Iran to bomb or not to bomb?

Pundits of all stripes, dispositions and encampments are currently engaged in anxious if not frantic analyses of what to do about the nuclear ambitions of Iran and her 'fanatic' (to some 'lunatic') President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To bomb or not to bomb, that is the question.

Robert Kagan in his Washington Post piece 'It's the Regime, Stupid' votes for replacing the Iranian leadership over blasting away at potential nuclear weapons facilities that are on the surface, buried, visible or hidden. Do we know where all these facilities are located? Even if we do, do we have the capability of destroying or at least incapacitating those that are defensively buried?

Mr. Kagan thinks not when he considers President Clinton's uncertain efforts to degrade Saddam's weapons programs through air strikes alone. We still don't know what effect, if any, these bombings had on Iraq's WMD programs.

You can bury them, but you can't hide them

In contrast to the facilities required to produce biological and chemical weapons, nuclear fuel cycle and reprocessing plants are not easily hidden nor built surreptitiously during the dark hours of the diurnal cycle. Detection by satellite of such projects is a near certainty. These facilities are large, expensive and, if hidden, still visible during the construction cycle. You can't have a major construction site without roads, excavation debris, and a whole lot of activity. To have the building of a nuclear materials processing facility remain undetected would demand a very slow 'ship in a bottle' approach to both the excavation and plant construction. Possible, but hardly likely.

Also, buried facilities are not necessarily undetectable. The U.S. has long had the capability to map subsurface geological features using ground penetrating radar. Similar technology will be used to map planetary subsurface features from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These underground 'maps' were used to program guidance and flight path information into cruise missiles before the advent of the GPS system. Unlike surface soil and sand, the sub—surface features are stable and unlikely to be affected by natural forces or human activity. This mode of guidance may still be a backup to GPS and/or inertial systems. We may have the whole country of Iran subterraneanly scouted. A nuclear plant buried under the sand would probably already be on the charts.

If a plant is buried in a mountain, well, I don't believe we have any sensors up to that task. But the Iranians still had to build it. And that would have been extremely expensive and time consuming with the construction cycle still subject to detection. We probably know where the entrances are located. The Iranians and their foreign enablers still have to get themselves and materials in and the product out. Even if one cannot destroy a facility, denying access can be just as effective and may be easier.

We can certainly obliterate any surface facilities. We've shown ourselves to be quite adept at that task while minimizing, though not eliminating, collateral damage. The deeply buried bits? Well, supposedly we've cancelled the development our mini—nuke, super—bunker—buster bomb program. However, that doesn't necessarily mean we don't have any. 

Possible bunker—busters?

Consider this. During the later half of the 1960s the U.S. placed the B61 tactical nuclear weapon into service. One feature of this thermonuclear device was 'dial—a—yield.' Yes, the explosive force of the weapon could be selected on the ground prior to launching the delivering aircraft and ranged from 0.5 kiloton to 345 kilotons. The low end of the scale, the 0.5 kt figure, was a pure fission weapon. No fusion enhancement. So we've had low—yield nukes for quite some time. For the bunker—buster version all one might need is suitable encasement and fusing. As a matter of fact, one model of the B61 even had a ground penetrating delivery and detonation option.

U.S. military commanders and planners have a very good idea as to whether or not we have the ordnance and tactics on hand to take out or render unusable all of Iran's nuclear materials processing facilities. I am in no position to know for certain, but I strongly suspect we have that capability. Knowing were to find them is probably not an issue. If the order's given, we should be able to get the job done.

The consequences

But what would be the consequences? The reaction of the 'Arab Street'? World opinion? The impact on world trade and the economy? Most importantly, how would the Iranians react? Here are two salient considerations and one that lurks in the background.

First, as Doug Hanson pointed out in his Washington Times piece 'The mullahs' war games,' Iran has fortified the island of Abu Musa in the Straits of Hormuz and possesses the capacity to halt the passage of oil tankers through the straits. This would have an immediate and possibly catastrophic impact on oil supplies, prices and the world economy in general. This being the case, the U.S. would probably flatten Abu Musa as well as any Iranian mainland military facilities having the capability to strike shipping in the Gulf, and do so at the same time we launch strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities. This seems an absolute necessity.

Second, military strikes against Iran could have a negative impact on the pro—U.S., pro—democracy, anti—mullah groups within Iran including the large population of younger persons trapped in the suffocating grip of the Iranian theocracy. Military action could destroy the good will of those Iranians pushing for democratic reform. At the very least, it would give the current leadership all the excuse they could ever hope for to further repress anti—regime agitators. Michael Ledeen at the National Review Online has written extensively regarding the forces for democracy at work in Iran. The dissipation of these forces resulting from U.S. military action against Iran and the resulting loss of democratic fervor would be most unfortunate for both ourselves and the Iranian people.

Then there is the question of nuclear weapons. Iranian nukes. Not the ones we're concerned they may obtain, but the ones they may already have.

Iran's nukes

According to English and Egyptian sources the Iranians managed to obtain in 1991, at the start of the Soviet collapse, from between two to five or so tactical nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan. This interesting tidbit is posted at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) web site. NTI is the brainchild of Ted Turner who, along with former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, founded the organization in 2000 with Mr. Turner providing the financing. Now, Mr. Turner may not be among conservatives' top 100 most— admireds, but the organization's '... mission is to strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.' And the site does provide more information than I've found elsewhere about what's been going on in Iran regarding the who, what, when and where of the world's support for Iran's nuclear ambitions.

If Iran does possess those Kazakhian tactical nukes, would they be used if we or the Israelis attacked those troubling nuclear facilities? Against Israel or anyone else? Are they deliverable? Iran has the missiles, but are these hypothetical weapons configured and fused for missile deliver? This is not a trivial issue. One not only needs to detonate the weapon but also trigger it at the right time during the missile's flight. Too soon and the damage would be substantially reduced. Too late and one achieves no more than a small, slightly radioactive crater after the warhead's been damaged by the impact.

Have the Chinese or the Russians provided this technology? I would hope not. But let's not kid ourselves about Putin and his comrades. The Russians must certainly know whether or not the Iranians are actually developing their own nukes. And they probably have a fairly good notion as to whether or not the Iranians are in possession of some old Soviet tactical warheads. I would certainly hope so. If not, we're in a more precarious situation than I would have otherwise thought. Who's got the other warheads the Russians lost track of? That's really scary! If the Russians are unable or unwilling to provide the U.S. with solid intelligence on this issue of missing nukes, the uncertainty level regarding air strikes against Iran goes up another notch.

An attack on Israel?

If the Iranians have the current capacity to launch a nuclear strike against Israel, why haven't they already done so? Given Ahmadinejad's highly publicized pronouncements regarding his axiom that 'Israel must be wiped off the map," one would think it would already be a fait accompli. Two possibilities jump out. Either they don't currently have that capability or there's more posturing to all this bluster than there is substance.

However, there are some legitimate questions regarding Ahmadinejad's mental soundness for the job of Iranian President. Does he really believe that he was 'bathed in a light' as he spoke at the United Nations? Or is all this talk just some nonsensical distraction designed to increase our uncertainty about Ahmadinejad's intentions and capacities? Daniel Pipes seems convinced that Ahmadinejad really is on a mystic's mission. But even if Iran currently does have a nuclear trigger, is Mahmoud's the finger resting upon it? Ahmadinejad's troubling psycho—religious aberrations may thus be entirely irrelevant to the question of any current Iranian nuclear strike capability.

Also, keep in mind that much if not most of what is uttered by the potentates of the world is by design intended to obfuscate rather than enlighten. Does North Korea really have nukes? They haven't popped one, just made a public relations announcement. That doesn't constitute proof. At one point we were faced with nuclear 'brinksmanship' in our struggle with the Soviets. Now, nuclear 'gamesmanship' seems to be breaking out all over the planet.

One would think that neither the Russians nor Chinese wish to have a nuclear exchange break out in the Middle East. I have trouble seeing how such a catastrophe would be an advantage to either of them. So why would they provide the Iranians with the capacity to wage nuclear war by providing the finishing touches to an Iranian nuclear strike capability? This whole situation would be a great deal more tractable if we could trust the Russians and Chinese to be forthcoming and complete in describing what they've actually given the Iranians in the way of nuclear technology. Perhaps they have. 

But I'm not totally comfortable making such an assumption. Call it Cold War hangover. Our 'allies,' the French and the Germans, appear to have been uncooperative and underhanded regarding Iraq, Saddam and the oil—for—food program. Perhaps they knew that Saddam had no WMD. But why spoil the game? There was too much in it for them. The Iraqi people could rot forever in Saddam's hell on earth as long as there was profit to be made. Can we trust our old adversaries the Russians and Chinese Communists to be and do otherwise? If it's in their own long—term interest we can. A non—nuclear Iran probably is.

President Bush may decide to take military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. If so, the failure to resolve the issue without resorting to force will not be entirely nor even mostly the fault of the United States. As they have done with North Korea, the Russians and the Chinese have avoided taking any lead in resolving the Iranian nuclear proliferation issue, thus leaving us to bear the responsibility for actions taken and the condemnation that always seems to follow. Somebody's got to do it. May as well not be them. But support for military action may be forthcoming from some European countries. The Times has urged the British to mentally prepare themselves for that eventuality. It may just not be avoidable. However, as described earlier and by necessity, military strikes will not be limited to just the nuclear facilities.

Since Israel would be the country most at risk should the Iranians currently possess a deliverable nuclear weapon, we should at least seek their concurrence prior to any attack whether or not they participate in a military action against Iran. If we and they are quite certain Iran currently has no nuclear weapons, well, so much the better. Nor should we expect or prefer that Israel take the lead in dealing militarily with Iran's nuclear program. Our credibility in the Middle East as well as the rest of the world regarding U.S. resolve in dealing with terrorists would not be enhanced if we use Israeli surrogates to do our dirty work. And it certainly would not win ourselves nor the Israelis any friends.

To bomb or not to bomb, that is one of this hour's most vexing questions. I don't envy President Bush for having to make that choice. But if it's absolutely necessary, he'll make it. You know that.

So do the Iranians.

Dennis Sevakis is a frequent contributor. At one time he flew fighter jets for the USAF.