"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Iran's Nuclear Weapon and What To Do About It

Recently Ahmadinejad, Iran’s outspoken leader, said, “Life is shaped by art and the highest form of art is martyrdom.” This is the statement of a man possessed. If taken along with his Holocaust denial claims and threats to wipe Israel off the map, this is a person who at the very least cannot be trusted.

It is therefore critical that he is denied the nuclear weapons he craves. His uranium enrichment program is well on the way to conclusion and in months, perhaps a year, Iran will be in possession of the knowledge necessary to produce a nuclear weapon.

The central question that must be considered is whether he can be stopped and whether the West has the will to do it.

President George W. Bush has made it abundantly clear that he will not tolerate a nuclear bomb in Iran. Yet even a determined president has limitations. Can the Air Force destroy the Iran facilities? Will there be retaliation? How will the Muslim world react to such an action? And will there be collateral damage that unites Iran and makes it an even more formidable threat than is the case at the moment?

As I see it the “cascading effect” needed to produce high grade uranium is probably in one major site even though ancillary activities may be dispersed. Therefore sortees carefully directed using bunker buster bombs could probably do the job against a reinforced underground facility.

While the Iranians have missiles that can reach Tel Aviv, they probably don’t have nuclear weapons yet. Therefore, they might deploy missiles tipped with chemical and biological weapons. While the prospect of such deployment is horrible to imagine, these weapons are unreliable. On the conventional front Iran is simply no match for Israeli forces much less U.S. military operations.

Although it is impossible to determine how the Muslim world will respond to such an attack, it is noteworthy that the much vaunted Arab street did not rise in unity against the liberation of Iraq and one might reasonably expect that will be the case in an attack on Iran.

Collateral damage is always a possibility even in the age of smart bombs. But the targets are limited and the precision bombs are increasingly more refined and accurate. Therefore it is probable that casualties will be limited. In fact, rather than unify Iran, such destruction of the nuclear facility might be the occasion for dissident groups to rise up against the ruling mullahs.

Recently there has been a lot of chatter about funding for public diplomacy that might encourage regime change. On this score, I remain skeptical. There have been many opportunities for rebellion against the repressive regime, but thusfar the secret police have been able to control the outbursts.

While regime change would be a desirable outcome, and a measure worth trying, we are running out of time. The clock is ticking on the prospective acquisition of a nuclear weapon. I would make the same claim about the European initiative to halt the Iranian program. Thusfar, the negotiations have merely served as a cover for the continued development of the program. Of course this diplomatic exercise is a necessary prerequisite for consensus on military action.

Security Council resolutions that lead to an embargo might be effective if the embargo on oil holds and if this isn’t interpreted by Iranian leaders as an act of war. Of course, getting unanimity in the Security Council is a long shot with the Russians poised to veto an embargo and China, sitting on the sidelines, bemused by the prospect of the U.S. groveling for support.

Any way you cut it, military force seems like the most likely stratagem for success. Will Bush do it? As I see it, he cannot afford not to do it. His legacy cannot be a nuclear armed Iran prepared to destabilize all of the Middle East and possibly Europe.

This is yet another test of American will. While the Democrats, in large part, will criticize the decision, there is little doubt the American people will support the president especially if he runs out the string on other options and points out that force is the only realistic alternative.

Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001). London maintains a website, www.herblondon.org.

11 comments:

Tlaloc said...

I'd recommend this article:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200412/fallows

it's a 2004 wargame about an attack on Iran.

It's also worth considering that the intelligence estimates put Iran at a DECADE away from having a usable nuclear weapon. This threat is not coming tomorrow. That doesn't mean that it isn't best to take action now but it means we shouldn't be pressured into rushing into something ala Iraq's "smoking gun may come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

It is also worth bearing in mind that if we attack Iran our soldiers in Iraq had better get out fast. The Shia we've helped to grab control of Iraq are mainly people who are sympathetic to Iran and who spent many years in exile there.

Devang said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Devang said...

I would also add that the kind of assistance that Condi Rice is looking for ($75 million-ish) in aid to dissidents of the Iranian regime, is very similar in nature to aid given to groups in Serbia which brought down Milosevic.

Nobody in their right minds wants a theocracy to have any wmd's.

tbmbuzz said...

It's also worth considering that the intelligence estimates put Iran at a DECADE away from having a usable nuclear weapon.

I've read about this National Intelligence Estimate and it sounds reasonable as a first order approximation to development of a DELIVERABLE nuclear weapon. However, if Iran reaches this stage, it will be way too late to do something about it.

There are three major steps involved in building a nuclear weapon:
1. Producing an adequate amount of fissile material.
2. Building the nuclear device itself.
3. Developing the delivery system.


It seems to me that the ONLY opportunity to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is to stop it before #1 occurs, which of course will happen much sooner than ten years.

Tlaloc said...

Nope, the decade timeline is for the enrichment of Uranium, not steps 2 or 3.

"The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before "early to mid-next decade,""

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/01/AR2005080101453.html

tbmbuzz said...

Intuitively I find it hard to believe it would take Iran 10 years just to produce a few kilos or few dozen kilos of enriched uranium, but then none of us has access to the intelligence info the NIE guys have. However, I don't see as to how their track record on predicting nuclear proliferation in the world has been all that good, going all the way back to 1948 (or so) when Stalin surprised the world with his first nuke.

tbmbuzz said...

Anyway, "early to mid-next decade" can be as soon as 4 years!

James Elliott said...

Buzz, maybe you can answer a question: I was under the impression that the so-called "bunker buster" nuclear weapons were still in development, not deployable (as Dr. London seems to posit). You probably keep far better track on military hardware developments than a casual observer such as myself.

There is a very real question of whether or not Iran could stand toe-to-toe against the US and Israel. While their air force could not hope to prevent ours from operating, Iran's standing army outnumbers the US forces in the region by nearly 10 to one. Their military is also not crippled in the way Iraq's was - by a decade of sanctions and no-fly zones.

The bigger question, however, goes back to the "Persian street." Observers of Iran's politics speculate that the Bush Administration's "Axis of Evil" polemics played a key role in pushing Ahmadinejad's election into the realm of political legitimacy by turning everyday Persians away from their typical pro-US stance in a moment of nationalist unity. US military action has a very real chance of unifying Iran against a foreign actor, far more so than destabilizing the mullah's regime. This happened in Serbia during the Kosovo conflict: the pro-US Serbs became enraged by assaults on their infrastructure and even the minimal "collateral damage" - a disgusting euphemism - fanned those flames.

tbmbuzz said...

James, I don't know what stage the U.S. is at in developing nuclear bunker busters. The unclassified word is that they are "being developed", but I wouldn't be surprised if the program were further along in secret.

I think you are entirely correct in your assessment vis a vis U.S. military action against Iran. A full-scale ground invasion is simply out of the question. The only viable military option IMO is a Serbia-style air and cruise missile war against Iranian strategic assets, not necessarily limited to their nuclear facilities. Special Ops forces can be used for point attacks where necessary, as well as a naval blockade, although this too is not without its risks, given Iran's surface-to-ship missile capability, courtesy of the Chinese. But even this military option would have small chance of success. The Iranians have certainly planned for a full out air strike and have decentralized their nuclear production facilities. This probably includes low tech - low cost disinformation and deception facilities, a tactic that U.S. adversaries have become quite good at. NATO forces, for instance, bombed many Serbian cardboard tanks to smithereens! The Russians are extremely skilled at deception and have certainly taught the Iranians many tricks.

Thus, the only aim of a military strike against Iran would be to make it too painful for them to continue their nuclear program, rather than destroy it. Furthermore, it would have to be done with "world" support, and frankly I don't see Russia or China, among others, ever agreeing to this. As you say, the Iranian people would certainly band together against a common enemy, as happened with the Serbs. (The Serbs, at least, are coming around with their steps toward democracy and integration into the EU, and even seem to understand now that NATO had to do what it had to do. The one huge problem remaining with Serbia is the issue of Kosovo; I'm afraid they have lost that territory to the Albanians).

As for Israeli action, I simply see no way. Besides the completely disadvantageous geopolitical considerations, any Israeli air strikes would have to be suicide missions with no guarantee that the real targets would be destroyed and their objectives met.

The more we step back and look at the Iranian problem, the more I'm convinced that the only solution is regime change from within, which could include support of dissident groups, black ops maybe, and of course bombarding them with Western media, information and commerce. Supporting and fomenting such change is something the U.S. has never been too good at.

Tlaloc said...

"James, I don't know what stage the U.S. is at in developing nuclear bunker busters. The unclassified word is that they are "being developed", but I wouldn't be surprised if the program were further along in secret."


ummmm, the *nuclear* bunker buster project was supposedly canceled. Conventional bunker buster munitions exist and I believe are already field deployed.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4377446.stm



"As for Israeli action, I simply see no way. Besides the completely disadvantageous geopolitical considerations, any Israeli air strikes would have to be suicide missions with no guarantee that the real targets would be destroyed and their objectives met."

Not to mention that Israel is in political upheaval at the moment with the creation of a new party and Sharon's strokes.

tbmbuzz said...

the *nuclear* bunker buster project was supposedly canceled. Conventional bunker buster munitions exist and I believe are already field deployed.

Looks like you're correct, Tlaloc. This certainly didn't hit the top of the news last October.