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Asia Times February 03, 2005

US keeps the powder dry

By David Isenberg

The debate over Iran's alleged nuclear-weapons program remains contentious. On Saturday Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said he lacked useful intelligence on Iran's nuclear program and urged states that accuse Tehran of seeking an atomic bomb to provide evidence.

"There's a lot of talk about somebody believes that Iran has a nuclear-weapons program. We cannot work on the basis of belief, we have to work on the basis of fact," ElBaradei said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "If people have information on the basis of which they are coming to the conclusion that this is a weapons program, I'd like very much for them to share with us."

But if one has learned anything from the previous four years of the Bush administration, it is that there are times when you should take it at its word. Not on the issue of how it perceives the world or a country, or even if it has its facts straight, but rather what it intends to do about something it considers a threat.

Thus when it says that Iran's ambition to build nuclear weapons is something that can't be allowed, people should listen.

Currently, the establishment spin is that the United States would not conceive of attacking Iran, either because of political fallout - as if that deterred the US from invading Iraq - or because the US military is over-extended and too bloodied from fighting the ongoing insurgency in Iraq.

For example, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote in the Washington Post of January 27, "US military action against the Iranians is not a realistic option. Pentagon and State Department sources say a single blow could not eliminate Iran's nuclear capability, and an attempted change of regime in Tehran would entail a military effort the United States cannot undertake."

But from a US military perspective, the aim in Iran is markedly different. They are not seeking "regime change", though there are neo-conservative cheerleaders calling for it. What they would be called on to do is destroy, or at a minimum substantially set back for many years, Iran's nuclear-weapons program.

This, of course, is something that would be done through air power, which is a preference for the Pentagon. As such it is a military option that is both attractive and doable. Unlike the US Army and Marine Corps, the US Air Force has emerged from Operation Iraqi Freedom largely unscathed. Its assets, in terms of attack aircraft, are plentiful, and since the September 11, 2001, attacks it has acquired the use of many new bases in or close to the region.

For example, the group GlobalSecurity.org, in Alexandria, Virginia, has the best open-source analysis of the military feasibility of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. It notes that there are perhaps two dozen suspected nuclear facilities in Iran. The 1,000-megawatt Bushehr nuclear plant would likely be the target of such strikes. Also, the suspected nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak would likely be targets of an air attack.

US air strikes on Iran would vastly exceed the scope of the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak 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 US, 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.

Satellite imagery from Diego Garcia, taken after the tsunami that devastated parts of Asia on December 26, posted on GlobalSecurity's website, showed multiple aircraft, including nine B-1 bombers. Also, B-52s and B-2s from the continental US could be used. The US also has aircraft at Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

GlobalSecurity.org director John Pike said, "I don't think that such a large campaign would be required. Most people who have thought about it seem to conclude that hundreds of bombs on one day, rather than thousands of bombs over a week, would do the trick."

Pike predicted that the US would seek to carry out a strike by next year, or even by the end of this year. He noted that a strike would not prevent Iran from starting over, but it might set the program back 15-20 years. He said, "You would especially do damage if you target the housing which is co-located by the facilities." Such housing is where foreign scientists and technicians reside.

If conventional military action is taken it would likely involve US Navy assets capable of launching Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMS) and strike aircraft against targets in southern and central Iran.

According to a January 2004 study by the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, nearly all fighter aircraft, both in the US Air Force and Navy, can deliver precision munitions, such as GBU-28 laser-guided bombs and the AGM-86D conventional air-launched cruise missile Block II for use against hardened and/or buried facilities.

In that regard, it bears noting that United Press International reported last week that the US Air Force is flying combat aircraft into Iranian airspace in an attempt to lure Tehran into turning on its air-defense radars, thus allowing American pilots to grid the system for use in future targeting data.

The flights, which have been going on for weeks, are being launched from sites in Afghanistan and Iraq and are part of the Bush administration's attempts to collect badly needed intelligence on Iran's possible nuclear-weapons development sites, these sources said.

However, overt military action is not the only option available to the US. Other measures include harassment or murder of key Iranian scientists or technicians; introduction of fatal design flaws into the critical reactor, centrifuge or weapons components during their production, to ensure catastrophic failure during use; disruption or interdiction of key technology or material transfers through sabotage or covert military actions on land, in the air or at sea; and sabotage of critical facilities by US intelligence assets, including third-country nationals or Iranian agents with access to key facilities.

Such covert options would be consistent with Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker that secret reconnaissance operations have already begun inside Iran, as the Pentagon prepares target lists of nuclear sites that could be attacked from the air or by ground-based commando units.

Reliable intelligence is probably the most daunting challenge military planners face. It is far from clear that their assessment of Iran's nuclear infrastructure is complete. GlobalSecurity notes that 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 will continue in operation even if the visible facilities are destroyed.

Being able to do something, however, does not mean one should do it. The study noted that preventive action by the US against Iran's nuclear program today would have to contend with intelligence, military-technical and political challenges more daunting than those faced by Israel in 1991.

Successful US prevention would require exceptionally complete intelligence; near flawless military execution; and deft post-strike diplomacy to mitigate an anti-American nationalist backlash, deter retaliation and, most important, ensure that military action does not poison pro-American sentiment, or derail the movement for political change in Iran. The complex, daunting and somewhat contradictory nature of these challenges (eg, successful prevention could harm short-term prospects for political change and complicate long-term prospects for rapprochement with a new Iran) only underscores the importance of exhausting diplomatic actions before giving serious consideration to military action.

If the United States does attack Iran it likely will be entirely on its own. On November 5, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the United Kingdom could not see a circumstance that would allow it to support such an air strike by the US, Israel, or any other force on Iran at this time.

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues. The views expressed are his own.


Copyright 2005, Asia Times