WASHINGTON—Most analysts agree that military action against Iran is unlikely at this point because the Bush administration and European countries appear intent on pursuing diplomacy first. But what if diplomacy fails?
Many analysts say that in that case, an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be relatively easy to carry out. With U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with war planes and ships scattered throughout the Persian Gulf, U.S. forces essentially have Iran hemmed in on three sides. U.S. cruise missiles and stealth aircraft with precision-guided bombs likely would overwhelm Iran's air defenses.
The key questions, however, are whether such an attack would be very effective and how Iran and the rest of the world would respond. Some experts say an attack would delay, not destroy, the Iranian program and would only reinforce Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran, taking lessons from the Israeli air attack that destroyed Iraq's nuclear facility at Osirak in 1981, has dispersed its atomic research and development facilities in dozens, if not hundreds, of locations above and below ground.
Regardless of the total number of Iran's nuclear facilities, Isfahan and Natanz are the most important because they constitute the "two weak links" in Iran's program, said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran expert and former State Department official in the Clinton administration.
Isfahan, a facility that converts uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride gas, could be bombed easily, said Kupchan, now at the New York-based Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory and consulting firm.
The other, Natanz, is a research facility where experts are trying to master the technique of converting uranium hexafluoride gas into enriched uranium. Low levels of enriched uranium are used for civilian nuclear plants, and more highly enriched fuel is used in nuclear weapons.
International inspectors found the facility after they were tipped off by an Iranian dissident group in 2002. Iran recently resumed research at Natanz and said it was for peaceful purposes, but analysts have expressed doubt because of Natanz's size and the fact that part of it has been constructed underground.
During a 2003 visit, Iran advised International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei that it had almost completed construction of a pilot uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, according to a report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.
The test plant will consist of 164 centrifuges, machines that spin uranium hexafluoride gas at high speeds, but it isn't fully operational, according to a January report by the Institute for Science and International Security. The group said Iran would need six months to a year to complete the process needed for enrichment.
Of greater concern at Natanz are underground chambers that are expected to house an estimated 50,000 gas centrifuges, enough to produce weapons-grade uranium for several nuclear weapons a year, according to experts.
While it's unclear what other capacities exist at the site, "what is obvious is that the pilot facility is above ground and would be easy to take out," Kupchan said.
Bombing the facilities at the two locations "would set the Iranians back by two to three years," he said.
"It wouldn't be that hard to do," said Kupchan. "You'd be picking a helluva fight, though. Iran is a sophisticated country, with a very sophisticated leadership. It has a range of retaliatory options that are extremely unpleasant."
Among those options are missile attacks. Iran's Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles, both variants of the Soviet-era Scud, are capable of hitting U.S. bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Iraq. Its Shahab-3 missile could strike Israeli cities.
The missiles "are not capable of mass destruction, but they are capable of some destruction," said Sammy Salama, a terrorism expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Iran also could unleash terrorism against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranian agents are believed to have infiltrated extensively into both countries and could easily stir up attacks on U.S. troops, especially among Iraq's majority Shiites, with whom they share religious and historical ties.
"I certainly think they have the capability to push up American casualties without necessarily getting caught," said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They can probably push up American casualties from three to four a day to six to seven a day. The same with Afghanistan. If a car bomb blows up in Kabul, who the hell knows who did it?"
Iran also might stir up trouble through Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group that attacked Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, or attack U.S. embassies around the world.
"Today the American consulate in Karachi. Tomorrow an American consulate in Argentina," said Takeyh. "You know, they do have terrorist capabilities of global reach."
Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy research group, said military strikes on Iran are unnecessary. "The country is five to 10 years away from the ability to enrich uranium for fuel or bombs," Cirincione said.
In addition, many countries might view any nation's attack on Iran as undue aggression unless it had U.N. backing. This could raise Iran's stature not only in the Muslim world but also among other nations, including U.S. allies. It also could legitimize Iran's nuclear program as a necessary deterrent against future attacks.
According to Salama, "anything short of a full military invasion would only embolden Iran."
"At that point, people would rally around the flag, just as they would in any country," he said. "It will just make the regime stronger than it is now. Because almost everyone in Iran—on the streets, in the press, in literature—sees the Iranian nuclear program as a matter of national pride."
Kupchan, who visited Iran last March and met with officials in its nuclear program, agreed.
"From cabdrivers to cooks, all normal Iranians I spoke to made that point," he said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map