The United Nations Security Council is expected to take up the issue of Iran's nuclear program next month. The debate will focus on how to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions. Some experts and officials are hinting at one option: a military strike against Iran.
The international debate on Iran's nuclear weapons program centers essentially on trying to forecast Tehran's intentions.
The United States and Europe believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But Tehran says its program is aimed at producing fuel for peaceful, civilian purposes.
Experts are divided as to exactly when Iran will be able to get the scientific knowledge to build nuclear bombs. Estimates vary from two to ten years.
While experts may disagree on when Iran will gain nuclear weapons, they do agree that Tehran is setting up facilities that will allow it to build such weapons. They say Iran is approaching the point where it can produce - on a large scale - enriched uranium. Low enriched uranium can be used for civilian nuclear plants - but highly enriched uranium can be used for a nuclear bomb.
For years, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been warning Iran to end its plans to enrich uranium - but with little success. Last month Tehran re-opened its Natanz uranium enrichment plant. That forced the I.A.E.A. to refer Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council. The Council is expected to discuss the issue next month.
As tensions rise between Iran and members of the international community, so does the rhetoric. Some Israeli and American politicians - as well as some Bush administration officials - have talked about keeping all options open - code words for a military strike.
Speaking last month in London Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice discussed the military option: “As to military issues, we have said that it is not on the agenda, because we believe that there is a lot of life left in the diplomacy. There is a diplomatic solution for the taking. After all, going to the Security Council is not the end of diplomacy, it is just diplomacy in a different, more robust context. But the president of the United States doesn't take his options off the table. And frankly, I don't think people should want the president of the United States to take his options off the table.”
Experts point to a precedent: the June 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear power plant. James Dobbins, security expert with the RAND Corporation, says while the military strike destroyed the plant, it did not end Iraq's nuclear program: ”Many people believe that accelerated the Iraqi nuclear program rather than retarded it. And it certainly didn't end it. After all, the United States believed - incorrectly as it turned out - that Iraq had a nuclear program as recently as 2003, when we invaded. So it certainly didn't end the threat.”
Many experts say one cannot compare the Israeli attack on one nuclear power plant and the current situation in Iran. They say the Iranians learned from the Iraqi experience at Osirak. Christopher Preble is a foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute.
“The challenge is that the Iranian nuclear program appears to be quite dispersed geographically throughout the country. It is co-located, in several instances, near population centers. And therefore, the notion of a surgical strike - if there even is such a thing - doesn't really apply in the case of Iran. And it is highly unlikely, and even the advocates of military action concede that it is highly unlikely that a military strike would completely destroy - completely and irreversibly destroy - the Iranian nuclear program,” says Preble.
One advocate of a military strike is Edward Luttwak, defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says a U.S.-led air attack needs only to demolish some critical installations to set back Iran's nuclear program for years: “This is the kind of thing that should be done in one night with gravity bombs right on top of it. The Iranians do not have air defenses that are any good. Their air force is worthless. Their surface-to-air missiles don't work, so you don't have to have a defense suppression campaign. For the sake of prudence you might concurrently attack one or two surface-to-air missile sites. Just to make the operation easier, you would use electronic countermeasures.”
Many experts caution against a military attack on Iran because unlike Iraq in 1981, Iran will retaliate. And Tehran will retaliate hard on a number of fronts.
Sammy Salama from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says Iran will see this as a declaration of war and Tehran will strike at Israeli targets and American troops: “The big fear is that Iranian intelligence officers, in southern Iraq, will in essence initiate a confrontation, a full blown confrontation between American troops in Iraq and western troops - that would be the British, of course - and the Iraqi Shia community.”
Experts also say Iran could respond by instigating terrorist attacks against U.S. installations around the world. But that doesn't deter Edward Luttwak. “They can retaliate in all kinds of powerful ways - no doubt about it. So the argument that they would hit back - which undoubtedly they would - is no reason not to attack them,” says Luttwak.
Many experts say the threat of a military strike against Iran could force Iran to the negotiating table. But a military strike per se should be considered only after all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted - and they say that is not the case right now. They say the United Nations and the I.A.E.A. must find a creative solution to avoid this crisis from spinning out of control.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.