Iran’s nuclear sites in the news again

Jun 25, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

June 25, 2008
Number 06/08 #06

This Update looks at the reported Israeli Air Force exercise conducted over Greece in the first week of June, which was widely interpreted as a dry run for a possible attack on Iran?s nuclear installations. Although Israel made no official comments, according to the New York Times, which broke the story on June 20, over 100 IAF F-16 and F-15 fighter jets were involved in the exercise over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece. According to the paper, rescue helicopters and refueling tankers flew 1,500 km. in the drill, the distance between Israel and Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. Here is a link to the original New York Times article.

The first piece by veteran Israeli analyst Hillel Halkin in the Jerusalem Post argues that Israel has no choice but to take out Iran?s nuclear facilities because the US and Europe will not. Halkin argues that the mood in Israel is a mix of fear, anger and pride that it might have to act alone to prevent Iran gaining nuclear weapons. CLICK HERE.

A piece by Commentary magazine’?s senior editor, Gabriel Schoenfeld published in the Weekly Standard, analyses the technical difficulties involved in destroying Iran?s nuclear installations which are widely dispersed and buried deep underground. CLICK HERE.

Finally, New York Sun staff reporter Eli Lake reports on the possible ramifications of an Israeli attack on Iran?s nuclear facilities. CLICK HERE.

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…but somebody has to do it

By Hillel Halkin

The Jerusalem Post, Jun. 24, 2008

So now it’s official. The Israeli air force is in an advanced stage of training to attack Iranian nuclear installations. If the massive overflight of the eastern Mediterranean by Israeli jets earlier this month was indeed the “dress rehearsal” for such an attack that it has been called, it was a rehearsal to which the public was invited – or at least, the intelligence agencies of the countries that tracked the operation on their radar screens.

You don’t, of course, conduct such an operation when you have already decided to strike; at that point, the more secrecy, the better. You conduct it when you don’t want to strike and think your only hope of avoiding it is to convince the world that you will do it unless you are given a good reason not to. This month’s air maneuvers, it might be said, were Israel’s plea to the world to be shown that such a reason exists.

But the world is not going to oblige. The same countries that were too short-sighted and greedy to do anything significant about stopping the Iranian nuclear-bomb program ten, five, or two years ago, when oil prices were low and Iran were vulnerable to economic and diplomatic pressures, are not about to lift a finger now. Even a year ago, when climbing oil prices had already ruled out the economic feasibility of an embargo on Iranian oil, a sudden freeze on Iran’s assets and funds by Western governments could have caused the Iranian leadership to think twice. Now, while these governments have predictably wasted yet another year by jawing toothlessly away about the need for sanctions, Iran has reportedly transferred most of those assets and funds elsewhere.

NOR IS President Bush likely to leave the White House in a blaze of penetration bombs by ordering a last-minute American attack on Iran. The Republican Party wants to win the November election, and the president knows that Americans fighting in another Middle-Eastern country and $200-or-more-a-barrel oil is not going to help. Bush has talked more bravely about stopping the Iranians than any other Western leader, but what he has not done until now will not be done before his term is over – unless, that is, he chooses to do it between the elections and his successor’s inauguration in January, which would be a historically unprecedented use of lame-duck power that is hard to imagine.

And John McCain? If elected, he might be Israel’s last chance of not having to go it alone. But McCain himself doesn’t know at this stage what he would do, and he is currently behind in the polls. Barack Obama would be only slightly more likely to attack Iran than Vladimir Putin. He has already made it clear that he would rather talk to the Iranians than fight them, and they will be delighted to discuss with him any subject he chooses while the centrifuges go on spinning in Natanz.

Of course, even a President Obama, let alone a President McCain, might be supportive of an Israeli attack should it take place. In general, as evidenced by the muted international response to the Israeli air exercise, the list of countries that might not mind seeing Israel stick it to the Iranians is a long one. Besides the US, it might include quite a few European states and even some Arab ones. As long as they themselves don’t have to run the risk of a) military failure, b) retaliatory Iranian missile and terror attacks, and c) being blamed for astronomical oil prices, plenty of governments would permit themselves a hidden smile of satisfaction while voting to condemn an Israeli attack at the United Nations.

ISRAELIS HAVE every right to feel anger at such hypocrisy. True, a nuclear Iran would be more of a menace to them than to others, but it would be a menace to nearly everyone. There is something genuinely revolting about a world that preaches the need for peacefully dissuading the Iranians from developing atomic weapons while knowingly practicing a policy that in the end leaves Israel no choice but to send its planes into the air.

Israelis also have the right to feel fear. A lot could go wrong with an attack on Iran. Iranian targets could be missed or insufficiently damaged; dummy objectives could be hit while the real ones are kept secret in the earth; Israeli planes could be shot down and Israeli pilots taken hostage; Israeli towns and cities could come under heavy missile and rocket fire not just from Iran, but from Lebanon, Gaza, and even Syria; Israeli casualties could run into the many thousands.

Anyone who thinks that Israel is straining at the leash to get at the Iranians has not the slightest conception of its society. Israelis are good and scared of attacking Iran, as they should be. They are just even more scared of an Iran that could annihilate them, as Iranian leaders have repeatedly said they would love to do.

But Israelis also have the right to feel pride – pride not only that they have one of the few air forces in the world with the military capability to stop Iran, but also that history has chosen them, even if they would rather it had chosen someone else, to be in the front ranks of the campaign.

Even now, it is not too late for them to hope that they will have partners. And if it is not a hope that has much to lean on, at least this time Jews can lean on themselves.

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Darkness at the End of the Tunnel – Penetrating the Iranian underground

by Gabriel Schoenfeld
Weekly Standard, 06/30/2008

Israel has just carried out a major aerial exercise, putting a hundred or so F-15s and F-16s into the skies over the eastern Mediterranean, evidently a rehearsal for a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The move follows the statement earlier this month by Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s deputy prime minister, that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program is “unavoidable.” Israel almost certainly knows the location of some of the critical nodes in the Iranian program that it must hit if it is to set the Iranian effort back by several years. It also possesses the technology to assure that its bombs will fall close to or on their targets. But would such a strike succeed?

We cannot know the answer, and neither can the Israelis. The question calls attention to what might be called the ongoing Counterrevolution in Military Affairs.

The Revolution in Military Affairs was based upon silicon, in particular the computer chips that make for precision-guided weapons. In the 1980s, the United States developed the technology to drop munitions near enough to their targets to ensure a high chance of destruction. In World War II, the circular error probable–the radius of a circle into which a projectile will land at least 50 percent of the time–was more than half a mile. Today, thanks to GPS systems and laser- and infrared-guiding devices, the radius is less than two dozen feet. Almost any given target can be knocked out by the use of just one or two conventional bombs.

In the face of the threat of such efficient destruction, Iran has not stood still. Some of its countermeasures are themselves based upon computerized systems, including highly effective Russian-made surface-to-air missiles that Iran is set to take delivery of this fall. But Iran is also employing a far older means of warfare: deep burrowing.

Subterranean combat is familiar to all students of military affairs. During the Civil War, soldiers with coal mining experience dug a 511-foot-long tunnel some 50 feet beneath the Confederate lines at Petersburg, Virginia. The terminus was filled with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder, and the blast killed between 250 and 350 Confederate soldiers. (The operation ended in disaster, however, when the Union troops who had rushed into the crater to follow up the attack were slaughtered by Confederate troops firing downward from the rim in what was described as a “turkey shoot.”)

More typical, though, is defensive digging. In Berlin, beneath an otherwise unremarkable Chinese restaurant, are the ruins of the most notorious underground facility in history: the Führer bunker. Adolf Hitler held court here in the last phase of World War II, and it was in the bunker that, on April 30, 1945, together with his new bride, he ingested cyanide. As an engineering feat, the Führer bunker was not particularly impressive; Hitler’s honeymoon grave was a mere 28 feet underground.

At the dawn of the nuclear age, the USSR constructed a vast network of tunnels under Moscow, including a 17-mile secret subway line to Vnukovo airport, to ensure that the leaders of the Kremlin would survive a nuclear strike. Some of these underground facilities were hundreds of yards deep and could accommodate thousands of people, sustaining them in compartments impervious to chemical and biological attack. It required a totalitarian system to marshal the manpower and resources to remove such an immense quantity of soil and rock.

Today, however, tunneling is far cheaper and easier. In the early 1990s, the Chunnel, the 30-mile rail tunnel connecting France and England, was built using drilling machines that hewed out a 30-foot diameter circle of rock at the remarkable pace of 164 feet a day. Modern drills are huge, multi-million-dollar pieces of machinery. They operate with a circular disk on the front end that holds steel teeth, which cut into the rock as the plate rotates. A conveyor system pulls the spoil backward, while workers follow up, erecting a reinforced lining for the excavated structure. Narrower diameter tunnels than the Chunnel can be carved into solid rock at the staggering rate of 650 feet per day.

The military significance of all this cannot be overemphasized: Ultra-deep shelters for critical military facilities can be made formidably resistant to attack. It is exceedingly difficult to discern from the surface where tunnel ventilation shafts are located or in which direction a tunnel proceeds. One has only to consider the trouble Israel has had finding tunnels dug by Hamas out of the Gaza Strip that are just a couple of yards below the surface. Another difficulty is determining exactly what military activities are being conducted in any given tunnel.

What is more, if tunnels are dug to a sufficient depth in the right kind of rock–a thousand or more feet into the earth–they are extraordinarily difficult to breach. Even a medium-yield nuclear weapon detonated above ground may not be powerful enough to do the job. Reportedly acting with help from North Korea (and as Emanuele Ottolenghi notes in the July-August Commentary, employing imported European machinery), Iran has built dozens of underground bunkers to house its missile and nuclear programs.

The United States (and presumably Israel) is urgently developing ways to neutralize such targets. Concepts range the gamut from munitions that deliver a powerful shock into the adjoining bedrock to nonlethal methods for introducing a foul odor into the underground chambers, rendering human habitation unbearable.

The problems posed by tunneling seldom come in for public discussion. This happened most recently in 2005 when Congress shelved a Bush administration plan merely to study development of something called the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), amid talk it would ignite an arms race. RNEP was a weapon that would have served as a deterrent to any regime thinking it could buy invulnerability by digging deep. Its defeat was ironic because only a few years earlier, without a peep from Congress, the Clinton administration pushed through the innocuously named B61-11 bomb, which had strikingly similar characteristics, though it tends to break apart when boring into certain types of geological formations in which a hardened target might be located.
Whatever the fate of the RNEP, nuclear weapons were never the best answer to the tunneling problem given the prohibitive political costs of ever employing them. More practical would be the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound package under development jointly by Boeing and Northrop Grumman that is the largest conventional bomb ever built. Precision guided like everything else these days, it would be the ideal weapon to rattle–and perhaps pulverize–a target like Iran’s underground uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz.

In one of his recent outbursts, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called Israel a “stinking corpse,” destined to disappear. Such outrageous language coming–not for the first time–from the head of a state seeking nuclear weapons, has made the Iranian nuclear program all the more ominous. The day is clearly growing closer when the West is going to either face the challenge or, if it permits the ayatollahs to acquire nuclear weapons, suffer a strategic setback with a range of predictable and unpredictable consequences. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator, still in the testing phase, cannot be fitted to the bays of American bombers a day too soon.

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Iran’s ‘Nightmare Scenarios’ Are Mulled in Washington

The New York Sun, June 24

WASHINGTON ? An attack on the U.S. 5th Fleet, exploding Saudi oil refineries, and a Hezbollah operation against a soft target in the Americas, Asia, or Europe. These are scenarios America’s intelligence analysts are now poring over as Israel signals its preparedness to deal with Iran’s race for the A-bomb.

The disclosure Friday in the New York Times of Israel’s aerial training mission earlier this month over the Greek Mediterranean prompted America’s intelligence chiefs to task analysts with developing contingency plans ? or what one called “nightmare scenarios” ? if the Israelis were to send their F-15s and F-16s to Iran’s known nuclear enrichment facilities. While the training exercise was known at the time to American intelligence, the fact that Israel and America chose to make the mission public escalated the already high tensions between Tehran and Jerusalem.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, speaking on Al-Arabiya television over the weekend, said an Israeli attack on Iran’s enrichment facilities would turn the Middle East into a “ball of fire.” Interviews with current and former national security officials in America suggest that Washington and its allies in the Middle East are bracing for unconventional and conventional attacks from Iran in response to such an Israeli action.

Possible scenarios include:

* A terrorist attack on the Saudi oil port of Ras Tanura, an export point for oil bound for Asia. Saudi and American officials have in the past disrupted Al Qaeda plots on the facility, such as an attack on the Abqaiq oil processing plant near Dammam, Saudi Arabia, that killed two guards.

* A naval assault on the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf. Iran still has warships equipped with Russian-designed Shkval torpedoes that it could fire at American vessels. Another possible attack would be suicide boat sorties similar to the one that bombed the USS Cole.

* The commencement of a new round in the war between Hezbollah and Israel, with Hezbollah firing its Shihab missiles into Haifa and possibly the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv.

* Hezbollah or Iranian intelligence terrorist operations on soft targets, such as shopping malls and community centers, in third countries and possibly even America.

* A renewed effort to stir an uprising in Iraq through Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army or the special groups controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

While Europe, America, and other allies increase economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, Israel is privately making it clear that it seeks to prevent Iran from even testing a nuclear device, as North Korea did in 2006. Most Western intelligence agencies agree that Iran’s enrichment tests at Natanz have increased the odds of Iran mastering the technology necessary to create a test explosion.

In February, the director of national intelligence, Admiral John Michael McConnell, told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that Iran could be between six and 12 months away from mastering the technology needed for a nuclear device but not a warhead or bomb. Later in that hearing, he conceded that weapons analysts differ on the matter, providing a range of dates for nuclear fuel cycle mastery between 2010 and 2015, and adding that America’s knowledge of the matter was incomplete.

The former deputy commissioner for counterterrorism for the New York City Police Department, Michael Sheehan, said his office had prepared for an Iranian response in New York the last time “there was a lot of saber-rattling on this,” in 2005. He outlines some of his thinking in his new book, “Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves.”

In an interview, Mr. Sheehan said: “We very much considered how would the Iranians potentially respond to an American or Israeli attack. My thinking then and now is that Iran, in my view, is very rational. They will react in a very carefully and considered way, and I believe they will react with some sort of direct action by Iranian intelligence services or through a surrogate like Hezbollah.”
Mr. Sheehan, who also served as one of President Clinton’s ambassadors for counterterrorism, said that both the FBI and the NYPD have expelled Iranian intelligence officials from New York. He said he would not disclose details of possible targets considered in 2005, and he stressed that the faction of Hezbollah that carries out attacks in foreign countries, such as Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia or the Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, is controlled by Iranian intelligence and not the political party and militia in Lebanon known as Hezbollah.

Asked whether Iran would attack the U.S. 5th Fleet, Mr. Sheehan suggested that the Iranians would be beaten, noting that the Navy would be on the highest alert should Israel attack Iran. A former chief of the Iran-Hezbollah office at the FBI’s counterterrorism division, Kenneth Piernick, yesterday said he would guess that the Iranians would attack targets in the Persian Gulf.

“It seems to me the Iranians would have a greater power thrust closer to their borders. Our folks in Iraq and the Gulf will have their hands full. The Strait of Hormuz would be a target. They have made their demonstrations there in the past,” he said. He added: “I would imagine my former colleagues are looking at Hezbollah’s capabilities, but I have been away from the bureau for too long to speak on that now.”

Mr. Piernick left the FBI in 2002.

In the past, Admiral McConnell has testified that Hezbollah has operatives in America. The network from Hezbollah was first disclosed in a series of federal prosecutions against the group’s illicit fund raising. In some cases, individuals who were primarily raising money for the organization were found to have trained with the organization at the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

A former senior counterterrorism official for both Presidents Clinton and Bush, Roger Cressey, said yesterday that it might not be in Hezbollah’s interest to do Iran’s retaliatory bidding. “As much as Iran is Hezbollah’s state patron, it is unclear whether Hezbollah would take operations at the behest of Iran inside the United States,” he said. “That is not necessarily in Hezbollah’s state interest right now.”

A more likely scenario, Mr. Cressey said, would involve Hezbollah operatives attempting to terrorize softer targets in South America, Europe, or East Asia.

“There are other targets they could hit,” he said. “You can’t discount those scenarios.”

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