Home > By Publication Type > Op-eds > A Predictable Catastrophe

Op-Ed

A Predictable Catastrophe
Assessing an Israeli Strike on Iran in 2010
Author: Micah Zenko, Fellow for Conflict Prev ention March 4 , 2 01 0 Weekendav isen (Originally av ailable in Danish.) In January 1 9 9 5, the New York Tim es published a disquieting article best sum m arized by its title: "Iran May Be Able to Build an Atom ic Bom b in 5 Years, U.S. and Israeli Officials Fear." Subsequ ent warnings from Am erican neoconserv ativ es, Israeli officials, and Iranian exile gr oups went ignored, and m ost policy m akers dism issed the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon as m ore alarm ist than alarm ing. The apathy toward Iran's nuclear am bitions ev aporated in 2 002 , when ev idence em erged that Iran had a well-established clandestine nuclear program outside of the scope of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -of which Iran is a m em ber-and its inspection arm , the International Atom ic Energy Agency (IAEA). After sev en y ears of repeated rev elations of Iranian transgressions, tensions between the P5+ 1 -Am erica, Britain, France, Germ any , Russia, and China-and Iran hav e grow n progressiv ely worse. If a bold, and presently unforeseen, agreem ent between the P5+ 1 and Iran cannot be reached, it is increasingly likely that Israel will attem pt a risky and highly -destabilizing m ilitary strike against Iran's know n nuclear weapons facilities. To analy ze the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran in 2 01 0, there are fiv e issues to consider: First, the lev el of pessim ism surrounding a deal between the P5+ 1 and Iran has reached an all-tim e low. In late Nov em ber, in outgoing com m ents as Director General of the IAEA, the prev iously optim istic Moham m ed el-Baradei declared that the agency had hit "a dead end" in its ability to v erify the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program . In January , Tehran rejected the P5+ 1 diplom atic offer to ship m ost of its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichm ent to fuel nuclear reactors that produce m edical isotopes. More recently , it rejected an Am erican offer to sell the isotopes directly to Iran. Second, the Obam a adm inistration no longer believ es the findings of the alway s-contentious National Intelligence Estim ate (NIE) of 2 007 , which judged "with high confidence that in fall 2 003 , Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program ." The National Intelligence Council is drafting an updated NIE that will bring the United States closer in line with its allies' estim ates, which reportedly contended that Iran both continued its research and dev elopm ent work for building a bom b, and stands at the brink of hav ing the "breakout capacity " to do so. The alignm ent of these m ore dire projections could cataly ze tacit U.S. and western support for Israeli m ilitary action, if sanctions fail. Third, foreign intelligence agencies do not know the current operational status or location of Iran's suspected

7 6 3 kilogram s of low-enriched uranium into enough highly -enriched uranium for a bom b. or an explicit order from Iran's political leadership to com m ence with a crash program to build a bom b. if their public and priv ate com m ents are to be believ ed. highly destabilizing. Thus. like North Korea did in 2 003 .S. this fall is a potential window for an Israeli attack if IAEA inspectors were not allowed to return. An Israeli attack wou ld be an audacious.S. an Israeli strike m ight be the foreseeable catastrophe of 2 01 0. giv en the current trendlines and entrenched positions of the P5+ 1 and Iran. By one estim ate. The forthcom ing IAEA report will be telling about the transparency and progress of Iran's uranium enrichm ent at Natanz. Israel cou ld also launch a strike.nuclear weapons program . The last IAEA "phy sical inv entory v erification" at Natanz was in late Nov em ber. The question is how long would Israel wait for new sanctions to dem onstrably fail at com pelling a change of behav ior in Tehran? The answer depends on intelligence and Iranian behav ior. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates predicted that a m ilitary strike "would delay the Iranian [nuclear] program for som e period of tim e.org by permission of its original publisher. a fourth round of UN-sponsored econom ic and diplom atic sanctions against Ir anian officials and entities connected to nuclear and m issile program s should soon be announced. probably only one to three y ears. . the U. Fourth. I t was originally available here." are im plem ented. If new and credible intelligence em erged indicating either additional clandestine uranium enrichm ent facilities. Caught red-handed (y et again). it w ould take the Natanz facility roughly six m onths to turn its 1 . Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article appears in full on CFR. and Britain disclosed a heretofore clandestine uranium enrichm ent facility buried deep beneath a m ilitary com plex near the Iranian city of Qom ." Giv en Iran's com m itm ent to dev eloping a clandestine uranium enrichm ent capacity stem s back a quarter century this is sim ply unbeliev able. but only delay it. or withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty . Iran told the IAEA that there were no "other nuclear facilities that were currently under construction or in operation that had not y et been declared to the agency . U. It could be y ears. France. uncertain. the Israeli gov ernm ent of Benjam in Netany ahu will not allow Iran to dev elop the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. between when additional sanctions.. If Iran blocked or harassed IAEA inspections of the Natanz centrifuge facility . Fifth. and short-term solution. no m atter how "crippling. howev er." Nev ertheless. Israel could attack Iran's known nuclear facilities. and m ost im portantly . In Septem ber. and actually hav e an effect-if any -on senior Iranian officials.

A l l Ri ghts Reser v ed. .© Copy r i ght 201 0 b y the Counc i l on For ei gn Rel ati ons.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful