Iran has been constructing a "heavy-water" nuclear reactor near Arak, capable of producing weapons-grade Plutonium-239 — sufficient for about one bomb per year. This program is in addition to the ongoing production of fissionable Uranium-235 by isotope enrichment with centrifuges.
The Geneva Interim Agreement, announced in November, would stop Iran's reactor construction — at least according to the White House press release. Iran does not share this interpretation. Negotiations are continuing to try to settle this dispute.
Meanwhile, Israel, not bound by the Geneva Agreement, may decide to bomb the Arak reactor and eliminate one sure route for Iran to gain a nuclear weapon. In 1981, Israel bombed Osiris, a similar reactor, under construction in Iraq. In Sept 2007, in Operation "Mivtza Bustan" ("Orchard"), Israel destroyed a plutonium reactor being built by Syria — with North Korean assistance and financed by Iran — at al-Kibar, Syria. (Ironically, the term "bustan," identical in both Arabic and Hebrew, is not of Semitic origin, but a loan word from classical Persian.) There is no evidence of U.S. participation in either operation — although it did align with U.S. strategic objectives and our policy on nuclear non-proliferation.
Compared with the well-protected uranium-enrichment installations, which are hidden underground, the Arak reactor is a relatively easy target, above ground and well-photographed. The main problem would seem to be the Russian-supplied S-300 air-defense system, but there are various ways to overcome this challenge.
A successful Israeli strike would essentially "shuffle the deck" and affect many ongoing operations, negotiations and relationships. Some of the consequences are hard to predict; some others are not:
Iran is unlikely to launch missiles against Israel, but might deputize Hezbollah to do so. Israel would need to consider possible countermeasures — a tough problem since no anti-missile system I know of can defend against a mass attack involving tens of thousands. Of course, one might ask: Why hasn't Hezbollah attacked already — and it isn't because of UNIFIL, the pretty useless U.N. force in southern Lebanon that was supposed to keep Hezbollah from arming.
Deterrence would seem the best response, but artillery and aircraft are both ineffective and expensive against dispersed missile-launch sites. One possibility is to use very cheap Qassam-like, unguided rockets in an immediate counter-mass-response — but that may lead to an unacceptable level of civilian casualties. Another is for Israel to demonstrate a capability to eliminate some 4,000 Shiite Hezbollah fighters who are now fighting in Syria against Sunni rebels.
If the Palestinian Authority were to join in any kind of attack on Israel, it would likely spell the end of the current peace negotiations — which would certainly displease the White House.
Expect to see pro-forma condemnation from the U.N., but quiet support from conservative Arab nations, and vocal support from Canada and Australia. There may be a significant impact on the ongoing Israel-Palestinian negotiations. The White House reaction cannot be gauged at this time; but there is little doubt about enthusiastic support from the U.S. public and Congress.
There is even a possibility — very slight, in my humble opinion — that a successful strike against Arak might cause Iran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons — following the example set by Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. But that's wishful thinking. A much stronger and more difficult follow-up may be needed to cripple the well-protected uranium facilities.
On the other hand, there may be a regime change in Iran — or elsewhere. One can always hope — so any sort of delay improves the chances of an important change.
Oil scenarios: Expect to see a short-lived price spike, but little else. There will be no repeat of the so-called Arab oil "embargo" of 1973. Iran needs the money and would not self-sanction its main source of foreign currency.
What about blocking the Straits of Hormuz or even attacks on Gulf oil producers? Much too risky for Iran. Any decrease in the world's oil supply would, of course, raise the world price, benefit nonblockaded producers, and hurt oil importers such as China, India and Japan. What a great way for Iran to lose powerful foreign friends.
Note further that the United States ("Big Satan") and Israel ("Little Satan") are about to become fossil-fuel exporters and would gain "windfall profits." The other cheerleaders for Iran might be extreme environmentalists: If the global price of oil were to double, it would raise the price at U.S. pumps by $2 a gallon for a few months. Heavily taxed Europeans would see a smaller increase percentagewise.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the one who has to make the fateful decision that will determine the future of his country. He will likely share that awesome responsibility with members of his Cabinet. The coming weeks should be interesting ones.
S. Fred Singer is a physicist who has been involved in missile and satellite design. He has held several academic and federal positions, most recently as chief scientist of the U.S. Department of Transportation.