A reality check on Iran and the 'bomb'
By Richard M Bennett
There now appears to be a growing consensus of expert opinion that Iran is but
a few short months away from being capable of producing its first crude nuclear
Some may choose to see this event as "crossing the red line" and even as a
trigger for military action as the threat of a nuclear capable Iran may well
simply not be tolerated in some quarters.
However, before such an argument can be easily accepted, it would be wise to
consider just what actually constitutes a threat.
So is Iran now or likely to be anytime soon a genuine "clear and
present danger" to either Israel or the West?
To many within the Intelligence community, only a genuine capability and
a clear intent equates to an actual threat.
Failing to learn the lesson of Iraq
Failure to stick to this essential truth sadly provided the backdrop to the
gross mistake made over Iraq and Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) program.
British premier Tony Blair and president George W Bush in their head-long
gallop towards war made much of the claim that there was a threat and it would
seem, perverted such intelligence information that was available to support
this otherwise unsubstantiated claim.
Their respective national intelligence services, the Central Intelligence
Agency and SIS (MI6) had significantly failed to provide incontrovertible proof
of either a genuine Iraqi WMD capability or a clear intent to use such weapons.
This factor was deliberately ignored or perhaps even suppressed by the US and
British governments and this deceit would only emerge much later in the
aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
In the time-honored political blame avoidance game, both Bush and Blair moved
quickly to ensure that the intelligence services themselves would carry the
main responsibility for this failure, neatly sidestepping any serious chance of
being held to account for their own incompetence and culpability by their
Indeed, the British government remains so worried about the exposure of these
unpalatable facts that even in 2009 current Justice Minister Jack Straw will
reportedly exercise veto powers to block publication of key cabinet minutes
under freedom of information laws.
Straw added that he could not permit the release of records from 2003
discussions over the invasion of Iraq because it would cause too much "damage"
Iran's nuclear progress
So does Iran instead provide a genuine threat or is it still more of a danger
There is now probably sufficient information available to world bodies such as
the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency for many observers to
finally accept that within a matter of months Iran may be capable of producing
enough weapons-grade uranium to build its first crude nuclear weapon.
That said, Iran almost certainly remains five years or more away from having a
genuine war-fighting nuclear capability.
It would though now appear likely that Iran has finally managed to overcome
most of its outstanding technical difficulties in weaponizing uranium.
This is still not a newly discovered fact, despite the constant changes in
position on the subject by the US intelligence community and the advice it
offers to the White House.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies predicted in September 2005
that by feeding the uranium it produces back through a minimum of 1,000
centrifuges at Natanz, Iran may only take as little as three years to produce
some 25 kilograms of weaponized uranium. This is assumed to be enough for a
prototype nuclear weapon.
Iran now has about 50,000 fast-spinning centrifuges; including increasing
numbers of the much improved IR2 working round the clock and this in theory
should be more than sufficient for a full-scale nuclear-weapons program.
However, simply having enough suitability modified material does not in itself
produce a workable weapon and the problems still facing Tehran's reported
nuclear weapons program remain immense.
The level of sophisticated engineering involved in producing a viable weapon
takes years to evolve and would almost certainly require external scientific
help from Iran's known allies, Pakistan, North Korea and Russia, which is
building a nuclear plant for Iran that is near completion.
An effective trigger to detonate the weapon must still be manufactured and
tested. Then the weapon must be tested, a major problem in itself. Keeping such
a test secret would effectively be nigh on impossible, and despite claims that
tremors recorded by the United States Geological Survey on October 21 and 25
last year were the result of Iranian underground nuclear explosions, it is
highly unlikely that Iran has attempted such a test yet.
Any nuclear device would also need to be produced in a somewhat miniaturized
form to create a weapon capable of being deployed in the warhead of the types
of long-range missiles now available or carried under the wings of one of
Iran's increasingly elderly fleet of jet strike aircraft.
Even then, further and lengthy testing would certainly be required to ensure
that any WMD that might be fired at Israel or any of Iran's Arab neighbors,
such as Saudi Arabia, would indeed explode or that the missiles used were
accurate enough to actually hit their target areas.
Then there is the small matter of producing enough of these weapons to create a
genuine and believable nuclear threat or indeed a putative deterrent. And this
still assumes that the Iranian government has developed suicidal tendencies and
that the nation as a whole has a death wish.
Consequences of using nuclear weapons
Any nuclear attack on Israel would probably see the prevailing winds carry much
of the radioactive fallout back across the Palestinian-controlled West Bank;
Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, the oil fields of northern Saudi Arabia and much
of Iran itself.
However, the main consequences of any such nuclear strike on the cities of Tel
Aviv, Haifa and such important strategic targets as the nuclear facilities at
Dimona, would be Israel's own immediate nuclear response and the inevitable
near total destruction of many strategically important targets in Iran.
Tehran's military, economic and civilian infrastructure would be devastated and
this could involve the deaths of as many as 30-50% of its entire population
within just a few short years after the nuclear attack.
Indeed, with an almost guaranteed and probably even more devastating US
response to any such attack on Israel or indeed one of Washington's Arab
allies, Iran may even effectively cease to exist altogether as a functioning
The immense fallout from such a devastating nuclear retaliation would also
gravely endanger much of Pakistan and northern India, and pose a potentially
catastrophic threat to many hundreds of millions of the citizens of those two
Nuclear weapons – a false hope for Iran?
Simply put, the mere possession of the nuclear bomb will not automatically give
Iran a greater usable military power or increase its overall influence in the
region, as its leadership apparently anticipates.
While if Tehran's leadership were actually foolish enough to use nuclear
weapons, it would undoubtedly ensure the near total destruction of the Islamic
Republic of Iran, turning it into an uninhabitable wasteland.
A genuine nuclear capability could in all probability turn out to be a greater
long-term threat to Iran's own survival than to any of its neighbors.
Nuclear weapons for deterrence?
It could be argued that the possession of a small number of nuclear-tipped
missiles could provide Iran with a deterrent against attack.
Indeed, this belief may well have helped drive Iran's ally North Korea to
produce such weapons in the face of continued international condemnation.
However, few rational observers could seriously argue that North Korea would
risk actually using them against its southern neighbor as such an action would
ensure its own destruction at the hands of South Korea's ally, the US.
This same rationale could be applied to Iran, unless an argument can be made
for Tehran welcoming its own nuclear annihilation.
Taking Iran's security requirements seriously
Much attention is paid, and rightly so, to the security of Israel and to the
interests of the United States, but little attention has been given to Iran's
security needs - the regional problems facing Iran are indeed serious.
Not only does Iran have an ongoing Kurdish (Party For a Free Life in Kurdistan
- PJAK) insurgency in its northwestern provinces and a growing Baloch
insurgency in the southeastern border areas with Pakistan, the government in
Tehran is also deeply concerned at being surrounded by countries that are in
various states of collapse or conflict - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and the
former Soviet Central Asian countries and by potentially hostile forces such as
Saudi Arabia, Israel and the massive US military presence in the Gulf.
However, it remains difficult to find an enemy likely to need deterring from an
attack on Iran by its possession of nuclear weapons. Iraq, Afghanistan, and
Pakistan are unlikely foes, while the chances of Saudi Arabia or Israel
attempting an invasion are quite laughable.
Only the US has the military power to attempt such an attack and Washington
would probably only feel it necessary to do so to prevent Tehran achieving just
such a nuclear capability.
It seems likely, though, that against this backdrop of perceived insecurity,
Iran will still continue to pursue a nuclear insurance strategy at whatever
cost to its international relations.
Iran as a future nuclear supermarket
Perhaps one of the greatest causes for Western and Israeli concern is the
prospect of Iran's nuclear technology and weapons-grade material being passed
to other states such as Syria or to even less scrupulous groups such as
Hezbollah in Lebanon and worst of all, al-Qaeda.
The same counter-argument must, however, be deployed once again.
With modern forensic techniques allied to continual surveillance by Western
intelligence, it remains highly unlikely that the technology and materials used
in any terrorist attack would not be quickly traced to Tehran.
The same devastating response could be expected as it is almost inconceivable
that Iran would be allowed to escape its punishment and ultimate destruction.
The last resort - the military option
Iran is well aware that its WMD facilities could be targets. Israel destroyed
Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 and laid waste another similar facility in Syria
Tehran's nuclear program is therefore widely dispersed, well hidden and often
buried up to 25 meters underground. It is also increasingly well defended by a
sophisticated air defense system.
The Israeli air force could seriously damage many of Iran's important
facilities with conventional weapons, but not destroy it. Only the United
States has the numbers and range of weapons needed to demolish the entire
program, which is stretched across more than 100 sites, in a massive
pre-emptive strike. However, such an all-out attack would create extensive
collateral damage and large numbers of civilian casualties.
An alternative may be for constant relatively small-scale attacks on the main
facilities at Bushehr, Natanz and other strategically important targets to
cripple Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In other words, a campaign of attrition using a combination of closely targeted
air and cruise missile attacks and sabotage operations on the ground to simply
wear down Tehran's resistance.
This may be Israel's preferred method and one that Washington could be more
prepared to buy into. Whatever action Israel and the US may eventually decide
on, time is still running out and the military option could well have a
sell-by-date of mid-2010 at the latest.
The Iran problem
Except in the highly unlikely circumstance that it has already managed to
produce a significant number of nuclear weapons in complete secrecy, then Iran
is not yet a clear and present danger to its neighbors or to Western interests.
There can be little doubt that Iran is a potentially major destabilizing factor
in the Middle East, it has a more than irrational foreign policy and quite
openly supports groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas in Palestine, and it may
indeed eventually become a nuclear threat.
But in the long run possession of nuclear weapons is unlikely to be of any
tangible benefit to the mullahs, while their actual use would bring the quick
and completely justified destruction of the state of Iran.
Whatever the Western powers or Israel finally decide is the appropriate
diplomatic, economic or military action to take in response, it must be hoped
that it will be made only on the basis of sound intelligence, after careful
evaluation has been made of all the proven information available and in the
absence of any truly viable alternative.
To repeat the mistakes of 2003 would be to invite disaster not only for Iran,
but for the remaining creditability and long-term security of the Western
Richard M Bennett, intelligence and security analyst,