Despite Monday's announcement that U.S. intelligence agencies now believe Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, officials continue to insist that "all options are on the table" with regard to Iran.
Indeed, the U.S. military has been doing detailed planning for years now for a possible attack on Iran. Earlier this month, the Federation of American Scientists obtained a planning document from the U.S. Strategic Command which revealed that the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and White House guidance issued in response to the terrorist attacks against the United States in September 2001 led to the creation of new nuclear strike options against states seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
The document is the first authoritative evidence that fear of weapons of mass destruction attacks caused the Bush administration to broaden U.S. nuclear targeting policy by ordering the military to prepare a series of new options for nuclear strikes against regional proliferators, including Iran.
But as long ago as 2005, the Washington Post had reported on CONPLAN 8022-02, the U.S. Strategic Command's contingency plan for dealing with "imminent" threats from countries such as North Korea or Iran, which was approved in 2004. The main plan involves the preemptive use of tactical nuclear strikes on deep-ground rocket/bomb installations, computer viruses, and radar disruption technology.
William Arkin, the Post's military affairs blogger, noted that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had approved a top secret "Interim Global Strike Alert Order," "directing the military to assume and maintain readiness to attack hostile countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction, specifically Iran and North Korea."
And the administration may also have pre-deployed nuclear weapons to the Middle East. In May 2004, the White House issued National Security Presidential Directive 35, entitled Nuclear Weapons Deployment Authorization. While its contents remain classified, the presumption is that it pertains to the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Would the United States use nuclear weapons against Iran? In his second terms, President Bush has moved into key positions two officials that have a known history of advocating the aggressive use of nuclear weapons. These include:
- National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who is one of the coauthors of the report "Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control," which served as a blueprint for the Nuclear Posture Review of 2001. He was one of the leading proponents of the claim that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program.
- Former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Robert Joseph, another coauthor of the "Rationale and Requirements" document. He also helped draft the presidential directive known as the National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, or NSPD-17, which advocates the use of nuclear weapons in response to WMD and names Iran as one of the countries that are the focus of the new U.S. strategy.
Still, most analysts are inclined to think the actual use of nuclear weapons -- as opposed to a calculated ambiguity about the circumstances under which they would be used -- would be highly counter-productive both on operational as well as moral grounds.
Even leaving the nuclear option on the table, the effectiveness of the various military options ranges from poor to terrible.
That is partly due to incomplete intelligence, because Iran is doing some of its work at sites that are unknown.
But it is also due to the assessment that a military strike would likely do nothing more than buy time. Most analysts see an attack delaying Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon -- if such an attempt is ongoing at the time -- by at most three or four years. While hawks claim that an attack might create political upheaval in Iran, presenting the opportunity for regime change, it is in reality more likely that an attack would boost hard-line elements.
Many hawks cite Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, when Israeli aircraft dropped 16 bombs, effectively ending Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
But such a comparison is misleading, according to Chuck Spinney, a former U.S. Air Force officer who retired in 2003 after working nearly 30 years in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
In a phone interview he noted, "Israel did Osirak in a totally different context. There was no war. Iraq was a dictatorship; Iran is an oppressive theocracy with democratic elements. (Israel) presented the world with a fait accompli; we're telegraphing our possible strike."
He also noted that the Israelis had good intelligence on Iraq, due to the fact that they were able to gain information from the French who made the Osirak reactor. Attacking Iraq would be far more difficult as the distances to Iran are much greater and the terrain is more daunting, mountainous as opposed to flat desert.
Moreover, Iran's nuclear program is much larger and would require far more targets to be destroyed, according to a working paper released by the MIT Security Studies Program last year. Plus, Iran has learned the lessons of Osirak and has taken steps to disperse and harden critical facilities.
"People who advocate an attack (on Iran's facilities) don't have a clue what they are talking about," concluded Spinney.
What is rarely discussed is that destroying facilities is a stop-gap measure. It is the nuclear scientists and technicians -- and they knowledge they have -- which is the backbone of the program. If one can't find a negotiated solution, finding a way to neutralize them is the real key to successful prevention.