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San Francisco Chronicle January 25, 2006

Experts doubt expediency of attacking Iran

By Anna Badkhen

If all else fails in the attempt to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear capability, would the United States, or perhaps Israel, as some have suggested, resort to military force? And would such an option succeed?

While European officials trying to find a diplomatic solution have said the military option is "off the table" and the United States has urged that the matter be taken up with the U.N. Security Council, both Vice President Dick Cheney and Israel's defense minister, Saul Mofaz, have said the possibility of a military strike should not be dismissed.

But military analysts are split on whether America has the means to take out a nascent nuclear program that Washington has deemed a national security threat.

Some are skeptical that a bombing or missile strike would destroy Iran's suspected nuclear weapons plants rather than merely setting back the program, parts of which Tehran likely has hidden in different parts of the vast, mountainous country in anticipation of such attacks, according to intelligence analysts.

"We can define a target set that we want to take out in the name of delaying Iran's nuclear development, and we're perfectly capable of taking out that target set," said Flynt Leverett, an expert on Iran at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution and the former senior director for the Middle East Initiative at the National Security Council.

"The question is, what have you accomplished by taking out those targets?" he asked.

Analysts and politicians often cite Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirik in 1981 as a precedent for a pre-emptive strike. But Tehran has probably learned the lessons of Iraq's experience, when U.S.-made Israeli F-15 and F-16 jets blasted the reactor near Baghdad with 2,000-pound bombs, destroying the facility in less than two minutes, said Richard Russell, a Middle East specialist at the Defense Department's National Defense University.

Instead of one major facility, intelligence analysts believe Iran has as many as 20 nuclear facilities dispersed throughout a country larger than Alaska. It is possible that Iran has hidden and fortified some -- or even most -- of its nuclear facilities underground.

"It's a difficult targeting package," said Russell. "You can set them back, but ... much of what we can destroy, the Iranians can reconstitute domestically."

Speculation about possible military options has grown in recent days after Iran defied the international community by deciding to renew its uranium enrichment efforts. President Bush said on Monday that the West could be "blackmailed" if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon.

In response, Washington and the European Union want the U.N. Security Council to consider economic sanctions against Tehran. But that drive has been slowed by Russian resistance to pressing the case against Iran and by the Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, which is refusing to speedily issue a report condemning Iran's nuclear activities.

Iran denies that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, insisting that its nuclear research aims only to develop reactors that would produce electricity for civilian use.

While stopping short of making direct threats, American politicians appear to have kept open the option of a military strike.

"No president should ever take the military option off the table," Cheney said last week when asked about Iran. "Let's leave it there."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a likely presidential candidate in 2008, said that "there is only one thing worse than ... exercising the military option (against Iran). That is a nuclear-armed Iran. The military option is the last option but cannot be taken off the table."

But U.S. intelligence, which faces a credibility problem after claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction proved false, may not have the full picture of Iran's nuclear facilities either, said Russell.

"We know about the big infrastructure, but the question is, what don't we know about it? We should assume that we suffer from grave, grave shortcomings on intelligence about Iran," he said.

If attacked, Iran is likely to retaliate against American and Israeli targets in the region, warned Joseph Cirincione, the director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. If American troops remained in Iraq, they would become easy targets for Iranian bombers who could sneak in through the porous Iraq-Iran border.

"Even a limited strike on Iranian targets could have ... military or political consequences in Iraq," said Cirincione.

Iranian forces also could launch strikes against U.S. diplomatic missions in the Gulf region or even carry out terrorist attacks within the United States, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military think-tank in Washington.

"It's risky because both sides have the capacity to escalate," Pike said.

Although Israel has the military capacity to strike Iran's potential nuclear sites, and although a nuclear Iran is a much more acute threat to Israel than to Washington, military analysts agree that if there were an attack against Iran, it would be carried out by the United States.

"I don't think it is right for Israel to act alone," said Avi Dichter, former Shin Bet director and a candidate for the Israeli parliament. "Israel has the ability to relay intelligence and insights to (other) countries, which will enable them to act more effectively than Israel."

Any strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would first require destruction of the Iranian air force and anti-aircraft weapons plus the targeting of support infrastructure, such as the Revolutionary Guard facilities. Such operation would take at least "a couple of weeks," Russell estimated.

Iran has F-4- and F-5-type fighter jets, SA-2-type medium- to long-range surface-to-air missiles and short-range surface-to-air missiles and 23mm, double-barrel anti-aircraft guns, according to GlobalSecurity.org. This year, Iran also will purchase Tor-M1 tactical surface-to-air missiles from Russia.

Pike said the Pentagon would have to follow up the air strikes against nuclear and Revolutionary Guard facilities with a ground attack, possibly rolling an armored regiment up Khuzestan, a troubled province in southwestern Iran and home to most of Iran's crude oil reserves and a disenchanted ethnic Arab population. On Tuesday, two bombs exploded in the Khuzestan city of Ahvaz, killing six people and wounding more than 30.

"If we were to respond to the oppressed people of Khuzestan, we would also unburden the mullahs of all of their oil revenue," Pike said.

But if the minority Arabs in Iran might welcome a U.S. intervention, it is doubtful that the rest of Iran's 68 million population would, say other experts. And they doubt that the United States could sustain a ground war in Iran, especially if it still has troops bogged down in Iraq and 30,000 more stationed in South Korea.

"The ground force option is not a viable option." Russell said.

In addition to physical losses resulting from Iran's retaliation, a strike against Iran would have "enormous political consequences" for Washington, which would struggle to get support for an attack against Iran both domestically and internationally, Russell warned.

"It would be an extraordinarily difficult political achievement for the United States to rally international and domestic opinion to support a military option against Iran," Russell warned. "We've spent most of our political capital on Iraq. If push were to come to shove and the Americans were to think of a serious military operation, the Europeans will quickly break ranks, as much as they support our concern on Iran."

European nations share Washington's concern that Iran is on its way to becoming a nuclear power.

An attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would also strengthen the otherwise unpopular government in Tehran, said Pike.

"If I were one of the ayatollahs, I would say: 'Our people have forgotten why we chant "death to America" on Fridays. But after the Americans have blown us up a couple of times, people have come to their senses and given our government the lease on life for at least another generation,' " Pike said.

But Pike said it is possible that the Bush administration has already made up its mind to launch strikes against Iran -- the same way it had made up its mind to attack Iraq months before the war began in 2003.

"For the last 15 years, American governments have said that atomic ayatollahs are unacceptable," he said. "(Today) even if there was a clandestine nuclear program, we can't tolerate the program that we see."

Chronicle Foreign Service reporter Matthew Kalman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.


Copyright 2006, San Francisco Chronicle