Most of the international attention on Iran in the second half of 2009 focused on the political turmoil following the presidential election of 12 June. The discussion of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and plans receded from the foreground, though it continued behind the scenes among all the states and international agencies involved. The signs are that, whatever the outcome of the domestic confrontation between the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime and the opposition, the coming months will see a sharpening of tension over the nuclear issue. This raises the question of whether there will be a military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities – most likely by Israel, since there is little likelihood that the Barack Obama administration would countenance direct United States military action against Iran - in an attempt to stop the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon (see “Iran, Israel, America: the nuclear gamble”, 2 October 2009).
In current circumstances, any unexpected or dramatic incident is likely to be read in terms of its bearing on the complex interplay over the nuclear question of Iran, Israel and the United States. The assassination by a remote-controlled bomb of the Iranian quantum-physicist (and opposition supporter) Massoud Ali Mohammadi on 12 January 2010 is one such. The Iranian government immediately attributed Dr Mohammadi’s killing to the United States and Israel, working in collaboration with internal dissidents.
Tehran’s accusation against its main adversaries is as predictable as Washington’s denial of any involvement in the murder. While the truth of this event remains to be established, what can be said is that on a larger diplomatic front the United States has little to gain from any rupture in relations with Tehran. The rhetoric in Washington from conservative sources and supporters of Israel may be as strong as ever, and is more than matched by the propaganda of the Ahmadinejad government; but in reality the US and Iran actually have overlapping interests. Both have reason, albeit for different reasons, to oppose al-Qaida and the Taliban (with Iran recalling the deaths of Iranian diplomats at the Taliban’s hands in 1998); and the US government is well aware of the potential for Iran to make things very difficult for it in Iraq.
The deep state
Two pieces of evidence, however, suggest that events involving Israel may make the delicate Tehran/Washington relationship even harder to sustain. The first is that sources close to the Israeli government confirm and are clear that training and other preparations continue for possible military action against Iran. This is not to say that an attack is imminent, or indeed inevitable: just that the option is, and will remain, readily available.
The Binyamin Netanyahu government has been careful to moderate its public pronouncements about Iran; but its repeated statements that Iran is Israel’s primary security concern - far outweighing Hamas, Hizbollah and certainly the Palestinians on the West Bank – are far more than rhetoric. Some nuclear analysts in the United States believe that Washington could come to terms with a nuclear-armed Iran, should that be Tehran’s ultimate aim; for Israel, such an outcome is simply not acceptable.
The second piece of evidence enters here, namely a range of reports suggesting that Iran has gone much further than previously believed in protecting its nuclear facilities. The reports centre on news of a new nuclear plant being constructed inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom (see William J. Broad, “Iran Shielding Its Nuclear Efforts in Maze of Tunnels”, New York Times, 6 January 2010).
The argument is being made that the Qom development – news of which follows Iran’s admission in September 2009 that it is building a uranium-enrichment plant inside a mountain near Qom - is just one of many of this type; that a programme of systematic protection of sensitive sites has been operating for several years; and that these are sufficiently robust to greatly diminish the likely success of any air-strikes. The reports do not explicitly claim that the diverse sites are clearly linked to a nuclear-weapons (as distinct from a civil nuclear-power) programme, but the implication is that they are, and that they’re intended as a form of deterrence.
It is impossible to verify these reports. What can be said is that Iran has huge experience in tunnel-engineering, not least in carving road-and-rail routes through mountainous terrain, as well as the construction of subway-systems in three cities (Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz). Some of the world’s leading tunnelling-contractors, including Germany’s Herrenknecht, have offices in Tehran. President Ahmadinejad himself, a transport engineer by profession, was in 1998 a co-founder of the Iranian Tunnelling Association.
Iran has, therefore, the capability to protect sensitive facilities and there is a fair amount of evidence that it has done so. Any kind of nuclear development is seen in the country as a powerful symbol of modernity (and is to that extent popular); and the risk of an attack on nuclear facilities, even if they are not weapons-related, makes protection a high priority for the authorities.
Indeed, if as is probable Iran did embark on a scheme some years ago to develop a major civil-nuclear programme that could also give it the potential to “break out” into nuclear weapons, then its thinking from the start would have been that an Israeli military assault was at some point likely. From that early point it would have made eminent sense to focus intense efforts on extremely strong protection of selected facilities; indeed it would be a sign of political and technical incompetence not to have done so.
It is still feasible that Iran is not actually engaged in developing nuclear weapons but is determined to maintain that option. Merely to do this in a survivable way, however, would require sophisticated levels of protection. The latter would be far better provided by tunnelling into mountains than digging deep holes and covering facilities with substantial layers of concrete, earth and rock. The latter option would leave facilities vulnerable to attack by the 2.3-tonne GBU-28 “bunker-busting” bomb available to the Israelis; whereas such a weapon would have little if any effect on deep tunnels other than to wreck entrances (and even this risk can easily be countered by dummy entrances and other technical tricks).
The US air force has for some years funded the development of a far more powerful system, the 13.6-tonne GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). The first of these are due to be deployed later this year, though there are no indications whatsoever that they will be made available to the Israelis (see “MOPping Up: The USA’s 30,000 Pound Bomb”, Defense Industry Daily, 22 December 2009). In any event, if Iran has created deeply buried facilities within mountains, even the GBU-57 would have little effect.
The hard choice
The logic of the foregoing is that even if Iran has not yet decided to divert into a nuclear-weapons programme, there is a strong risk of an Israeli attack – but that Iran’s leadership will be confident that a raid would leave important parts of any programme intact. Moreover, Iran’s elite could respond to an attack from the middle-east’s only nuclear-weapons power by withdrawing from the non-proliferation treaty; mobilising the people around a unifying cause; portraying the country as a regional leader against aggression; and “really” going all-out for nuclear weapons. The result would be yet more assaults by Israel in subsequent months, with complex political effects across the region in which (for example) the reaction of Arab elites and Arab citizens would be very different.
The long-term consequences of any Israeli operation against Iranian nuclear targets are unpredictable, but probable among them is serious regional instability. Yet where the dominant security paradigm remains fixated on Iran’s nuclear potential, this would not be enough to stop Israel.
The United States clearly recognises this fact, and the Barack Obama administration - unlike its predecessor – well understands how damaging a war would be. The watchwords of the Washington’s dealings with Tehran in coming months will continue to be caution and patience. It is far less certain that the US president has any serious control over Israel’s plans and calculations. For that reason alone, a crisis remains likely some time in 2010.