Global Policy Forum

What We Know About Iran


By David Isenberg

April 25, 2006

Is Iran's nuclear program really an immediate threat? There is reason to be doubtful. In fact, the entire debate over the prospect of Iran getting nuclear weapons has been unduly alarmist, if not outright hysterical. Recent media reports indicate that the Bush administration has gone beyond mere saber-rattling and is now deep into contingency planning for military strikes against Iran.

But the evidence, even from within Bush's own administration, doesn't support the claim that Iran poses any imminent threat. For example, on April 20, 2006, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte testified before Congress that, "even though we believe that Iran is determined to acquire or obtain a nuclear weapon, we believe that it is still a number of years off before they are likely to have enough fissile material to assemble it into, or to put it into, a nuclear weapon—perhaps into the next decade, so that I think it's important that this issue be kept in perspective."

The Bush administration is making noises that if the U.N. Security Council doesn't give it authorization for a military strike, it might just ignore it, proceed unilaterally and do it anyway. That might sound like bluster, but again, remember Iraq. Nobody knows for certain whether these threats are sincere or just psychological pressure from an administration that thinks talking tough is the only way to go.

But the recent news reports, such as the April 9 Washington Post report that Pentagon and CIA planners are considering a strike on the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, coupled with the media drumbeat from the usual war hawks at The Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal and Fox News, are alarming enough to consider the pros and cons of military action. And by any objective standard the liabilities outweigh the benefits. The negatives include the likelihood of alienating most of the world—which is already out of patience with the United States after Iraq—and inciting additional terrorist attacks, all for the hope of setting back Iran's nuclear program by a few years.

Consider the recent New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh claiming that some military planners are considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons to target deeply hardened underground Iranian nuclear facilities. Putting aside for a moment the enormous moral and legal concerns that breaking the nuclear weapons taboo would involve, the simple truth is that even using so-called nuclear bunker busters are no guarantee. Successful use of such weapons depends on a number of variables: the depth at which the facility is buried, the composition of the ground and rock, the manner in which the bunker is built, the expected yield of the weapon and the depth to which the weapon could penetrate before it detonates.

While Hersh's article has attracted the most attention, an equally compelling source of information has been the commentary by noted military affairs analyst William Arkin. In a series on his Washington Post blog , he has detailed U.S. military planning for the past few years—since before the invasion of Iraq—and the development of specific contingency planning for military operations against Iran. Arkin notes that this "adaptive" system promotes "the particular Rumsfeld style of war, which is light and fast and blind to the demands of the real world."

Even if all the questions are answerable, much would still depend on having excellent intelligence. And our intelligence on Iran, to put it politely, stinks. U.S. News & World Report recently reported that Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that, "we have not made the progress on our oversight of Iran intelligence, which is critical." Last year, the report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction stated, "From Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons to the inner workings of al-Qaida, the intelligence community frequently admitted to us that it lacks answers."

Similarly, a new Center for Strategic and International Studies report released earlier this month said, "[T]here are still major gaps and uncertainties about the knowledge of Iran's nuclear programs, facilities and weapons development efforts."

About the reliability of U.S. intelligence on Iran, Martin van Creveld, a prominent Israeli military historian, recently wrote:

Last but not least, before deciding to bomb Iran's nuclear installations the Bush administration must seriously question whether the intelligence on which its decision is based is reliable. Those of us who have followed reports on the development of Iran's nuclear program know that the warnings from American and other intelligence agencies about Tehran building a bomb in three and five years have been made again and again—for more than 15 years.

For 15 years, the intelligence agencies have been proven dead wrong. And to this gross exaggeration of Iran's true intentions and capabilities must be added the fairy tales the same intelligence agencies have been feeding the world regarding Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, there was something surreal regarding Iranian President Ahmadinejad's recent claim that Iran has successfully enriched uranium, using a 164-centrifuge cascade "We are a nuclear country!" he said. Even if his claim were true, he still needs tens of thousands of additional centrifuges to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon. Yet here in the United States this unverified claim has been taken as gospel. Currently Iran has only set up that one cascade , and plans to install another 3,000 later this year as the government works toward its goal of 54,000. Even if it does install those additional 3,000 that would mean it has 6 percent of its goal; hardly a dire threat. Furthermore, the Iranian claim says nothing about how efficient the claimed use of a small 164-centrifuge chain was, what its life cycle and reliability is, and about the ability to engineer a system that could approach weapons-grade material.

The hawks in both the Republican and Democratic Parties must understand that invading and occupying Iran is simply not an option—for starters, it has three times the size and population of Iraq, where a substantial portion of the U.S. military's combat units remain occupied—which leaves an air attack as the only feasible option. But such an option is a quick fix, not a solution. Israel's air strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 made the limitations of such an option clear, as evidenced by the fact that 10 years later, the IAEA found Iraq far more advanced in its covert bomb program than anyone had thought possible.

The U.S. military also understands that attacking Iran would almost certainly shore up the power of the regime by inciting nationalist sentiment and massively tilt internal debates in favor of its most hard-line element—exactly the worst result the United States could want. Iran would not be without options to respond, and those, in turn, would force the U.S. to escalate its own response, thus escalating the limited strike the neo-conservatives claim to want into a full-fledged war. The end result is lots of pain for no gain. The cons outweigh the pros and everyone, except for neo-conservatives, should understand this.

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