Aerial bombing of Iran's nuclear and missile programs offers little political, deterrent or military value. That judgment encompasses bombing raids by either Israel or the U.S., contend a growing number of U.S. analysts.
There is evidence that patience on the part of the West may provide less-obvious opportunities to delay or halt the programs. But Israel fears that U.S. caution will turn into a containment policy that will enable Tehran to build a nuclear weapon.
“If the Iranians really wanted a store of enriched uranium, they could buy it,” says a longtime U.S. defense specialist with links to the U.S. military's world of clandestine operations. “And they don't have to process it themselves except for the national prestige it would give the country and to keep the international spotlight on Tehran.”
In fact, North Korea and Iran agreed to broad technology exchanges during an August meeting in Tehran of nonaligned nations. Large numbers of North Korean scientists have been traveling to Iran. The agreement calls for cooperation in research, student exchanges, and joint laboratories in the areas of information technology, engineering, biotechnology and renewable energy.
Probably the only nation to profit from an attack on Iran would be Russia, where declining oil prices are slowing the economy.
“The price of oil goes up if there is an attack on Iran,” says Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Institute arms control initiative. And while Russia's sale of its long-range SA-20 (S-300) surface-to-air missile to Iran remains a “dead issue,” Moscow has “not seen a precautionary tale” in the fact that its advanced-capability, man-portable SA-18s and SA-24s have migrated from military customers into the black market and into the hands of militants in Somalia, South Lebanon and Gaza, says Pifer. He predicts such sales will continue.
Nonkinetic cyberattacks cooperatively developed, financed and launched by the U.S. and Israel did delay the Iranian nuclear program for five or more years, says the U.S. defense specialist, but the eventual outing of the “Stuxnet” cyberattack and “Flame” cyber-reconnaissance programs allowed Iran to start organizing its cyberdefenses.
To defend against cyberattacks, the Iranian government has begun installing a network that is separate from the Internet to better control information flow, according to a report by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Global Communications Studies. Critical government and military agencies are expected to be on the network by the end of the month, according to the Washington Post. Project researchers say they already have evidence of a filtering capability. The technology is provided by China's Huawei corporation, the investigation finds.
“But it's a fencing match [that is standard in the world of electronic warfare],” the U.S. specialist says. “Now that they know our secret sauce [with discovery of the Stuxnet and Flame cyberintrusions], they've made it much harder to do.”
So if the path for nonkinetic, cyberattacks is blocked by new technology, what could the U.S. and Israel do to slow Iran's progress?
“Kinetic attack [with aerial bombs or other explosives] is one of the few options left, but you need a lot of critical information to make an air attack on a deeply buried target work,” says a senior U.S. Air Force official.
Some of those options are already in play. On Sept. 17, Fereydoun Abbasi, Iran's vice president and nuclear energy agency chief, said the electrical transmission lines between Qom and the Fordow nuclear enrichment facility (buried under a mountain) were severed with explosives, as were the power lines leading to the country's other underground enrichment facility at Natanz.
So far, Western justification for attacking Iran's nuclear development and delivery programs has been associated with the need to stop those efforts or create long delays. The goal is to ensure that sufficient enriched uranium cannot be processed to make nuclear weapons that could be delivered by missiles or even by trucks. Once the weapons are assembled and armed, they are difficult to keep track of, even by those who possess them.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, for example, was once part of a program to control chemical and biological weapons by making audits of what actually existed and where.
“The investigators found out that not even the senior Soviet leaders knew what they had or where it was hidden,” the U.S. specialist says. “Nuclear materials are the same. If Iran wanted to, it could get all the enriched uranium it wanted on the black market. If it wanted to focus solely on possessing a bomb, it could buy one.”
The technology to create effects against a truly deep underground facility, short of a nuclear weapon, does not exist. “We keep inventing and improving penetrating bombs,” says the U.S. defense specialist. “We've hardened them and we've boosted them and we've only increased the amount of the deeply buried target set we can defeat by a fraction. And right now the Israeli capability against deeply buried targets is not much more than a noise-level effect.”
As a result, the enthusiasm for a U.S. attack on Iran is negligible, and the technological ability for Israel to create the necessary effects is not much greater.
“I don't see the U.S. initiating any near-term action,” the U.S. specialist says. “The Israelis are unlikely to do it on their own.”
In the meantime, the U.S. is intent on conducting defensive battleship diplomacy with its buildup of warships near the Strait of Hormuz.
“The wild card is if the Israelis create some unique capability that makes the Iranian facilities more reachable, or if there is some unexpected intelligence about a critical bottleneck that the Israelis could get to that stops [weapons] development,” he says.
A budding politician, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces Lt. Gen. (ret.) Dani Halutz, volunteered his expectation that “no one will surprise anyone in the near future.” He had been asked about the possibility of a surprise Israeli attack before the November elections in the U.S.
Others expect such a move soon after, however.
“There will likely be military action, probably after the U.S. elections, with or without the help of the U.S.,” Ephraim Asculai, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, tells Aviation Week. That decision will be driven by Israeli government fear that the “U.S. will accept [political] containment of Iran despite it having nuclear weapons. That's not a good choice in the case of Iran because the regime is very unpredictable.”
The U.S.—but not Israel—would have the advantage of being able to employ cruise missiles, large penetrating weapons and stealthy, high-flying bombers.
“I believe Obama when he says he won't allow Iranian nuclear weapons, but the U.S. red line [for action] is an actual break-out” in producing weapons-grade enriched uranium, says Asculai. “But will they have that information? You can find a lot of cases when intelligence didn't provide the answer in time.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the U.S. for not setting hard red lines on Iran's development of weapons, suggesting that failure to do so is an immoral act that jeopardizes the continued existence of Israel. Halutz condemned the practice of making military policy based on such red lines. He says they are never respected, are overtaken by events and generally make the country that put them in place look foolish. Instead, the U.S. and Israel should sit down together and agree on the facts, and make decisions about what to do. They also must promote a relevant coalition and assemble an international force that includes China, Russia, India, Brazil and others, he adds.
There are circumstances that could change the march toward a conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, says Halutz. These include the fall of the Syrian regime, Iran's major supporter; and decisions by Russia and China to not transfer advanced military technologies into the region.
In a passing reference to his own experience after the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah war, with the unhealthy brew of politics and bloodshed, Halutz says: “I'm bothered” because Iran has become more of a political problem than a military one. “We have to be careful with election rhetoric,” because that argument has played out in public discussions of what can actually be done to hardened and buried targets.