Iran's Final Countdown - by Matt Gurney

On the brink of a nuclear standoff.


In a scene reminiscent of the Cuban missile crisis, President Barack Obama, flanked by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, stood grimly before the international community and confirmed Iran's shocking admission: Tehran has constructed a large, underground facility, buried in mountains near the holy city of Qom, for the production of enriched uranium.

The public admission apparently came after Iran was made aware that the United States had discovered the facility – the hows and whys of this reconnaissance feat are still unknown – sometime during the Bush administration. Iran, presumably attempting to “spin” the situation to its own advantage, beat the West to the punch and announced that the facility was under construction, but not yet operational. It appeared to be a calculated attempt to head off accusations of secrecy. How can the nuclear facility be a secret? We admitted it freely!

Iran has offered no explanation as to why this not-secret facility is buried inside a mountain. But of course it's buried to avoid detection, and to make it difficult to destroy. Iran has learned the lessons of two hard-knocks delivered to its Arab neighbors, Syria and Iraq. In 1981, Israeli aircraft destroyed the Iraqi nuclear production facility at Osirak. Two years ago, the Israelis destroyed a nuclear facility that was being built in Syria, possibly with the help of the North Koreans. The Iranians have studied these examples. Any air strike against the Qom facility will face much steeper odds than the last two.

The Obama administration finally seems to be moving towards some real action on this front. Speaking Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had it exactly right when she stated flatly that Iran no longer has any realistic hope of hiding their desire for a nuclear weapon behind the fiction of building a peaceful nuclear energy industry.

The fiction was always flimsy. Why would a country with enormous reserves of natural gas within its own borders spend tremendous sums of money on developing nuclear power plants? That inconvenient fact aside, the Iranians are now caught in the web of their own lies. If the facility is peaceful, why bury it under a mountain? The innocent have nothing to hide. In the words of Secretary Clinton, “It would have been disclosed if it were for peaceful purposes. The Iranians keep insisting no, no, that's for peaceful purposes. That's fine. Prove it. Don't assert it. Prove it.”

Strong words, even if they are four years late in coming. But whether strong words will lead to necessary action remains to be seen. The powerful symbolism of the British and French leaders standing behind the American president is meaningless without concrete action to end Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Some progress seems to have been made convincing other major powers to toe the Western line. Russia, appeased by President Obama's recent abandonment of his Polish and Czech allies, has offered early indications that it would be willing to get behind tough sanctions on Iran, though Russia's active cooperation should not be taken as a given, especially considering the lack of any statement from Vladimir Putin, widely considered the real power behind the Medvedev government.

China, too, is showing early signs of being willing to play ball with the Western allies. For years eager to develop Iran's oil fields for its own use, China has given Iran cover at the United Nations, allowing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to flaunt the will of the international community. The Chinese veto was Ahmadinejad's trump card: He knew that China would be on his side should any sanctions be debated by the Security Council. But Beijing, perhaps conceding that the evidence against Iran is too strong, or worried that Russia's potential realignment with Washington could leave it in the awkward position of being Tehran's only friend, seems ready to get tough with Tehran.

This week, America, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany will table a “transparency package” at a summit in Geneva. It will call for Iran to offer international inspectors total and unfettered access to its nuclear program. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned of “severe sanctions” should Iran refuse; given the political unrest already rocking the Iranian political system, Ahmadinejad may take the threat seriously.

To be truly effective, though, such sanctions would need to be broad-based and strictly enforced. There is no point in America imposing sanctions on goods that Tehran can just as easily purchase from China or Russia. Only a concerted international effort will be threatening enough to grab Tehran's attention. The extent to which Iran's credibility has been hurt by the Qom facility revelation is becoming clear: When even Moscow and Beijing are unwilling to play along with Iran's stalling tactics, they're going to need a new strategy.

So far, they seem to be pulling in both directions. Iran has signaled that it will open up the facility to international inspectors, but it has also fired off a salvo of short-range missiles in a demonstration of military prowess. While the missile test can be dismissed as mere posturing by the unpopular regime to wow its own population, the offer of accepting inspectors is worth considering.

The international community will have to work very closely together indeed to force the Iranians to comply and prevent the inspections from becoming a mockery, as in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. A unified Security Council, backed by Middle Eastern states and other influential countries such as Canada and Germany, can perhaps force Iran into compliance. The threat or actuality of sanctions will only be effective, of course, if Iran believes the international community to be resolutely united in seeing them enforced and maintained as long as necessary. Ahmadinejad will do his best to exploit any divisions in the international community that he can find, so presenting at least the impression of a united front will absolutely imperative.

Much is riding on the success of such as-of-yet hypothetical international pressure. The Qom facility, buried deep underground, would be an extremely difficult target to destroy in a military strike. While the capability exists, it is likely that only the United States would be able to demolish it using conventional weapons alone. Unless Israel has come into possession of numerous bunker-busting bombs (which is admittedly possible), the best it could likely hope for would be to damage the facility, thereby delaying Iranian progress. Whether or not Israel is willing to go to war merely to buy itself time is not clear.

But they may have to settle for such a strike. A round-trip attack into Iran would stretch Israel's warplanes to the very limit of their effective range, and since they would require midair refueling, the full weight of the Israeli Air Force could not be brought to bear (Israel does not have enough tankers to support its entire fleet of warplanes at the same time). Given the realities of being forced to use a reduced number of planes operating at the outer limits of their range, carrying less tonnage in bombs to make room for more fuel, Israel might have to seriously question whether or not they can be confident in their ability to destroy their targets using only a few dozen conventional bombs.

That leaves only one option. Instead of relying upon dozens of conventional bombs, strike with a small handful of nuclear warheads. A nuclear strike would certainly obliterate the target, but would also send a plume of radioactive debris over the city of Qom. Given its population of over a million and cultural and religious importance to Iran, Israel would have to carefully consider the implications of such a strike. This is not to say it should be ruled out, but merely to make clear that the nature of the Qom facility has significantly narrowed the options for a military solution.

For now, Israel has indicated its willingness to await further diplomatic developments. But the international community must act fast. If the world can't produce clear and decisive results through diplomacy, and if Iran continues to inch closer to a bomb, the nightmare scenario of a Middle Eastern nuclear confrontation may yet come to pass.