Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

The Folly of a Denuclearized Iran

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 6, 2009

I have, in the past, been an advocate for taking extreme measures to prevent Iran’s ascension to the ranks of nuclear armed nations. Clearly a nuclear-armed Iran presents problems for many nations in the Middle East and, of course, remains an unfavorable outcome. The question is just how unfavorable that outcome is and how much of our national prestige, treasure, influence and ultimately blood we should expend in the effort to prevent it.

Atomic weaponry is at its base a 1940s technology, nuclear weaponry a 1950s one. The major hindrance to producing these weapons is not exotic technologies, amazing leaps of knowledge in physics or even access to raw uranium , it is access to centrifuges to refine and enrich the uranium or, if one wishes to build plutonium weapons, the construction of breeder reactors. This is not to say that building the cascade of high-speed centrifuges needed to produce sufficient quantities of enriched uranium isn’t a major undertaking– it surely is, requiring a bit of underhanded dealing and a whole lot of cash. Therein lies the problem– building centrifuges is merely very difficult, and merely difficult is not all that much of an impediment to even less developed nations. It wasn’t to South Africa, a pariah nation at the height of the Apartheid Era which constructed a nuclear arsenal and even tested a nuke in conjunction with Israel. It certainly hasn’t been to the North Koreans, who field an arsenal that might already include 15-20 weapons. Pakistan has had no trouble not only developing but distributing nuclear technology and, perhaps, weaponry. Argentina and Brazil abandoned weapons programs under superpower pressure at the final stages of construction. Basically, this is “rocket science”, not light speed technology. My five year old builds rockets. He doesn’t have to design a rocket, formulate and synthesize the fuel, do the aerodynamic testing on the stabilizers or engineer the best nozzle. It’s already been done for him, just as all the hard parts of building a nuclear weapon have been done for Tehran. It’s just a matter of collecting the parts and established technologies and then following the steps to turn them into something. My son is a bright kid, but as yet he hasn’t proven himself to be Oppenheimer, much less Einstein.

If we posit that stopping any determined nation from building an atomic or nuclear weapon over sixty years after the engineering work was done is not a matter of technologic secrecy, then we have to ask just what it is that will prevent a nation from building their own nukes. Even during the Cold War era of dual superpower pressure to limit the expansion of nuclear leverage South Africa pulled it off despite the clear application of US-USSR pressure; in a era of unipolar power, then, how do we presume that expansion can be absolutely stopped?

Clearly, we cannot. With the technology out there, any nation that can scrape together the money, technicians and political will can and will develop nuclear weapons in the next two decades. Nobody wanted North Korea to have nuclear weapons; they now have them. Nobody– nobody– wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. An Iranian weapon is a passing threat to the Untied States and Europe, a very slightly more real threat to Israel, but a huge threat to the national interests of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Iraq. It is a direct challenge to the Arab leadership engendered in the Egypt-Saudi system, and a confirmation of the fealty of Syria & Lebanon to Tehran. It is the avenue by which Iran sees itself returning to the prestige of Darian Persia, being the hegemon not only of the Persian Gulf but asserting its alpha presence into the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. In Tehe\ran’s mind, fielding nuclear weapons undoes the millenia of humiliation that followed Alexander’s defeat of Darius III. A nuclear armed Iran in domination of the Gulf also promotes another of Shi’a Iran’s major goals– the refutation of the Sunni Islam in favor of an ascendant Shi’a Caliphate, with unfettered Shi’a access to Mecca and Shi’a philosophy and beliefs making clear inroads into the presently Sunni/Wahabbi dominated Islamic culture. Given these prizes, this is not an aspiration that Iran is going to negotiate away– what could be offered them that would trump regional hegemony and the justification of their religious beliefs?

If technology is not a barrier and diplomacy not an option, we are left with a military solution to preventing Iran from deploying nuclear weapons. Israel is seen as a primary actor in that supposed drama, but I have great difficulty in finding the mode by which they could accomplish anything meaningful with their current force structure. Operations against Iran would presumably be carried out by the IDF’s principal strike systems, the F-15 & F-16 attack planes. Those planes face tremendous hurdles in operating against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, not the least of which is raw distance. While the F-15I, Israel’s primary strike aircraft, has a maximum range that would enable it to strike Iranian targets that presumes an aircraft lightly loaded, operating at optimal altitude and at a steady, moderate speed with external fuel tanks replacing weaponry. Changing the assumptions to include a more realistic combat profile– heavy weaponry, long periods of low altitude flying, periods of high speed flight– and the F-15I would, at minimum, need refueling over the Persian Gulf itself going in and coming out of Iran. It would also necessitate violating the airspace of either Iraq and Syria, Turkey, or Jordan & Saudi Arabia not only by the high speed strike aircraft but also by the slow, easy to shoot down tankers… who would also have to linger in hostile territory waiting to refuel the exiting strike. To further complicate the matter, defense suppression aircraft would also need to get in as the Iranian nuclear sites are highly defended by the latest Russian SAMs. All of this presumes that the Israelis have some weapon that even the Americans have not been able to produce– an effective, very lightweight munition capable of being carried over extreme distances and then penetrating the deepest, most reinforced bunkers in the world. Given that there are at least 30 sites spread throughout Iran, many of them literally built in caverns under mountains, the ability of Israel to stop the Iranian program via airstrikes is likely nil.Given that outcome, we can also dispose of the concept put forward by some that the Saudis or Turks would grant an air corridor for the strike; nobody wants to kick a nuclear armed hornets nest if they can’t be assured of its destruction.

The only path open to Israel for actually destroying Iran’s nuclear program is via its own nuclear weapons. Good luck with the politics on that one, Mr. Netanyahu.

America, similarly, has limited options here. We could fight our way through Iranian air defenses at some cost to put bombs on the surface above Iranian facilities, but we could not destroy those facilities with any level of confidence and would have to absorb incredible political damage to do even that in addition to seeing greatly expanded Iranian deviltry in Iraq and across the globe. A general invasion of Iran is, of course, not an option and even establishing and defending temporary airheads at the sites of their nuclear facilities to effect their destruction would seem to be a nearly impossible task.

With no diplomatic, technological, or workable military options, we must soberly reasses our goals and abilities vis-a-vis Iran. A nuclear armed Iran does not pose a threat in the sense of their threatening or actually carrying out strategic nuclear strikes against Western cities or military targets– clearly doing so would result in the total destruction of Iran. While many have stated that Iran is somehow divorced from physical reality by their alleged desire to become martyrs for Allah and thus are not subject to the threat of death, isn’t it clear from the events of the past three weeks that even the Ayatollahs are firmly invested in the power, rewards and goals of “this” life?

Where Iran poses a threat is in the limitation of America’s ability to project power in the Gulf and the end of Egyptian-Saudi leadership of the Islamic world. Israel listens to the words of Ahmahinejad and hears the voice of doom, but in reality Iran as a nuclear power is of little enhanced threat to Israel as compared to Iran of today. At worst Israel and Iran would exist under the very stable MAD regime that the US & USSR existed under for decades.

Iran as a nuclear power complicates the world, but doesn’t pose much of a real threat to the West. We should react accordingly.

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2 Responses to “The Folly of a Denuclearized Iran”

  1. […] Read the original:  The Folly of a Denuclearized Iran « Running Local […]

  2. Lucky Crumpler said

    Cogent, incisive analysis. Strong comeback for Running Local!!

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