Emanuele Ottolenghi writes today about a reported shift in the Obama administration’s strategic approach to Iran. According to the Los Angeles Times, Obama may be embracing the hope of undermining the radical regime by supporting Iran’s reformist opposition. To Emanuele’s well-developed outline of factors and conclusions about the utility of sanctions, I would add another factor that has been changing irrevocably in the past 18 months — and narrowing our options along the way.
The factor is Iran’s progress with processing uranium outside its declared network of facilities. If Iran can do that, from the raw mineral stage to weapons-grade material, then IAEA inspections of the declared facilities are increasingly irrelevant. Trying to destroy Iran’s nuclear-weapons program through military attack becomes a different problem as well. Military attack isn’t rendered infeasible, but the scope and character of the problem become more challenging. This matters especially to the operational limitations that would govern an Israeli air strike.
The signs are emerging that Iran may indeed already be processing uranium in a separate, undeclared network. The extended case is laid out here, here, and here; I won’t reiterate it point by point. The salient fact is that the IAEA inspection process is not designed to resolve questions about what the Iranians are doing with all the additional uranium they have been mining — from a wholly uninspected site in southern Iran — since mid-2008. IAEA’s only accountability is on the existing uranium stockpile at the declared facilities.
Two years ago, military planners would have emphasized attacking the uranium-processing facilities at Esfahan and Natanz, particularly in an air strike of limited scope and duration (in other words, what Israel is capable of mounting). These facilities are “critical nodes” if they perform unique functions. But if they don’t — if Iran can process uranium at undeclared facilities elsewhere — then optimizing a limited strike requires identifying a bottleneck at another step in the process. The only real bottleneck left is the process of weaponization itself: developing a warhead that will detonate and mating it to a delivery platform. Interdicting the research and development for that is a task for which kinetic strike is less suited and would entail a higher political cost, in part because the Iranians have their weaponization laboratories in heavily populated areas of Tehran.
An American-scale air strike could still destroy Iran’s current facilities sufficiently to set the program back by a factor of years. But the time has passed when we could achieve something useful — say, setting the program back for 18-24 months — with a “surgical strike” against the declared uranium-processing facilities. If we wanted to be sure of taking out the uranium now, we would probably enlarge any existing strike concept to use Massive Ordnance Penetrators (MOPs) against multiple underground facilities. In combination with attacks on R&D facilities in Tehran, this would mean more destruction and loss of Iranian life than achieving the same effect would have required two years ago.
The political cost of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program was always going to be high. But we have almost certainly reached the point at which there is no useful effect to be achieved with a limited, “surgical” strike. A massive, comprehensive attack, on the other hand, would impose such political cost that its objective might as well be regime change anyway. Even Israel still has some viable attack options, but the prospective effects are not what they would have been two years ago. We’re down to the stark alternatives we were always going to face in the end: a regime-changed Iran or a nuclear-armed one.