Despite on-again, off-again rumors of an American or Israeli airstrike against Iran, considerable challenges remain for carrying out such a campaign. Among them is the problem of gathering and sifting through the intelligence on Iran's nuclear efforts while Tehran engages in a concerted effort to deny and deceive. It all turns on the unknowns.
Talk of an American air campaign against Iran to degrade the country's nuclear efforts has surfaced and resurfaced for years now. One of the reasons such a campaign has not happened, despite the preponderance of American air power, is Tehran's extensive list of retaliatory options. Sitting astride one of the world's biggest energy bottlenecks, Iran could mine the Strait of Hormuz and target supertankers with anti-ship missiles. It could also use its influence in Iraq to destabilize the country and its proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to stir up trouble for Israel (and even conduct terrorist strikes around the world). But just as important a consideration for a potential air campaign is the problem of intelligence and targeting. Tehran watched how the international community — the United States and Israel in particular — dealt with Saddam Hussein's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. The lessons of Israel's strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and the series of U.S. air campaigns from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 were not lost on Iran. In pursuing its nuclear efforts, Tehran has sought not only to harden key facilities and build more redundancy into its program but also to obscure those efforts and deceive those who are watching. This presents a series of critical problems for the international community: how to destroy hardened facilities, how to assemble a target set and how to parse through Iran's sophisticated deception operations.
In the late 1980s, Hussein was able to build a series of bunkers outside Baghdad to withstand the United States' most capable conventional bunker-buster warhead, which was then the BLU-109. In 1991, early in the six-week air campaign of Desert Storm, the United States discovered that its concerns were well founded. The BLU-109s, fitted with precision guidance kits, were not succeeding in destroying these bunkers. Over the course of two weeks, and in the midst of the air campaign, the U.S. Air Force and the American defense industry were able to design, build, test and deploy in combat the BLU-113 hard-target penetrator, which did the trick against Hussein's bunkers. This is a lesson now nearly two decades old: Considerable additional hardening must be built into any facility if it is to have a chance of withstanding sustained bombardment. Of course, any nuclear facility Iran was going to invest significant resources in would be designed or retrofitted principally with an American attack (or an Israeli attack with American weapons) in mind, so the documented capabilities of the U.S. bunker-busting arsenal would be a principal design consideration. Indeed, unlike Iraq, Iran has mountainous terrain, which is far more appropriate for burying facilities than the desert terrain of Iraq. Nevertheless, prudence and the Iraqi example would both argue for considerable additional hardening to account for a potentially classified and more powerful American weapon and to prepare for developments down the road. (click image to enlarge) One such improvement now under development — and likely to be accelerated — is the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). The MOP offers impressive new capabilities in terms of destroying hardened and deeply buried facilities, and it will undoubtedly leave Tehran more concerned about the security of its facilities. But even the MOP has operational limitations. In any case, even if development is accelerated and goes smoothly, the MOP will not be deployable until the summer of 2010. And at that point, the United States may have only a few in its arsenal — perhaps not enough for multiple attempts to destroy multiple facilities. (While the example of the BLU-113 certainly argues for an American ability to accelerate efforts in times of crisis, it is not clear how much more could be squeezed out of the MOP development program or what the maximum production capacity might be; unlike the BLU-113, the MOP's principal design consideration has not been expediency.) Ultimately, the problem comes down to the unknown. Despite its formidable arsenal and ability to project air power, the United States simply does not know to what extent Iran has hardened its nuclear facilities. And this makes it difficult for the United States to have a high level of confidence in embarking on an air campaign against those facilities.
The Target Set
Some of Iran's nuclear facilities are indeed large, fixed and readily identifiable — this is an inescapable reality for a nuclear program. Even when air-defense assets are dedicated to such facilities, the assets and facilities remain vulnerable to air power. This is particularly true of the industrial-scale facilities that are ostensibly involved in Iran's civilian nuclear power program. Though there is significant crossover between civilian and military efforts in nuclear development, the capability to enrich uranium on a scale sufficient to fuel a reactor capable of generating a gigawatt of power requires large facilities that are generally connected to an established transportation and power infrastructure, which cannot be completely hidden from the prying eyes of space-based reconnaissance satellites. And space-based reconnaissance is a foundational strength of American intelligence. Some of Iran's facilities, like centrifuge halls at Natanz, are thought to be buried and significantly hardened. The reactor at Bushehr, however, is above ground and vulnerable to even conventional bombing. But while some significant targets in Iran are readily identifiable and unmovable, many are not. Research and development associated with a limited, clandestine nuclear weaponization effort can be smaller and better concealed than industrial-scale facilities for nuclear-power generation. Some work can be conducted out of completely unrelated research facilities, and other work may even be possible to do in multiple places with a minimal trail for satellites to track. Work on the lensing of high-quality explosives necessary for an implosion-type warhead, for example, need not entail a massive, high-profile facility. Moreover, to truly degrade a nuclear program, it is perhaps even more important to target the actual human expertise — the individual scientists and engineers — who make it all happen. Finding out who and where these people are at any given time depends on other forms of intelligence-gathering. This is not to underestimate American intelligence capabilities. U.S. space-based assets, imagery and analysis are the most advanced in the world. But imagery is only one component of the intelligence collection process, and must be complemented by other sources of information, especially when it comes to identifying what goes on within a facility deep inside Iran. Unfortunately for Washington, its human-source network in Iran is not thought to be very strong. Though complemented by what is almost certainly a more robust Israeli human-intelligence effort in Iran, the U.S. effort still must confront the challenges of Iranian deception and counterintelligence. Any human intelligence collection effort faces complex challenges, and deception is always one of them. And Iran has developed particularly sophisticated methods and capabilities over the years, since the United States essentially lost its awareness on the ground in Iran in 1979 with the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic republic. Overall, Iran has invested considerable effort in obscuring the true nature and status of its nuclear program, almost certainly pushing beyond efforts to physically conceal its facilities to actively and creatively generating misinformation about it. The challenge for an air campaign, then, is not simply tracking down the hidden facilities but dealing with the fact that any one piece of intelligence on the Iranian program may not be accurate at all.
Iran commands capable and robust domestic and foreign intelligence services as well as internal security organs. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, the new republic had to dismantle the Shah's intelligence agency, the SAVAK (an Israeli-trained organization); build its own from scratch (the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS); and, at the same time, suppress internal dissent. While still getting on its feet, the MOIS was quickly forced to react to the invasion by Iraq, and the agency cut its teeth as a foreign intelligence service during the eight bloody years of the Iran-Iraq War. During the war, Tehran also created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which, in addition to having land, air and naval forces, took on a major foreign intelligence role. Together, the MOIS and IRGC have cultivated an array of Shiite Islamist groups in Iraq and supported proxies in Lebanon (most notably Hezbollah) and the Palestinian territories (Hamas). With the support of Iranian intelligence, Hezbollah went from being a terrorist group to a militia and in recent years has emerged as a force more powerful than the armed forces of the Lebanese state. More recently in Iraq, Tehran has been able to effectively utilize its Shiite proxies to ensure Shiite consolidation of the government in Baghdad. Despite having had no official diplomatic relations with the United States since 1979, Iran was able to manipulate matters as far away as Washington. Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi Shiite politician in exile who was in close contact with the architects of the invasion of Iraq within the Bush administration, was used by Iran to channel intelligence about Iraq's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction to the administration that fit its case for war. Tehran did not orchestrate the war, but it certainly pushed information to Washington that supported the case for war. The precise means and methods Iran is now using to cloud its own nuclear efforts are only partially clear. Facilities have likely been disguised, inspectors have probably been misled and front companies are almost certainly acquiring materials from abroad clandestinely. But what rises above all the well-founded suspicions is an unequivocal sense that Iran has long cultivated a sophisticated knack for denial and deception that enables it to obscure the true shape and nature of its nuclear program.
Taken as a whole, Iran's efforts to both defend and obscure its nuclear program create a serious challenge for a U.S. air campaign. Tehran has dispersed the program across a country four times the size of Iraq with much more rugged terrain. With only a limited understanding of the status and disposition of the program and of Iran's efforts to weaponize it, and given the pervasive problem of Iranian disinformation, the United States will find it difficult to properly estimate what an air campaign might accomplish. Certainly the Iranian program can be degraded, but it is almost impossible to know how much. And because Iran has significant options for reprisal when it comes to an air campaign — asymmetric options that, for the most part, are difficult to degrade with air power — the question of carrying out such a campaign turns on the unknowns. If Iran's nuclear program can be set back for a decade or so, then the United States may be willing to endure the costs of halting the program as it reaches a critical stage. If, on the other hand, the program can only be set back a few years, then the costs of the strike may well outweigh the potential benefits. In this environment of uncertainty, it will be hard for the Obama administration, with so many other problems on its plate — including economic troubles that would be significantly exacerbated by an air campaign that leads to Iranian mines in the Strait of Hormuz — to push forward with strikes unless they are absolutely necessary. Iran's lengthy list of retaliatory options and the unknowns surrounding its nuclear program make "absolutely necessary" something of a nebulous threshold. And the resulting inertia of the problem suggests a tendency to withhold action until the last possible minute.