Iran: The Military Option

"A military option against Iran's nuclear facilities is feasible," writes Thomas McInerny in The Weekly Standard.
A diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis is preferable, but without a credible military option and the will to implement it, diplomacy will not succeed. The announcement of uranium enrichment last week by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shows Iran will not bow easily to diplomatic pressure. The existence of a military option may be the only means of persuading Iran--the world's leading sponsor of terrorism--to back down from producing nuclear weapons.

A military option would be all the more credible if backed by a new coalition of the willing and if coupled with intense diplomacy during a specific time frame. The coalition could include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, Britain, France, and Germany. Solidarity is important and would surely contribute to potential diplomatic success. But should others decline the invitation, the United States must be prepared to act.

What would an effective military response look like? It would consist of a powerful air campaign led by 60 stealth aircraft (B-2s, F-117s, F-22s) and more than 400 nonstealth strike aircraft, including B-52s, B-1s, F-15s, F-16s, Tornados, and F-18s. Roughly 150 refueling tankers and other support aircraft would be deployed, along with 100 unmanned aerial vehicles for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and 500 cruise missiles. In other words, overwhelming force would be used.

The objective would be, first and foremost, to destroy or severely damage Iran's nuclear development and production facilities and put them out of commission for at least five years. ...

Via Free Iran News Forum. The article adds that Iran - which the author states is only 51% Persian - is rife with ethnic and civil unrest. "Azerbaijanis and Kurds comprise nearly 35 percent of the population. Seventy percent are under 30, and the jobless rate hovers near 20 percent." A massive covert operation, timed to coincide with the air campaign and patterned after the Afghan campaign of 2001, could bring down the weakened Islamic Republic regime.

Meanwhile, JINSA lists America's national security priorities.
At least one analyst suggests that Iran could only generate enough for a one-shot demonstration to halt the current round of talks at the UN by presenting the Security Council with a fait accompli. An Israeli official said Iran had proved a "rudimentary research and development capability" needed to create nuclear weapons, but it did not mean that the Iranians had "mastered the nuclear fuel cycle." Israel's Chief of Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, called the announcement "a bargaining chip... meant to move the debate to the next point - the extent of enrichment."

However, even a demonstration project means that Iran has acquired the knowledge to enrich uranium after which, like biting the apple, you cannot "un-know." If the Iranian program is not stopped, some analysts believe Iran could master the fuel cycle by the end of the year. This is what Israel considers the "point of no return."

The Iranians themselves say they are looking to increase the centrifuge string from the current 164 (enough to test the technology) to 3,000 (enough for industrial purposes, or to make one bomb per year) and then to 50,000 (do the math yourself). The ringer here, of course, is that we don't know what we don't know. There are suggestions of a parallel, clandestine program; that the 3,000 centrifuges already exist, that the knowledge base is stronger than we think. ...

As previously noted here, some sources believe that the regime is hiding a top-secret facility in Neyshabour. This is
a top-secret plant under construction that is designed to run 155,000 centrifuges, enough to enrich uranium for 3-5 nuclear bombs a year.

This is Project B, or the hidden face of the enrichment plant open to inspection at Natanz.

This plant, due for completion next October, is scheduled to go on line at the end of 2007. According to our intelligence sources, running-in has begun at some sections of the Neyshabour installation, which is located 600 km northeast of Tehran. DEBKAfile’s sources reveal too that the Neyshabour plant has been built 150 m deep under farmland covered with mixed vegetable crops and dubbed Shahid Moradian, in the name of a war martyr as obscure as its existence.

Spook86 at In from the Cold cites an e-mail exchange with a former weapons inspector:
The former inspector believes that Iran will have to operate a small-scale cascade for at least 6-12 months before ramping up production. Obviously, the availabilty of P-2 centrifuges would help, but there is no evidence that Iran has the larger models in quantity (yet).

This former inspector also opined that Iran may have only a limited supply of the parts required for building centrifuges, estimating that Tehran might be able to assemble another 1-2,000 over the next year. Even if those are the larger P-2 models (and that's a stretch), it's still a long way from the 50,000 needed for fast-track, weapons-scale enrichment efforts (with the P-1), or the 12-13,000 needed, if the P-2 models are used. Beyond that, Iran still has the issues of output and quality to contend with.

A cautionary note: I am not trying to underestimate the menace posed by Iran's nuclear program. But Tehran still has significant technical and logistical barriers to overcome to reach the production levels needed to build a bomb. When will they overcome those hurdles? That's the $64,000 question, but given current levels of activity, Iran's progression along the enrichment track would probably produce a weapon in the 2009-2010 timeframe, and not in 2006 or 2007.

Having said that, we must emphasize (again) that there are significant gaps regarding what we actually know about Iran's nuclear program. The lack of P-2 centrifuges at Natanz may suggest that those models are being used (or will be used) in a parallel program at a covert facility. If the secret effort is more advanced/producing enriched uranium on a larger scale, Iran could have the material for a bomb before 2009 or 2010. As we've noted on numerous occasions, the possibility of a "dual track" nuclear program in Iran cannot be dismissed.

Late last week, a senior Israeli official stated that the west had missed the opportunity to head off Iran's nuclear program.

Spook86 doesn't cite the Debka report, but Debka may be working from the same sources as the "senior Israeli official". I've left a comment at IFTC, so we'll wait to see what Spook makes of Debka's claims about Neyshabour.

UPDATE: Spook86 responds with this illuminating post in comments:
Follow the main rail line heading east out of Tehran. Beyond the city, there isn't much, but the Iranians spent billions on that line that appears to go nowhere; certainly the number of passengers from Mashhad couldn't justify that level of investment; neither could potential trade with Afghanistan. A number of analysts in the intel community have long believed that this region is home to at least one major nuclear site, and possibly others as well. The location is remote; facilities could be more easily concealed, and it creates more targeting problems for potential adversaries, namely Israel.

On the other hand, any sites in eastern Iran are just a short hop from our bases in Afghanistan--something the Iranians never really counted on.