Assessing the Iranian Threat

Last week, the prospect of a showdown with Iran at the United Nations Security Council seemed inevitable. This week, the rhetoric has been toned down somewhat, and today the Chinese delegation expressed it’s support for a possible Russian solution to Irans nuclear problem.

All that said, there still seems to be plenty of talk about Tehrans, and specifically Ahmadinejad’s threat to Israel and the Greater Middle East with it’s “nuclear” potential.

This has spurred talk of military action against Iran (by either Israel or the US) in order to stop this emerging “threat”… the rhetoric is very reminiscent of the runup to the Iraq War. The question is, is the basis for that response any more legitimate than it was in Iraq?

To answer that question, we have the Arms Control Wonk. They have released an excellent 3-part blog series analyzing, in great detail, the real threat that Iran poses in terms of nuclear capabilities, and what an attack on Iran would do to limit those capabilities.

Their conclusions fall in the “good news/bad news” category. I highly recommend you take the time to read their entire analysis…

Iran and the Bomb 1: How close is Iran?

When some moron like Charles Krauthammer claims Iran is now just “months” away from a bomb, you can pretty much ignore him: He has no idea what he is talking about.

Most references to Iran being “months” away from a bomb are really statements about how close Iran will be once it completes the FEP [Fuel Enrichment Plant]—something, as you will soon see, that will take a few years.

Iran & the Bomb 2: Iran’s Missiles

Iran’s missiles aren’t that big, and its warheads aren’t that small. Without more testing of both, I think Iran would be hard pressed to deliver a missile to Israel, let alone Europe or the United States.

The bottom line: Iran might, might, be able to deliver a nuclear weapon against an Israeli city, but that would be at the extreme edge of their capabilities.

Much more worrisome, I would think, would be the weapon delivered by terrorists, perhaps on a ship. [discussed in part 1]

Iran & The Bomb 3: Strike options

folks in the United States defense establishment have clearly begun to at least think about what a military option against Iran’s nuclear programs might look like. Newsweek recently reported “the CIA and DIA have war-gamed the likely consequences of a U.S. pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

Conventional wisdom states that Iran’s facilities are too dispersed to permit a strike like the one Israel conducted against Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981.

Most of these facilities are quite vulnerable to airstrikes—including the Uranium Conversion Facility at Esfahan and the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz.

I don’t think there is any doubt that the United States could delay Iran’s program by a couple of years, particularly if Iran had to rebuilt its Uranium Conversion Facility and Fuel Enrichment Plants (probably much deeper underground the second time).

There is certainly no reason to launch a strike now, with Iran’s program several years off and many facilities not yet complete. As the cases of Natanz and Esfahan illustrate, a strike now would be conducted with more uncertainty than I would like.

That might buy some additional time—but for what?

… an airstrike now would probably unite Iranians, galvanizing support for a bomb program. Our information about Iran’s bomb program after a strike would likely be much less complete than it is now, having had the benefit of several years of intense IAEA scrutiny.

My take from the whole thing is that we are best to keep doing what we are doing. Our best information is coming straight from the IAEA itself. As long as Iran is working under, or at least under the scrutiny of the IAEA, then we can be relative sure that not too much is getting by and at the same time, we might just get a diplomatic resolution that is acceptable to all parties.

As we saw, in hindsight, in Iraq. The effects of inspections, and dismantling teams in Iraq under the UN and IAEA had a huge impact on the ability of Iraq to conduct WMD research and development. Now that we have that *proven* test case, we should be able to apply that to Iran with full confidence. I will give George W. Bush credit here, he is working with the system and allowing the diplomats their time. I really can’t ask that he do anything different…

However, I think he’s doing so because he and his advisors know the *real* threat from Iran lies in it’s control of world oil production (both directly through production, and indirectly through it’s position on the Straights of Hormuz)

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