In 2007, America’s intelligence agencies delivered a National Intelligence Estimate to President Bush declaring: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” As the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) makes clear, Iran did indeed end its “structured” nuclear-weapons program. Kudos to the intel agencies for spotting this change. Where they did much less well was in spotting that the “structured” nuclear-weapons program was transitioned into an “unstructured” nuclear-weapons program.
One might wonder what the difference between a “structured” and an “unstructured” program might be. Well, the “structured” program was consolidated under the “AMAD Plan” and coordinated by the “Orchid Office.” In 2003, Iran halted the AMAD Plan and closed the Orchid Office. A few weeks later, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — the head of the Orchid Office — opened the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies (SADAT) and began coordinating nuclear-weapons research in an “unstructured” way. There you have it. All it took to fool the best and the brightest in U.S. intelligence was changing the nameplates on the door. This February, apparently worried that U.S. intelligence had finally found him out, Fakhrizadeh doubled down and renamed his nuclear-weapons research team the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. That should keep America’s spies running in circles for another few years.
In the meantime, Iran will get on with the serious business of building a nuclear weapon. According to the report released by the IAEA last week, Iran never ceased its nuclear program and is continuing it now at full throttle. The IAEA, not known for ever sounding the alarm early, is now convinced that Iran has been concealing nuclear-weapons activities for most of the last decade, including such things as:
• Construction of a secret nuclear-power plant at Darkhovin and a new nuclear-enrichment facility near Qom, along with construction of ten additional enrichment facilities, of which only five have been found by international inspectors.
• Enrichment of Iran’s uranium stockpile to a level of up to 20 percent U-235. As the IAEA has not found or been shown any evidence that this level of enrichment is for peaceful uses, its analysts assume the enriched uranium is part of a weapons program.
• Ongoing secret research and studies into technical areas whose only purpose would be as part of a weapons program, including: the development of exploding bridgewire detonators; re-engineering of the payload chamber of the Shahab-3 missile re-entry vehicle to fit a nuclear warhead; and a project to create suitable metals for the high temperatures a ballistic missile would face upon re-entry into the atmosphere
• Acquisition of nuclear-weapons design information from Libya in 2004, and more advanced designs in recent years from other sources.
• The development in 2008 of “exploding bridgewire devices” (EBW) that achieved a simultaneity of one microsecond. That is, the Iranians have created a system capable of compressing nuclear fuel to the point of ignition (an explosion). Although there are very limited uses of EBWs for peaceful purposes, Iran has not shown the IAEA any ongoing projects requiring an EBW capability.
• Continued secret research into a hemispherical initiation system to optimize a multipoint initiation design required for nuclear-weapons applications.
• Hydrodynamic experiments involving high explosives in conjunction with nuclear-material surrogates, which are consistent with known methods of nuclear-weapons development.
• The manufacture of neutron initiators, which are an essential component of a nuclear-weapons system and have no possible peaceful use.
Only fools and the willfully obtuse still believe Iran is not working on a nuclear bomb. In fact, the Iranians are probably much closer to having a bomb than even many pessimists have credited. The question now is: What are the United States and the world going to do about it? Continuing along the path we have been on for a decade would mean accepting that Iran will soon have the bomb. Sanctions, cyber attacks, and targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists have slowed but not stopped Iran’s pursuit of the bomb. There is little chance that more of the same is going to deter the mullahs.
Quite a number of international specialists claim that our best option is to learn to live with and contain a nuclear Iran. Even if the United States found such an option acceptable, Israel is unlikely to do so. If the Holocaust taught the Jews anything, it is that, if someone says he is going to kill you, it is best to take him at his word. As Iran has a long record of threatening Israel with fiery annihilation, only a foolhardy Israeli government would allow it the wherewithal to do so without at least taking a stab at ending the threat.
Even apart from the threat to Israel, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a catastrophe. At the very least, with the nuclear genie out of the bottle, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt would go nuclear at speed, and there is no guarantee it would end there. No one can much look forward to an era in which the nations of the most volatile region of the world were armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.
It should be recognized that an American or Israeli strike at the Iranian nuclear program is not without risk. Iran could attack oil facilities in the region, launch a global terror campaign, close, at least temporarily, the Straits of Hormuz, and make life more difficult for our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, after weighing the risks, I believe the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran is incalculably worse.
Can America destroy Iran’s nuclear program? The answer is an unequivocal yes. This may come as a surprise, since we have so often heard the opposite. For instance, many commentators claim that Iran’s program is so distributed that we cannot take it out in a single strike. So what? First, even a distributed program will have a relatively small number of crucial nodes. If those are taken out, the entire Iranian program will grind to a halt. More importantly, why are we limited to a single strike?
Another common objection is that the most important facilities are buried so deep as to make them impervious to bombing. Even if this is true, which is unlikely, of what use is a facility without power and buried under a few hundred yards of rubble and loose earth?
The most commonly used excuse for non-action, however, is that an American military strike would only cause the Iranians to redouble their efforts. Really? In any case, is there some rule against our blowing up their “redoubled” program a year or two from now? Is there not a point where even the Iranians will tire of seeing hundred-billion-dollar investments repeatedly turned into rubbish?
Moreover, there is recent evidence that the United States would not have to go it alone on such a strike. Last week the Pentagon announced that it was sending 4,900 JDAM bombs to the United Arab Emirates. These precision bunker-busting bombs are ideally suited for striking at Iran’s nuclear facilities. The UAE has also recently taken delivery of 80 F-16 E/F Block 60 aircraft. These are the most advanced F-16s in the world and nearly a match for America’s new F-35s. Still, it would take 60 attacks by each of the UAE’s F-16s to use up 4,900 bombs. One assumes that many of these bombs can be easily transferred for use by American aircraft in the region.
If the United States does make the decision to attack Iran, such a strike must be overwhelming. If we targeted only Iranian nuclear facilities, we would leave ourselves open to the Iranian counterstrikes mentioned above. To limit the chances Iran will be able to do serious damage to the West, any U.S. assault must be aimed at Iran’s command-and-control centers, power stations, airbases, and missile sites, as well as the nation’s murderous leadership. And this is the short list. In all likelihood, an attack on Iran would probably have to be a prolonged air assault over many days or weeks. If we, instead, leave the job of striking Iran to the Israelis alone, there is no doubt they could destroy the Iranian nuclear program, or at least set it back years. Israel, however, is incapable of launching the kind of sustained attack that could limit Iran’s ability to strike back.
The military option against Iran is fraught with danger, but doing nothing is more so. Last week’s IAEA report makes it clear that the decision cannot be postponed for much longer.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions presented here are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.