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Why The US Could Bomb Iran – OpEd


By Lee Smith

In late May, at a major security conference in Tel Aviv, former Obama Pentagon official Michelle Flournoy assured her mostly Israeli audience that a military strike against Iran was very much on the table. But she hastened to add that “any military strike in its most wildly successful incarnation” would set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program only one to three years.

That one-to-three year caveat has become more than an estimate. Over the past several years, as Defense Sec. Leon Panetta, his predecessor Robert Gates, former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and other officials have recited it at press conferences and think tanks, it has become received wisdom.

But is it true? It’s hard to believe that the United States lacks the military might to destroy the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program—if not in one campaign, then in a series of campaigns to ensure that it doesn’t get the bomb.

“I always felt the time frame was very conservative,” (Ret.) Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the United States Army, said. “My judgment tells me that if we did something as devastating as we could do, taking down their major sites, which also means their engineers and scientists, I think the setback would be greater than five years. I don’t like to read too much into people’s motivations, but at times when we don’t want to do something, we build a case in terms of our interpretation that it is too hard or it isn’t worth the payoff.”

Indeed, the assessment that Iran’s program could only be delayed began with the George W. Bush White House, as former CIA chief Gen. Michael Hayden recently explained. It’s hard not to conclude that the assessment was driven by political calculations: Because Bush could not embark on a third theater of conflict in the Middle East, it was convenient to say a military strike would not make much difference.

In contrast, the Obama Administration has pulled out of Iraq and will soon pull out of Afghanistan. Yet the White House continues to repeat the trope that the program can, at best, be delayed a few years. Just as politics informed the Bush White House’s insistence on the delay-not-destroy mantra, politics of a different sort are informing this White House: This administration is conducting a public diplomacy campaign with the purpose of undermining the capability of a U.S. attack because the administration has no intention of striking.

“It’s not unknown for folks in the military to inflate difficulties in order to not do it,” a former Pentagon official told me. “The assessment may reflect the idea that the military has not much appetite to be involved in the Middle East if they don’t have to. In reality, no one knows how long a military strike could set back the Iranians.”

Part of the assessment describing only a one-to-three-year delay, the official explained, is based on the fact that nuclear facilities are spread out across Iran and buried deeper than those at the Osirak reactor in Iraq and al-Kibar in Syria, both of which the Israelis successfully destroyed in one day. A strike against Iran might last a month. Then there’s the notion that you can’t bomb the scientific know-how that produced the program. And yet, the former official noted, citing the campaign of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists, “you can kill an awful lot of it.”

Christopher Ford, a former State Department official who worked on nuclear proliferation issues, told me that the evidence on which the standard assessment is based could have various loopholes. “There are so many assumptions built into the idea that it’s only one to three years,” said Ford. “For instance, it’s true to a degree that you can’t really get rid of the knowledge, but the nuclear-weapons scientists themselves aren’t the only link in chain. There’s other human capital that might be part of your destruction package, like some minor metallurgy specialists, who maybe aren’t working on the most sophisticated parts of the nuclear program, but without it they can’t have one.”

Obama officials aren’t telegraphing any of this. Instead, top intelligence and military officials, like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Adm. Mullen, keep saying that the Iranians can be only minimally delayed. Keane, the retired four-star general, believes that’s because the White House, as much as it claims it won’t allow Iran to get a bomb, isn’t willing to strike. “I don’t believe this administration has any intention, ever, of attacking Iran,” says Keane. “I don’t believe it, the Israelis don’t believe it, and the Iranians don’t believe it.”

But Uzi Arad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, strongly disagrees. “I don’t belong to the camp of skeptics who have little faith in the president taking action if necessary,” he said. “I think the president has recognized, for reasons that have to do with U.S. national security, economic interests, and his conviction regarding proliferation, that if all other measures fail to stop Iran from going nuclear he has to take coercive action.”

Arad said he sees no contradiction in the Obama administration’s stated policy (Iran can’t get a bomb) and its caveats (an attack will only delay the nuclear program). “The declared objective, as the president has termed it, is that the U.S. is determined to prevent Iran from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons,” said Arad. “It is inconceivable that the American military would say ‘we can strike but we cannot accomplish our objective.’ The assessment of one to three years assumes one blow but that is not what the reasonable American option is, which calls for repeated attacks if the Iranians restart the program. It is unreasonable to assume that after the strikes the U.S. would sit pat and Iran would rebuild. It’s absolutely imperative that if the U.S. strikes, its posture should be, ‘Dear Iranians, please do not proceed to rebuild the program, or we will strike again.'”

Ford, the former State Department official, pointed to a number of variables that might affect Iran’s ability to reconstitute its nuclear program in the event of an American strike. “If you’re just talking about the various nuclear facilities and bombing those things once, then it’s a pretty straightforward calculation: How long would it take to rebuild those things? But those estimates would change under a number of different circumstances. For instance, would you keep sanctions on Iran after attacking? Then it’s a different calculation.” He sees Iran’s air defenses as a key variable. “If you go after the nuclear program you need to go after how they defend themselves. If you succeed in degrading their defenses, it’s not the sort of thing that can be immediately repaired, and Iran has to choose whether they would prioritize reconstituting their nuclear program or rebuilding their air defenses. And if you’ve destroyed a lot of their potential delivery system and missile-production infrastructure, they might want to rebuild that too, which might be more expensive than replacing the nuclear weapons effort itself.”

Most important, Ford added, “there is the question of whether you’re willing and able to go back. That is, to hit reconstitution efforts on an ongoing basis. If it’s not a ‘snapshot’ hit but a campaign—that can change the reconstitution equation too.”

Perhaps so, but long before the United States decides to attack Iran, we need to communicate our seriousness to the regime. “There is only one guy you need to convince here to voluntarily give up the nuclear program and that is the Supreme Leader Khameini,” Jack Keane argues. “He must know we are dead serious about a military strike, as a last resort, and this is not just about the nuclear facilities—their military will be decapitated. This is the U.S. military. Believe me, we will destroy you.”

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute and is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday, 2010). This article was published by The Tablet Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

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8 thoughts on “Why The US Could Bomb Iran – OpEd

  • July 14, 2012 at 4:30 am

    really???you really want the world to believe this…if you Americans take out Iran, then why wait for several years???You dont have the stomach…you talk a lot of your capabilities and you discount Iran’s capabilities…you cant expect Iran to sit down let Americans eat them…Many people support Iran, the international community..not the US and Israeli community….US is murderous country!!!

  • July 14, 2012 at 11:47 am

    It took ten years to drop 7 megatons of bombs on Southeast Asia with millions of communists dead. Using nukes the US could kill millions in a day and end forever the possibility that Iran might develop the capability of having the technology to have nuclear weapons. Let Iran learn the hard way standing up to the free, democratic allies has costs.

    • July 14, 2012 at 12:47 pm

      It’s hard to know if you are serious, especially with the viking beanie and Mr. Natural beard you are wearing in your picture- but by that logic let’s drop them on everyone everywhere, so that we can preempt anybody from ever even contemplating in the future that they could think differently than the free democratic allies- and contaminate all future life, if there is any, in the process.

    • July 14, 2012 at 1:13 pm

      @Tom Baxter

      it’s precisely because of such threat against people ( to genocide people )that iran must have a nuclear deterrence at ANY COST,BY ANY MEAN

  • July 14, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    “This is the U.S. military. Believe me, we will destroy you.”

    rather die than to surrender to blackmail and threats, to live in humiliation and disgrace, rather die !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Saddam, Khadafy, milosevic .. ..have shown it !

    this analysis holds up only if one assumes that the Iranians are idiots and that after bombing, thye would rebuild above and in collabaration IAEA (which will not be there after the strike ), and will not go hidden, and underground
    and if so then they deserve to be bombed for aggravated stupidity.

    as stated by the Gen Cartwright, Robert Gates, Adm. Fallon, …..

    ” If Iran has the will to push forward with development of a nuclear weapon, it has the intellectual capacity to accomplish that, Cartwright said, and it can continue to spread out nuclear weapons sites beyond the ability of the United States to find them all.”

    the example of North Korea that has built a modern centrifuges in secret and unknown should give pause to all …..

    Meir Dagan told once, that this type of installation can be hidden in a small location like a parking or a school if I remember correctly.

    Finally, will the world, and the American people support an endless war?. with an endless economic crisis fallowing each bombing campagne, are we going to make bombing Iranian, a bi annual event? with all procession of horror: terrorist attacks, coffins returning from ME ……… unlikely given the huge human losses and other.

    the Americans will quickly linkages between the degradation of their economic situtation and the new annual event.

  • July 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    People sometimes forget that Iran has religious ties with Israel, but has none with the uS. (historically printed in the books) Daniel is buried in Iran…but then so is a huge stack of gold in atomic bomb proof vaults like the ones that were bombed and taken in world war two by the uS in Japan.
    The good citizens of the us only got to watch the ones that sharted that discovery of instant wealth plus live it up…while the CIA began their historical walk of unethical testing on uS citzens as well as Iranians and Jews.
    The idealism of freedom is not a religious one in the uS either, but is a requirement for religion like what Noah Webster contributed as the father of education in the uS. Narcisists have become less than moral but demanded it is patriotic.
    The uS does not recognize it’s own declaration; a past agreement with the same God that both Israel and Iran both recognized, at the very moment of it’s signing…since the sun shines on everyone and establishes the way that we now no longer govern ourselves, but to monopolize others with patents and copyright acts…which is not the least bit like that Sun shines.
    Loose thought…bombing Iran to begin with or even blowing them up completely with a nuclear bomb…the wind blows if you recall the recent accident in Japan…The idea of sovereignty is not to be questioned with the two political parties in Washington DC…even though they are presently considered as dysfunctional with or without a gun.
    Iran will never put their heads on the uS’s offering plate as the uS has forced it’s citizens to.(intellectual property)or another added form of taxation for the select few that propagate both political parties the most. More than any individual shall.
    So be ready…the uS has every excuse available to enter Iran, even if they are forced to blow the whole Earth up…but that excuse will never ever be that they are helping one single Jew…no, not one.
    Loose one and you will loose everyone…gain one and you have gained everyone…especially your own soul which the Jew did not sale…or offer in trade with anyone…for anything like a building or a pile of gold.
    I have to recall how Geoprge H W Bush came to Kuwait’s defense for money and not just principal.
    People like Cheney probably chose not to be a Jew…but chose to practice a form of social economical politics instead…like the George H W Bush family.
    It’s easier to practice being normal rather than a flag bearer at a funeral procession for hundreds of thousands of men, women and children…or just witnessing the continuous event…historically.
    Everyone have a safe, and enjoyable weekend.

  • July 14, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    read Measheimer . aipac & adl controls the us foreign policy – that`s the main prob.

    20 years after the implosion of communist Russia the us focussed on israel and it`s needs – that was a mistake . China has 1600 bln us $ on stock , stealth ability , 1,4 bln man , high end weappon systems and so on . Have a guess : north corea has launched a rocket over Japan – where was the us reaction ? ok ….

    China can destroy the gps and it can destroy any us satelite …. read and make your own conclusion . The us media produces pure propaganda crap . By the way : the us is a poor country – and we all feel happy about that . Hope you will suffer .


  • July 16, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Iran has a right to do what its wants to do its a sovereign state. It is imposing your might on other nations is wrong, just because you can. If Israel can have nuclear bombs clandestinely and is now arming its German submarines with nuclear missles why should not Iran have the same right. They also kill and plunder, occupy and treat human being like animals.
    It is unfair every which way you look at it. The west wants its own hegemony any which way it can, be it sanctions, bombing the countries back to stone age. 13 years of sanctions, Iraq, first war destroyed infrastructure, hospitals second time around sewage plants water treatment plants power plants, did not find a single wmd. This was a country with a world class health system. They haven’t recovered from it yet. The country is divided. Vietnam, agent orange lives on destroying life in the Vietnam country side Already destroyed Afghanistan has been destroyed even futher. 60 billion spent nothing to show for except a couple of enclaves in Kabul. The Afghans are as poor as they ever were. You just cannot kill and conquer, soon the tide will turn, that is fact in human history. Nearest example are the British from an arrogant world power the likes of which no one else has ever known because they had sequestered so much land around the world. Today they are back at home worshipping their queen.


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