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In a recent interview with Atlantic magazine, President Barack Obama declared that as president of the United States, he doesn’t bluff when it comes to the use of military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He went on,

I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.

Dismissing the idea that the United States does not have the capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the President also stated that Iran represents a profound national security threat to the United States even if Israel were not part of the equation; Obama reiterated that Iran has been and is a state sponsor of terrorism and an Iranian nuclear weapon could trigger a domino effect in the Middle East, resulting in a Saudi, Turkish, and perhaps even Egyptian nuclear weapons programme.

Was Obama’s interview merely an election year gimmick or is there mettle in his words? Is a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in fact possible? The President seemed quite confident of a successful US strike against Iranian facilities were he to give it the green light, but given the insurmountable difficulties such a mission entails, it is difficult to accept Obama’s words at face value. Beheading the Iranian nuclear monster is not a fraternity challenge that one enters into inebriated – it is an exceedingly complicated task that will take enormous resources, may cost many lives, will have unintended consequences, and for all that, has a low probability of genuine resolution of the Iranian problem. It would be wise to consider fully the many obstacles to victory.

1. Evidence: Neither the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) nor American intelligence has yet come across any conclusive evidence that Iran is proceeding towards nuclear weapons. There have indeed been many false calls in the past regarding the function of specific Iranian laboratories such as at Chalus and Lavizan. An assault on Iran only to find that there were indeed no nuclear weapons would rekindle the acrimony caused by President George W. Bush’s search for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq a decade earlier. Is President Obama willing to take the risk of starting another war on mere suspicion?

2. Cost of War: Unless US forces land in Iran, there can be no confirmation of either the presence or destruction of nuclear weapons research. This would entail tens of thousands of troops with all the implied support – logistical, armour, air cover, etc. – in hostile terrain. Given the size of the country and dispersion of its nuclear sites, it is highly unlikely that any operation could take less than six months – even this time frame is assuming virtually uncontested terrain and large teams of scientists and engineers to maximise speed. Although the White House would not intend the war with Iran to involve occupation, that is effectively what it will be, for Iran’s nuclear facilities stretch from their easternmost at Narigan in central Iran to Bonab in the west, almost at the Iran-Iraq-Turkey border – a distance of 1,600 kms. Controlling such a huge swath of land is not impossible or even necessarily difficult for US forces, but it could become expensive in lives and dollars. Juan Cole estimates, somewhat absurdly, that a war with Iran would cost $3 trillion, but even sensible calculations would put the costs near $80 billion (assuming similar troop concentrations and costs as in Iraq) for a six-month operation. These costs will be above the regular defence budget – the figures the Cost of War project has produced calculate only incremental funds that are expended due to the war. For example, soldiers’ regular pay is not included but combat pay is included. Potential future costs, such as future medical care for soldiers and veterans wounded in the war, are not included. These figures also do not include additional interest payments on the national debt that will result from higher deficits due to war spending. Factoring in these costs would raise the bill for a six-month 170,000 troops-strong deployment to near $250 billion (using the same methodology as the Joint Economic Committee of Congress). Meanwhile, temperatures between May and October in Iran range from the mid-40s to 50°C. Is President Obama willing to subject the US economy, already struggling with sluggish growth and unemployment, to further strains of such magnitude?

3. Geography: The full Iranian nuclear establishment is spread over 23 known sites, out of which five have attracted the attention of the media and nuclear wonks as critical installations: the nuclear power plant at Bushehr, the heavy water factory at Arak, the uranium enrichment laboratories at Natanz and Fordow, and the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan.

Iranian nuclear facilities Critical Iranian nuclear facilities
Figure 1: Complete (known)
Iranian nuclear facilities
Figure 2: Critical Iranian
nuclear facilities

Of these, the two most important sites, Fordow (near Qom) and Natanz, are hardened facilities, meaning they are buried underground and the roof is constructed of reinforced concrete. Bushehr, the site of Iran’s first reactor (purchased from the US in 1967), is more of a symbolic target as most experts now agree that an LWR (Light Water Reactor) poses little threat of proliferation on its own since its production of fissile plutonium is minuscule. Of course, any of the other sites are liable to military strikes as well and if the US does embark upon the military option, it would be foolish not to damage the other sites responsible for mining, milling, isotope separation (uranium enrichment with the use of lasers), ballistics tests, and research.

What is obvious from the maps is that these sites are, unlike Osirak in Iraq and al Kibar in Syria, multiple and far apart. To allow unimpeded precision bombing of these sites, total air superiority and the elimination of air defences will have to be achieved for the duration of the operation. Although not impossible, even a layperson will see that an Iranian adventure will have nothing covert and surgical about it but will be a longer, more thorough, and more expensive operation. Has President Obama considered the size and tasks of an Iranian excursion even achieving minimum results? More importantly, does he have the complete list of Iranian nuclear sites or will he be striking blindly?

4. Capability: Some doubts have surfaced whether the US military arsenal contains ordinance that is physically capable of destroying Iran’s underground nuclear complex. But most of these analyses assumes a one-bomb kill scenario, which would indeed be impossible. However, as former IAF commander Major General Eitan Ben-Eliyahu explains, “even if one bomb would not suffice to penetrate, we could guide other bombs directly to the hole created by the previous ones and eventually destroy any target.” Analysing the mission requirements and available arsenal, after a few simple calculations, it appears that Obama was correct in dismissing the rumours that Iran’s fortified sites are invulnerable to presently available munitions. Back-of-the-envelope calculations against the core Iranian installations (with 75% reliability, assuming reinforced concrete ranging from 35-75 MPa) suggest the following:

  • Isfahan (100,000 sqft, overground) – 5 GBU-27s, requiring a similar number of F-16s
  • Natanz (646,000 sqft, underground) – 50 GBU-28s, requiring 25 F-15s if each can carry two bombs
  • Arak (55,000 sqft, overground) – 8 GBU-10s, requiring a similar number of F-16s
  • If missile sites close to nuclear targets (Bakhtarun, Khorramabad, Manzariyah, Hasa, Qom) were included, 4 GBU 27s and GBU 10s per site can be used, adding another 10 F-16s to the mission

The armada for just a small portion of Iran’s nuclear structure adds up to 50 F-15s and 23 F-16s. Add at least another 50 F-16s to provide escort and suppress enemy air defences, and the total shoots up to 123 aircraft (as a comparison, the Israeli air force has 72 F-15s and 248 F-16s – though not impossible, contrary to the rhetoric, the IAF would be hard-pressed to conduct a strike against Iran on its own). Additionally, depending upon the attack plan, KC-135 tankers will be required for mid-air refuelling. For an armada of 123 aircraft, that would amount to approximately 15 KC-135s. Again, this is just to strike three nuclear sites and five missile sites right next to them – any expansive operation targeting all nuclear sites would demand more air power. Finally, factoring in air defences, missile sites, radar operators, etc. would place an exceptional burden upon the US air force.

The US has in its arsenal the GBU-43B and the GBU-57B, both of which can be delivered only by the B-2, B-52, or a C-130. Using fighters with the smaller but more numerous bombs allows greater manoeuvrability in the air (though there is the added element of stealth with the B-2). Of course, any attack can be augmented by a barrage of missiles raining down upon the targets, but these are not likely to be as effective as the bombs. The most powerful payload, 315 kgs of high explosives, is carried by the Tomahawk (RGM/UGM-109C TLAM-C) and slightly more than the GBU-28’s 290 kgs. However, the TLAM-C is not as effective a penetrator as the GBU-28, and the Tactical Tomahawk Penetrator Variant (TTPV), RGM-109H, has not yet been battle-tested.

It is possible, however, that Iran has used ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC) in the construction of facilities for its national jewel, the nuclear programme. This type of concrete is relatively new but old enough to be off the drawing board. Like its regular cousin, UHPC is a mix of sand and cement, but doped with polymer fibres and pure powdered quartz. Australian studies in 2006 involving six tonnes of TNT and UHPC panels showed that the panels were fractured but not shattered – Israeli declarations that repeated bombing would soften the facilities seem dubious in light of this study. Furthermore, it is not sure how the GBU-57B, penetrating 9m of 69 MPa reinforced concrete would perform against UHPC (or is classified). This leaves only the most powerful (and hopefully sure) option – ballistic missiles.

It is most likely that Israel has also considered the use of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) against Iranian structures given the difficulty of an aerial assault. This is certainly an option that is open to the US, but one that requires a leap of imagination – ICBMs have never been used in a war until now (Scuds are theatre missiles), and may be seen as overkill by many opposed to a military option. Nevertheless, a logistically simpler option does remain open to the US, that of conventionally-tipped ICBMs. The Trident, with its 2,800-kg throw-weight and the Minuteman III with 1,150-kg throw-weight deliver a far more significant punch than any other weapon in the US arsenal. Of course, the Trident costs $70 million per unit and the Minuteman III $7 million per piece, with circular error probables (CEP) of 90 m and 150 m.

Undoubtedly, the surest way of turning Iran’s nuclear facilities into craters (and a guaranteed way) is deploying special forces. But this method connects directly to duration of conflict, safety of troops, cost, and the fog of war.

Thus, in terms of capability, President Obama is probably not bluffing. Even accounting for the strongest defence, Iranian facilities are not impregnable if the political will to expend significant assets and resources is there. But after such tremendous effort, it is likely that the Iranian nuclear programme is set back, at most, a decade. Is President Obama willing to authorise the use of such force against Iran only to delay their programme a handful of years?

5. Law of Unintended Consequences: Through Thucydides, the Greeks tell us,

Think too of the great part that is played by the unpredictable…; think of it now, before you are actually committed…the longer a [crisis] lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark.1

The Romans warn us by way of Tacitus, “Once killing starts, it is difficult to draw the line.2” Any leader would do well to heed these warnings from the Ancients, for no strike on Iran will be confined within the borders of Iran, nor will the repercussions be merely within the realm of conventional warfare. Some of the fallout of a US strike on Iran could be

  • Withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): This is almost a certainty; citing the need to deter further aggression by the US (or Israel or one of its other neighbours), Iran will withdraw from the NPT as Article X.1 allows: “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.” This shall make any future negotiations about nuclear issues with Iran all the more difficult.
  • Iran will become even more determined to acquire nuclear weapons. If, indeed, its programme was purely civilian up until now, it will become a military programme and clandestine one at that too. A very likely scenario is one in which Iran emerges as a major buyer on the nuclear black market – financially susceptible states like North Korea and Pakistan would be tempted by Iranian oil credits and pose a greater proliferation risk.
  • With Iran embroiled in a war, oil prices will shoot up – sanctions have already driven up oil prices to $120 per barrel, and experts say that oil could easily hit $150 per barrel before the end of 2012 if fighting breaks out.
  • It is possible that Iran might strike out at Israel with its Shahab missiles, targeting civilian centres and military bases as well as Israel’s own nuclear infrastructure. Iran might also strike out at oil facilities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in an effort to send oil prices skyrocketing. After all, the Kingdom did allow Israel to fly over its territory if the latter were striking Iran.
  • Tehran’s connection to Hamas, the Hezbollah, and the Mahdi Army are well-known. Any US strike on Iran will see the latter on the short end of the stick; as in any situation when faced with overwhelming conventional might, a state might make use of asymmetric strategies. Targets could be any US or Israeli asset worldwide, as attacks on Israeli embassies in Argentina (1992), India (2012), and Georgia (2012) have shown. Furthermore, Hamaz and Hezbollah could increase their rocket attacks on Israel in conjunction with Iranian missile attacks.
  • Tehran could also increase support of Shi’a insurgencies in Iraq, Bahrain, and Qatar, throwing the entire Middle East into turmoil.
  • Even if Iran’s nuclear fangs are successfully removed, it will leave behind an emaciated state, hurting from decades of sanctions and the ravages of two wars. US intervention has already eliminated Iraq as a source of regional power. This power vacuum could raise tensions as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel rush to fill the gap. This state of disequilibrium is also ideal for the increase of Russian and Chinese influence in the region, as well as the spread of non-state actors.

Unless executed to the standards of perfection of a French chef, the game in the Middle East could very well turn out to be Russian roulette with a faulty pistol. Is President Obama willing to assume these risks in exchange for negotiating with Iran?

6. International Law: There is, of course, a small matter of international law involved (and it is indeed small). As Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota reminded the United Nations Secretary General, “One sometimes hears the expression, ‘all options are on the table.’ But some actions are contrary to international law.” Although Patriota is absolutely correct in his observation, the fact remains that no one is willing to nor has the power to punish the United States for attacking Iran unilaterally. To put this fact of realpolitik (or is it machtpolitik?) in legalese, the argument would be that national security is ultimately a sovereign right and the United States has already designated Iran’s nuclear programme as a serious national security threat. Critics who argue that such unilateral actions weaken the international system should realise that the system is only what its most powerful members wish it to be. While Pakistan and North Korea have escaped decapitating blows against their nuclear establishments and India has been awarded an nuclear deal that makes it a de facto if not de jure member of the Nuclear Club, Iran has been singled out as as example in defence of the non-proliferation cause. There is nothing President Obama has to worry about on this front – US restraint in the Iranian case will certainly not be a factor in a future Chinese decision to crush a Tibetan uprising or a Russian invasion of Belarus.

7. Result: Ultimately, after all the money has been spent and all the blood has been spilled, this is not a permanent resolution. Critics have argued that preemptive strikes against nascent nuclear states have never been successful, not even in the famed Operation Opera. In defence of such strikes, Amos Yidlan, one of the eight Israeli pilots that took part in Mivtza Opera, argues with some merit, “Today, almost any industrialized country can produce a nuclear weapon in four to five years — hence any successful strike would achieve a delay of only a few years.” The Iraqi nuclear programme ended not in 1981 after the Israeli strike on Osirak, but in 2003 when the US invaded the country. Similarly, no matter how much the White House tries its “shock and awe” routine, a guarantee of success cannot be achieved without boots on the ground – tens of thousands of them and for a while. Anything less will mean another US president facing the same dilemma ten years down the line. Is President Obama willing to countenance a risky military option with not only the uncertainty of success but the fair probability that the outcome will be half-baked?

Thankfully, Obama has shown wisdom beyond that required to wag a six-shooter. Whether he knows the twisted history of US-Iran relations or not, someone in his staff certainly does, and one can only hope his military planners have taken into account all the hurdles they will have to face if war does break out. In his interview, the president explained his preferred policy with Iran,

Our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily, and the only way historically that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That’s what happened in Libya, that’s what happened in South Africa.

If Obama intends to demonstrate such sound foresight, then what is it that he is not bluffing about? Will the White House allow the demands of an election year tie their hands on Iran? Or will the president have the freedom and courage to make the right decisions? That President Obama is not bluffing (on the military option) may well be his bluff (to the Iranians) – but which game of bluff is the president playing? Is it Blind Man’s Bluff, the poker variant, or the childrens’ game? The former may be chancy, but the latter could be deadly.

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1: The History of the Peloponnesian Wars, 1.78
2: The Histories, 1.39