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A Predictable Catastrophe

Assessing an Israeli Strike on Iran in 2010

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
March 4, 2010


(Originally available in Danish.)

In January 1995, the New York Times published a disquieting article best summarized by its title: "Iran May Be Able to Build an Atomic Bomb in 5 Years, U.S. and Israeli Officials Fear."  Subsequent warnings from American neoconservatives, Israeli officials, and Iranian exile groups went ignored, and most policymakers dismissed the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon as more alarmist than alarming.

The apathy toward Iran's nuclear ambitions evaporated in 2002, when evidence emerged that Iran had a well-established clandestine nuclear program outside of the scope of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty-of which Iran is a member-and its inspection arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

After seven years of repeated revelations of Iranian transgressions, tensions between the P5+1-America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China-and Iran have grown progressively worse. If a bold, and presently unforeseen, agreement between the P5+1 and Iran cannot be reached, it is increasingly likely that Israel will attempt a risky and highly-destabilizing military strike against Iran's known nuclear weapons facilities.

To analyze the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran in 2010, there are five issues to consider:

First, the level of pessimism surrounding a deal between the P5+1 and Iran has reached an all-time low. In late November, in outgoing comments as Director General of the IAEA, the previously optimistic Mohammed el-Baradei declared that the agency had hit "a dead end" in its ability to verify the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. In January, Tehran rejected the P5+1 diplomatic offer to ship most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment to fuel nuclear reactors that produce medical isotopes. More recently, it rejected an American offer to sell the isotopes directly to Iran.

Second, the Obama administration no longer believes the findings of the always-contentious National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007, which judged "with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." The National Intelligence Council is drafting an updated NIE that will bring the United States closer in line with its allies' estimates, which reportedly contended that Iran both continued its research and development work for building a bomb, and stands at the brink of having the "breakout capacity" to do so.  The alignment of these more dire projections could catalyze tacit U.S. and western support for Israeli military action, if sanctions fail.

Third, foreign intelligence agencies do not know the current operational status or location of Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. In September, the U.S., France, and Britain disclosed a heretofore clandestine uranium enrichment facility buried deep beneath a military complex near the Iranian city of Qom. Caught red-handed (yet again), Iran told the IAEA that there were no "other nuclear facilities that were currently under construction or in operation that had not yet been declared to the agency." Given Iran's commitment to developing a clandestine uranium enrichment capacity stems back a quarter century this is simply unbelievable.

Fourth, a fourth round of UN-sponsored economic and diplomatic sanctions against Iranian officials and entities connected to nuclear and missile programs should soon be announced. It could be years, however, between when additional sanctions, no matter how "crippling," are implemented, and actually have an effect-if any-on senior Iranian officials.

Fifth, and most importantly, if their public and private comments are to be believed, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu will not allow Iran to develop the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. The question is how long would Israel wait for new sanctions to demonstrably fail at compelling a change of behavior in Tehran?

The answer depends on intelligence and Iranian behavior. If new and credible intelligence emerged indicating either additional clandestine uranium enrichment facilities, or an explicit order from Iran's political leadership to commence with a crash program to build a bomb, Israel could attack Iran's known nuclear facilities.

If Iran blocked or harassed IAEA inspections of the Natanz centrifuge facility, or withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, like North Korea did in 2003, Israel could also launch a strike.

By one estimate, it would take the Natanz facility roughly six months to turn its 1,763 kilograms of low-enriched uranium into enough highly-enriched uranium for a bomb. The last IAEA "physical inventory verification" at Natanz was in late November. Thus, this fall is a potential window for an Israeli attack if IAEA inspectors were not allowed to return. The forthcoming IAEA report will be telling about the transparency and progress of Iran's uranium enrichment at Natanz.

An Israeli attack would be an audacious, uncertain, highly destabilizing, and short-term solution. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates predicted that a military strike "would delay the Iranian [nuclear] program for some period of time, but only delay it, probably only one to three years." Nevertheless, given the current trendlines and entrenched positions of the P5+1 and Iran, an Israeli strike might be the foreseeable catastrophe of 2010.

Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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