Jeffrey LewisIran & The Bomb 3: Strike options

This is third part in a three part series on Iran’s nuclear capabilities that I am writing at the urging of Noah Shachtman from DefenseTech. (Read Part 1 and Part 2).

A diverse crowd, including Pat Buchanan’s American Spectator and Sy Hersh at the New Yorker, news outlets have been reporting signs of an imminent strike on Iran for a couple years now. The most recent stir was caused by German reporter Udo Ulfkotte, who claimed US officials were briefing our allies in Europe about plans for a military strike on Iran.

A lot of this rhetoric has been overheated. (Bill Arkin recently wrote a thoughtful post on the how strike planning has changed under the Bush Administration.)

Still, folks in the United States defense establishment have clearly begun to at least think about what a military option against Iran’s nuclear programs might look like. Newsweek recently reported “the CIA and DIA have war-gamed the likely consequences of a U.S. pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

In this post, I outline the parameters, challenges and prospects for a strike designed to eliminate just Iran’s nuclear programs. Overall, I think the prospects for a strike are mixed—a properly timed strike might delay Iran’s program by a few years, although there are good reasons to think that the long-term result of a strike would be to worsen America’s security.

What would a Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities Look Like?

Conventional wisdom states that Iran’s facilities are too dispersed to permit a strike like the one Israel conducted against Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981. (The Osiraq story is quite a bit more complicated than you might think.)

Iran’s facilities are more dispersed, but some key assets are probably quite vulnerable to an airstrike.

The Atlantic Monthly conducted a wargame that including plans for a strike. The Atlantic Monthly game envisioned a strike against “125 targets associated with nuclear and chemical and biological storage/production facilities” in Iran including “10 nuclear R&D site targets.” The total was about 300 aim points requiring about 20 penetrating weapons.

(The PowerPoint Slides are online in .pdf format.)

One can better understand the small target set for Iran’s nuclear facilities by looking at the list of facilities that Iran has declared (in some cases, under duress) to the IAEA:

List of Locations Releveant to the Implementation of the [IAEA] Safeguards

TEHRAN NUCLEAR RESEARCH CENTRE Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) Operating
Molybdenum, Iodine and Xenon Radioisotope Production Facility (MIX Facility) Constructed, but not
*Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Laboratories (JHL) Operating
*Waste Handling Facility (WHF) Operating
TEHRAN *<a href=" Dismantled”>Kalaye Electric Company pilot enrichment facility
BUSHEHR Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) Under construction
ESFAHAN NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY CENTRE Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR) Operating
Light Water Sub-Critical Reactor (LWSCR) Operating
Heavy Water Zero Power Reactor (HWSPR) Operating
Fuel Fabrication Laboratory (FFL) Operating
Uranium Chemistry Laboratory (UCL) Closed down
Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) Under construction, first process units being commissioned for operation
Graphite Sub-Critical Reactor (GSCR) Decommissioned
*Fuel Manufacturing Plant (FMP) In detailed design stage, construction to begin in 2004
NATANZ *Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) Operating
*Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) Under construction
KARAJ *Radioactive Waste Storage Under construction, but partially operating
LASHKAR AB’AD *Pilot Uranium Laser Enrichment Plant Dismantled
ARAK *Iran Nuclear Research Reactor (IR-40) In detailed design phase
*Hot cell facility for production of radioisotopes In preliminary design stage
*Heavy Water Production Plant (HWPP) Under construction Not subject to Safeguards Agreement
ANARAK *Waste storage site Waste to be transferred to JHL

*Locations declared in 2003

In addition to these sites, we might also hit the uranium milling facilities at Saghand and Gchine (more).

Most of these facilities are quite vulnerable to airstrikes—including the Uranium Conversion Facility at Esfahan and the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz.

A major complication in strike planning concerns undeclared sites. Iran did not declare a facility at Parchin that David Albright and Corey Hinderstein believe “is a logical candidate for a nuclear weapons-related site, particularly one involved in researching and developing high explosive components for an implosion-type nuclear weapon.” Iran also did not declare a facility at Lavizan-Shian: When the site was revealed, the facility was bulldozed and the grounds scraped, possibly to defeat IAEA environmental sampling.

The existence of these facilities raises the questions of whether or not Iran has a parallel program of separate facilities. The evidence for separate facilities is sketchy. After Dafna Linzer reported that the revised NIE on Iran’s nuclear capabilities reflects “a fading of suspicions that Iran’s military has been running its own separate and covert enrichment effort,” a State Department official explained the distinction in some detail to Paul:

The State Department official added that Iran’s military is involved in the government’s nuclear weapons program in several other ways but did not elaborate. However, the official said that the military appears to be focused on activities such as organization, procurement, and funding. The United States does not know whether the military has been constructing nuclear facilities the official said, but added that there is no evidence of a “brick and mortar building” producing fissile material.

That said, the Robb-Silberman report identified shortcomings in intelligence related to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. DNI Negroponte just acted on one of the Commission’s recommendations, appointing S. Leslie Ireland as mission manager for Iran. But much of the problem appears to be lack of human intelligence related to the lack of living
and breathing assets in Iran.

The parallel program issue is the reason that some folks, including Michael Eisenstadt,, have been skeptical of the prospects for a military strike.

Natanz: Illustrative Scenario

This is an image of Iran’s centrifuge facility near Natanz. The boxes show the location of Iran’s underground bunkers for the Fuel Enrichment Plant.

Destroying this facility should not be difficult. Although the bunkers are buried, the exact locations are well know from images captured during construction.

According to reporters who visited the facility, the bunkers are about 18 m underground. That’s deep, but not so deep that the facility would withstand a GBU 28.

Incidentally, Israel is in the process of buying 100 GBU 28s from the United States. A coincidence, I am sure.

The problem with hitting the Natanz facility is that, at this point, it is basically a pair of empty bunkers—Iran’s centrifuge components are stored elsewhere and would probably be moved in the event of an impending airstrike.

That raises an interesting question of whether it might be a better idea to let Iran install the centrifuges before striking the facility. The alternative is hitting every warehouse in Iran .

Esfahan: Illustrative Scenario

The Uranium Conversion Facility is large, vulnerable building—it appears to be the long building below the large smoke stack.

Esfahan has another feature, however, that suggests a serious problem. North of the facility, there are a pair of roads that clearly reveal entrances to tunnels within the mountain. (Der Spiegel claimed the tunnels housed a secret Uranium Conversion Facility.)

Unlike the underground bunkers are Natanz, I am not sure the IC has any idea what is in those tunnels or their precise location beneath the mountain.

Prospects for Success

I don’t think there is any doubt that the United States could delay Iran’s program by a couple of years, particularly if Iran had to rebuilt its Uranium Conversion Facility and Fuel Enrichment Plants (probably much deeper underground the second time).

There is certainly no reason to launch a strike now, with Iran’s program several years off and many facilities not yet complete. As the cases of Natanz and Esfahan illustrate, a strike now would be conducted with more uncertainty than I would like.

That might buy some additional time—but for what?

The result will likely be an Iranian nuclear program outside of IAEA safeguards. An Iranian bomb is not, yet, a foregone conclusion. The degree to which Iran’s nuclear program has become an element of the country’s domestic politics suggests that fissures exist within Iranian elites that create space for negotiations. Those fissures might be quite severe, as suggested by a curious incident recently when Iranian delegates didn’t show up for a meeting with IAEA DG ElBaradei. If I had to guess, the Iranians missed the meeting because they were probably riven internally and couldn’t.

If that’s true, an airstrike now would probably unite Iranians, galvanizing support for a bomb program. Our information about Iran’s bomb program after a strike would likely be much less complete than it is now, having had the benefit of several years of intense IAEA scrutiny.

Other folks have wondered if the risk from an Iranian fuel cycle under IAEA safeguards might not be better than a much larger crisis that could arise from an initial set of limited airstrikes.

Newsweek reports that participants have not been pleased with the outcome of airstrikes in IC sponsored wargames. An Air Force source told Newsweek that “The war games were unsuccessful at preventing the conflict from escalating.”

This is essentially the same outcome in the Atlantic Monthly game. Writing in the New Republic, my friend Mike Mazarr (who played SECDEF) expressed some very serious concerns about escalation:

Iranian leaders would have very real reasons to respond to “surgical” strikes with an all-out assault on U.S. interests designed to provoke the sort of decisive clash that everyone assumes Iran wants to avoid. And the resulting conflict would have far worse consequences for the United States than Iran’s ability to create weapons-grade nuclear material.

All and all, at least for now, I think it’s best to keep talking.

Part 1 discussed how close Iran was to building a bomb; Part 2 discussed how far Iran could launch a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    > “a strike designed to eliminate just Iran’s nuclear programs”

    Have you seen any discussion as to whether such a strictly limited strike would be militarily feasible? In particular, wouldn’t preliminary strikes against Iran’s air defense missiles and fighter aircraft be needed?

  2. Allen Thomson (History)

    > “Incidentally, Israel is in the process of buying 100 GBU 28s from the United States. A coincidence, I am sure.”

    Speaking of that, notice the 500 BLU-109 mentioned in

    I don’t know if the sale actually went through, but it would be interesting to find out.

  3. Papa Ray (History)

    Well, its clear that we don’t know where all of their hidden underground plants and labs are.

    Even if we did and they were only about 60 ft below ground, we have nothing that will destroy them. Our bunker busters, such as they are did not even destroy Saddam’s personal bunker that was 60ft below ground and that was after dropping 2 of them, one right after the other, right on top of it. Observers that went into the bunker later observed that it didn’t even crack the ceiling.

    “The tour was an unusual gesture of openness by Iran. The journalists were taken deep inside a building where, two levels below ground, they were shown a vast, empty room designed for 50,000 enrichment centrifuges.

    Iranian officials say the enrichment facility was built more than 18 meters underground because of what they call “security problems.”

    “TWO levels. Now how did tthey determine this. Did they exit the elevator thru a access panel in the ceiling and take out their tape measure and see how many feet or meters was being described by the wording of “one level”?

    One of Islams main concepts is: Deception.

    I would suggest that the second level was much deeper than described to the tourists that were there.

    I would go further to suggest that there was at least one more level even deeper than the one that they were allowed to tour.


    This exercise in trying to peep what Iran has or is doing is nothing but a waste of time and energy that could better be spent in informing the ignorant American masses of the war we are involved in and how it is going expand and explode into their little bubbles where they live their little lives.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

  4. Papa Ray (History)

    I guess you are not aware that they already support a “bomb program.

    If that’s true, an airstrike now would probably unite Iranians, galvanizing support for a bomb program. human shields of Iranian college students might give you an idea of what is to come.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

  5. Bill M (History)

    Following on Allen’s comment, it’s hard to see how any such strike could be limited. Strikes on Iranian air defenses would almost certainly be a complement (unless one expects we can catch them completely by surprise). But additionally, we must assume Iran would be forced into a military reponse to our attack. So would we wait for that attack, or would be attacked Iran’s potentially retaliatory weapons immediately? That would entail attacking their missile corp and infrastructure (to prevent missiles being launched at Iraq or Israel), their navals forces (to prevent strikes in the gulf), and the Revolutionary Guard (to limit suicide bombers/unconventional warfare). That adds about 10,000 aim points to the whole project.

    I loved the Air Force’s deadpan quote: “the war games were unsuccessful at preventing the conflict from escalating.” That may well be looked back on the understatement of the century.

    Separately, I’ve always wondered about doing damage assessment on underground targets. Even if the strike “succeeds,” how would we know if the strike had actually damaged the program? We fight force ourselves into a position where we must assume that the Iranian progam was a)accelerated in response to the attack, and b) possibly undamaged. We could force ourselves into full war just because of lack of information or a real plan.

  6. Arrigo (History)

    The usual European point of view: why are the USA desperately looking for the casus belli in Iran?

    The benefits are getting more and more marginal: sure, oil over $60 is nice if you are in the oil business but now it is reaching levels where renewable technology suddenly makes a lot of sense and, once embraced, you don’t go back. So the economics which made sense for Iraq are less convincing for Iran.

    The whole situation smells of amateurish and superficial analysis on the part of the USA. For years Europe has been trying to open channels into Iran, gain its confidence, support the moderate wing of the theocracy, etc. and now is the time to continue. If the hardliners are given fuel by the USA then instead of “regime change” we might be seeing the beginning of a very ugly conflict in the Middle East.

    Regarding targeting, there seems to be even less HUMINT for Iran than there was for Iraq, the good ol’ “we’ll show you the levels” trick was used with great success by the Israelis at Dimona (remember? Early 60’s? US inspection team because Israel didn’t want IAEA?) and objectively all the Iranians might be trying to do is do Israel. End up being the other undeclared nuclear power in the region.

    At the end of the day the Iranian point of view is relatively simple: “Israel hates our guts, they have nukes, they are allowed to keep them and don’t declare them, why can’t we?”

  7. hiphink (History)

    A limited US attack would probably not meet considerable Iranian interdiction; sure, some stray IRIAF tomcat could try to lob at an AWACS or somesuch, but overall Iran barely has an IADS at all. The US has more than ample suppression capabilities to do a quick in and out unmolested.

    If Iran really does have the much-rumoured-about two S-300PMU systems, that could slow things up, but it’s a big if.

    Iran really isn’t too much into prevention anyway, they deter by retaliation. Lex talionis and all that, they seem to be quite into the hostage for hostage, airliner for airliner, bomb for bombardement thinking and so on and so forth.

    Given the present US strategical situation, they may stray from that script, however, recalling here that the crucial question the US administration must ask itself concerning any hostility towards Iran is basically “is it worth losing Iraq over this?”

  8. AHM (History)

    Nice analysis, which confirms what we suspected: an attack is quite possible. One additional point is that there are several chokepoints in Iran’s nuclear complex (Esfahan being the most easily targetable one, but Natanz being another obvious one), and that “success” in delaying the program might be even a bit easier than you suggest.

    The other question is what the overall implications are for this vulnerability. As you suggest, the time for a strike might not be now, but when the facility is filled with centrifuges in the future. More importantly, it suggests that the best strategy is to keep playing the diplomatic game with the Iranians, keeping the inspectors in (and thus keeping us well-informed about the status of the program), buying more time and more information. Even if you think the Iranians are implacable, strikes are suboptimal now; if you think they can (eventually) be convinced, like I do, the fact that the military option is open in the future is a useful backstop.

    Which leads me to my last point: the Iranians know it’s an option, so why keep mentioning it, which is only likely to irritate them and convince them that’s what our real goal is in any case.

  9. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    What is interesting here is that, generally speaking, the folks who thought Iran had a “brick and mortar” parallel program tend to be hawkish; the folks who didn’t, don’t.

    Of course, the existence of a parallel program is likely to make one more, not less, skeptical of the prospects for sucessfully wounding the program. And, conversely, its absence means that chokepoints like Esfahan and Natanz might be worth hitting.

    This is a nice test for intellectual honesty. I give real credit to hawks like Michael Eisenstadt take seriously the degree to which a parallel program complicates strike options.

    I might disagree with his judgement about the extent of the parallel program, but I don’t think one could fairly say he was “fixing the intelligence around the policy” as it were.

  10. Reid B (History)

    I am reminded of the line in Godfather I, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli’s.” Any attack on Iran should disregard their nuclear facilities and aim to nuetralize their ability to respond in a meaningful way. Any US attack should concentrate on the missle batteries that hold the Straits of Hormuz hostage. The only meaningful card the Iranians have to play is closing the Straits of Hormuz and attacking oil tankers in the Gulf. If that option is taken away from Iran they will fold like a house of cards.

  11. dan (History)

    Reid B:

    Perhaps you should check out the war risks exemptions that are written into marine insurance policies and ask yourself whether tanker owners are going to be enthusiastic about moving that 10+ mbpd that transits the Straits if there are bombs and missiles flying around the place.

  12. Karl B (History)

    The Iranians have other meaningful cards. Badr and other pro-Iranian paramilitaries in Iraq could make life even more difficult inside Iraq. And preventing attacks on tankers would require occupying every Iranian port along the gulf, something I don’t think we could manage for long. In the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians showed that they have staying power and are not afraid to sustain huge losses to achieve their goals. The US has yet to prove staying power or the will to sustain even relatively light losses.

  13. kevbright

    paparay said: “One of Islams main concepts is: Deception”

    Care to back that up? FYI, racists like you usually ascribe “deception” as being a basic concept of Judaism. But hey, at least if you spout this sort of nonsense it is a good flag that you don’t have a clue about anything – least of all Middle Eastern affairs.

  14. Stigmartyr (History)

    Arrigo, I believe you were doing well up until the point where you emphasize Irans POV that Israel hates their guts. I’d strongly submit that it is Iran and all the other Terrorist Nations who hate, and murder and maim which is cause for this religious fued. We are all knee-high in gasoline, arguing about who has the most matches. If Iran wants nukes, I say we give em nukes: neatly packaged MIRVs.

    It is up to THEM to determine their value to the civilized world, and to join the global community. Conversely, it is up to the USA and her allies to guarantee Freedom & Justice for all.

  15. kamangir

    I doubt the GBU-28 will be of much use in taking out the “bunkers” at Natanz.

    I believe the GBU-29 can penetrate 6-7 metres of concrete or 30 metres of earth.

    The “bunkers” are said to be buried under several metres of reinforced concrete and many metres of earth.

    Note that Iranian officials said that they were MORE than 18 metres underground.

    So good luck with that…

  16. Hassi (History)

    The myth about the “ground scraped” or “topsoil removed” at Lavizan should be put to rest:

    “Former U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, Kenneth Brill, accused Iran in June of using ‘the wrecking ball and bulldozer’ to sanitize Lavizan prior to the arrival of U.N. inspectors…. But another diplomat close to the IAEA told Reuters that on-site inspections of Lavizan produced no proof that any soil had been removed at all.” SOURCE: REUTERS Sept 28 2004

    The IAEA report states:

    “The information provided by Iran appeared to be coherent and consistent with its explanation of the razing of the Lavisan-Shian area.”

    [Hassi is selectively quoting the document. Here is the full text of the three paragraphs:

    38. In connection with the Lavisan-Shian site and the two whole body counters (WBCs) that had been located there, as indicated in the November 2004 report to the Board, although Iran’s description of events concerning the WBCs appeared to be plausible, the Agency still wished to take environmental samples from the remaining trailer said to have contained one of the WBCs.

    39. However, with regard to the razing of the Lavisan-Shian site, in August 2005, Iran provided further clarification and additional documentation in support of its statement that the site had been razed following the return of the site to the Municipality of Tehran in connection with a dispute between the Municipality and the Ministry of Defence. Iran explained further that the razing of the site had been carried out by the Municipality, and that it had begun in December 2003 and was completed within two or three months. The information provided by Iran appeared to be coherent and consistent with its explanation of the razing of the Lavisan-Shian area.

    40. The Agency is still awaiting additional information and clarifications from Iran regarding, and interviews with the individuals involved in, efforts by the Physics Research Centre, which had been located at Lavisan-Shian, to acquire dual use materials and equipment that could be used in uranium enrichment or conversion activities.

    The razing clearly had the effect of reducing confidence in the environmental sampling as ElBaradei reported:

    102. The vegetation and soil samples collected from the Lavisan-Shian site have been analysed, and reveal no evidence of nuclear material. It should be borne in mind, however, that detection of nuclear material in soil samples would be very difficult in light of the razing of the site. In addition, given the removal of the buildings, the Agency is not in a position to verify the nature of activities that have taken place there.

    ElBaradei has made clear, as recently as this month, that questions about Lavizan can only be answered by taking environmental samples from the Whole Body Counters and interviewing personnel — steps Iran has refused:

    DICKEY: At one site called Lavizan, facilities were bulldozed by Iran before you could look at them, and you weren´t allowed to run tests in the area.

    ELBARADEI: We clearly need to take environmental samplings from some of the equipment that used to be in Lavizan. We need to interview some of the people who have been engaged in Lavizan. … So, we need to clarify all these things. It is very specific. They know what we want to do, and they just have to go and do it. I´m making it very clear right now that I cannot extend the deadline, which is March 6.


  17. Jim Goose

    Well done analysis, and given the knowledge of yourself and other posters I have a couple questions;

    With respect to a possible Israeli strike using their F-15I squadron, would Iran’s forward air defense or remaining AIM-54 equipped F-14As be an obstacle? Also, does anyone know how Iran’s SA-300 sams are deployed and if they could possibly hit anything that would be used in an attack?