September 29, 2009
Number 09/09 #06
Today’s Update deals with the ramifications of the latest news about Iran and, in particular, its nuclear program. The next Update will focus on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Late last week, the US revealed that it had discovered a secret Iranian uranium enrichment facility, which US Defence Secretary Robert Gates described as proof Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons. The revelation comes ahead of the P5+1 talks with Iran on October 1, which have been characterised as ‘make or break’ talks – that is, if Iran doesn’t bend to international will over its illegal enrichment of uranium, harsher sanctions will be slapped on the recalcitrant regime. Meanwhile, Iran test fired two long-range Shahab-3 missiles on Monday, just three days before talks were to begin.
We start off with an excellent analysis from the Jerusalem Post‘s Yaakov Katz, who suggests that there are three possible outcomes of the October talks – that the world will lose patience with Iran and impose strict, targeted sanctions against it; that it will reach some sort of deal, allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium at a low level, with increased inspections (an outcome that Katz says would tie Israel’s hands); or that the world won’t come to any decision, with the status quo ante remaining unchanged. If scenario two or three is the outcome, Israel will have until the northern spring next year to decide whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. To read all about it, CLICK HERE.
Next, Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard excoriates US President Barack Obama’s weak response to Iran’s constant abuse of the West’s trust and offers of conciliation. He writes that it has been up to French President Nicolas Sarkozy to talk tough on Iran, and wonders why Obama can’t call a spade a spade. To read this dressing down, CLICK HERE.
We conclude with a lengthy, though excellent analysis by Anthony Cordesman writing in the Wall Street Journal regarding the validity and effectiveness of a possible Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear installations. Cordesman delves into the difficulties that Israel’s air force would encounter if a military strike were ordered. These include distance to targets, underground and fortified security for some facilities and the positioning of Iranian surface to air missiles in close proximity to these sites. Writing before the discovery of the secret enrichment plant was revealed, Cordesman ranks the centrifuge plant at Natanz, the light water reactor near Bushehr and the heavy water reactor at Arak as the main targets of any military strike. Cordesman also questions the effectiveness of a strike vulnerable to so many variables to ensure that the nuclear program is destroyed not merely delayed. To read Cordesman’s valuable contribution to the debate, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A great backgrounder on the ramifications for East European-Russian ties after US President Barack Obama withdrew plans to build anti-missile systems there, from Yale Global.
- An analysis from Stratfor on the twin challenges facing Obama – Afghanistan and Iran – and how he will have to decide what to do about both soon (where making no decision is a decision in itself).
- Hamas has announced it has accepted an Egyptian deal to resolve the Fatah-Hamas standoff, paving the way for Palestinian elections.
- Syria calls on Israel to free itself of nuclear weapons.
- Three Islamic Jihad terrorists, attempting to fire a rocket into Israel from Gaza, were killed by Israeli forces. This IDF video shows the terrorists’ sticky ending from the perspective of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
- Obama’s policy and strategic objectives for Afghanistan and Pakistan and General Stanley McChrystal’s initial assessment of the war in Afghanistan can both be found here.
- Ron Prosor disparages the UN Human Rights Council and its Goldstone Report in The Times.
- And Haaretz‘s Bradley Burston critiques the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
The Jerusalem Post, September 29, 2009
If everything taking place right now on the Iranian front continues as expected, it is then that Israel will need to make one of its most difficult decisions ever – to attack Iran or allow it to continue with its nuclear program.
By the spring of 2010, Israel will know the results of the dialogue between the world’s leading powers and Iran that is scheduled to begin on October 1, as well as whether the world will impose real, tough sanctions.
Following the disclosure last week of the existence of a secret uranium enrichment facility in a mountain near the holy city of Qom, there is a feeling in Israel that the world is now more serious than in the past regarding the need to talk tough with Iran and, if needed, to impose tough sanctions as well. This could be seen at the press conference in Pittsburgh on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting, during which Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown all spoke tough to Iran.
The testing of long-range missiles by Iran on Monday, Yom Kippur, was on the one hand a flexing of Iran’s muscles in face of this possibility, but was also a move that will definitely put more world attention on its nuclear program.
The discovery of the second enrichment facility – not large enough to be used for energy purposes like the known facility, Natanz – validates one of Israel’s gravest concerns in recent years, that Iran was building a bomb using hidden facilities. Iran could continue to enrich uranium to low levels, below 5 percent, at Natanz – which is under IAEA supervision – and enrich uranium to higher, military levels at the underground facility near Qom without anyone knowing.
As US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – one of the fiercest opponents under the Bush administration of military action against Iran – said on Sunday, there was no longer any real doubt that Iran was seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
It is under these assumptions that the Americans will enter the dialogue with Iran, slated to begin on Thursday. While Israel is extremely skeptical of a positive outcome from the talks, there is an understanding that it will need to wait for the dialogue to finish before taking any unilateral action.
This leaves three likely scenarios. The first is that the dialogue fails and the EU, Russia, US and China decide to impose tough sanctions on Iran, particularly in the energy sector and supply of refined fuel, a measure believed to be capable of having a real effect on the regime. Israel would then have to give the sanctions time, to wait to see if they are effective.
The second scenario is that the US and Iran reach a deal under which the Islamic republic is allowed to continue enriching uranium at low levels for energy purposes but would have to agree to new supervision measures and to keep all of its international obligations. If this happens, the Obama administration will likely laud the deal as a major diplomatic success – particularly in the absence of one with North Korea – and would effectively tie Israel’s hands.
The third scenario is that the talks will fail, the world powers will not agree to impose sanctions and Israel will be left to decide whether or not it will strike Iran. This would likely happen sometime around spring 2010.
The success of such a strike has been under question for several years now. In an article in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, Anthony Cordesman, a respected American national security analyst, wrote, “It is far from certain that such action would be met with success.”
Nevertheless, Cordesman conceded that Israel was very serious regarding the military option and would likely focus any strike on three targets – the Busher reactor, Natanz and the Arak heavy water facility. The enrichment center near Qom, as well as known Iranian airfields, missile silos and launchers can also be added to the list.
While Natanz is heavily fortified and built in an underground bunker, Cordesman said that Israel would be able to use some of the GBU-28 bunker buster missiles it purchased from the US to penetrate the facility. He also raised the possibility that Israeli intelligence had gotten its hands on US, European and Russian designs for more advanced weapons than the GBU-28.
The assessment in the defense establishment is that the fallout from such a strike would be three times that of the Second Lebanon War, the First Gulf War and the attacks on the Israeli Embassy and Jewish center in Argentina in the 1990s combined.
At the moment all eyes are on this Thursday, when the dialogue begins, but as recent events have shown, time is running out.
Stephen F. Hayes
Weekly Standard, October 5, 2009
When Barack Obama strode on stage to scold Iran for its failure to disclose the existence of a second uranium-enrichment facility in the country, his message was timid and at times almost apologetic. When the tough language came, it was because French president Nicolas Sarkozy had taken the podium. Sarkozy excoriated the Iranians for their deception, saying that the revelations have caused “a very severe confidence crisis” and issued a time-specific warning about oft-threatened (but never implemented) sanctions. “We cannot let the Iranian leaders gain time while the centrifuges are spinning,” he declared. “If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be imposed.”
In fact, it was the third time in a week that Sarkozy had been tougher than the U.S. president on nuclear issues. Earlier in the week, the French president had insisted that the United States strengthen language in a non-proliferation resolution before the U.N. Security Council and admonished other world leaders for addressing nuclear issues without focusing their discussion on Iran and North Korea.
British prime minister Gordon Brown joined Obama and Sarkozy for the statement Friday. He, too, was stern. “The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the whole international community, and it will harden our resolve.”
Obama should have been taking notes. Three times in his brief statement Obama used bizarre couplets to soften his already gentle critique of the Iranian regime:
As the international community knows, this is not the first time that Iran has concealed information about its nuclear program. Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear power that meets the energy needs of its people.
It is time for Iran to act immediately to restore the confidence of the international community by fulfilling its international obligations. We remain committed to serious, meaningful engagement with Iran to address the nuclear issue through the P5+1 negotiations.
To put it simply: Iran must comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and make clear it is willing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the community of nations. We have offered Iran a clear path toward greater international integration if it lives up to its obligations, and that offer stands.
The offer stands? Iran has been caught lying about its nuclear program three times in the last decade. The mullahs fixed the June 12 election and violently suppressed the brave Iranians who had the audacity to say so. The Iranian regime is continuing to train, fund, and arm terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan whose primary purpose is the killing of American soldiers. And the U.S. State Department considers Iran the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.
For another American president, any one of these things might be cause to seek the destabilization of the regime, and all of them together might be cause to seek its removal. Not for Obama. He is determined to pursue “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect,” as he has put it. On Friday, a senior administration official briefed reporters shortly after the statement. The official referred to the October 1 negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating group (made up of the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) as an “opportunity” for Iran. “This is going to be a critical opportunity for Iran to demonstrate that it’s willing to address the very serious concerns that have been raised about its intentions in the nuclear area.” At one point, the official called the upcoming talks a “test” for Iran.
But of course Iran has failed this test before-and dozens of others. It failed this test repeatedly under the Bush administration, as it steadfastly refused to address any of the concerns that have been raised about its intentions with its nuclear program. And it failed it two weeks ago, when it submitted a defiant 10-page response to international community demands that it suspend uranium enrichment and return to the negotiating table.
The fundamental problem with the Obama administration’s approach to Iran is that it treats the nature of the regime as an unknown. Back in June, after a week of mayhem and murder by the regime in the streets of Tehran, Obama said: “I’m very concerned, based on some of the tenor and tone of the statements that have been made, that the government of Iran recognize that the world is watching. And how they approach and deal with people who are, through peaceful means, trying to be heard will, I think, send a pretty clear signal to the international community about what Iran is-and is not.”
He was right. And the signal was clear to everyone but those determined to ignore it: The Iranian regime is corrupt, despotic, and willing to use terror internally and externally to achieve its goals. And the lesson of its repeated lies about its nuclear program is equally clear: The Iranian regime will stop at nothing to acquire nuclear weapons.
In some respects, the news of the second Iranian facility makes it harder for Obama to pretend
that the Iranian regime is something it’s not. And one line in particular from his statement Friday would seem to complicate his engagement-at-all-costs strategy. “The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.”
It is a line that the U.S. intelligence community would not allow George W. Bush to use. Although Western intelligence services had been looking at this facility for years, they had been unable-or unwilling-to draw conclusions about its purpose. When Obama was first briefed on the facility-as president-elect-the CIA had not determined that the facility was for the production of highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.
We are left with many questions. What, if anything, changed? Was there new intelligence? If so, what is it? If not, why did the CIA change its conclusion and allow the president to use this language? When did Obama learn that the benefit of the doubt he had been giving Iran on its nuclear program was, in effect, helping the Iranian regime perpetuate its lies?
Perhaps most important, will this public revelation of the facility create the political pressure necessary to persuade Obama to finally get tough with Iran?
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2009
When the Israeli army’s then-Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was asked in 2004 how far Israel would go to stop Iran’s nuclear program, he replied: “2,000 kilometers,” roughly the distance been the two countries.
Israel’s political and military leaders have long made it clear that they are considering taking decisive military action if Iran continues to develop its nuclear program. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned at the United Nations this week that “the most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Reporting by the International Atomic Energy Agency and other sources has made it clear that whether or not Iran ties all of its efforts into a formal nuclear weapons program, it has acquired all of the elements necessary to make and deliver such weapons. Just Friday, Iran confirmed that it has been developing a second uranium-enrichment facility on a military base near Qom, doing little to dispel the long-standing concerns of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.S. that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
Iran has acquired North Korean and other nuclear weapons design data through sources like the sales network once led by the former head of Pakistan’s nuclear program, A. Q. Khan. Iran has all of the technology and production and manufacturing capabilities needed for fission weapons. It has acquired the technology to make the explosives needed for a gun or implosion device, the triggering components, and the neutron initiator and reflectors. It has experimented with machine uranium and plutonium processing. It has put massive resources into a medium-range missile program that has the range payload to carry nuclear weapons and that makes no sense with conventional warheads. It has also worked on nuclear weapons designs for missile warheads. These capabilities are dispersed in many facilities in many cities and remote areas, and often into many buildings in each facility—each of which would have to be a target in an Israeli military strike.
It is far from certain that such action would be met with success. An Israeli strike on Iran would be far more challenging than the Israeli strike that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. An effective Israeli nuclear strike may not be possible, yet a regional nuclear arms race is a game that Iran can start, but cannot possibly win. Anyone who meets regularly with senior Israeli officials, officers and experts knows that Israel is considering military options, but considering them carefully and with an understanding that they pose serious problems and risks.
One of the fundamental problems dogging Israel, especially concerning short-ranged fighters and fighter-bombers, is distance. Iran’s potential targets are between 950 and 1,400 miles from Israel, the far margin of the ranges Israeli fighters can reach, even with aerial refueling. Israel would be hard-pressed to destroy all of Iran’s best-known targets. What’s more, Iran has had years in which to build up covert facilities, disperse elements of its nuclear and missile programs, and develop options for recovering from such an attack.
At best, such action would delay Iran’s nuclear buildup. It is more likely to provoke the country into accelerating its plans. Either way, Israel would have to contend with the fact that it has consistently had a “red light” from both the Bush and Obama administrations opposing such strikes. Any strike that overflew Arab territory or attacked a fellow Islamic state would stir the ire of neighboring Arab states, as well as Russia, China and several European states.
This might not stop Israel. Hardly a week goes by without another warning from senior Israeli officials that a military strike is possible, and that Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, even though no nation has indicated it would support such action. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to threaten Israel and to deny its right to exist. At the same time, President Barack Obama is clearly committed to pursuing diplomatic options, his new initiatives and a U.N. resolution on nuclear arms control and counterproliferation, and working with our European allies, China and Russia to impose sanctions as a substitute for the use of force.
Mr. Ahmadinejad keeps denying that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, and tries to defend Iran from both support for sanctions and any form of attack by saying that Iran will negotiate over its peaceful use of nuclear power. He offered some form of dialogue with the U.S. during his visit to the U.N. this week. While French President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced Iran’s continued lack of response to the Security Council this week, and said its statements would “wipe a U.N. member state off the map,” no nation has yet indicated it would support Israeli military action.
Most analyses of a possible Israeli attack focus on only three of Iran’s most visible facilities: its centrifuge facilities at Natanz, its light water nuclear power reactor near Bushehr, and a heavy water reactor at Arak it could use to produce plutonium. They are all some 950 to 1,000 miles from Israel. Each of these three targets differs sharply in terms of the near-term risk it poses to Israel and its vulnerability.
The Arak facility is partially sheltered, but it does not yet have a reactor vessel and evidently will not have one until 2011. Arak will not pose a tangible threat for at least several years. The key problem Israel would face is that it would virtually have to strike it as part of any strike on the other targets, because it cannot risk waiting and being unable to carry out another set of strikes for political reasons. It also could then face an Iran with much better air defenses, much better long-range missile forces, and at least some uranium weapons.
Bushehr is a nuclear power reactor along Iran’s southwestern coast in the Gulf. It is not yet operational, although it may be fueled late this year. It would take some time before it could be used to produce plutonium, and any Iranian effort to use its fuel rods for such a purpose would be easy to detect and lead Iran into an immediate political confrontation with the United Nations and other states. Bushehr also is being built and fueled by Russia—which so far has been anything but supportive of an Israeli strike and which might react to any attack by making major new arms shipments to Iran.
The centrifuge facility at Natanz is a different story. It is underground and deeply sheltered, and is defended by modern short-range Russian TOR-M surface-to-air missiles. It also, however, is the most important target Israel can fully characterize. Both Israeli and outside experts estimate that it will produce enough low enriched uranium for Iran to be able to be used in building two fission nuclear weapons by some point in 2010—although such material would have to be enriched far more to provide weapons-grade U-235.
Israel has fighters, refueling tankers and precision-guided air-to-ground weapons to strike at all of these targets—even if it flies the long-distance routes needed to avoid the most critical air defenses in neighboring Arab states. It is also far from clear that any Arab air force would risk engaging Israeli fighters. Syria, after all, did not attempt to engage Israeli fighters when they attacked the reactor being built in Syria.
In August 2003, the Israeli Air Force demonstrated the strategic capability to strike far-off targets such as Iran by flying three F-15 jets to Poland, 1,600 nautical miles away. Israel can launch and refuel two to three full squadrons of combat aircraft for a single set of strikes against Iran, and provide suitable refueling. Israel could also provide fighter escorts and has considerable electronic-warfare capability to suppress Iran’s aging air defenses. It might take losses to Iran’s fighters and surface-to-air missiles, but such losses would probably be limited.
Israel would, however, still face two critical problems. The first would be whether it can destroy a hardened underground facility like Natanz. The second is that a truly successful strike might have to hit far more targets over a much larger area than the three best-known sites. Iran has had years to build up covert and dispersed facilities, and is known to have dozens of other facilities associated with some aspect of its nuclear programs. Moreover, Israel would have to successfully strike at dozens of additional targets to do substantial damage to another key Iranian threat: its long-range missiles.
Experts sharply disagree as to whether the Israeli air force could do more than limited damage to the key Iranian facility at Natanz. Some feel it is too deeply underground and too hardened for Israel to have much impact. Others believe that it is more vulnerable than conventional wisdom has it, and Israel could use weapons like the GBU-28 earth-penetrating bombs it has received from the U.S. or its own penetrators, which may include a nuclear-armed variant, to permanently collapse the underground chambers.
No one knows what specialized weapons Israel may have developed on its own, but Israeli intelligence has probably given Israel good access to U.S., European, and Russian designs for more advanced weapons than the GBU-28. Therefore, the odds are that Israel can have a serious impact on Iran’s three most visible nuclear targets and possibly delay Iran’s efforts for several years.
The story is very different, however, when it comes to destroying the full range of Iranian capabilities. There are no meaningful unclassified estimates of Iran’s total mix of nuclear facilities, but known unclassified research, reactor, and centrifuge facilities number in the dozens. It became clear just this week that Iran managed to conceal the fact it was building a second underground facility for uranium enrichment near Qom, 100 miles southwest of Tehran, and that was designed to hold 3,000 centrifuges. Iran is developing at least four variants of its centrifuges, and the more recent designs have far more capacity than most of the ones installed at Natanz.
This makes it easier to conceal chains of centrifuges in a number of small, dispersed facilities and move material from one facility to another. Iran’s known centrifuge production facilities are scattered over large areas of Iran, and at least some are in Mashad in the far northeast of the country—far harder to reach than Arak, Bushehr and Natanz.
Many of Iran’s known facilities present the added problem that they are located among civilian facilities and peaceful nuclear-research activities—although Israel’s precision-strike capabilities may well be good enough to allow it to limit damage to nearby civilian facilities.
It is not clear that Israel can win this kind of “shell game.” It is doubtful that even the U.S. knows all the potential targets, and even more doubtful that any outside power can know what each detected Iranian facility currently does—and the extent to which each can hold dispersed centrifuge facilities that Iran could use instead of Natanz to produce weapons-grade uranium. As for the other elements of Iran’s nuclear programs, it has scattered throughout the country the technical and industrial facilities it could use to make the rest of fission nuclear weapons. The facilities can now be in too many places for an Israeli strike to destroy Iran’s capabilities.
Israel also faces limits on its military capabilities. Strong as Israeli forces are, they lack the scale, range and other capabilities to carry out the kind of massive strike the U.S. could launch. Israel does not have the density and quality of intelligence assets necessary to reliably assess the damage done to a wide range of small and disperse targets and to detect new Iranian efforts.
Israel has enough strike-attack aircraft and fighters in inventory to carry out a series of restrikes if Iran persisted in rebuilding, but it could not refuel a large-enough force, or provide enough intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities, to keep striking Iran at anything like the necessary scale. Moreover, Israel does not have enough forces to carry out a series of restrikes if Iran persisted in creating and rebuilding new facilities, and Arab states could not repeatedly standby and let Israel penetrate their air space. Israel might also have to deal with a Russia that would be far more willing to sell Iran advanced fighters and surface-to-air missiles if Israel attacked the Russian-built reactor at Bushehr.
These problems are why a number of senior Israeli intelligence experts and military officers feel that Israel should not strike Iran, although few would recommend that Israel avoid using the threat of such strikes to help U.S. and other diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to halt. For example, retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom advocates, like a number of other Israeli experts, reliance on deterrence and Israel’s steadily improving missile defenses.
Any Israeli attack on an Iranian nuclear target would be a very complex operation in which a relatively large number of attack aircraft and support aircraft would participate. The conclusion is that Israel could attack only a few Iranian targets—not as part of a sustainable operation over time, but as a one-time surprise operation.
The alternatives, however, are not good for Israel, the U.S., Iran’s neighbors or Arab neighbors. Of course being attacked is not good for Iran. Israel could still strike, if only to try to buy a few added years of time. Iranian persistence in developing nuclear weapons could push the U.S. into launching its own strike on Iran—although either an Israeli or U.S. strike might be used by Iran’s hardliners to justify an all-out nuclear arms race. Further, it is far from clear that friendly Arab Gulf states would allow the U.S. to use bases on their soil for the kind of massive strike and follow-on restrikes that the U.S. would need to suppress Iran’s efforts on a lasting basis.
The broader problem for Iran, however, is that Israel will not wait passively as Iran develops a nuclear capability. Like several Arab states, Israel already is developing better missile and air defenses, and more-advanced forms of its Arrow ballistic missile defenses. There are reports that Israel is increasing the range-payload of its nuclear-armed missiles and is developing sea-based nuclear-armed cruise missiles for its submarines.
While Iran is larger than Israel, its population centers are so vulnerable to Israeli thermonuclear weapons that Israel already is a major “existential” threat to Iran. Moreover, provoking its Arab neighbors and Turkey into developing their nuclear capabilities, or the U.S. into offering them a nuclear umbrella targeted on Iran, could create additional threats, as well as make Iran’s neighbors even more dependent on the U.S. for their security. Iran’s search for nuclear-armed missiles may well unite its neighbors against it as well as create a major new nuclear threat to its survival.