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Why the U.S. Could Bomb Iran

The White House’s line—that a strike can only delay the program—is an attempt to downplay our military capability

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock, and, left to right, Uriel Sinai/AFP/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, and Ariel Hermoni/Israeli Ministry of Defence via Getty Images.)
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Why Israel Won’t Bomb Iran

At least until the U.S. presidential election, Netanyahu won’t risk angering Obama

In late May, at a major security conference in Tel Aviv, former Obama Pentagon official Michelle Flournoy assured her mostly Israeli audience that a military strike against Iran was very much on the table. But she hastened to add that “any military strike in its most wildly successful incarnation” would set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program only one to three years.

That one-to-three year caveat has become more than an estimate. Over the past several years, as Defense Sec. Leon Panetta, his predecessor Robert Gates, former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and other officials have recited it at press conferences and think tanks, it has become received wisdom.

But is it true? It’s hard to believe that the United States lacks the military might to destroy the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program—if not in one campaign, then in a series of campaigns to ensure that it doesn’t get the bomb.

“I always felt the time frame was very conservative,” (Ret.) Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the United States Army, said. “My judgment tells me that if we did something as devastating as we could do, taking down their major sites, which also means their engineers and scientists, I think the setback would be greater than five years. I don’t like to read too much into people’s motivations, but at times when we don’t want to do something, we build a case in terms of our interpretation that it is too hard or it isn’t worth the payoff.”

Indeed, the assessment that Iran’s program could only be delayed began with the George W. Bush White House, as former CIA chief Gen. Michael Hayden recently explained. It’s hard not to conclude that the assessment was driven by political calculations: Because Bush could not embark on a third theater of conflict in the Middle East, it was convenient to say a military strike would not make much difference.

In contrast, the Obama Administration has pulled out of Iraq and will soon pull out of Afghanistan. Yet the White House continues to repeat the trope that the program can, at best, be delayed a few years. Just as politics informed the Bush White House’s insistence on the delay-not-destroy mantra, politics of a different sort are informing this White House: This administration is conducting a public diplomacy campaign with the purpose of undermining the capability of a U.S. attack because the administration has no intention of striking.

“It’s not unknown for folks in the military to inflate difficulties in order to not do it,” a former Pentagon official told me. “The assessment may reflect the idea that the military has not much appetite to be involved in the Middle East if they don’t have to. In reality, no one knows how long a military strike could set back the Iranians.”

Part of the assessment describing only a one-to-three-year delay, the official explained, is based on the fact that nuclear facilities are spread out across Iran and buried deeper than those at the Osirak reactor in Iraq and al-Kibar in Syria, both of which the Israelis successfully destroyed in one day. A strike against Iran might last a month. Then there’s the notion that you can’t bomb the scientific know-how that produced the program. And yet, the former official noted, citing the campaign of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists, “you can kill an awful lot of it.”

Christopher Ford, a former State Department official who worked on nuclear proliferation issues, told me that the evidence on which the standard assessment is based could have various loopholes. “There are so many assumptions built into the idea that it’s only one to three years,” said Ford. “For instance, it’s true to a degree that you can’t really get rid of the knowledge, but the nuclear-weapons scientists themselves aren’t the only link in chain. There’s other human capital that might be part of your destruction package, like some minor metallurgy specialists, who maybe aren’t working on the most sophisticated parts of the nuclear program, but without it they can’t have one.”

Obama officials aren’t telegraphing any of this. Instead, top intelligence and military officials, like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Adm. Mullen, keep saying that the Iranians can be only minimally delayed. Keane, the retired four-star general, believes that’s because the White House, as much as it claims it won’t allow Iran to get a bomb, isn’t willing to strike. “I don’t believe this administration has any intention, ever, of attacking Iran,” says Keane. “I don’t believe it, the Israelis don’t believe it, and the Iranians don’t believe it.”

But Uzi Arad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, strongly disagrees. “I don’t belong to the camp of skeptics who have little faith in the president taking action if necessary,” he said. “I think the president has recognized, for reasons that have to do with U.S. national security, economic interests, and his conviction regarding proliferation, that if all other measures fail to stop Iran from going nuclear he has to take coercive action.”

Arad said he sees no contradiction in the Obama administration’s stated policy (Iran can’t get a bomb) and its caveats (an attack will only delay the nuclear program). “The declared objective, as the president has termed it, is that the U.S. is determined to prevent Iran from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons,” said Arad. “It is inconceivable that the American military would say ‘we can strike but we cannot accomplish our objective.’ The assessment of one to three years assumes one blow but that is not what the reasonable American option is, which calls for repeated attacks if the Iranians restart the program. It is unreasonable to assume that after the strikes the U.S. would sit pat and Iran would rebuild. It’s absolutely imperative that if the U.S. strikes, its posture should be, ‘Dear Iranians, please do not proceed to rebuild the program, or we will strike again.’”

Ford, the former State Department official, pointed to a number of variables that might affect Iran’s ability to reconstitute its nuclear program in the event of an American strike. “If you’re just talking about the various nuclear facilities and bombing those things once, then it’s a pretty straightforward calculation: How long would it take to rebuild those things? But those estimates would change under a number of different circumstances. For instance, would you keep sanctions on Iran after attacking? Then it’s a different calculation.” He sees Iran’s air defenses as a key variable. “If you go after the nuclear program you need to go after how they defend themselves. If you succeed in degrading their defenses, it’s not the sort of thing that can be immediately repaired, and Iran has to choose whether they would prioritize reconstituting their nuclear program or rebuilding their air defenses. And if you’ve destroyed a lot of their potential delivery system and missile-production infrastructure, they might want to rebuild that too, which might be more expensive than replacing the nuclear weapons effort itself.”

Most important, Ford added, “there is the question of whether you’re willing and able to go back. That is, to hit reconstitution efforts on an ongoing basis. If it’s not a ‘snapshot’ hit but a campaign—that can change the reconstitution equation too.”

Perhaps so, but long before the United States decides to attack Iran, we need to communicate our seriousness to the regime. “There is only one guy you need to convince here to voluntarily give up the nuclear program and that is the Supreme Leader Khameini,” Jack Keane argues. “He must know we are dead serious about a military strike, as a last resort, and this is not just about the nuclear facilities—their military will be decapitated. This is the U.S. military. Believe me, we will destroy you.”

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kirillov says:

The entire premise of this article seems to be based on a completely unfounded and undocumented ‘feeling’ on the part of the author. While I am certain there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the Iran policy of both the Bush and Obama administrations, drawing such broad conclusions from an entirely speculative hypothesis is not particularly compelling. Has Mr Smith take into consideration that there are other factors besides simple physical capability which will come into play in military conflicts? Has Mr Smith noted the utter failure of the Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures, a failure which occurred despite the staggering hardware capacity of the US military?

fred lapides says:

What has taken place in those two countries differs substantially from sealing tomb-like the known nuke sites.
Obama is now on record as saying Iran will not be allowed to get nukes…that said, some more moderate vlices claim that if Iran gets nukes then they would be afraid to use them–cold war sort of thing. But such thinking fails to note that Turkey,Saudi Arabia and Egypt have stated that they would also go after nukes if Iran gets them. Given the volatile nature of these nations, nukes much more dangerous than cold war stand off.

michael perks says:

My concern is that if the administration may, if it feels it will lose in November, it may consider an attack to boost their numbers. Just a feeling.

jcarpenter says:

Again we consider military deadly force against regimes that oppress their own people—and the people themselves by and large have no issue against the U.S. The blood of the “collateral damage” will be on our hands, again.

yevka says:

Mr. Smith was a cheerleader for the Iraq fiasco and now not surprisingly for the US to kick up war with Iran. An old goony bird seldom changes its plumage or its tune.

MasterBlaster7 says:

I think it is largely irrelevant to vacillate over “will America strike Iran/ will America not strike Iran”. We are not the ones who are going to light this fuse….the Israelis are.

Benji has already sacrificed the elections to maintain strong control over his government for the next 18 months. The Israelis can only strike in the summer months due to range limitations in cold weather. Obama is doing everything, rightly so, to keep this fuse from being lit till after the elections.

So, the smart money is on the Israelis striking in the summer of 2013.

Some things to keep an eye on…

1. Since Iran will move a large portion of its centrifuges into bunkers immune to Israeli strikes, will the US, in the coming months, give the Israeli’s advanced bunker busting munitions?

2. Since Israel cant strike in the winter/fall months, will Iran go “hell bent for leather” enriching to 90% under the belief America will not strike or America will not know about it. (remember they have recently stated they need 90% for their new nuclear submarines…pfft.)

3. Will Iran have fooled us all and drive 3 nukes into Israel in the winter months, consequently leveling Israel.

Inquiring minds want to know.

yevka says:

There are going to be new elections in Iran next year but hey yeah let’s just light a fuse and bomb them that would be the compassionate caveman like thing to do.

yevka says:

The opening up of a new war would seriously cripple any candidate’s chance of success to public office. The popular pulse of the country is completely contrary to the opening up of another war.

ndree091 says:

If we were to consider crippling the Israeli nuclear facilities, the world would breathe a sigh of relief and FINALLY be at peace!!!!

Hershl says:

Maybe your pulse but everyone I speak with and I am mainly referring to non-Jews would welcome such a move.

It is inevitable and the sooner the better.

Hershl says:

Luckily, you and your fellow kumbayaniks will not have a say in all of this.
You can write all the comments, protest and scream.
It will happen and the world will thank those who supported the end of the biggest threat to world peace today, Iran.

Really? Because that program is almost 50 years old and no one in cluding all the Arab countries around Israel seemed to care too much about it. But when the Iranians started getting close to a nuclear weapon all of a sudden one after the other regional countries declared they need nuclear programs. What does that say about your theory and who these countries consider the REAL threat? It must be nice living in an alternate universe.

Topnife says:

The implicit assumption here is that the U.S. can overwhelmingly attack just the Iranian nuclear sites, without any retaliation by the Iranians, such as small-boat attacks on U.S. vessels and on oil tankers, mining the Strait of Hormuz, and missile attacks against both vessels and shore installations. Any strategy to disable the Iranian nuclear facilities will have to deal with Iranian air defense and counter-offensive capabilities as well.

Iran has a single oil refinery, and must import about 50% of its refined oil products. Any attack must include disabling their refinery, and destruction of stored refined products, as well as control of their oil export facilities. Their planes, boats, and electrical generators won’t operate very long without fuel.

Attacking Iran will require a concerted and protracted intense military campaign, and should include control of Iranian oil exports and refined petroleum imports, which can be held hostage against future Iranian compliance and cooperation. If we stop them correctly, there will never be a need for a future intervention.

Nathan C Langston says:

“Smith was a cheerleader for the Iraq fiasco . . .”
The US wrung Saddam’s neck, replaced the Baath with an elected govt and defeated a ferocious insurgency, secured the Gulf and our allies there against an ambitious megalomaniac who had already twice sought to control the oil faucets. It did this while suffering 4.,500 dead across eight years, about what we lost at Antietem and less than our dead in the first week on Normandy. As to the dollar cost, both Afghanistan and Iraq consumed 3.5% of total federal spending between 2001 – 2011. Some fiasco.

Nathan C Langston says:

Two popular assumptions argue falsely against attacking Iran’s A bomb effort.

1. The program’s diverse facilities are so widely dispersed that they can’t all be eliminated by military means.

But that is just the point. The bomb, just like any complicated machinery, is a composite of numerous parts. Take a Detroit car assembly line. With just one component missing, tires for example, production stops. Similarly, if any one constituent of the bomb becomes unavailable, the whole effort is lamed.

2. There is no need to deny Iran a bomb, because, since Tehran is not suicidal she can be deterred by the threat of retaliation.

Sure, the mullah’s are indeed not suicidal. Islam forbids suicide. However, as Twelver Shia they dream of martyrdom. In the war against Iraq they in good conscience sent children to clear paths through mine fields with their feet. Tens of thousands of Basji charged direct Iraqi fire, practically with coffins strapped to their backs. They felt certain of a first class berth in Paradise.

The current leadership obeys the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini who, during the hostage crises, said: “We will destroy you all, even if we ourselves die in the process.” In a speech in Qom he declared, “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah…” Later he explained. “For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”

That is the mindset of the current regime. The mullahs denounce suicide but seek martyrdom. They are not comparable to the conservative and secular Soviet govt that had much to lose and could be deterred. Tehran sees Israel’s existence as obstructing the coming of the Mahdi. They believe they have everything to gain from erasing the Jewish Satan.

To fail to do so, once they have the power, will constitute a grave sin in their eyes. They will consider it a duty to use the bomb, especially because it will bring the blessed rewards of martyrdom.

David Govett says:

There should be concern that Obama would be happy to trade the lives of U.S. military personnel, if it would propel him into a second term.
The contrast with GWB could not be starker.

“This is the U.S. military. Believe me, we will destroy you.”
rather die than to surrender to blackmail and threats, to live in humiliation and disgrace, rather die !!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Saddam, Khadafy, milosevic .. ..have shown it !
this analysis holds up only if one assumes that the Iranians are idiots and that after bombing, thye would rebuild above and in collabaration IAEA (which will not be there after the strike ), and will not go hidden, and underground
and if so then they deserve to be bombed for aggravated stupidity.
as stated by the Gen Cartwright, Robert Gates, Adm. Fallon, …..
” If Iran has the will to push forward with development of a nuclear weapon, it has the intellectual capacity to accomplish that, Cartwright said, and it can continue to spread out nuclear weapons sites beyond the ability of the United States to find them all.”
the example of North Korea that has built a modern centrifuges in secret and unknown should give pause to all …..
Meir Dagan told once, that this type of installation can be hidden in a small location like a parking or a school if I remember correctly.
Finally, will the world, and the American people support an endless war?. with an endless economic crisis fallowing each bombing campagne, are we going to make bombing Iranian, a bi annual event? with all procession of horror: terrorist attacks, coffins returning from ME ……… unlikely given the huge human losses and other.
the Americans will quickly linkages between the degradation of their economic situtation and the new annual event.

what dimension are you from?
you probably missed the fact that Egypt had a nuclear program in response to the israeli one.
this program was frozen but not completely stopped. the Iraqi prgramme in the 80s, the Syrian reactor recently, and even the Libyan program and of course the Iranian program were a response to Israeli program.
for over 20 years, each year the Arab countries, are trying to push the iaea, to vote a resolution calling israel ” to open his facilites for inspections “.
these attempts are blocked by the Western
as long as Israel has nuclear weapons, other countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt will keep a nuclear option.
putting your head in the sand does not change the reality: israel has launched the race not iran.

You cite examples which prove my point, only the state sponsors of terror have felt the need for actively pursuing programs. They have done so secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and each one meets its fate – Because these nations with such weapons/programs are *unnaceptable* to everyone else. Thanks.

The Iranians are not going to be talked out of their nuclear ambitions.

It was a fiasco, we essentially gave Iraq to Iran, if it was a victory then it was pyrrhic victory.

theodore says:

we have all murdered children for greed.
god knows this.

let’s just stop it.

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Why the U.S. Could Bomb Iran

The White House’s line—that a strike can only delay the program—is an attempt to downplay our military capability

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