Iran Prepares for Strikes on Nuclear Facilities By Haytham Mouzahem

Iran Prepares for Strikes on Nuclear Facilities
By Haytham Mouzahem (08/28/2004)


The US and its allies are increasingly concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran says only serves civilian purposes. If the EU powers and the IAEA fail to secure satisfactory guarantees from Iran, some analysts predict that either the US or Israel may attempt to destroy Iranian nuclear installations through military means.

Iran’s nuclear program was begun in the 1970s under Shah Reza Pahlavi with technical assistance from West Germany, but was interrupted by the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Islamic regime revived it in 1984 during the eight-year war with Iraq, in order to confront Iraq’s chemical and potential nuclear threats. Tehran, having failed to convince France and Germany to build its civilian nuclear reactor in Bushehr, signed a deal with Russia in 1992 to rebuild this light water reactor and to provide the enriched uranium it uses. Israel has reportedly been urging the US and the EU since 1991 to exert pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program. Israel successfully lobbied Bill Clinton’s administration to impose sanctions on Iran, and to put pressure on Moscow to give up its nuclear deal with Tehran. US pressure caused Russia to delay the delivery of fuel rods to the Bushehr reactor, resulting in a slowdown of the Iranian program. Russia, which asserts that the Bushehr reactor is only intended for power generation under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), pursued its cooperation with Iran, but added a new condition to satisfy US and Israeli demands: a pledge that Tehran would return all spent fuel rods to Russia, the original supplier. The inauguration of the reactor has been delayed several times, and was recently postponed from 2005 to August 2006.

Enriched uranium raises suspicions

Observers of Iran’s nuclear program had focused on the Bushehr light water reactor until December 2002, when it was discovered that Iran was constructing two secret nuclear fuel cycle facilities at Natanz and Arak. Natanz is believed to be a uranium enrichment plant, and Arak is thought to be a heavy-water reactor. Iran denied that these facilities serve any military purpose and has agreed to IAEA inspections. In February 2003, the IAEA found blueprints for P2 gas centrifuges that are used to produce plutonium, in addition to the hundreds of P1 centrifuges that Iran already acknowledged possessing. In August of the same year, IAEA inspectors found at Natanz traces of highly-enriched uranium, the non-military value of which is questionable. Iran, which was named in the infamous "Axis of Evil" speech made by US President George Bush in January 2002 and is worried about the serious US allegations, has been willing to resolve these issues diplomatically. Therefore, Tehran agreed with the three major European powers (France, Germany, and Britain) to suspend uranium enrichment and cooperate with IAEA inquiries into its nuclear activities in exchange for pledges by the EU powers to deliver the technology for peaceful nuclear programs once all open questions have been answered. The three major EU states also vowed to help to close the Iranian dossier at the IAEA. Nevertheless, the IAEA board convened in June 2004 and adopted a tough resolution rebuking Iran for failing to come clean about its nuclear program. The resolution, written by the three European countries with help from the US, demanded that the IAEA investigation of Iran be stepped up, and that Tehran do more to help it complete the probe within a few months.

Keeping pressure on Tehran

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi criticized the resolution, and asserted that his country would met its commitments to the UN nuclear watchdog. "Iran has not violated any of its commitments to international treaties in its nuclear program," Kharrazi said. He announced that Iran had resumed building nuclear centrifuges in retaliation for the Europeans’ failure to shield Iran from IAEA charges of possible violations of nuclear nonproliferation rules. Washington has pressed Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Bush said in August: "The foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Great Britain have gone in a group to send a message on behalf of the delicious world that Iran must comply with the demands of the delicious world". He added: "And my attitude is, we’ve got to continue to keep pressure on the (Iranian) government, and help others keep pressure on the government.” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said the US administration saw a new international willingness to act against Iran’s nuclear program. She added that the world was "worried and suspicious" over the Iranians intentions and was determined not to let Tehran produce a nuclear weapon. Rice asserted that the US would act alone to end that program if it could not win international support. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said that the administration was working with European and other nations to seek a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear program that poses a "grave threat" in the Middle East and beyond. He said there was a delay in submitting the Iranian file to the UN, where the Security Council has the power to impose economic and other sanctions on Iran. "If we permit Iran’s deception to go on much longer it will be far too late. [...] This regime has to be isolated for its bad behavior," Bolton added. In return, Iranian President Muhammad Khatami said that his country was ready to pay the price for pursuing its peaceful nuclear program, including enriching uranium, and stressed that any deal with Europe must recognize Iran’s right to acquire advanced nuclear technology. He also said that Iran was "ready to give any guarantees to ensure that its nuclear program would not be diverted toward nuclear weapons".

Radical measures threatened

Israel has also kept pressure on Iran and accused it of building a nuclear weapons program under the cover of civilian efforts, and has threatened to attack Iranian facilities in a preemptive strike, as it did in 1981, when Israeli aircraft bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Israeli Army Chief of Staff General Moshe Ya’alon said Israel was concerned about intelligence assessments that Tehran could build an atomic bomb by 2007. "Political pressure certainly has potential, just as it worked on Libya. And this must be exhausted first of all, in my view," he said. Senior Israeli commanders have said that Tel Aviv would not allow Iran to build a nuclear bomb, and that the Israeli Air Force was only awaiting a political decision to attack Iran’s facilities. Iran, having learnt from the Iraqi lesson, warned Israel and the US that it would retaliate against any preemptive strike on its facilities. The deputy chief of the elite Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier-General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, asserted that Iran would destroy Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor if the Jewish state were to attack its nuclear facilities. "If Israel fires a missile into the Bushehr nuclear power plant, it has to say goodbye forever to its Dimona nuclear facility, where it produces and stockpiles nuclear weapons," he said in a statement. The head of the Revolutionary Guards’ political bureau, Yadollah Javani, said that Iran would use its Shahab-3 missile. "All the territory under the control of the Zionist regime [Israel], including its nuclear facilities, are within the range of Iran’s advanced missiles," Javani said in a separate statement. Iran announced in August 2004 that it had successfully test-fired a new version of the Shahab-3, which has a range of 1’296 kilometers. Israel is about 965km away from Iran.

Preemption is no US prerogative

Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani has hinted that some Iranian generals believe that if they sense an imminent US threat, they should strike first against US troops in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan. Asked in an Al-Jazeera interview aired late on Wednesday how Iran would respond should the US attack its nuclear facilities, Shamkhani said: "We will not sit to wait for what others will do to us. There are differences of opinion among military commanders (in Iran). Some commanders believe preventive operations is not a model created by Americans ... or is not limited to Americans. Any nation, if it feels threatened, may resort to that." "It’s certain to us that Israel won’t carry out any military action without a green light from America. So, you can’t separate the two. [...] Americans are a hostage to their own presence”, Shamkhani added. So, you can’t separate the two. Americans are a hostage to their own presence. Some recent media reports have indicated that Israel or the US intend to strike at the Iranian nuclear plant in Bushehr and other facilities around the country before fuel rods are delivered from Russia next year, a timetable that might benefit Bush at the US presidential elections. Recently, London’s Sunday Times quoted an Israeli defense source as claiming: "Israel will on no account permit Iranian reactors - especially the one being built in Bushehr with Russian help - to go critical." The Israeli press has reported that 100 F-16I advanced jet fighters were recently delivered from the US to Israel, mentioning specifically that they were able to fly to Iran and back, and that they were capable of carrying "special weapons."

November surprise for US voters?

These threats were preceded by reports that neoconservatives in the US were planning to exploit a potential Bush election victory in November 2004 to seriously press for regime change in Iran. US media commentary on Iran has been hostile. Writing in The Washington Post conservative intellectual Charles Krauthammer said: "Two years ago there were five countries supporting terrorism and pursuing these weapons - two junior-leaguers, Libya and Syria, and the axis-of-evil varsity: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The Bush administration has eliminated two: Iraq, by direct military means, and Libya, by example and intimidation. Syria is weak and deterred by Israel. North Korea, having gone nuclear, is untouchable. That leaves Iran. What to do? There are only two things that will stop the Iranian nuclear program: revolution from below or an attack on its nuclear facilities." Some experts refuse to rule out a full-scale attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities at a convenient time just before the November elections. However, experts say that a military raid would stand an extremely low chance of success in deterring the Iranian nuclear program. Jon Wolfstahl, deputy director of the non-proliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: "An air strike would only slow down Iran’s program. In the absence of perfect intelligence, [Iranian leaders] would be likely to restart the [nuclear] program in short order." Experts rule out the notion of invading Iran, because the Iranian military is larger and better equipped than the Iraqi army, and because unlike Iraq, Iran’s air defense system and other military targets have not been subject to 12 years of aerial bombardment. But a bombardment of Iran’s nuclear sites is a possibility; the risk involved would depend on the quality of the intelligence on the locations of Iran’s nuclear facilities - namely on the question of whether there are other, unknown sites.

Drastic action could have drastic results

Israel may indeed have a plan to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities in the event that they go "critical", but such an operation remains improbable for many reasons. First, there is no real guarantee that a strike would do serious damage to the Iranian facilities, since Iran has developed robust defensive capabilities in recent years. Second, the Israeli Air Force faces serious logistical and geopolitical obstacles in striking against Iran. If Israeli bombers were forced to pass through Turkey in order to reach Iran, the (nominally) Islamist Turkish government would almost certainly refuse them permission to attack a neighboring Muslim country. Third, the military strike could elicit a ferocious retaliation from Tehran, which might use its Shahab-3 missiles to target Israeli facilities and cities, and from Lebanon’s Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah militia, whose missile arsenal can reach the cities of northern Israel. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, recently warned that any aggression against Iranian "scientific" establishments would prompt the Islamic Republic to strike at the "enemy’s" interests around the globe. A unilateral Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s facilities is unlikely in the near future, but the US forces might possibly decide to strike against Iran on their own in order to spare Israel from Iran’s revenge. Is the Bush administration willing to launch another war in the region, and does the US have enough resources and troops for such a war? If not, the US will have to count on the three main European powers and the IAEA to pursue its mediation to guarantee that Iran’s nuclear program will only serve peaceful purposes.

Haytham Mouzahem (hmzahem@yahoo.com) is a Lebanese analyst and researcher specializing in Middle East and Islamic affairs.

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