International Security Studies

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Can Military Strikes Destroy Iran's Gas Centrifuge Program?

September 05, 2008 // 12:00pm1:30pm
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David Albright provided an overview of the new ISIS study on the feasibility of the military option to block Iran's uranium enrichment program. The stalled diplomatic effort to limit Iran's gas centrifuge program has prompted renewed speculation in the press, which often cite the precedents of Israel's air strikes on Syria's clandestine nuclear program in September 2007 and on Iraq's Osirak reactor in June 1981.

Could a similar military action against Iran's key nuclear sites at Natanz (where gas centrifuges are spinning to "enrich" uranium – that is, to distill the fissionable Uranium isotope, U-235) and outside Esfahan (where Uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for the centrifuges is made) similarly delay Iran's ability to produce weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons? The answer from the ISIS research team is: probably not.

Albright said that analogies to earlier historical cases are grossly misleading. He pointed to key differences between a reactor-based program, such as those in Syria and Iraq, which yields weapons-grade plutonium, and the gas centrifuge method for uranium enrichment being pursued by Iran. In contrast to the Syrian and Iraqi cases, there is no single key facility whose destruction would be a technological brake on the Iranian program. The Iranian facilities are redundant, dispersed, and sometimes underground. Albright argued that destroying Natanz and Esfahan would require many more air sorties than Israel had employed in Syria and Iraq. Such attacks would need to be large scale and conducted across a broad geographical area.

Even then, there would be no assurance that all the relevant targets had been hit or even that the program had been set back by several years. That lack of confidence is a reflection of the fact that U.S. and Israeli planners, according to a recent New York Times report, do not know all the pertinent targets in Iran – for example, where centrifuge components are made. Gas centrifuge plants leave "few tell-tale signatures" and are difficult to detect. The problem of garnering accurate intelligence was highlighted by the experience with Iraq in the 1990s, when UN weapons inspectors were surprised by the existence of Saddam Hussein's large, covert uranium enrichment program.

Albright's bottom line is that military strikes would fail to destroy or even significantly delay Iran's uranium enrichment program, and they carry a significant risk of igniting a general war in the region. He advocated setting the military option aside and focusing instead on a credible diplomatic approach (including meaningful punitive sanctions) to curb Iran's nuclear program.

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