Former high-ranking defense officials and regional experts say that neither the U.S. nor Israel can stop Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.
The assessments counter remarks by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who has said the U.S. will not allow Iran to develop an atomic bomb, and come amid reports that Israeli leaders are considering a military strike on the Islamic republic’s nuclear sites.
Destroying nuclear facilities in a military strike does not “uninvent” the technology, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright said Monday in an interview. “The intellectual capital still exists.
“We could certainly bomb the place, but we don’t know where everything is with any kind of certainty,” added Gen. Cartwright, who retired as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in August.
Natan Sachs, an expert on Israeli national security matters at the Brookings Institution, said it would be very difficult for Israel to stop a nuclear weapons program with a unilateral military action, noting that Iran’s atomic installations are heavily fortified and scattered around the country.
An attack on Iranian sites would be more complicated than Israel’s strikes on nuclear sites in Iraq and Syria, he said. Syria’s facility was in the very early stages of being built, and Iraq’s facility was above ground and within the capability of the Israeli air force.
Mr. Sachs said an Israeli strike on Iran would require a synchronized attack by more than 100 fighter jets carrying heavy bombs and refueling over hostile territory, because a single bunker-busting bomb would not be enough to penetrate and destroy Iran’s underground facilities. “It is not a one-shot thing,” he said.
But Ehud Eilam, a former instructor for the Israeli Defense Forces, said a strike on Iran could postpone its program by two to five years, during which time international sanctions on the Islamic republic could work. He said Israel could opt to strike every fours year to further delay the nuclear program.
“It’s not the recommended option, but there is no good option,” he said. “You take what you can get.”
Western nations and Israel have long suspected Iran of trying to build an atomic bomb, and the U.S. and European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Iran to change its leaders’ actions. Iran repeatedly has said its nuclear program is aimed at peaceful, civilian purposes.
An Israeli attack likely would occur at night with little warning to the U.S. and sometime after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak visit Washington next week, Mr. Eliam said. “You might just wake up two months or a few weeks from now and hear that Israel has attacked Iran.”
Mr. Sachs said any initial strike by Israel could trigger retaliatory rocket attacks by Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and possibly Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Iran. The U.S. could be dragged into the fray if it appears that Israel could not defend itself against the retaliation, he said.
Gen. Cartwright said an attack could be counterproductive and persuade more Iranians to support their country’s nuclear program. “You do more damage because you convince more people that they have to have it. It becomes a shield,” he said.
Reza Marashi, director of research for the National Iranian American Council, said Gen. Cartwright’s comments join a chorus of high-ranking former and current military officials who have come out recently against a military strike on Iran.
Mr. Marashi said he believes they are laying the groundwork for Mr. Obama to push back against Israel. “It’s not a coincidence that they’re all saying the same thing at the same time,” said Mr. Marashi, a former State Department official.