Iran’s Nuclear Program—And the Possibility of a Military Strike

Apr 12, 2015 by

[This post was originally published on GeoCurrents in November 2013]

As the international community continues to put pressure on Iran in order to curb its nuclear program, numerous questions arise: Is Iran’s nuclear development program designed for peaceful energy uses or for military purposes? Just how close is Iran to producing a nuclear bomb? If Iran’s nuclear program presents an existential threat to Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview on November 17, 2013, why does he and others in his government, such as Naftali Bennett of the right-wing The Jewish Home party, continue to support of a diplomatic solution rather than a military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations, despite disagreeing with the US about the specific content of a deal? Is a military solution even feasible?


Although the international community began to rally in earnest against Iran’s nuclear program only in the early 2006, the program itself was born years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In fact, the revolution probably delayed rather than promoted Iran’s nuclear development. The Shah was fearful of the Soviet Union, which bordered on Iran, and wanted to position his country as a regional power. Thus, Iran’s earliest attempts to acquire nuclear capabilities were aimed against Moscow and made with the support of United States and Israel, in stark contrast to the post-revolutionary period when Iran continued to develop its nuclear capability with Russia’s help against the US and Israel. During the Shah’s regime, Israel signed a military agreement with Iran for the joint acquisition and manufacture of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. United States sold Iran its first small nuclear reactor, which was installed at Tehran University, in the mid-1960s. According to investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, “the Americans also provided 6.5 kilograms of uranium of a very high quality, almost weapons grade, for the reactor” (The Secret War with Iran, p. 316). Even after Iran was pressured into signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it purchased ten nuclear reactors from the United States, purportedly for the production of electricity. Even though the Shah may have been interested in alternative energy sources to replace oil if it ever ran out, he was certainly keen on military applications of nuclear technology. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was established under the Shah to pursue the Bomb. In 1974, the West German company Siemens started building two reactors near Bushehr, which were scheduled to become operational by 1981. In 1979, however, the Islamic Revolution threw a spanner into the works: payments from Iran ceased and construction at Bushehr stopped. The initial cessation of nuclear development was due to the post-revolutionary chaos, but shortly thereafter all the contracts with foreign companies were annulled. Khomeini declared the use of nuclear weapons “anti-Islamic” and spoke of American use of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “opposed to the spirit of Islam”. He even went as far as to issue a fatwa (a religious decree) “canceling the entire nuclear project and forbidding the production of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction” (Bergman, p. 317). Even the war with Iraq, which verged on disaster for Iran at times, did nothing to change Khomeini’s position on nuclear weapons.

The situation changed dramatically with Khomeini’s death in 1989, as his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei brought a more pragmatic view. In 1987, he announced a change in policy at a secret meeting of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran:

“Our nation has always been subject to external threats. The little that we can do to stand up to this danger is to make our enemies aware that we can defend ourselves. Accordingly, any step that we take here will serve the defense of our nation and your revolution.” (Bergman, p. 317).

Consequently, Iran made concerned efforts to restart its nuclear development program, although those efforts were kept secret from the world for years: only in February 2006 did Iran openly announce that Khomeini’s earlier anti-nuclear fatwa was being overturned. Beginning in 1989, Iran approached nuclear scientists who had left the country after the revolution, offering them huge amounts of money to come back and help “rebuild the motherland”. Attempts were also made to get Siemens come back and finish the construction at Bushehr, but the United States thwarted that plan.

At this point, Iran turned to an unexpected partner: Russia. In the chaos that emerged upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many Russian nuclear scientists lost their jobs and some were happy to work for as little as $1,000 a month, creating favorable conditions for Iranian recruiters. The brain drain from the former Soviet Union was accompanied by leakage of nuclear materials that was no longer adequately guarded. The collaboration with Iran was not, however, a purely individual initiative on the part of Russian scientists. The Russian Ministry for Atomic Affairs, MINATOM, jumped at the opportunity to deal with Iran, and in January 1995 it contracted to provide Iran with a reactor for electricity production to be erected at Bushehr, at a price tag of $800 million. Although this was supposed to be a light water reactor that could not be used to produce enough plutonium for weapons, three years later the Russians agreed to sell Iran a heavy-water reactor, allegedly “for research purposes”, as well as to build a heavy-water plant at Arak, which became operational in early 2006. Iran also purchased a large number of Russian antiaircraft missiles, including some S-300 missiles, considered among the most advanced in the world. These missiles have been deployed around the Bushehr site and other strategic targets. With the Russian help, Iran built an entire “nuclear city” at Bushehr, much of it underground. Finally, Moscow also helped Iran’s nuclear program on the political stage by blocking attempts by the international community to build a coalition against the Iranian nuclear program. But Russia may have been playing a more complicated game: according to Bergman, it is possible that “the Russians never intended to supply the Iranians with nuclear weapons or the means to make them” and were instead planning to concoct an excuse for not completing the work at Bushehr. Still, Iran was determined to forge ahead with its nuclear program, with or without Russia’s help.


How far has Iran advanced in its race to acquire a nuclear bomb? Bergman divides the path to nuclear weaponry into four stages. The first stage involves the mining and milling of the uranium ore and turning it into yellowcake. The Iranians have been working on this issue since the early 1990s, when uranium deposits were discovered in Saghand in central Iran. Early estimates pegged these deposits at 500,000 tons of natural uranium. In the mid-1990s intelligence reports indicated that Russia provided Iran with mining and uranium ore crushing technologies, as well as the necessary training for Iranian specialists. It is thus clear that Iran has mastered this part of the nuclear process successfully. The next stage involves uranium conversion, that is the transformation of the yellowcake into pure uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas. According to Bergman (p. 338), by 2008 Iran managed to “produce some 10 tons of the gas, enough for one and three-quarter bombs” at a plant in Isfahan. The third stage, the one at the crux of the current negotiations with Iran, involves the enrichment of uranium by “feeding the UF6 gas into clusters of connected high-speed centrifuges known as cascades. The circulation of the gas through the cascade increases the concentration of the uranium” (ibid). Several cascade installations have been built at Natanz, which house up to 50,000 centrifuges, a major upgrade since the first installation that involved 2,952 centrifuges in 18 cascades in mid-2008. The existence of another uranium enrichment site at Qom, southwest of Tehran, became apparent in 2009 (the map on the left is reproduced from Once an adequate stock of enriched uranium has been produced, the final stage involves the emplacement of the ball-shaped enriched uranium into the device that will start the chain reaction. The device consists of a number of charges around the uranium core that must be exploded at precisely the same time to implode the core inward. Intelligence reports suggested that such a device is being developed at the Parchin facility; inspectors from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have located a high-speed camera of the kind used in tests of the explosives found in implosion-type bombs at Parchin.

The discussion above highlights some challenges facing proponents of a military strike against Iranian nuclear installations. First, despite the continuing pressure on Iran to let IAEA inspectors see all Iranian nuclear installations, the information possessed by the international community—intelligence organizations, world leaders, and military planners—is far from complete. Because Iran did not admit to its nuclear plans until the February 2006 pro‑nuclear fatwa, it managed to make significant process in its nuclear development without international community scrutiny. Moreover, most of the intelligence information that reaches the CIA, the Mossad, and other Western intelligence organizations comes from satellite images, which are subject to interpretation; human intelligence (HUMINT) is meager, to say the least. The most important source of HUMINT about Iran’s nuclear program has been General Ali Reza Askari, who defected to the West in February 2007. A functionary in the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence unit and commander of the al-Quds force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guards responsible for exporting the Islamic Revolution, Askari left Iran as a result of internal power struggles in what Bergman calls “one of the most sensational defections in recent history” (p. 351). During a debriefing by the CIA, Askari revealed several crucial developments, which were later confirmed by another defector, the Iranian consul general in Dubai, Adel Asadinyeh, who was debriefed by the British intelligence. Among the revelations of Askari was the fact that Iran was trying to enrich uranium by means of laser treatment, a process even more difficult and expensive than the cascade process. The continuing search for alternative methods and the readiness of Iran to try something that had been tried by other countries without much success show that Iran is not counting pennies when it comes to its nuclear project—its leaders apparently want a bomb, and want it as soon as possible.


The second major challenge facing any possible military strike is the existence of the multiple nuclear sites in different parts of Iran. Unlike Israel’s bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 or its raid on the nuclear site at the Dir al-Zur in eastern Syria in 2007, a potential military strike on Iran’s nuclear program would require simultaneous attacks on multiple sites. Though some proposals call for bombing the Natanz, Arak, and Isfahan sites, such a strike would leave important installations at Parchin, Bushehr, Qom, the mines at Saghand and Yazd, and much more. (The map of Iran’s nuclear sites from does not show the Parchin site where stage 4 of the nuclear program is being conducted)





Even the minimal potential military operation would involve air strikes over three routes, as shown on the map on the left from the BBC website. The shortest route, of about 1,100 miles (1,750 km), would take Israeli aircraft over Jordan and Iraq to Natanz. The northern route, of about 1,400 miles (2,200 km), would take another group of aircraft over Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey to Arak and Isfahan. Finally, the southern route, of about 1,500 miles (2,4000 km), would go over the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and across the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has long been at odds with Tehran over what its government sees as a dangerous nuclear arms race in the region. According to a recent news report in the Sunday Times, Israel and Saudi Arabia are currently coordinating plans for a possible military strike. Riyadh has agreed to let Israel use its airspace in a military strike on Iran and to provide tactical support in the form of rescue helicopters, tanker planes, and drones.


Potential simultaneous air attacks over the three routes could be supplemented by strikes with Jericho III missiles, as shown on the second map on the left, taken from the South Asia Strategic Forum website.

Even if Israel could pull off such a coordinated massive strike, the potential repercussions of doing so constitute a third challenge for the proponents of a military strike solution. As satellite photos of the Natanz complex reveal, much of this huge facility is built underground, protected by meters-thick layer of reinforced concrete and antiaircraft batteries installed out of fear for exactly this sort of scenario. Moreover, Iran threatens to respond to a possible military strike by attacking not only the Israeli aircraft in its airspace but other Israeli and American interests in the region. As Iran has managed to carry out several successful launches of its Shihab 3 missiles with a range of 1,300 kilometers (over 800 miles), it could strike all of Israel and even parts of Europe. Just how serious the Iranian response might be is a matter of opinion: some analysts depict a horror scenario involving “a regional war, coupled with a closure of the Strait of Hormuz and a series of terror attacks”. The ex-IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, on the other hand, described in a recent issue of Strategic Assessment “five possible Iranian responses to a strike, ranging from total military restraint to full-blown regional war, and asserted that the most likely scenarios were two gradations of a limited response”. The first and the most likely scenario—“the classic reactive strategy”, as Yadlin called it—would be a tit-for-tat strike in which “a significant number of missiles would be launched from Iran and Lebanon in the direction of Dimona or any other target in Israel perceived as ‘nuclear-associated’,” Yadlin wrote. Another likely scenario would include “one or two missile volleys at Israeli cities, a strike against Saudi and Western interests in the Gulf, and air and sea suicide missions”. Besides a possible retaliation, the Iranians created yet another deterrent against an Israeli air strike by leaving in place civilian settlements in the vicinity of some of its major nuclear sites. Examples include two fishing villages on either side of Bushehr, Haleylah and Bandargaah.

Another significant challenge for a military strike comes from the fact that Iran has successfully outsourced some of its nuclear development to Syria and North Korea. The confirmation of this three-way nuclear partnership came from Askari’s revelations in early 2007, even though his knowledge of the details of the venture, all of which was conducted outside Iran, was relatively limited. Still, the information was crucial to the Western intelligence organizations because they had previously thought that Syria was not pursuing nuclear weapons, focusing its efforts instead on chemical warfare agents, such as sarin nerve gas and VX. Moreover, the former leader of Syria Hafez Assad “saw Iran as an important ally, but always took care not to be drawn too closely into its embrace”, as Bergman puts it (p. 353). The situation changed immediately after the presidency passed from Assad Senior to his son. Unlike his father, Bashar Assad has long viewed Hezballah as a role model and has been happy to deal with Iran. According to Bergman (p. 355), the first trilateral meeting took place on June 12, 2000, when the Iranian and North Korean delegations came to Damascus for the funeral of Hafez Assad. Secret meeting between the three sides then continued, mostly in Tehran. As a result, the following division of roles in the joint nuclear project has apparently been worked out: Syria would supply the territory (conveniently located close to Israel), Iran the money, and North Korea the expertise. In accordance with this plan, the Syrians began building a nuclear complex at Dir al-Zur. North Korean scientists arrived to Syria, as did uranium rods from the reactor at Yongbyon, which were to undergo radiation in the Dir al-Zur plant and then plutonium extraction. The plutonium was going to be processed into a bomb core and the warheads would be assembled at another plant, similar to the one in Parchin. One experts said that Syria “seem[ed] to have been too strapped for cash to get far” in its nuclear project; this is exactly where Iran came in, with its promises to finance the project to the tune of $1-$2 billion, according to various sources. The bombing of the Dir al-Zur complex by the Israeli air force on September 6, 2007 put a stop to these plans, and the photos taken at the site confirmed that “this was a nuclear reactor, that its purpose was the production of plutonium for the manufacture of atomic bombs, and that only in North Korea was there an identical reactor to the one destroyed in Syria” (Bergman, p. 362).

While Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been slowed down somewhat, it seems clear to most analysts that Iran is merely playing for time as it races towards the development of a nuclear weapon. A military strike could delay Iran’s nuclear bomb by a few years, but it would hardly end Iran’s nuclear quest once and for all. As Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror has recently reiterated, “Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear program militarily and can do so on its own”, but a military strike is not the easy solution that some hawkish analysts believe it to be.


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