The Military Option
- Iran’s controversial nuclear program is nearing a crisis point. A combination of factors—progress in enriching uranium, years of defying U.N. resolutions and bellicose rhetoric—has led to growing talk about a military option.
- Israel continues to be concerned about Iran’s program, given statements by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and leading Iranian military figures denying the Holocaust and challenging Israel’s existence.
- The Gulf States, apart from Oman, likewise expressed concern about the program. Saudi Arabia's King Salman threatened to obtain a nuclear capability if Iran develops a weapon. The United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt would likely follow suit.
- But any military operation against nuclear facilities in Iran, the world’s 18th largest state, would be starkly more difficult and more dangerous than Israel’s air strikes on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors.
- A single bombing raid, even several raids, is not likely to terminate the Iranian program.
- The international community is also likely to be deeply divided over a military operation, with opposition from key allies and major powers such as Russia and China.
- An attack could be unpopular in a war-weary American society. President Obama has stated that "a military solution will not fix it, even if the U.S. participates.”
- The Natanz facility is 130 miles southeast of Tehran.
- The Fordow uranium enrichment facility near Qom, identified in September 2009, is southwest of the Iranian capital.
- The Arak heavy water plant is about 150 miles south of Tehran.
- The Isfahan nuclear technology research center is in central Iran, 210 miles south of Tehran.
- The Karaj radioactive storage facility is 100 miles northwest of Tehran.
- The Bushehr reactor is on the Gulf, more than 500 miles from Tehran.
- The Parchin weapons development complex, which may also be a nuclear weapons development site, is located 19 miles southeast of Tehran.
- Medium Range Ballistic Missile sites near Iraq
- Cruise missile sites
- 14 airfields with shelters
- Naval facilities and especially diesel submarines
- Two chemical plants
- The major petroleum refinery at Kharg Island could constitute another major target for American forces.
- Satellites, which may not have detected underground facilities
- Special forces, whose best known operation in Iran, the April 1980 Desert One rescue attempt, was an unmitigated failure. How well and freely such forces might operate in Iran 30 years later is a major uncertainty.
- Bahrain, which is headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has a restive Shiite majority that is split between Arabs and Persians.
- Saudi Arabia has a significant Shiite population in its eastern province, the country’s oil-producing heartland, and would certainly not want to be seen as cooperating with the United States.
- Qatar, host to the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center, maintains decent relations with Tehran.
- Oman and Kuwait, which host prepositioned materiel for U.S. forces, also either have dealings with Iran or would want to avoid igniting new tensions in the Gulf.
- The United Arab Emirates, which continues to contest the shah’s seizure of Abu Musa and the Tunbs islands, might be willing to provide over-flight rights. Even so, Dubai’s tight trading relations with Iran would probably put a brake on just how far the UAE was prepared to go in support of an American strike.
- An Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is unlikely to stop the Iranian program for very long. An American aerial strike might be more successful, but it also may not shut down Iran’s program. Only a series of ongoing attacks is likely to accomplish that goal.
- Yet an overt military operation could make Tehran even more determined to acquire a weapons capability as a deterrent to future attacks.
- The military consequences and political costs could, over time, mount for whichever nation attacked Iran. Retaliation could play out across the world’s most volatile region and potentially far beyond.
- Clandestine action against Iranian facilities would be more effective and less risky politically. But a covert effort would also take time, and its success could also not be guaranteed.
This chapter was originally published in 2010, and is updated as of August 2015.
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"The Iran Primer"--Book Overview
The world’s most comprehensive website on Iran, “The Primer” brings together 50 experts—Western and Iranian—in concise chapters on politics, economy, military, foreign policy, and the nuclear program. It chronicles events under six U.S. presidents. It also has leader bios, timelines, data on nuclear sites—and context for what lies ahead. New articles are added at the top.