In technical terms, the U.S. military has the ability to inflict major damage to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, potentially setting it back for years. That’s the general view of military strategists in the United States and Israel.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly confirmed that such a project has been contingently planned, and is doable.
Given that Iran’s nuclear program is believed to be widely dispersed among dozens or more sites, some of them easily concealed and unknown to foreign intelligence agencies, it’s not likely that military action short of overthrowing the current regime could eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. Since Iran has a population of close to 70 million, almost three times the size of Iraq, it’s extremely difficult to imagine any scenario by which the United States, with its armed forces stretched in Iraq, could assemble a coalition force large enough to effectively occupy the Islamic Republic of Iran. The most likely scenario is U.S. or Israeli destruction of Iranian nuclear facilities.
The Iranian government is publicly committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, and there’s precedent to answer that threat: In 1981, Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear weapons facility at Osirik. But destroying Iran’s nuclear program would be a far more difficult, complex undertaking than the Israeli operation against Iraq.
The Osirik mission stretched the Israeli Air Force to the limit. Eight F-16 fighters were escorted by six F-15s a distance of 1,200 miles over the hostile airspace of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, yet managed to achieve surprise. The Osirik reactor was destroyed in minutes. According to Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the F-16s were operating at very close to their fuel limits. Had the Israeli forces been challenged by Iraqi, Jordanian or Saudi aircraft, they could not have engaged in sustained combat.
Even so, the Osirik operation was simple compared to the challenge of targeting Iran. The Iranians have not repeated Saddam Hussein’s mistake of leaving his sole nuclear facility in the open; the Iranians have dispersed and hidden their weapons infrastructure. Iranian facilities are hundreds of miles more distant from Israel. Three or four sites are producing plutonium or enriching uranium, and some are thought to be buried deep underground.
Former Israeli Gen. Ephraim Kam, who is skeptical of military action, believes that even if several Iranian sites were attacked, such as the centrifuge facility for uranium enrichment in Natanz, Iran could build a replacement facility “in a short time.” That assumes that Iran does not have a covert facility that has escaped detection. Because centrifuge facilities and the factories used to produce them can be hidden in relatively small buildings, Gen. Kam says “the possibility that such facilities already secretly exist is a real one, and is liable to leave Iran with a significant surviving capability even after the known facilities are attacked.”
Other knowledgeable analysts, however, believe the Iranian threat is so grave that destruction of some if not all Iranian nuclear facilities would be worth doing because it could set the Iranian program back several years. One such analyst is Shai Feldman, who until a few weeks ago was Gen. Kam’s boss at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, a moderately left-of-center Israeli think tank. On the right, Ephraim Inbar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, believes that surgical air strikes combined with limited ground operations by special forces would be able “to cripple Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb in the near future.”
Although Mr. Inbar contends that Israel has the capability to conduct such an operation, he, along with many other analysts in Israel and the United States, say the American military is best able to do it. Even operating with less-than- ideal intelligence, the U.S. military has the ability to inflict great damage to the regime and its military infrastructure. Professor Richard Russell of the National Defense University suggests that by targeting Iranian nuclear weapons facilities, American aircraft and cruise missiles could strike bases used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Aircraft and ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction, as well as weapons production facilities, should be targeted also.
U.S. forces could strike Iran with weapons such as air-launched cruise missiles, delivered by B-2 bombers coming from the United States, and the Navy can fire sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. Retired Col. Rick Francona, a military affairs analyst for the cable network MSNBC, says that the Air Force and the Navy, the services least involved in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be primarily responsible for the mission. Several of the Iranian facilities, such as those in Natanz, are buried as deep as 75 feet underground, and would require the use of U.S. satellite- guided munitions.