Leader. He called the US representative to the IAEA and woke her up in the middle of the night to tell her that IAEA inspectors with three Americans on the team were in harm’s way. She replied that she had no idea of the attack and no way of warning us.

    Inspectors are simply pawns in any great war game and their lives will be measured against the perceived good. It goes with the job that you may get a free tombstone.

    We were lucky. The attack was at night and not on the hotel. In fact, the first 24 hours were tense as I sent the two American inspectors home and waited. But on day 2 the average Iraqi on the street gave us a thumb’s up with congratulations for attacking Iraqi intelligence.

    Also of note, on the day before the bombing we were inspecting and noticed a lot of defensive activity. When we asked why, the Iraqi told us they expected an attack. It turned out their sources were better than ours!

    • mark (History)

      Thanks, Bob.

      That’s fascinating.

      So am I right that the bottom line from your experience in the field as you describe it is that the USG knew you folks were there at close quarters and were willing to take the risk you might be killed when they decided to give Iraq another whack? Or is it that they didn’t care?

      What is the difference between making a “mistake” (e.g. U.S. claims that the bombing the Chinese embassy compound in Belgrade was an error) and not doing due diligence!

      Do you share my initial hunch (indirectly expressed above in my remarks to Francois) that an attacker might be more concerned about UN personnel suffering “collateral damage” as opposed to simply private citizens who happened to be in the way, like those French technicians in Iraq? The reader who sent me the press link about the Israeli attack in Lebanon fairly recently suggested that this is a risk Israel is not very squeamish about.

    • Robert Kelley (History)

      Mark. The US didn’t have any explanation for whether it was concerned or not about friendly fire casualties in 1993. I doubt if it was a big concern, and as noted a night attack pretty well excluded direct casualties. Our concern was that the Iraqi might get nasty as we were handy hostages but they were actually quite gentlemanly.

      In the current case Iran bars most western inspectors (US, UK, France, Germany etc.) so an attacker would know that the inspectors at risk are mostly from non-aligned states and not allies.

      Bottom line is someone set upon such a violent act is hardly likely to worry about a few blue hats. UN peacekeepers die all the time. It is an unpleasant risk IAEA inspectors must take along with many other hazards inspecting in difficult places.

    • Andy (History)

      Bottom line is someone set upon such a violent act is hardly likely to worry about a few blue hats. UN peacekeepers die all the time.

      As someone who once participated in strike planning, I would disagree with this characterization. Unintended casualties are always considered and are part of the planning process. According to friends who are still do strike planning, over the last ten years this factor grew in importance as a planning consideration. A lot of changes, in particular, came from the mistaken attack on the Chinese Embassy.

      The 1993 strike you mention was designed to minimize the loss of life. The building was hit at night in part because the US didn’t want to risk killing civilians who were sure to be in and around the building during the day. The weapons used were, at the time, the most reliable and precise stand-off munitions available. Even with these precautions, some Iraqi civilians were killed in the attack. The lesson for policymakers should be that war and warfare are inherently uncertain and so the only way to avoid unintended casualties is to not use military force.

    • Andy (History)

      Oops, forgot that blockquoting isn’t supported here. The first two sentences in my comment is a quote from Robert Kelley. The rest is my response. Thanks.

    • Robert Kelley (History)

      Mark started this thread to talk about risk to inspectors but not many people noticed except Andy! Agreed that we felt fairly safe from the military activity but we could hear the explosions. A famous Iraqi artist was killed who lived near the intelligence center. But the 1993 attack was a slap on the wrist, a warning to Iraq not to play games with assassinations or terrorism. A future attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and maybe other military infrastructure is going to kill a lot of people day or night and most will be civilians. If IAEA happens to be on-site they will be at risk and I don’t see targeteers holding back if they get a phone call from Vienna.

      The other big concern is hostage taking or retribution. That was my concern in 1993, plus it was an American attack on Iraq, not a coalition one so our UN cover was thin. Iran will want to blame someone and there are usually IAEA inspectors in the country. We had some nationals of a country that had diplomatic relations with Iraq in 1993 and those inspectors voted with their feet and ran straight to their embassy in the middle of the night. They came back later when there were no angry crowds or detentions.

      In an earlier cruise missile attack designed to warn Iraq to cooperate with inspectors, the missiles targeted sensitive portions of key buildings. Iraq identified inspection information as being the source of the very accurate targeting of equipment that was only known from the inside of buildings. Whoever is unlucky enough to be in Iran if there is an attack should keep this in mind.

    • Andy (History)

      Those are good points Robert. I haven’t examined the facilities in Iran to know how close they are to housing areas and other places where people work and live. Obviously anyone who was actually at the facilities during the attack would be in danger.

      The only other thing I’ll add is that a decision to attack is political decision and so it wouldn’t be up to the targeteers to decide. In general, targeteers try to achieve the military objective using the least amount of force required for a few reasons: Efficiency, minimize collateral damage and to conform with the principle of proportionality under the laws of armed conflict. The targeteers and intelligence people can model what they expect to happen, to include collateral damage, and provide that information to the decision-makers. Plans can be adjusted if necessary.

      And again, I’m speaking from a US/NATO perspective here. Israel probably has a similar targeting process, but in my judgment they view the balance between proportionality and military necessity differently than does the US.

  11. dan (History)


    For starters, if the Israelis were serious about bombing Iranian nuclear sites ( which they are not – I can’t believe that after 20 years of Israeli threats, lies, hysteria and deceptions, which could be gone through in tedious detail if necessary, that you haven’t understood that the Israeli policy since 1992 is to get the US to do a reprise of Desert Storm on Iran ) they wouldn’t give a flying fuck about IAEA inspectors getting in the way. It’s not as if they actually take legal niceties seriously, and unless something unprecedented happened in the US, the political system, from President to Congress via the media, would bend over backwards to excuse any Israeli malfeasance, down to the deliberate killing of US citizens, pretty much regardless.

    • hass (History)

      In fact they’d probably blame it on Iran, just as they blamed Iran for the USS Vincennes downing of Iran Air 655 inside Iranian airspace

  12. fyi (History)

    So, let me get this straight:

    the Titanic will be sinking (NPT etc.) while the Captain and the First Mate (Mark Hibbs et. al.) are discussing the breakfast menu.

  13. @FHeisbourg (History)

    On mission profiles: don’t discount the possibility of Azerbaijan serving as a staging-point for support aircraft and their activities (in-flight refuelling, electronic-warfare, UAV/UCAVs) as well as a possible way-station for returning strike aircraft. This could signicantly ease the conduct of the mission.

    That being said, after President Shimon Peres’s public statement of strong opposition to a strike, I have become much more skeptical about the domestic political feasibility of a purely unilateral Israeli strike decision.

    François Heisbourg

  14. Ara Barsamian (History)

    Inspectors are toast.

    The most practical attack scenario with the highest probability of destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities is by using ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads (Cordesman scenario 3 modified).


    Step 1 Launch a 10kT HEMP warhead detonated at 100 km over Iran This disables all of Iran’s electronics/avionics in SAMS, MRBM’s, power plants and transmission networks

    Step 2: A salvo of 4 ICBMS 10 minutes after step 1:
    • Natanz- 20kT
    • Esfahan: 20kT
    • Fordow: 100 kT
    • Maybe Arak: 20 kT

    Step 3: For insurance, a second 20 kT warhead on Fordow after 15 minutes after Step 2

    In less than one hour, this sets back Iran’s nuclear ambitions by a decade.

    If the attack occurs at 4:00 AM with everybody asleep, collateral damage in Iran will be limited to 5 to 10,000 Iranian people.

    Bushehr will not be bombed because it will become the “Chernobyl” of the Middle East, spreading fission products over allies, including Israel itself.


    Middle East paralyzed by fear; no significant retaliation on Israel
    UN and IAEA: lots of noise
    Oil jumps to $200 to 300+/barrel; economic crisis worsens, street riots in US and EU

    Cynical? Yes, but eminently practical…

    • shaheen (History)

      Can we please stop the nonsense? To imagine – as Richard Silverstein does (see the dubious piece quoted by Mark) – that Israel would use “tens” of ballistic missiles and “hundreds” of cruise missiles is one thing. It’s crazy, and cannot credibly claim to reflect the IDF modus operandi. But to begin discussing the use of nukes is not only crazy, it’s useless. Anyone familiar enough with Israeli strategic culture is certain of one thing: Israel would never use nuclear weapons in a preventive war.

    • Amin (History)

      “Cynical? Yes, but eminently practical…”
      I’m sorry but I strongly disagree on the eminently part…. After re reading what you just wrote I’m speechless..

      I’m sorry, but 4-5 NUCLEAR tipped ballistic missiles are to be launched at another country with the population of 75 million right after an EMP is exploded over their airspace, which essentially will set them back a century in terms of infrastructure…
      And this is just considering the EMP and not the fact that they have just launched ballistic missiles at Iran. Were the EMP be effective, I would consider that genocide …
      as the amounts of deaths that are too follow will be on Israeli hands…

      Furthermore, this is so ludicrous. You’re implying to stop a state whose nuclear programme is debatable you are to use nuclear weapons to prevent them from progressing, and you are considering HIGH amounts of collateral damage..

      This is nothing short of crimes against humanity, (and I’m sure if the Iranians choose to do the same, they will also rightly be condemned in the same manner that I have just explained)
      It is this draconian attitude that is forcing the Iranians to consider the nuclear deterrence option (and I wouldn’t blame them).

    • Denis O'Brien (History)

      You gotta’ stop reading Silverstein, dude. He is a certified wacko and you risk becoming one by association. The scenario you and he suggest of Israel throwing a preemptive nuke at Iran is almost too ludicrous to even respond to, but you both sure make it look simple.

      Your analysis neglects a couple of small factors, however. Like Russia. Like China. Like Turkey. Like Pakistan. Like France. Like a whole world comprising more than just Israel and Iran.

      Russia, for instance, who has a presence and interests in the area, has already warned that an attack on Iran is an attack on Russia. And China would come blowing in so fast to fill the power-void in Iran your scenario creates, it would have troops on the ground in Tehran before the Israeli launchers returned to ambient temperature. China and Russia are not going to let Israel/US do to Iran what they did to Iraq. Oil is getting too tight.

      While you may be right to infer that Israel is a rogue nuclear state capable of any atrocity imaginable, the consequences of it initiating a nuclear attack is not “no significant retaliation.” An unprovoked nuclear attack by Israel would make it a target of every other nuclear state, either in the short term or long term. In the short term assets such as Dimona, Tel Nof nuke airbase and Haifa nuke sub base would cease to exist in any form other than a Zionist’s memory, and Bibi would be marched off in cuffs to stand trial at the Hague.

      If Israel could attack Iran with “no significant retaliation,” they would have done so years ago. Whoever throws the first punch in this war loses. Israel knows that better than anyone, which is why they have been baiting Iran for over 5 years with their threats. If they could just sucker Tehran into making a preemptive attack, it would be game over. Fat chance.

    • Alex (History)

      What Israeli ICBM? They don’t have an ICBM, and have no requirement for one. They do have an IRBM.

  15. Ara Barsamian (History)

    Well, it’s either an existential threat or it isn’t, and this is decided by Israeli government. If existential, everything is on the table, including nukes.

    I am sorry that it is a distasteful and horrible subject, but from a practicality point of view (doable, guaranteeing results),and cost-effectiveness, one needs to look at all alternatives, and not bury ones head in the sand like in 1938 Munich Peace in our time! or Stalin’s empty promises at Yalta before enslaving Eastern Europe.

    I recognize the monumental moral issues, but hanging on false morality or piousness (victor’s justice!) detracts from an objective analysis of unpleasant possibilities.

    • Amin (History)

      Well if you are going down that route, How about there being an existential threat of Iran’s 75 million population against Israel’s 6 million.

      The point you make contradicts it self, the whole concept of a nuclear weapon is the deterrence not its use…albeit America breaks the mold there…

    • Andy (History)

      I agree we should do an objective analysis of unpleasant possibilities, to include the potential use of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately I don’t think the scenario you described, which is essentially a tactical description of potential weapons, targets and effects, is anything close to an objective analysis.

      If you look at the political situation in Israel now there are a lot of prominent, well-informed and connected individuals (the latest is Peres) who’ve come out publicly against an air strike. This opposition boils down to two issues: First is the negative consequences of a unilateral strike, particularly in regard to Israel’s relationship with the United States. Second is the operational difficulty given Israel’s capabilities. Israel’s ability to actually carry out the strike and achieve some strategic success is questionable. An attempted strike that turns into a debacle or fails to significantly damage Iran’s nuclear facilities is an outcome that Israel cannot afford.

      Now, how do nukes fit into this? Nukes could certainly destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities more easily than airstrikes, but everything else works the other direction. If there’s already limited support for airstrikes within Israel, then what support is there for the radical option of using nukes? If a unilateral airstrike would severely damage US-Israeli relations, then what would a unilateral nuclear strike do? Not to mention this would be a radical departure from Israeli strategic doctrine.

      So I think, on balance, there is little to suggest this is an option that Israel is contemplating. As you said, this is decided by the Israeli government and there does not appear to be anything to suggest this is even on the table.

    • hass (History)

      Even Israeli officials quietly admit that the “existential threat” from Iran is played up for political reasons. Example:

  16. Ara Barsamian (History)

    For obvious reasons, Israeli government would not publicly discuss the nuclear option.

    Israeli-US relations can be repaired (see USS Liberty, etc).

    UN does not count. Russia and China will do nothing.

    The assumption is an “existential threat” (annihilation).

    Sorry to be cynical about the whole thing, but it has to be considered in any realistic “calculus”.

  17. mark (History)

    I must confess: I find it utterly surreal that my post has unleashed a discussion about whether Israel would attack Iran with nuclear weapons…

    • Robert Kelley (History)

      Absolutely amazing!

    • Andreas Persbo (History)

      Bob, Mark, this must have been one of the most radical thread twists I’ve seen at ACW. Ever.

    • mark (History)

      Andy, plus Bob and Andreas and others,

      We agree in spades in drawing this conclusion. The notion that Israel would attack Iran with these weapons in this situation (Iran’s program right now–think of the still-valid NIE–does not pose an “existential” threat to Israel) could only be taken seriously by people who are completely unfamiliar with the concept of political risk.

  18. Ara Barsamian (History)

    Whether conventional or nuclear, IAEA inspectors are toast.

    Conventional attack, even by US, will be ineffective, and actually will be more likely to drag the whole region into prolonged war, with dire consequences on the economies and social fabric of OECD.

    The best outcome is to be serious about P5+1 negotiations with Iran and not succumb to extremist and impossible demands (limit enrichment to 5% and additional protocol).

  19. yousaf (History)

    There will be no attack on Iran.

    Nuclear or otherwise.

    This is an attempt by Bibi to influence the outcome of the US election by making Obama look weak on defense (of — ahem — Israel):

    • Ara Barsamian (History)

      Yousaf, I hope you are right…But as you know, hope is not objective…Let us hope that P5+1 and Iran get serious before any bloodshed

    • yousaf (History)

      I don’t think there is much risk of bloodshed any time soon, besides the usual sporadic extra-judicial assassinations etc.

      Yes, it would be good if the P5+1 got serious and struck a deal with Iran to suspend its 19.75% enrichment….Like Iran offered to Brazil and Turkey and a few times after that also.

      Unfortunately, the ringleader of the P5+1 (US Congress) has no intention of striking a deal on nuclear matters but wants the whole kitchen sink of regime change. This is evidenced in the legislative text of the congressional sanctions:


      “……the sanctions are not about Iran’s nuclear program. They are aimed at regime change.

      Conditions for lifting the sanctions go way beyond anything having to do with Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapons program. No matter what Iran does with its nuclear program, they will remain in place. The situation may—intentionally or not—become a prelude to war.

      For instance, the U.S. sanctions can only be lifted after the president [3]certifies to Congress [3]

      that the government of Iran has: (1) released all political prisoners and detainees; (2) ceased its practices of violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; (3) conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists in Iran and prosecuted those responsible; and (4) made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary.

      Just in case those conditions are insufficiently implausible, the president has to certify further that “the government of Iran has ceased supporting acts of international terrorism and no longer satisfies certain requirements for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; and [that] Iran has ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of nuclear, biological, chemical, and ballistic weapons.”

      Many U.S. allies, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, could not satisfy all these conditions. So even if Tehran were to stop all uranium enrichment and dump all of Iran’s centrifuges into the Gulf and shutter its nuclear program entirely, Iran would still be sanctioned by the U.S. Congress.”


      So, yes, it would be excellent for the P5+1 to get serious and link sanctions relief to suspension of 20% enrichment instead of so transparently to regime change.

  20. Ara Barsamian (History)


    Sadly, today’s announcement of “failed” talks again demonstrated P5+1 lack of desire for a meaningful resolution, as is the insistence of IAEA visiting Parchin, and making a big deal out of its sanitization.

    So what if Iran tested an implosion test assembly in 2003? Do you want a peaceful resolution or war?

    Sadly, looks like the powers to be are aching for another war!

  21. mark (History)

    Abbasi-Davani just chimed in with this little item:

    Two-hours inspection notice it is–but anywhere? Not just at enrichment plants? And only if “justified”?

    • anon2.5 (History)

      Let’s go see the pink tarp right now! Sanitized or not, what is under the curtain?

  22. Eve (History)

    For one thing, a pink tarp and underground enrichment plants are perfect for a disco. Just need some sprinting bulls now.

  23. Behnam Hasteh-doost (History)

    I think the following excerpt from a speech by Iran’s representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, is fairly amusing. Translation mine, source:

    Discussing the American laptop, which relates to the alleged studies, Soltanieh said: “Fortunately, although the documents underpinning such claims were never delivered to Iran and the information was conveyed to Iran in a Powerpoint presentation, thanks to the cooperation of the IAEA, we proved in the course of meetings taking over 100 hours, that all the presented materials are fabrications.

    The Powerpoint presentation stated that Iran launched a secret Manhattan-like project to produce nuclear weapons. When they showed us the materials, our first question was what indicates that the materials concern Iran. They answered because they are in the Persian language. Then we saw that these documents do not have any seal of secrecy or classification … In another document, we saw that a copy of it was forwarded to (or filed in) a library. How could secret correspondence be forwarded to a library? In one of the IAEA meetings, I took one of Iran’s seals of secrecy to the meeting and gave it to Mr. al-Bardaie. I said, “Give this to the American ambassador, so when they fabricate a document, they can do it right.”