Iran is moving to restart its suspended uranium enrichment program. Negotiations with the European Union have collapsed and the crisis is escalating. Does the United States -- or Israel -- have a military option?
The same neoconservative pundits who campaigned for the invasion of Iraq are now beating the drums on Iran. Urging us this week to keep military options open, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol said Iran’s “nuclear program could well be getting close to the point of no return.” Writing from the same talking points, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said, “Instead of being years away from the point of no return for an Iranian bomb…Iran is probably just months away.”
Do they reflect the thinking of senior officials closely aligned with these political currents? No official has indicated that they do. But just one year ago, Vice President Cheney seemed to be thinking along exactly these lines when he told radio host Don Imus on Inauguration Day, "Iran is right at the top of the list." Cheney came close to endorsing military action, noting that "the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."
There is no need for military strikes against Iran. The country is five to ten years away from the ability to enrich uranium for fuel or bombs. Even that estimate, shared by the Defense Intelligence Agency and experts at IISS, ISIS, and University of Maryland assumes Iran goes full-speed ahead and does not encounter any of the technical problems that typically plague such programs.
This is not a nuclear bomb crisis, it is a nuclear regime crisis. US Ambassador John Bolton has correctly pointed out that this is a key test for the Security Council. If Iran is not stopped the entire nonproliferation regime will be weakened, and with it the UN system.
But it will have to be diplomats, not F-15s that stop the mullahs. An air strike against a soft target, such as the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan (which this author visited in 2005) would inflame Muslim anger, rally the Iranian public around an otherwise unpopular government and jeopardize further the US position in Iraq. Finally, the strike would not, as is often said, delay the Iranian program. It would almost certainly speed it up. That is what happened when the Israelis struck at the Iraq program in 1981.
The Failure of the Osirak Raid
A bit of history: Back in June of 1991, then-Defense Secretary Cheney gave a photograph of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak to the man who had commanded the Israeli air force during the raid on the site in 1981. "With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981," Cheney wrote, "which made our job much easier in Desert Storm." Cheney may have forgotten that the Reagan administration condemned the raid when it took place, as did most nations. And he may not be aware that the Israeli raid, far from crippling Iraq's nuclear program, actually accelerated it. The raid was a tactical success but a strategic failure.
After Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor on June 7, 1981, using U.S.-supplied F-16s and F-15s, the Reagan administration said, "The United States government condemns the reported Israeli air strike on the Iraqi nuclear facility, the unprecedented character of which cannot but seriously add to the already tense situation in the area." Most other nations joined in denouncing the action.
Israel defended the raid by saying that the Osirak reactor "was intended, despite statements to the contrary, for the production of atomic bombs. The goal of these bombs was Israel." The Israelis were right, at least about Saddam Hussein's plan to use the reactor to make bomb fuel. He intended to use the research reactor Iraq had purchased from France in 1979 to irradiate uranium, producing plutonium that could be extracted for the core of a bomb. The 40-megawatt reactor was near completion at the time of the raid, but it had not yet been fueled with uranium rods.
The raid was hotly debated in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Many, such as Yehoshua Saguy, the head of the intelligence division of the Israeli Defense Forces, argued that Israel should continue to try to find a nonmilitary solution to the threat, as it would take Iraq five to 10 years to produce the material needed for a bomb. In the end, Begin went with the worst-case estimate of a bomb within one to two years and ordered the attack.
The raid, however, speeded up the Iraqi program. According to former Iraqi nuclear official Khadir Hamza, "Israel made a mistake." Hussein had planned to slowly divert plutonium from the reactor, which was under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. His diversion plan might have escaped detection, but with what we now know, it also probably would have taken much longer than even the 10 years Saguy and others estimated at the time. The program was proceeding slowly and had run into numerous technical problems, while Iraq's intense war with Iran was diverting resources from the project. The raid, however, energized Saddam Hussein. He launched a new effort to secretly construct gas centrifuges and other devices (particularly electromagnetic isotope separation units) to produce weapons-grade uranium. The program went underground and mushroomed. "At the beginning we had approximately 500 people working, which increased to 7,000 working after the Israeli bombing," Hamza explained to a Washington audience in November 2000, "The secret program became a much larger and ambitious program."
Lesson of the Raid
Israel had pulled off a remarkable military raid, striking targets with great precision over long distances. But the bombing set back Israel more than Iraq. It further harmed Israel's international reputation, later worsened by the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon, while making Iraq appear a victim of Israeli aggression. Officials heralded the "Begin doctrine" of preemptive strikes, but the attack made Israel complacent. In the words of Israeli-born scholar Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb, "The operational success proved to be profoundly and strategically deceptive," as Israel remained unaware of Iraq's new efforts throughout most of the 1980s. Internally, Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions went from a side project to an obsession. Ten years later, in 1991, he was closer to producing a nuclear bomb with uranium than he might ever have been pursuing a plutonium path through Osirak.
The raid had not, despite Cheney's praise, made "our job much easier" but had complicated an already difficult problem. Hussein dispersed and hardened his secret new facilities and protected them with air defenses. In the 1991 war, 43 days of coalition bombing failed to destroy the program, which ended only when U.N. disarmament teams methodically destroyed the equipment on the ground.
Today, with Iran, many of my colleagues would like to keep this option open -if only as a bluff- believing that we need the threat of military action to force Iran into compromise. They may feel the need to prove their “toughness” to the current administration. But it is a dangerous stick to wave, particularly when you do not have any real control over it. The true lessons of the Osirak raid are worth remembering as optimistic plans for "solving" Iran now come flying out of neoconservative circles.
Joseph Cirincione is the Director for Nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
(This article adapts substantial parts of the author’s previous article “Bombs Won’t Solve Iran,” published in The Washington Post, May 11, 2005.)
Chapter on Iran, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 2005
"Iran 'Years From Nuclear Bomb,'" BBC News 12 January 2006, article on International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Iran report
"Iran's Next Steps: Final Tests and the Construction of a Uranium Enrichment Plant," David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, Institute for Science and International Security, 12 January 2006