War with Iran? On the Brink

Stephen H. Unger
July 24, 2012

Are we on the verge of yet another exciting military adventure in the Middle East? The sabers are certainly rattling in a manner reminiscent of the prelude to the Iraq war, as numerous government officials, politicians, and pundits are laying the groundwork for an attack on Iran. How likely is it that Iran wants to become a nuclear power, and how long would it take to accomplish this? If they did manage to construct a nuclear weapon, would that really create an unacceptable situation? In particular, how much of a threat would this pose to the US and to Israel?

To start with, what is involved in constructing a nuclear weapon? How long would it take?

Building a Nuclear Weapon

Naturally occurring uranium samples contain about 0.7% of the isotope U-235 , which is what fuels the fission process fundamental both to energy generation and to nuclear explosives (the rest being almost all U-238). In order to be useful in most nuclear reactors, the initial uranium must be processed (enriched) to raise the U-235 content to about 4%. There are medical applications requiring enrichment to about 20% U-235. For a nuclear warhead, enrichment to about 90% is necessary.

Enrichment is a slow, tedious, costly process. After obtaining an adequate amount of sufficiently enriched fuel to build a nuclear explosive, there remains the problem of assembling the mechanisms for triggering the actual explosion. While there is no mystery as to how to accomplish this, it is by no means a trivial task to build such devices. Finally, after constructing a practical warhead that is not too bulky or heavy, means for delivering it to the target have to be developed. The principal solutions here would be aircraft and rockets. The former are not too difficult to defend against, if only a few warheads are available, and the latter, particularly the means for guidance, is by no means easy to develop and produce.

Mastering the technology, producing the enriched uranium, constructing the actual warhead with the triggering mechanism would surely take several years. The delivery vehicle, presumably a missile, would also take years, including integrating the warhead with the missile. Of course, both problems could be worked on simultaneously to a large extent.

The Iranian Threat

Iran would probably like to have the capability of producing nuclear warheads. They have acquired equipment (mainly centrifuges) to enrich uranium, and have been enriching uranium to the 20% level of U-235. Quite possibly, they would like to produce nuclear warheads and the means for delivering them.

But the various inspections of their facilities carried out by the international agency that oversees the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and statements by many experts from various countries, do not indicate that Iran is now actively pursuing a weapons program. Of course, they could be wrong. In any event, it is clear that, even with an all-out effort, it would take several years for Iran to develop and produce a working nuclear weapon.

If Iran should indeed produce several nuclear weapons a few years from now, what would they do with them? Iranian behavior in recent times, and its history over the past several hundred years, suggests that suicidal actions such as attacking Israel or the US would be extremely unlikely.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have made numerous statements over the years to the effect that the state of Israel should and will cease to exist. They have not, however, specified how this should, or would, be accomplished, and, in particular, have not said that Iran will attack Israel militarily [Kessler]. They have vowed to retaliate should they be attacked by the US and/or Israel.

One means for retaliation by Iran in response both to a military attack and to an economic blockade would be to close off the Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. About 20% of the world's oil supply is carried by tankers thru those waters, which border on Iran to the East and Saudi Arabia to the West, and other oil-producing states to the North and South. Iran is equipped to attack such shipping via mines, shore-to-ship missiles, shore-based artillery, midget submarines, and small, fast, attack vessels firing missiles or perhaps torpedoes. They would probably not be able to block traffic indefinitely in the face of attacks by US naval and air forces, but blocking the straits even for a few weeks would have a major effect on world oil prices, and hence on the world economy.

Comparable Cases

Over the past couple of decades, we have seen much agitation over the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea. Various threats, sanctions, and carrots, as well as sticks, were wielded by the US and its allies in an unsuccessful effort to stop this from happening. It appears that North Korea has produced and tested both atomic explosives (2006) and rudimentary rockets that might eventually be able to carry them. During this time North Korea signed, and then later withdrew from, the NPT [Wikipedia-NPT][Wikipedia-NK].

An important motivation for North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons was to use their existence, in the classical manner, to deter attacks by others. It is interesting that this factor was acknowledged by John Bolton, UN Ambassador under the Bush administration and a super-hawk who advocates attacking Iran now. He writes, "We won't attack N. Korea because it has nuclear weapons" [Gharib].

South Africa developed an atomic bomb, with the aid of Israel, and tested it in 1979 [Wikipedia-SA]. About six warheads were constructed, and then, in 1989, the post apartheid government of South Africa voluntarily dismantled them, and, in 1991, signed the NPT.

Neither India nor Pakistan signed the NPT, and both countries openly developed nuclear weapons (in 1974 and 1998 respectively). Each has about one hundred nuclear weapons.

Israel is widely believed to have a stockpile of from 60 to 200 nuclear weapons, as well as both missiles and bombers systems to deliver them. It has not signed the NPT and has not publicly admitted that it possesses such weapons.

The principal nuclear powers are the US, Russia, China, Britain, and France. The US and Russia each have thousands of nuclear warheads, while each of the others has a few hundred. They all signed the NPT.

In December of 2010, the US Senate ratified a treaty with Russia that will ultimately reduce by 30% the number of long range nuclear missiles deployed by the two countries. Coming more than two decades after the end of the cold war, this is hardly a dramatic step toward the goal of ridding the world of the specter of nuclear war [Sheridan].

Past US-Iran Relations

The US had good relations with the Shah of Iran. When the democratic nationalist, Mohammad Mosaddegh, became prime minister and acted to nationalize Iran's oil fields, Britain and the US joined forces, in 1953, to overthrow the Iranian government via a coup engineered by the CIA. Power reverted to the Shah, who resumed dictatorial control and restored good relations with the US, until he was overthrown by the successful Islamic revolution in 1979. The good relations were dissipated by the Iran hostage crisis that occurred shortly after the successful conclusion of that revolution [PBS].

The 1980-1988 war between Iraq and Iran was one of the bloodiest wars since WW II. It was started when Saddam Hussain's troops invaded Iran. The US, while declaring neutrality, tilted toward Iraq, e.g., supplying military intelligence, and financial aid [Wikipedia-IRAQ]. Relations among the US, Israel, Iraq, and Iran varied in strange and surprising ways during this period [Riedel]. E.g., Israel at one point sided with Iran.

Attacks on Iran

In 1988, a missile fired from a US naval vessel downed a scheduled Iranian airliner over Iran's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people, including 66 children [Wikipedia655]. Without apologizing or admitting responsibility, the US settled a claim before The International Court of Justice by paying about $62 million, presumably to compensate families of victims.

Over the past few years, the US, in collaboration with Israel, launched cyber attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities [Sanger]. A sophisticated espionage operation obtained detailed information about the uranium enrichment process used by the Iranians. This information was then used to to develop a computer worm that was surreptitiously inserted into the computers controlling the centrifuges that did the enrichment. The effect was to cause many of the centrifuges to behave erratically, often speeding up to the point where almost a thousand (of roughly five thousand units) destroyed themselves.

Since 2007, five Iranian scientists associated with their nuclear program have been murdered by terrorists financed, trained, and armed by Israel. The US government is aware of this campaign, but denies "direct" involvement [Engel]. The group believed to be carrying out the murders, People's Mujahedin of Iran (aka MEK), is on the US list of terrorist organizations, having killed Americans in the past. A number of Americans prominent in the political arena, including Howard Dean, Rudolph Giuliani, and Bill Richardson have accepted substantial fees in return for lobbying and making public statements advocating that MEK be removed from the terrorist list [Peterson-MEK]. (None of them seem to be in danger of prosecution for consorting with a terrorist organization.)

Sanctions and Threats Against Iran

There is an extensive history, dating back several decades, of false alarms sounded in US mass media warning that Iran will, in a few years, acquire nuclear weapons, including long range missiles [Peterson-Warnings]. The most recent such alarm, quoting unnamed pentagon sources, occurred in mid July [Greenwald].

The UN, the European Union, the US, and some other nations have, since 2006, imposed an increasingly wide range of sanctions on Iran aimed at pressuring Iran into stopping efforts to develop nuclear weapons. These have included blocking exports to Iran of materials deemed relevant to nuclear technology, blocking weapons sales, freezing financial assets, travel bans, and embargoes on imports, and on the sale of Iranian oil [Wikipedia-IRAN].

President Obama has stated that the US would take military action, if necessary, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. A NY Times article reported that, "Mr. Obama rejected suggestions that the United States was willing to try to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. He declared explicitly that his administration would use force—a 'military component,' as he put it—only as a last resort to prevent Tehran from acquiring a bomb." [Landler][Wright]

The same article reported that Israel has indicated that it would attack Iran if it acquired a capability to produce atomic weapons. There are news stories suggesting that Israel has decided to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities prior to the upcoming US presidential election, but I couldn't find any clear, authoritative quotes, and this might be part of a propaganda campaign to increase pressure on Iran.

What Next?

In one scenario, Israel bombs the sites housing Iran's nuclear facilities a month or two prior to the US elections. Iran would, doubtless, retaliate, perhaps by getting Hezbollah, which it supports, to attack Israel with missiles from its bases in Lebanon. This would put great political pressure on President Obama to support Israel, e.g., by using air power to help to suppress attacks from Lebanon. A land invasion of Iran is unlikely as it would be a major undertaking for the US. In both area and population, Iran is bigger than the combination of Iraq and Afghanistan.

An alternative is that, if the polls should show Romney ahead, the Obama administration might launch an aerial attack on those facilities prior to the election, to turn the tide.

Another plausible train of events would be increased economic and financial pressure on Iran, accompanied by aggressive military measures such as, warships in the Persian Gulf, and overflights of military aircraft, that might precipitate an Iranian reaction that could serve as a pretext for an attack. This might occur before or after the election.

A False Crisis?

Whether or not Iran intends to produce a nuclear weapon is by no means clear. The Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the actual leader of the country, has, over the years, repeatedly stated his opposition to nuclear weapons. A few months ago, he said, "the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous." [Cole] There is no evidence that this is not a sincere statement of his views. Nor are there indications that he is not in control of the country.

Maybe the actual policy of Iran is not quite what he would like it to be and there are plans to get Iran into a position where, if they wanted to, they could produce a nuclear weapon. Japan, for example, could certainly produce an atomic weapon if it wished, within perhaps a year. Note that false alarms have been raised for several decades about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons [Peterson].

Finally, consider the worst case: that Iran does actually construct a nuclear weapon as soon as possible. The addition of another nuclear-armed nation would not be desirable. But why should it be considered to be unacceptable?

There are now thousands of nuclear weapons in the world, possessed by 9 different countries. We survived the cold war period during which the Soviet Union targeted our cities with devastating missiles. India and Pakistan have clashed with conventional weapons after both countries went nuclear, refraining from the use of their nuclear weapons. Despite a lot fuming and fussing, we are managing to live with the fact that North Korea has joined the nuclear club.

While Iran has supported armed fighters outside its borders, it has not initiated a war for several centuries. Iran has been a good deal less bellicose than the US, the only country to use an atomic bomb. The US has supported armed fighters outside its borders—in more than one situation during the past six decades, and has attacked more than a half dozen countries since WW II, and killed people in several others).

Skepticism about the wisdom of an attack on Iran by Israel and/or the US has been expressed by high level recently retired Israeli military leaders and analysts. The views of an Israeli-American scholar, who has written extensively about nuclear weapons, support this skepticism [Cohen].

Of course, any nation is entitled to use force to defend itself against an attack by another nation. It might also be acceptable under international law to initiate violent defensive measures in response to an imminent attack by another nation, altho there may be disputes about exactly what constitutes imminence.

But an attack cannot be justified by a claim that the victim has acquired the means for attacking another nation. This would, under any reasonable interpretation of international law, be considered an act of aggression. Such an argument would legitimate an attack on the US by any nation, since we obviously are capable of attacking any other nation. Of course it is even more indefensible to attack a nation on the grounds that it is planning to acquire the means for attacking another nation a few years from now.

Nobody can predict what the specific consequences of an attack on Iran would be, but it is hard to believe that the price would not be high.


Avner Cohen, "Israel Fears Losing Nuclear Monopoly, Talks of War with Iran", Al-Monitor, Feb 14, 2012

Juan Cole, "Khamenei Takes Control, Forbids Nuclear Bomb", juancole.com, 03/04/2012

Richard Engel, Robert Windrem, "Israel teams with terror group to kill Iran's nuclear scientists, U.S. officials tell NBC News" NBC News, Feb 9, 2012

Ali Gharib, "Bolton Calls Iran Assassination And Sanctions 'Half-Measures,' Calls For 'Attack' On Iran", Think Progress, Jan 11, 2012

Glenn Greenwald, "CNN on the Iran threat", Salon.com, Jul 16, 2012

Glenn Kessler, "Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be 'wiped off the map'? ", Washington Post, 10/05/2011

Mark Landler, "Obama Says Iran Strike Is an Option, but Warns Israel", NY Times, March 2, 2012

PBS, "General Article: The Iranian Hostage Crisis", PBS.org

Scott Peterson-MEK, "Iranian group's big-money push to get off US terrorist list", The Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2011

Scott Peterson-Warnings, "Imminent Iran Nuclear Threat? A Timeline Of Warnings Since 1979", Information Clearing House, January 09, 2012

Bruce Riedel, "The Last Time We Fought Iran", The Daily Beast, Jul 6, 2012

David E. Sanger, "Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran", NY Times, June 1, 2012

Mary Beth Sheridan, William Branigin, "Senate ratifies new U.S.-Russia nuclear weapons treaty", Washington Post, December 22, 2010

Wikipedia-IRAQ, "United States support for Iraq during the Iran—Iraq war", Wikipedia

Wikipedia-IRAN, "Sanctions against Iran", Wikipedia

Wikipedia-NK, "North Korea and weapons of mass destruction", Wikipedia

Wikipedia-NPT, "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons", Wikipedia

Wikipedia-SA, "South Africa and weapons of mass destruction", Wikipedia

Wikipedia655, "Iran Air Flight 655", Wikipedia

Robert Wright, "Obama's Drift Toward War with Iran", The Atlantic, Jun 14, 2012

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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