Thursday, August 11, 2005

Can Iran's Pursuit of Nuclear Technology Be Thwarted By Air Strikes?

Report Drafted By:Erich Marquardt

As Iran continues its development of nuclear technology, powerful rival states such as the United States and Israel have publicly considered the viability of launching an air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities should Tehran come closer to developing the ability to create nuclear weapons. Israel, for example, has a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East and has shown its willingness to prevent other Middle Eastern states from acquiring nuclear arms. In 1981, when France was assisting Iraq in its quest for nuclear technology, Tel Aviv launched an air strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. The attack accomplished its primary objective of putting a dent in Baghdad's nuclear research program. Would a similar attack on Iran's nuclear facilities yield similar results?

A military air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would have a much lower success ratio than the Osirak attack had in 1981. In 1981, Iraq's nuclear research program was concentrated at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Center just outside of Baghdad. Baghdad's failure to disperse the different aspects of its nuclear program to multiple facilities made it an easy target for an air strike. Dr. Imad Khadduri, a former Iraqi nuclear scientist who was the head of the scientific experimentation group before the Israeli air strike, told the Power and Interest News Report, "Indeed, in 1981 all of our work was centered at the Tuwaitha site." In order to prevent such attacks from occurring in the future, Baghdad took prompt action after Israel's successful air strike. After the air strike, Khadduri explained, "we began to disperse our nuclear facilities to end up with eight or nine sites for production, processing, enrichment design and research."

Aware of Baghdad's failure to spread its nuclear program to multiple facilities, Tehran has adopted a safer approach. Realizing that other countries which have military power in the region -- such as the United States and Israel -- may attempt to take military action against its nuclear research program, Tehran has likely spread its nuclear program into multiple facilities throughout the country. This dispersal strategy will make it very difficult for an outside country to launch a successful air strike against Iran's nuclear research program.

Dr. David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security, recently explained to the Power and Interest News Report the methods that Tehran has taken to protect its nuclear research program. Albright warned that "while military strikes can hurt Iran's nuclear capabilities, they cannot stop them. ... There are likely other facilities that are unknown and would escape damage." Khadduri, too, pointed to the difficulties involved in an attempt to destroy Iran's nuclear research program: "Unless the attacking country would have human spies infiltrating the Iranian nuclear team, it would be very difficult to pinpoint what to hit in the event of an air attack."

In addition to the operational difficulties in destroying Iran's nuclear research program, there are also serious political risks involved. In 1981, when Israel attacked Iraq's Osirak reactor, Tel Aviv's move caused Baghdad to accelerate its quest for nuclear arms. By demonstrating Iraq's military weakness in its failure to prevent an Israeli air strike, Tel Aviv's decision merely caused the leadership in Baghdad to believe even more strongly that they needed nuclear weapons to shield against future aggression from hostile states. By acquiring nuclear arms, states are able to increase their defense capabilities since other states are hesitant to take military action against a nuclear-armed rival. As Khadduri writes in his recent book describing Iraq's nuclear research program, after Israel attacked the Osirak reactor, "Saddam took the political decision to initiate a full-fledged weapons program immediately afterwards."

President Saddam Hussein's decision in 1981 to accelerate Iraq's nuclear weapons program displays the danger that would be involved in attacking Iran's nuclear research program. Any attack would prove to Tehran that its military was too weak to defend the Iranian state from outside threats; just like Baghdad in 1981, this realization would lead Tehran to accelerate its nuclear weapons program, thus creating an even bigger problem for rival states. Albright asserts that after a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran could "quickly restart a gas centrifuge program in secret that would be extremely difficult to detect or stop."

The diplomatic anger that would be created by attacking Iran's nuclear research program would also be fierce. Tehran has extensive diplomatic and economic ties with a variety of states, such as members of the European Union, Russia and India. Russia has been earning much-needed capital by assisting Iran's nuclear research program. Russian engineers have been building Iran's main nuclear reactor at the southern city of Bushehr. While Moscow has expressed public concern regarding accusations that Tehran may be attempting to develop nuclear arms, it has been unwilling to cease its assistance to Tehran. Along with nuclear assistance, Moscow has been providing Iran with conventional arms. According to "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations," an annual report provided to the U.S. Congress by Richard Grimmett, in the last decade Moscow has provided Tehran with MiG-29 fighter aircraft, Su-24 fighter bombers, T-72 tanks, and Kilo class attack submarines.

India also has important ties with Iran. India's strategic concerns over its rival state, Pakistan, are shared in part by Iran; therefore, instability in Iran could weaken India's foreign policy leverage when dealing with the leadership in Islamabad. New Delhi and Tehran have also been collaborating with Russia's state-owned gas company, Gazprom, to build a pipeline that would export gas from Iran to India.

Taking these factors into account, the prospect of launching a successful air strike that would thwart Tehran's pursuit of nuclear technology is not a viable strategy. In addition to the logistical difficulties involved in destroying Tehran's nuclear facilities, there is also the fear that such an attack would only accelerate Tehran's pursuit of nuclear arms. Finally, the political reverberations that would be felt by such an attack would be severe, and the attacking state would likely be held accountable for its actions.



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