Monday, February 28, 2005

Options With Iran, North Korea Are Limited

Greg Jaffe, The Wall Street Journal:
President Bush has branded Iran and North Korea as outlaw nations that shouldn't be allowed nuclear weapons. The tough talk has stirred questions about how far Mr. Bush is willing to go to snuff out the potential danger.

An American strike on North Korean or Iranian nuclear facilities seems far from likely, though. In both countries, Mr. Bush lacks good military options to eliminate or significantly degrade nuclear ambitions. Both are believed to have hidden key elements of their atomic programs, likely making a targeted strike less effective. A full-scale attack on either place could trigger a more devastating response than the U.S. faced in Iraq.

"An invasion in either place would be a nightmare scenario," said Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst, who has studied both countries. "Meanwhile, the options for a surgical strike against either country's nuclear programs have deteriorated significantly in recent years," he added.

White House officials play down talk of imminent military action. In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush raised hopes for a diplomatic solution on the Asian front. As for Iran , the president made a point in Europe last week of saying it was "ridiculous" to think the U.S. was planning a strike there. But he also said he would never take military options off the table.

The U.S. probably would have to rely on manned aircraft to take out both countries' nuclear facilities, which are too large or deeply buried to destroy with Tomahawk missiles. Iran and North Korea also have relatively sophisticated air-defense networks that U.S. aircraft would have to suppress with airstrikes and also evade to take out targets. In both cases, getting out of the country after the strikes, after the enemy knows of the U.S. presence, would be harder than getting in. An even more vexing issue for military planners is figuring out what to hit.

If the U.S. were to try to curb Kim Jong Il's nuclear appetite, the most logical place to strike would be North Korea's main nuclear-reactor complex about 60 miles north of Pyongyang in the town of Yongbyon.

In 1994, senior U.S. officials considered a conventional military strike there. At the time, such a strike would have severely set back much of North Korea's nuclear program. But the option was rejected, in part, because it also would have set off a "military conflict that would have been disastrous for all sides," said former Defense Secretary William J. Perry in a 2003 speech.

Today, the prospects for a military strike against Yongbyon are probably bleaker than they were in 1994. North Korea's foreign ministry last year announced that it had successfully reprocessed almost all of 8,000 spent fuel rods it had been storing at Yongbyon into nuclear-weapons material. This month, it declared it had produced nuclear weapons.

If North Korea isn't bluffing, the nuclear weapons and the weapons-grade plutonium -- enough to produce between two and 12 nuclear devices -- could be hidden almost anywhere in the country, making it harder for the U.S. to destroy them. The U.S. also believes that North Korea has developed a separate, uranium-based effort, but officials say they have no idea where those facilities may be hidden.

The U.S. does seem better equipped today than before to respond to a North Korean conventional military attack. "Our capacity to limit the damage from North Korea's artillery has grown substantially" thanks to precision-guided munitions and better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, said Thomas Mahnken, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Still, he said, the damage to Seoul with conventional artillery cannons would likely be vast if North Korea attacked, so initiating hostilities "is not an attractive option in the least."

In Iran , the U.S. has a choice of striking at least three sites to set back the country's nuclear program.

One potential target would be a complex in the city of Isfahan, where natural uranium is converted into the gaseous feedstock for uranium enrichment centrifuges. The Iranians insist they built the site for peaceful purposes, to help supply fuel to their soon-to-be-completed nuclear reactor in Bushehr. In November, they pledged to suspend all enrichment activities as part of continuing negotiations with the Europeans.

Iran has already produced a few tons of the feedstock at the facility, which could easily be converted into nuclear-weapons material. Even if the Isfahan facility were destroyed, the Iranians could still try to buy the gaseous feedstock for the centrifuges from other countries, like North Korea or Pakistan.

A second possible target: the Bushehr light-water nuclear reactor. The Bush administration maintains that Iran's oil and gas reserves make the reactor, which could be used for military purposes, unnecessary, suggesting that its true purpose may be to produce material for a nuclear weapon.

The third main U.S. option would be to destroy Iran's uranium-enrichment centrifuge facility, still under construction, near the city of Natanz. The enrichment centrifuges spin uranium gas at very high speeds to separate out the U-235 isotopes to produce fuel for either a nuclear reactor or a bomb.

Destroying Natanz may not do much good either. Military analysts said that the Iranians could have other centrifuge facilities that the U.S. doesn't know about. The facilities "don't require a lot of electricity and can be housed in just about any light industrial building," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank in Washington. "You can put one just about anywhere."

If the Iranians are able to hide or move the equipment that makes the centrifuges, they could regenerate the capacity relatively quickly.

Meanwhile, a strike against Iran has big downsides. "If there are airstrikes the people will almost certainly rally around the regime ... setting back the possibility of [internal] regime change," said Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton-administration official, who specializes in Persian Gulf affairs and recently wrote a book on Iran .

The Iranians are also likely to emerge from the airstrikes more resolved than ever to clandestinely build a nuclear device that could be used to threaten Europe or its neighbors and thereby ward off a U.S. attack.

Iran could strike back at the U.S., particularly in Iraq, through its relationship with the terrorist group Hezbollah. "Hezbollah is an extremely good terrorist organization," Mr. Pollack said. "They could launch a covert war against the U.S. in Iraq that would make things there 10 times worse."