Let us assume that nobody will bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, at least for quite a while. There is no Iranian nuclear test in the offing. Until now, the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have uncovered no diversion of declared stocks of uranium for use in a nuclear explosive device. Of course, clandestine activities could always take place in some remote stretch of the vast Iranian territory, unknown to the inspectors of the Vienna Agency. For the sake of argument, let us even assume that such activities are actually taking place; could they bring Iran, without being detected, within just a few screwdriver turns of creating a bomb? There is a large implementation gap between paper and computer work, as well as laboratory-scale experiments, on one hand, and the full-scale production of materials and equipment required for a nuclear arsenal on the other hand. The former can be easily hidden, while the latter is much harder to conceal. In the history of nuclear proliferation, the only surprises for the international community have been the first Russian test in 1949 – though one could guess that it would happen sooner or later – and the 1974 Indian nuclear test. But the world was more naïve then, and the methods of collecting information on such programs were much less sophisticated: no observation satellites or electronic eavesdropping. Recently, the progress made by Pakistan and North Korea in making a bomb could be closely monitored, and the success of their first tests was therefore hardly a surprise for anyone.
How can Iran get closer to making a bomb? It has two primary ways of doing so. The first would be to expel the IAEA inspectors, as North Korea did, and use its formerly declared facilities, Natanz and Fordow, to produce the necessary highly enriched uranium. However this, of course, would amount to a formal declaration of intention to produce a nuclear engine, and would illicit a strong response from the international community. Whereas North Korea is largely immune from strikes on its nuclear facilities because of its relationship with China, Iran is a lonely country that does not enjoy the protection of a powerful patron. It is doubtful that Russia would rush to its aid, especially if guarantees were made that the Bushehr nuclear plant that it helped build were to be left untouched.
The second way would be to develop a clandestine program starting with the extraction of uranium ore, followed by the production of the uranium concentrate (“yellow cake”), its subsequent conversion into gaseous form, and finally its enrichment up to 90%. All of this would take place in an industrial process that would treat hundreds of tons of ore and dozens of tons of natural uranium for enrichment, and tons for low enriched uranium in store for higher enrichment. Such a program would involve thousands of centrifuges spinning underground for years, in addition to a series of experiments that would need to be conducted in order to engineer the bomb. Such a vast and multi-faceted program would indeed run a high risk of being uncovered long before reaching its ultimate goal.
This assessment has been amply endorsed by American, European, and Israeli intelligence services alike. However, the situation becomes more complicated when one claims that these international actors have the right to not only to stop Iran from acquiring a bomb, but to also prevent it from acquiring the technical and scientific prerequisites for producing a nuclear engine. In this scenario, assessments inevitably become hazier as the level of uncertainty increases, and various actors develop their own definitions for what constitutes the forbidden threshold and decide to act accordingly. This is where we stand today.
Operating on such a slippery slope, things could go astray fairly easily. In the United States, Congress could, with each vote, send the Administration into ever narrowing straits. A presidential candidate pledging to bomb Iran could get elected. Within Israel, contentious internal politics could result in calls for a renewed demonstration of strength. The destruction of the Tammuz reactor in Iraq in 1981 occurred just three weeks before an election that Menachim Begin was expected to lose. Furthermore, there is always the risk of major unexpected events occurring, such as the attacks of September 11 or the outbreak of the Arab Spring, that have the potential to introduce new dynamics into any current paradigm. In the spring of 2001, the U.S., Britain, and Canada came to the conclusion that the comprehensive sanctions imposed on Iraq for more than a decade had little effect on the regime but rather created dire consequences for the population. They proposed that the Security Council replace them with smarter targeted sanctions. This should have signaled the beginning of the end of the Iraq crisis, but then came the attack on the Twin Towers. The new sanctions were finally approved by the Security Council in May, 2002, but by this time the chariots of war had already entered Afghanistan and were rolling towards Iraq.
Thus, crises that get out of hand usually begin as ones that powerful actors believe they can control. This painful conclusion forces us to imagine what the results and the consequences of a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities could be.
The Fordow enrichment plant is widely believed to be the site that Iran would chose (if it were to take such a step) to produce enough uranium enriched to 90% to create one or two bombs per year, making it the most likely target of any first strike. Able to accommodate about 3,000 centrifuges, the most recent IAEA report confirms that Fordow began enriching uranium up to 20% at the end of 2011. This percentage is considered to be the upper limit of low enrichment. Uranium produced in Fordow is supposed to eventually fuel the small research reactor that the Iranians bought from the United States in the late 1960s. Buried under some 300 feet of rock, it would be difficult, even with "bunker busters," to reach and destroy the heart of a facility so deeply buried in the mountain. Only tactical nuclear weapons could do the job. Of course, such a move would make the facility inaccessible to the weapons inspectors. The centrifuges, which are fragile devices, would suffer serious damage under the secondary effects of the explosions. All of this would take months, perhaps even one or two years, to repair. Another solution would be to transfer the undamaged and repairable centrifuges to other, more remote locations. Production would be significantly delayed, but the setback could be absorbed in the medium term.
The Isfahan conversion facility and the Natanz enrichment facility, built on plain, open ground, would suffer much heavier damage if they were to be attacked. For years, the Iranians have been subjected to regular threats of strikes over their nuclear facilities, while being simultaneously pressed to keep all of them above ground, as so many goats used as bait for the tiger. That being said, the Iranians could take solace in the fact that at least one of their nuclear facilities has been built underground.
Of course, one hopes that the Bushehr power plant would be exempt from any attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. It has already started producing electricity and its nuclear core is therefore highly radioactive. Its destruction could very well produce a Fukushima-type accident on the shore of the Persian Gulf, which forms a closed sea.
Regarding Iran's response to such provocations, what forms could it take? Considering the serious shortcomings of the Iranian army, navy, and air force, one can hardly imagine Iran taking the risk to enter into some kind of conventional war with any of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. Any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz could not be sustained over a few days. Iran could shoot a few dozen missiles equipped with conventional warheads towards Israel. This would be a powerful act of vengeance, but with no strategic consequences. It could ask Hizbullah to unleash its stockpile of hundreds, if not thousands, of missiles accumulated with Iran's help since the end of the last civil war in Lebanon. However, Hizbullah could very well be annihilated in any war that followed.
What about a covert terror campaign in Europe, the United States, or beyond? Apart from the rather unconvincing recent episodes taking place in Georgia and India, it appears that neither Iran nor its allies have sponsored any acts of terror in the last 15 years. There was, of course, the assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. in 2011. However, little progress has been made in this case, as the main suspect refuses to plead guilty. Aside from initial political declarations and the vote on a resolution against Iran at the United Nations General Assembly, interest in the case seems to have waned .
One route that Iran could take that has yet to be mentioned would be to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article 10 of the treaty states: "Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country." Considering that Israel is not a party to the NPT and does not have a nuclear facility monitored by the IAEA, whereas as Iran is a member and has placed its facilities under the control of IAEA inspectors who have not called for a diversion of any of Iran's nuclear material, an Israeli strike on Iran's facilities could indeed be enough to constitute an “extraordinary event.” However, if the United States were to strike Iran, it would represent an NPT party member authorized to maintain a nuclear arsenal destroying the facilities of another treaty member, who, officially, is not committed to acquiring a bomb and at the moment does not have one.
What would be the legal consequences of such a withdrawal? Iran would still be obligated to keep all its existing nuclear facilities, regardless of the damages sustained, as well as fissile material already produced, under the control of the IAEA. Indeed, the Safeguards Agreements contracted by the Agency does not require that signatory countries be members of the NPT. On the other hand, all new nuclear facilities and newly-produced fissile material would be outside the jurisdiction of IAEA control. New facilities could be deeply buried, dispersed throughout Iran's vast territory, or hidden in urban landscapes. Deprived of the ability to inspect these facilities, the international community would lose a precious source of information regarding Iran's nuclear program. Most importantly, Iran would regain the freedom to possess a nuclear arsenal similar to that of India, Pakistan, or Israel.
Could we then assist in combating a wave of withdrawals from the NPT coming from neighboring countries such as Turkey, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia who are rightfully fearful of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon? Such an outcome is possible, but not certain. The United States would expend all its efforts in convincing them to remain Treaty members, even at the expense of enhanced military guarantees with these partners.
Let us return to the possibility of an Iran free from NPT constraints. Barring regime change, Iran, after healing its wounds, would be able to produce its first bomb within two to three years. It would then have to miniaturize and harden this first device in order to produce deliverable nuclear weapons. At least another five to ten years would be needed to put together a budding nuclear arsenal. Then comes the big question: thus equipped, would Iran be tempted to destroy Israel?
As former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hussein Mousavian recently stated in several interviews, nuclear strikes over Israel could very well kill almost as many Palestinians as Jews, in addition to desecrating a land that the Islamic Republic considers particularly holy. Additionally, the inevitable retaliation from Israel, and most likely the United States, would lead to even more dramatic consequences for Iran.
A more likely scenario would be that the enemies of Israel, comforted by the existence of an Iranian nuclear umbrella, would be encouraged to create unending difficulties for the Jewish State. However, in such a case, Iran would become hostage to its allies. It could very well find itself driven against its will into some kind of diplomatic debacle, and eventual military confrontation. It is doubtful that Iran would casually contemplate such a scenario, knowing too well that, for decades to come, the damage that it could inflict on its enemies would be miniscule compared to what it would endure in response.
What remains are the unbearable insults and threats leveled by Iranian leaders against Israel. As long as they continue such behavior, Israel will have reason to worry, and the international community will have reason to be deeply disturbed. Iran cannot complain about reaping what it has so consistently sowed. That said, let us beware of anachronisms. The Iranian regime has never presented itself as the herald of a higher civilization, believing itself entitled to enslave or annihilate people around it. It seeks the destruction of the political entity embodied by the Jewish State of Israel, a fact that must be sternly condemned, if only by references to mutual obligations of the signatories of the United Nations Charter. But Iran does not call for the creation of new Auschwitzes. The Iranian leaders are not Hitler or Goebbels. They are Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and that is already plenty.