Iran is enriching uranium. It is not known publicly where Iran’s capacity for producing Uranium-235 is at the present time.
Iran’s nuclear enrichment program has been the focus of United States intelligence, military, and diplomatic professionals for the better part of the last decade. Assessments have no doubt been constructed, updated, and re-constructed on the potential success of a military strike in rolling-back Iran’s yet-nascent nuclear enrichment program. But any effort to fully research this issue begins with an understanding of the process by which a country can build a sustainable nuclear capacity and why that capacity is more important to a state regime than merely possessing nuclear weapons capability. Most nations acquiring nuclear weapons in the 21st century are doing so not as latent offensive weaponry but as deterrents. An era of interventionism was implemented at hyper-speed with the invasion of Iraq by the US and its coalition in 2003. In an effort to avoid the fate of the regime of Saddam Hussein, North Korea and Iran most conspicuously sped up their nuclear ambitions after the unseating of the Ba’ath regime of Iraq in 2003; North Korea as mainly a deterrent against US efforts to unseat the regimes of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un and Shi’a Iran as a way to increase their rising power as a regional hegemon, potentially rivaling Sunni American-backed Saudi Arabia as a supplier of energy to many of the rising powers around the globe. One relatively recent book, in particular, addresses this subject: ‘Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars’ (by NY Times writer David Sanger) by repeating the same kind of simplistic nonsense that got us into the Iraq debacle. The fact is that Natanz is not the only reactor site; the Iranians no doubt learned from the nuclear efforts of the Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Pakistanis, and most importantly the North Koreans. In North Korea, for example, no US military effort has been made on Yongbyon because it is assessed that a strike on the facility would result in retaliation on Seoul and US forces on the DMZ. The most important aspect of analyzing any potential action is considering that a hasty effort may elicit unintended, unforeseen consequences (Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’).
There are some interesting concepts for detecting the status of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program discussed in ‘Confront and Conceal’; the monitoring of the suspected nuclear sites via imagery collection that seek to identify emplacement of anti-aircraft weapons, sentry activity, etc, as indicators of increased security and protection. However, to believe that these few efforts alone can establish a robust conclusion of whether the entire program can be permanently (or even partially) destroyed via military strike is myopic. The program has no doubt been diffused throughout the mountainous areas of the country and buried deep within terrain-disguised locations. The fact is that unless the US or Israel has sources reporting from inside the program we won’t know for sure. Many apparently believe that a ‘strike’ would be as simple as Osirak and implies that Iran’s program is set up like the Death Star… with a soft core that, when targeted for destruction, ends the threat in its entirety. What could be included in unintended adverse consequences for launching a military strike? Well, they certainly include:
1. Hyper-nationalization of an Iranian population that potentially now balances on the precipice of igniting a Syrian-like insurrection and rebellion against the theocratic regime of Khamenei because of a strike by an external actor. A strike by the US or Israel has the potential to galvanize the population in a ‘rally around the flag’ effect… essentially flipping the country’s civilians from overwhelmingly in support of better ties with the US to supporting a regime they despise themselves in order to repel ‘the other’, as Samuel Huntington once wrote.
2. What of the possibility that certain Iranian proxies, international groups like Hezbollah, have already received guidance on their role in a post-strike effort against a moderating Lebanese government that was previously the proxy of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad before he was de-stabilized and made more desperate by an insurgency and a threat to his own rule? What of the possibility that the Egyptians, as of yet somewhat cooperative under a new, more Islamist government, decide to support an effort against Israel in a clandestine fashion? Weapons begin to flow into Gaza via Egypt and the West Bank via Lebanon and Syria, and a third intifada is ignited against Israel? International trade stands to be affected by the destabilization of important energy suppliers in the region. For example, shipping through the Suez and the straits of Hormuz become a tinderbox, and worldwide markets are impacted. This has the potential for global financial impact, worsening an already weakened global economy.
These are all salient points. Would a strike by the US or Israel be effective in destroying the Iranian capacity to further enrich Uranium 239 to weapons-grade 235? The unintended consequences of acting in an overt, military capacity are perhaps the most important aspect of action; would the blowback result in a more dangerous, more assertive, more regionally-dominant Iran? ‘Confront and Conceal’ addresses these points and considers the possibility that clandestine means, rather than military strikes, could continue setting back the Iranian effort to create a sustainable nuclear program. For now, it appears that the efforts of the US outlined in the book are the least damaging to American prestige in the global marketplace of opinion.
There are some books that provide a framework for understanding potential conflicts in the 21st century (Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order’) and the potential for disaster in the proliferation of nuclear weapons (Graham Allison’s ‘Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe’). The latter addresses the process by which states acquire nuclear weapons capability and how their programs are more important than the possession of a single nuclear device. We’ll address both of these topics in future posts.
For now, please begin the discussion below.
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst
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