Friday, February 03, 2006

Why U.S. Wages Diplomacy with Defiant Iran

Carla Anne Robbins and Greg Jaffe, The Wall Street Journal:
Iran's nuclear program appears tailor-made for President Bush's doctrine of pre-emption: striking before threats fully materialize. And in recent polls, a surprisingly large number of Americans say they would support U.S. military strikes to stop Tehran from getting the bomb.

So why is the White House so committed to the vagaries of diplomacy? READ MORE

The Pentagon has more than enough air power to turn Iran's known nuclear facilities into rubble. But there could be major blowback: in Iraq, the wider region, and especially in Iran where the White House also is eager to rally pro-reform and pro-American sentiments.

And it looks like Tehran has been preparing for this. U.S. officials and outside experts say Iran has developed enough nuclear know-how and likely squirreled away enough materials and equipment that an attack would probably set back its program by no more than a few years. And it may have deployed enough forces in Iraq and Lebanon to carry out its threats of retaliation against the U.S. and Israel.

Diplomats expect the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran soon to the United Nations Security Council. But it could be months before possible punishments are even debated. And Iran has vowed to curtail cooperation with inspectors and start producing large batches of enriched uranium -- usable for nuclear fuel or, with more enriching, a nuclear weapon -- if its case is brought to New York.

Tehran has invested billions of dollars in its nuclear facilities, which it insists are solely for generating electricity. Hitting those wouldn't be hard, military experts say. Stealthy U.S. bombers could penetrate Iranian airspace and suppress air-defense systems relatively easily.

Iran's massive uranium-enrichment complex at Natanz, much of which is buried underground, could be taken out with bunker-buster bombs. Its conversion facility at Isfahan, where uranium feedstock is produced, is above ground and easier to hit, though nearby storage tunnels could be more of a challenge.

The Russian-built Bushehr power plant, once the major focus of U.S. anxiety until the discovery of Natanz, is a less likely target. Washington says it doesn't want to deny Iranians nuclear power, just the ability to make weapons. Once the reactor goes online, an attack runs some risk of an environmental disaster, but its fuel, once irradiated, could provide plutonium for a weapons program.

Even a "surgical strike" probably wouldn't stop there. Iran has airfields only a 30-minute flight from U.S. bases in Iraq and has recently moved some missiles northward in range of U.S. forces. Late last year, the Iranians conducted very public naval exercises showing how they might choke off oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

"You are talking upwards of 500 aim-points [separate strikes]. That is not an overnight operation. It is at least three or four days," says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who taught strategy at the Defense Department's National War College.

The bigger question is how much of Iran's nuclear complex is still hidden from U.S. satellites and the world. IAEA investigators, who have been tracking Iran's purchasing patterns, suspect the government may be concealing smaller workshops and facilities. Even if it hasn't built a covert program, Iran may have already produced and hidden enough raw materials and equipment to jump start one.

"The more people talk about military options, the more the Iranians prepare for the day they could be bombed," says David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington that closely follows developments in Iran.

Tehran may have begun those preparations when it decided last summer to resume converting raw uranium into uranium gas. It may have decided that "Isfahan was a bottleneck" that it couldn't easily replace, says Mr. Albright. Since then, Iran is believed to have stockpiled enough feedstock, of variable quality, for more than 10 weapons. Washington and its European allies protested the move but decided not to force a showdown since uranium gas, without enrichment, has no direct military use.

The crisis came last month when Tehran announced that it also was restarting its Natanz enrichment complex.

Beyond its missiles, if Iran decided to retaliate, it has enough forces and proxies in Iraq to attack U.S. troops or incite an even fiercer ethnic conflict. The Mahdi Army, which is closely tied to Iran, has loyalists salted throughout the Iraqi police and army.

"Our situation in Iraq is very delicate. Any increase in the level of violence would be deeply problematic" for a White House that is struggling to maintain support for the war, says Kenneth Pollack, a senior analyst with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center and a former Clinton administration official.

Iran is still believed to be at least three to five years away from being able to enrich enough uranium and build a bomb. Yesterday, U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte placed Iran -- with its nuclear and missile programs and support for terrorists -- second on his list of threats. He also said the U.S. had no evidence Tehran has acquired a nuclear weapon or amassed significant amounts of weapons-grade material.

The White House is hoping Iran may throw off its clerical leadership before that happens -- though officials acknowledge that democracy is behind in the race.

There is also the question of what Israel might do. The Israelis, whose 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor set back Iraq's nuclear program for years, have the skill. But Israel's F-15 jets likely wouldn't be able to reach Iran without getting permission from the U.S. and Iraqis to cross Iraqi airspace. Israel also has to worry about retaliation from Hezbollah terrorists who have thousands of missiles based in southern Lebanon. That would have to be balanced against Iran's repeated threats to wipe Israel off the map.

Write to Carla Anne Robbins at and Greg Jaffe at