Target Iran - Air Strikes
One potential military option that would be available to the United States includes the use of air strikes on Iranian weapons of mass destruction and missile facilities.
In all, there are perhaps two dozen suspected nuclear facilities in Iran. The 1000-megawatt nuclear plant Bushehr would likely be the target of such strikes. According to the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, the spent fuel from this facility would be capable of producing 50 to 75 bombs. Also, the suspected nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak will likely be targets of an air attack.
American air strikes on Iran would vastly exceed the scope of the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osiraq nuclear center in Iraq, and would more resemble the opening days of the 2003 air campaign against Iraq. Using the full force of operational B-2 stealth bombers, staging from Diego Garcia or flying direct from the United States, possibly supplemented by F-117 stealth fighters staging from al Udeid in Qatar or some other location in theater, the two-dozen suspect nuclear sites would be targeted.
Military planners could tailor their target list to reflect the preferences of the Administration by having limited air strikes that would target only the most crucial facilities in an effort to delay or obstruct the Iranian program or the United States could opt for a far more comprehensive set of strikes against a comprehensive range of WMD related targets, as well as conventional and unconventional forces that might be used to counterattack against US forces in Iraq.
The annual intelligence assessment presented to Israel's Knesset on 21 July 2004 noted that Iran's nuclear program is the biggest threat facing Israel, "Maariv" and "Yediot Aharonot" reported on 22 July 2004. Some Likud and Labor Knesset members subsequently called for a preemptive strike against the Iranian nuclear facility. Former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh (Labor) said, "If the international community's helplessness in the face of the Iranian threat persists, Israel will have to weigh its steps -- and soon." Ehud Yatom (Likud) said, "The Iranian nuclear facilities must be destroyed, just as we did the Iraqi reactor. We must strive to attain the ability to damage and destroy any nuclear capability that might be directed against Israel." On 08 September 2004 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the international community has not done enough to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and warns that Israel will take its own measures to defend itself. He also said Iranian officials have made it clear they seek the destruction of the Jewish state. Israeli Air Force pilots have been practicing attacks on a scale model of the Bushehr reactor in the Negev Desert.
The Israeli Air Force received the first two of 25 F-15I [I for Israel, no Iran] Raíam (Thunder) aircraft, the Israeli version of the F-15E Strike Eagle, in January 1998, and as of early 2004 had an inventory of 25 aircraft. According to the Israeli Air Force, this aircraft has a range of 4,450 km, which equates to a combat radius of 2,225 km. Deliveries of the F-16I Sufa (Storm) began in early 2004. This heavily modified aircraft, with massive conformal fuel tanks, has a reported combat radius of 2,100 km. Probable strike targets such as Bushehr and Esfahan lie about 1,500 km from Israel.
The 2,060-km strike on the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters in Tunis in October 1985, in retaliation for the murder of three Israelis on a yacht in Cyprus, was the IAF's furthest attack from home to date. The F-16s which bombed the Iraqi reactor in 1981 were not refueled and returned home on their last drops of fuel.
It would be difficult for Israel to strike at Iran without American knowledge, since the mission would have to be flown through American [formerly Iraqi] air space. Even if the United States did not actively participate with operations inside Iranian air space, the US would be a passive participant by virtue of allowing Israeli aircraft unhindered passage. In the eyes of the world, it would generally appear to be a joint US-Israeli enterprise, any denials notwithstanding. Indeed, it is quite probable that Iran would not be able to readily determine the ultimate origins of the strike, given Iran's relatively modest air defense capabilities. Thus, even if the strike were entirely of American origin, Israel would be implicated. When asked in August 2004 about Israeli threats to attack Iran, Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, declined to say whether the United States would support such action by Israel.
In an 08 September 2004 interview in the "Jerusalem Post" newspaper, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the international community has not done enough to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and warns that Israel will take its own measures to defend itself. Sharon said there was no doubt that Iran is trying to obtain nuclear weapons and is doing so by "deception and subterfuge." He said international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions had not been sufficient. Sharon calls for increased pressure and supervision of Iran's nuclear program and said the issue should be brought before the UN Security Council for sanctions to be levied against Tehran. Sharon said Israel would take steps to defend itself against the Iranian threat. He did not elaborate.
Even though the uranium facility at Natanz has been buried underground, it remains vulnerable. As Lieutenant Colonel Eric M. Sepp noted, "The "cut-and-cover" facilities are constructed by digging a hole, inserting a facility, and then covering it up with dirt and rocks. These cut-and-cover facilities can be just below the surface of the ground or may reach a depth of perhaps 100 feet, and represent the vast majority of underground facilities today. In the case of contemporary cut-and-cover facilities, there is no question that conventional munitions can defeat them."
The air strikes option does have the same problems that one would face in North Korea, namely that Iran has a rather significant air defense capability which could complicate use plans. However, unlike North Korea, Iran is not in a position to hold US soldiers or allied civilian populations (Iraq) hostage. A full-scale Iranian military retaliation, though possible, is highly unlikely, especially with the significant US force presence in Iraq. It is possible that Iran could use its ballistic missiles to strike US or allied targets throughout the Persian Gulf region, and in fact Iranian officials have explicitly promised to do just that.
One major uncertainty concerning the probability of disarming preventive strike against Iran's nuclear infrastructure is the question of American and Israeli assessments of their confidence in their assessments of the completeness of their understanding of Iran's nuclear infrastructure. It will be recalled that when the US contemplated striking China's nuclear infrastructure in mid-1964, prior to China's first nuclear test, their were doubts about the completeness of US intelligence. In fact, the US was surprised when China detonated a uranium bomb, since the US had overestimated the progress of China's plutonium program, and seriously underestimated the progress of China's uranium enrichment program.
Iran's partners -- North Korea and Pakistan -- present contrasting studies in clandestine facilities. It appears that US intelligence has incomplete intelligence concerning some aspects of North Korea's plutonium program [mainly relating to whether there are undetected reprocessing facilities], and almost complete ignorance of the whereabouts of the DPRK's uranium program. The missing facilities are presumably at hidden underground locations. It is generally believed that Pakistan's major nuclear material production facilities are above ground and reasonably well characterized.
Iran appears to have a complete copy of Pakistan's fissile material production complex -- uranium conversion, uranium enrichment, heavy water production, and a heavy water plutonium production reactor. Elements of these facilities have been hardened against attack, notably the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, which has been buried under a thick layer of earth. All of these facilities are heavily defended by anti-aircraft missiles and guns.
One cannot exclude the possibility, however, that some or all of the visible nuclear weapons complex is simply a decoy, designed to draw attention. It is possible that Iran, like North Korea and unlike Pakistan, has buried nuclear weapons production capabilities that have escaped detection, and would continue in operation even if the visible facilities were destroyed. There are persistent rumors of such hidden facilities, but little in the way of circumstantial evidence to give credence to these rumors.
Amrom Katz, a shrewd arms control analyst at Rand Corporation many years ago, said, "We have never found anything that the Soviets have successfully hidden" [ Verification and SALT: The Challenge of Strategic Deception, W.C. Potter, Ed. (Westview, Boulder, CO, 1980), p 212). The issue for attack planners is how many undetected facilities have been successfully hidden in Iran.
Assessing the probability of the existence of a parallel clandestine program must take into account probable Iranian strategies for successful completion of their weapons acquisition effort. There has been essentially no detectable discussion of this question in the open literature, which is something of a puzzle in itself. That is to say, is everything unfolding as they had foreseen, or have things gone badly off track?
* Iran may have [naively] assumed that the massive underground facilities at Natanz would escape detection, as would the other above ground facilities, and that there would be no need to declare their various other facilities to the international community. Under this scenario, now that these facilities have been detected, the rather thin cover stories for their various facilities would be proven inadequate, and one might hope that sweet reason might convince Iran to reconsider its commitment to nuclear weapons.
* Iran may have understood very clearly from the outset that its above ground facilities would be detected not too long after construction began. Indeed, the uranium conversion facility at Esfahan is at a site that was selected for such a capacity at the outset of the Shah's nuclear program in the 1970s, a fact that must have rendered this piece of real estate a suspect site long before actual construction began. The construction activity at Natanz and Arak would be visible even in 10-meter resolution wide-area imagery, so there could have been no realistic hope that these facilities would escape notice by the obscurity of their location. Although it is possible that the Iranians completely miscalculated the detective powers of the US and Israel, this does not seem plausible. Thus one must assume that Iran foresaw the crisis that would arise when their plans became clear, and planned accordingly.
1. Iran may have assumed that the US and Israel would lack the political resolve to strike at even a highly visible program, and that some combination of diplomatic pressure from Europe and the fear of Iranian retaliation would stay the hands of the Americans and Israelis. Iran may have assumed that other countries would be prepared to live with a "nearly nuclear" Iran, with a fissile material production complex under international supervision, though one which could be quickly converted to weapons production if the need arose. As of late 2004 Iran's leaders appeared to believe the gap between the US and Europe created a "security margin" for Tehran that would prevent any serious action against the Islamic Republic, whether in the form of Security Council sanctions or direct military action.
2. Iran may have believed from the outset that some combination of the United States and Israel would almost certainly develop and implement a high confidence disarming strike. In this case, there would have been compelling reasons to "dig tunnels deep", and bury their program from prying eyes. Under these circumstances, however, it is difficult to understand why Iran would have gone to the trouble of building the above ground facilities, knowing that they would create a host of problems.
3. Iran may have been unable to resolve this matter, and may have elected to build parallel above ground and underground programs. In the best case, this would augment their ultimate capabilities, and in the worst case it would provide them with a nuclear weapons capability even in the face of attempts at disarming military strikes. The above ground program would provide convincing evidence of Iran's ability to undertake the industrial scale production needed to develop a credible stockpile of dozens of weapons. Even if the overt infrastructure were destroyed, the fact of the existence of the residual underground facilities at an undisclosed location, could be credibly communicated to the outside world.
A September 2004 analysis by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center concluded that, "As for eliminating Iranís nuclear capabilities militarily, the U.S. and Israel lack sufficient targeting intelligence to do this. In fact, Iran has long had considerable success in concealing its nuclear activities from U.S. intelligence analysts and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors (the latter recently warned against assuming the agency could find all of Iranís illicit uranium enrichment activities). As it is, Iran could have already hidden all it needs to reconstitute a bomb program assuming its known declared nuclear plants are hit."
But the preponderance of evidence and reasoning leads to the assumption that there is no underground nuclear infrastructure, and that the above ground infrastructure constitutes Iran's nuclear weapons program.
As some of the facilities are still under construction and not yet active the United States may have a window of opportunity that would allow it to destroy those locations without causing the environmental problems associated with the destruction of an active nuclear reactor.
The window of opportunity for disarming strikes against Iran will begin to close in 2005. It appears that the Uranium conversion facility in Esfahan will begin operation some time in 2005, as will the heavy water production plant at Arak. Barring further delays, the fuel for the reactor at Bushehr is also slated to be delivered in 2005, with reactor operations commencing some months after delivery. Significant Uranium enrichment could begin at Natanz in 2006, and plutonium production could begin at Arak by 2010.
Israeli Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash) announced on TV Channel 1 in mid-August 2003: "We think that next summer, if Iran is not stopped, it will reach self-sufficiency and this is the point of no return. After this self-capability, it will take them some two years to make a nuclear bomb," When asked about reports of a preemptive attack, Ze'evi responded: "I don' t think that it is correct to speak of military capabilities at this TV studio."
Israelís defence minister Shaul Mofaz delivered a warning of "unprecedented severity" during a November 2003 visit to the United States. Mofaz stated that "under no circumstances would Israel be able to tolerate nuclear weapons in Iranian possession". He said that in the course of the next year Iranís drive for nuclear weapons would "reach the point of no return". Meir Dagan, the head of Israelís secret services, Mossad, stated that nuclear weapons in Iran represented the greatest threat Israel had faced since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. Addressing Israelís foreign affairs and defence committee, he added that Iran's nuclear capabilities would threaten not only Israel but Europe as well.
Some sources suggest that Iran could complete development of its first nuclear weapon in 2005. US Undersecretary of State John Bolton has said Teheran told Britain, France and Germany that Iran could enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon within a year. "If we permit Iran's deception to go on much longer, it will be too late," Bolton told the Hudson Institute on 17 August 2004. "Iran will have nuclear weapons."
An annual Israeli intelligence assessment delivered to the government officials on 21 July 2004 estimated that Iran could have a nuclear bomb by 2008, Ma'ariv" reported on 22 July 2004. According to this report, the assessment concluded that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons represented the greatest threat to Israel. This press report claimed that the assessment contended that international nuclear inspections in Iran had stalled the progress of Tehran's uranium-enrichment program by two or three years. This report claimed that enrichment has a long maturation process and, once halted, must be started again from scratch. Israeli Defense Force intelligence had previously claimed that Iran could have a nuclear capability by 2005.
Available US Forces
Many aircraft are still in the region supporting Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The United States had aircraft at multiple locations throughout the Persian Gulf, including Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Diego Garcia. While the number of aircraft in the region has declined significantly since the end of major hostilities in Iraq, the United States continues to have some number of F-15Es, F-16s, naval aircraft, and some unidentified number of heavy bombers in the region.
Information regarding how many aircraft are actually in the Persian Gulf region is scant as units are returning to the United States and it is not clear if units are being sent as replacements. By mid-June 2003 there were no longer any AWACs in region and stealth aircraft had long since departed for the United States. Insufficient information regarding available aircraft makes it impossible to predict how many Joint Direct Attack Munition capable aircraft were available for strikes and how many potential aim points this would provide to mission planners.
Redeploying US forces to the region would take a small amount of time, but the absence of significant numbers of stealth aircraft, early warning aircraft, and other assets by September 2004 was a possible indicator that the United States was not actively considering the air strike option. The US had postured a number of strike aircraft to attack North Korea during the first half of 2003, and might make similar preparations in anticipation of a strike against Iran. Alternately, the US might wish to retain the element of surprise, and use heavy bomber forces staging directly from the United States.
Since the end of major hostilities in Iraq the United States has typically kept one aircraft carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf region in support of Iraqi Freedom. Tomahawk cruise missiles deployed on cruisers, destroyers, and submarines could also be used to strike fixed locations. A Carrier Strike Group would typically have about 500 verticle launch system cells, which could mean that roughly 250 Tomahawks would be available for tasking.
On 15 July 2004 William S. Lind suggested that "an American-Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Such an attack may very well be on the agenda as the "October Surprise," the distraction President George W. Bush desperately needs if the debacle in Iraq is not to lead to his defeat in November."
On 18 July 2004, the Sunday Times of London reported that the Israeli Air Force had completed preparations for striking the Bushehr reactor, and would do so if Russia supplied Iran with the fuel for the facility. An Israeli defense source, who claimed that mission rehearsals had taken place, was quoted as saying, "Israel will on no account permit the Iranian reactors ó especially the one being built in Bushehr with Russian help ó to go critical. ... If the worst comes to the worst and international efforts fail, we are very confident we'll be able to demolish the ayatollah's nuclear aspirations in one go."
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, warned that any aggression against Iranian "scientific" establishments would prompt the Islamic Republic to strike at the "enemy's" interests around the globe.
Iranian Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi said in the northeastern city of Gorgan on 25 July 2004 that there is a "weak" possibility that archfoe Israel will attack Iran, Fars News Agency reported the same day. "Still, Iran has thought of the measures needed to repulse all attacks," he said. Separately, the head of the Iranian regular army's land forces, Brigadier General Nasir Mohammadifar, said in Mashhad in northeastern Iran on 25 July, "America would have attacked Iran by now if it were sure it could defeat us." Mohammadifar told a gathering of army inspectors that the United States is "intensely aware" of its "absolute" inability to attack Iran. Also on 25 July 2004, Seyed Masood Jazayeri, commander of Iranís Revolutionary Guards, warned that if Israel attacks, "it will be wiped off the face of the earth."
Brig. Gen. Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, the deputy chief of the elite Revolutionary Guards, said in a statement issued 17 August 2004, "If Israel fires a missile into the Bushehr nuclear power plant, it has to say goodbye forever to its Dimona nuclear facility, where it produces and stockpiles nuclear weapons." The head of the Revolutionary Guards' political bureau, Yadollah Javani, said said in a separate statement that "All the territory under the control of the Zionist regime, including its nuclear facilities, are within the range of Iran's advanced missiles." With Israel now covered by the Shihab missile, he said, "neither the Zionist regime nor America will carry out its threats."
Iranian presidential adviser Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur commented on events in Al-Najaf in a 19 August 2004 interview with Al-Jazeera television. "We consider this a war between infidelity and Islam. The United States is the spearhead of infidelity. Naturally, we condemn this escalation by the Americans.... We condemn this big massacre against Muslims in Iraq." A day earlier he addressed this topic in an interview with ISNA. He said, "America, its supporters, and international Zionism" will target other Islamic countries if they succeed in Iraq and Palestine, and he accused them of pursuing an anti-Islamic "vendetta."
Iran might launch pre-emptive strikes to protect its nuclear facilities if they are threatened, Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani said in remarks broadcast on 20 August 2004 . "We won't sit with our hands tied and wait until someone does something to us," Shamkhani told Arabic channel Al Jazeera when asked what Iran would do if the United States or Israel attacked its atomic facilities. "Some military leaders in Iran are convinced that the pre-emptive measures that America is talking about are not their right alone," he added in Persian. "Any strike on our nuclear facilities will be regarded as a strike on Iran and we will respond with all our might."
Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani said "Where Israel is concerned, we have no doubt that it is an evil entity, and it will not be able to launch any military operation without an American green light. You cannot separate the two. ... The US military presence (in Iraq) will not become an element of strength (for Washington) at our expense. The opposite is true, because their forces would turn into a hostage" in Iranian hands in the event of an attack.
"The statements of the defence minister have not been reported accurately ó to some extent they have been altered," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reze Asefi was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA. But Asefi said there had been "misinterpretations", adding, "Mr Shamkhani said that we would defend our territory and national interests and would allow no one to attack the Islamic republic.
Israel's chief of staff, General Moshe Ya'alon, said that Iran's nuclear development must be halted before it proceeds much further. He told the Israeli daily "Yediot Ahronot" that "Iran is striving for nuclear capability and I suggest that in this matter [Israel] not rely on others." "If Iran has nuclear capability," said Gen. Ya'alon, "it would be a different Middle East. Moderate states would become more extreme."
Israel's "Yediot Aharonot" newspaper reported on 23 August that Israeli officials are skeptical about Iranian claims that the completion of the Bushehr nuclear reactor will be delayed by one year. According to the Israeli daily, Israeli and US satellite imagery shows that the water pipes needed to cool the reactor were installed in 2002, and "according to Israeli experts, that is proof that the reactor has reached the point where it is being prepared for operation." An anonymous "Israeli expert" claimed that the "Iranians are conducting a massive cover-up about the reactor."
In mid-Sepetmber 2004 Military Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, told an international symposium organized by the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism, in Herzliya, "The challenge is not just Israel's. ... We have the international community to deal with it either politically (or) economically (to) convince Iran to give up its project. ... If not we'll have to do again our assessment."
The military's deputy chief of general staff, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, said in an interview with the Yediot Aharonot newspaper on 14 September 2004 that Israel will wait for the international community to stop Iran's nuclear program "until we reach the point in which we shall have to rely on ourselves. ... In terms of (its) technological capability, Iran will have such a capability within one to three years, depends whom you ask ... If you add this to their ideology which says that Israel must be wiped off (the face) of the earth, a nuclear capability should worry (us)."
"If the state decides that a military solution is required, then the military has to provide a solution," said Israel's new Air Force chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Elyezer Shkedy, in a newspaper interview in mid-Sepetmber 2004. "For obvious reasons," he added, "we aren't going to speak of specifics."
The Israeli Haaretz newspaper reported on Sept. 21, 2004, that the United States was planning on selling $319 million's worth of munitions to Israel. The sale would call for the delivery of nearly 5,000 smart bombs, and would include reportedly 2,500 1-ton bombs, 500 250lbs. bombs 850 JDAM kits, as well as 500 JDAM-guided BLU-109 "bunker busters". These munitions would be adequate to address the full range of Iranian targets, with the possible exception of the buried facility at Natanz. This might require the BLU-113 bunker busters. This penetrator can through 20 feet of concrete and when dropped onto hard ground, can penetrate down to 100 feet.
During the First Presidential Debate on 30 September 2004, John Kerry said "Iran and North Korea are now more dangerous. Now, whether preemption is ultimately what has to happen, I don't know yet."