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Target Iran - Air Strike Uncertainties

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 Iran's 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 Iran's 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.



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