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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Reports Grow That U.S. Plots Strike Against Iran

Paul Kerr

Even as the Bush administration continues its diplomatic efforts to resolve the international dispute surrounding Tehran’s nuclear programs, recent press reports have increased concern that the United States may take military action against Iran in order to end the perceived threat posed by the programs.

The press for more than a year has reported that the Pentagon is drawing up plans for possible air and missile strikes. But several April reports have brought greater attention to the issue.

An April 10 New Yorker article reported that the Department of Defense is considering a range of targets. These include Iran’s nuclear facilities, as well as unrelated targets. Striking these other targets could be part of a broader strategy to bring about regime change in Tehran, the article said.

Perhaps most alarming, the magazine also reported that the United States may attack some of Iran’s nuclear sites with nuclear weapons. According to the article, one of the “military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11 [bomb], against underground nuclear sites.”

Iran has buried key elements of its nuclear program including its gas-centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz and has constructed tunnels at its uranium-conversion facility located near Isfahan.

The possibility that Iran also has clandestine, underground, nuclear-related facilities has vexed U.S. intelligence for some time. A Department of State official told Arms Control Today in February that the United States believes Iran has such facilities because of the underground construction at Natanz and Isfahan, as well as military bases. Iran is also known to have buried many of its missile facilities, the official said. (See ACT, March 2006.)

But two former State Department officials familiar with the matter indicated in interviews with Arms Control Today earlier this month that the United States has no specific information about other buried Iranian facilities. “I have been wondering myself about the ‘numerous’ buried facilities,” one former official said, adding that “press reporting about other facilities is unconfirmed.”

That has not stopped experts from debating responses to the possibility of such facilities. Some experts have argued that air strikes would not stop Iran’s nuclear program because Tehran could just continue to work at its secret sites or reconstitute any damaged facilities or equipment. On the other hand, the New Yorker article indicated that, according to some U.S. officials, the Pentagon needs to retain a nuclear option in case it lacks sufficient information about a newly-found Iranian underground nuclear facility to mount a successful conventional attack.

Whether the administration is seriously considering the use of nuclear weapons against Iran is unclear. Recent Bush administration national security planning documents have suggested that the United States might use nuclear weapons against such targets, perhaps pre-emptively. (See ACT, September 2005.)

However, the New Yorker reported that U.S. military commanders do not support the use of a nuclear weapon against Iran. And British Foreign Minister Jack Straw called the notion of a nuclear strike “completely nuts” in an April 9 BBC interview.

U.S. allies and other countries involved with the ongoing diplomatic efforts have not voiced support for any sort of military action against Iran.

President George W. Bush and administration officials have stated repeatedly that Washington will not take any options “off the table” but have generally refrained from overtly threatening Iran with military force. Bush dismissed reports of military action as “wild speculation” during an April 10 speech in Washington.

View From Tehran

In response to the reports of U.S. military strike planning, Iranian officials have displayed both concern and bravado. For example, Iran’s Foreign Ministry sent a complaint to the UN Security Council in March protesting “thinly veiled [ U.S.] threats of resort to force against” Iran. Some Iranian officials have suggested that they want an assurance that the United States will not attack.

But other Iranian officials have downplayed the possibility of a U.S. strike, citing such factors as the U.S. military’s ongoing difficulties in securing Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Iranian officials have hinted at Tehran’s likely response to a military attack. According to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said April 26 that Tehran would retaliate against “ U.S. aggression” by damaging the U.S. interests worldwide “twice as much” as any military strikes. Iranian officials have made similar threats of retaliation in the past.

Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, stated the previous day that military strikes would fail because Iran would respond by starting “covert” nuclear activities, IRNA reported.