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Marc Champion: Iran hawks want to strike now. They're wrong

Marc Champion, Bloomberg Opinion on

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John Bolton has called for Israel to respond to Iran’s massive, failed weekend missile barrage by destroying its nuclear fuel facilities. In one sense, that’s no surprise; the former US national security adviser has rarely seen a problem he didn’t think could be bombed into submission.

Yet he’s far from alone in believing Tehran’s decision to openly attack Israel has presented a rare window for decisive action to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and all that’s needed is the will to act. Ultra-right members of Israel’s Cabinet agree, as do some of the nation’s security services.

If only it were just a matter of will. Bolton is reckless, but there are several things that he and other Iran hawks get right, starting with the contention that by attacking Israel directly on Saturday night, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei changed rules of engagement. Before, the two countries had been fighting an undeclared war in the shadows. By making the attack direct and open, Khamenei has created new policy options for Israel.

The hawks are right, too, that Iran is preparing to produce a bomb despite its denials. Since former President Donald Trump said he was pulling the US out of a three-year-old nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018, Iranian stockpiles of enriched uranium have gone from virtually nothing to more than 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds), including increasingly significant amounts that are enriched to 20% and 60%, well above the 3.7% needed for civilian use, and ready for rapid further enrichment to weapons grade, at about 90%.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security now believes, based on an analysis of a February report by international inspectors, that Iran has stockpiled enough enriched uranium to produce “seven nuclear weapons in one month, nine in two months, eleven in three months, 12-13 in four months, and 13 in five months.” In other words, it is already a threshold nuclear power.

Equally correct is that Iran — as it proved again on Saturday — poses a potentially existential threat to Israel, both directly and via proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis of Yemen. And few would deny that if Iran goes nuclear, other governments in this most volatile of regions will likely look at doing the same, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.

This is why concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has always been bipartisan in the US as well as in Israel. The dispute has been over best how to thwart them. And here is where the hawks go wrong. Invariably, they argue Iran has gotten as close to having a bomb as it has due to the “weakness” of successive American presidents, excluding Donald Trump, of course, whose “maximum pressure” policy and decision to abandon the 2015 accords they celebrated. Bolton campaigned long and hard for that exit.

But Iran’s program doesn’t exist because of US feebleness. It exists because Iran’s leaders want it. They have been willing to sacrifice hundreds of billions of dollars the country can ill-afford to achieve it, and have worked hard to make it survivable. They believe a nuclear deterrent would make them better able to expand their regional power and agenda. Successive US — and Israeli — governments have failed to eliminate the program because that’s hard to achieve, and because they rightly feared that any failed once-and-for-all attempt would risk backfiring, badly. In fact, the result of Trump’s “maximum pressure” has been to produce maximum Iranian enrichment capacity and maximum stockpiles of enriched uranium.

Bolton called for a disproportionate response in his interview with NewsNation’s “The Hill Sunday,” and taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities would first involve a major campaign to destroy its air defenses. The US and Israel have the most capable air forces on the planet, but as the war in Ukraine has shown, modern air defense systems — some of which Iran has bought from Russia — are also very capable.

That could well be a risk worth taking if the operation could reasonably expect to reach and destroy all nuclear facilities. In some cases that would be simple enough, once air defenses were dealt with. Iran has several known above-ground enrichment facilities that could be struck. But it has also been hardening its program against attack for years. There are centrifuge cascades spinning to 60% enrichment at Fordow, where inspectors from the UN’s Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency discovered traces of 84% enriched uranium — just shy of weapons grade — in January 2023. Fordow is built into a mountain, under 80 to 90 meters of rock, and is located just 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Qom, one of Iran’s holiest cities.

 

An Associated Press analysis of satellite images last May found that Iran was also digging a new home for its best-known enrichment plant, at Natanz, 180 kilometers south of Qom, under another mountain. And this time it’s even deeper than Fordow. There is no guarantee that even the bunker-busting bombs that the US has been developing for this purpose would be able to drill through these mountains to the facilities beneath.

It's also a myth that the US and Israel have never attacked Iran’s nuclear program. They’ve been doing so for years, by methods that pose much lower escalation risks, including smuggling in explosive charges and infecting the computers that control the centrifuges. The Stuxnet virus destroyed 1,000 of 9,000 centrifuges at the (above ground) Natanz facility in 2010, by making them spin too fast. Explosions at Natanz in 2020 and 2021 destroyed thousands more centrifuges. Between all that, a slew of Iranian nuclear physicists and administrators have been assassinated.

These setbacks are arguably as much as an air strike would be likely to achieve. Yet three to four years later, Iran has more advanced centrifuges and more highly enriched uranium than ever before.What all these prior attacks demonstrate is that even if the US and Israel are able to identify all overt and covert enrichment facilities, neutralize Iranian air defenses and penetrate the subterranean caverns, the damage caused would likely delay the program but not eradicate it, while ensuring a regional war. So long as it retains the know-how, Iran will be able to rebuild its operation. At the same time, the regime would surely end all remaining cooperation with international inspectors, while going for broke to produce a credible nuclear deterrent.

As far back as 2012, a study endorsed by more than two dozen ex-US generals, diplomats and others, including former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, weighed the pros and cons of an attack, and came down on the side of caution, assessing that Tehran’s program even then could be set back by at most two years, after which a nuclear armed Iran would become more, rather than less likely. In the meantime, there would be significant blowback.

Weakness versus toughness are playground terms ill-suited to decisions of war and peace. They say nothing about what will work or whether the costs and uncertainties of war are outweighed by the benefits. The reality, as the US found in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Israel is finding in Gaza, is that tough action without a solid political framework and achievable goals tends to backfire.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Marc Champion is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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