A military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would probably only delay the country's progress toward nuclear-weapons capability, according to a study that concludes that such an attack could backfire by strengthening Tehran's resolve to acquire the bomb.
The analysis by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security found that Iran's uranium facilities are too widely dispersed and protected -- and, in some cases, concealed too well -- to be effectively destroyed by warplanes. And any damage to the country's nuclear program could be quickly repaired.
"Following an attack, Iran could quickly rebuild its centrifuge program in small, easily hidden facilities focused on making weapon-grade uranium for nuclear weapons," said principal author David Albright, ISIS president and a former U.N. weapons inspector.
The study, scheduled for release today, is based in part on a comparison of Iran's known nuclear facilities with Iraq's Osirak reactor, which Israeli jets destroyed in a 1981 strike intended to curb Baghdad's nuclear ambitions. Although Israel struck a devastating blow against Iraq's program, a strike against Iran would be harder by several orders of magnitude, according to Albright and co-authors Paul Brannan and Jacqueline Shire.
The core of Iran's program is its huge uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, where thousands of machines called centrifuges create the uranium fuel used in making nuclear energy. Although Iran says its efforts are intended for peaceful energy purposes, its stocks of enriched uranium could be used to build nuclear weapons.
Last year, U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Iran had halted nuclear weapons research in 2003 but continued to expand its capabilities in ways that would allow it to develop such weapons quickly.
Despite heavy fortification, the subterranean Natanz plant could be heavily damaged in an airstrike using bunker-busting bombs or missiles. But the centrifuges could be replaced rapidly, perhaps in hidden underground facilities, the ISIS report said. Iran is known to have constructed bunkers inside mountain tunnels near Natanz and other major nuclear sites.
While Iran once relied on imported technology and parts to build its centrifuges, it is now largely self-sufficient. The manufacture of key components is dispersed among a number of government-controlled factories, while imported parts such as high-strength aluminum have been stockpiled over the past decade, the report notes.
Moreover, since 2006, when Iran began limiting access to its nuclear facilities by U.N. nuclear inspectors, Western governments can no longer say with certainty where some key facilities are located, ISIS said.
"Current knowledge of the complex is lacking," the report stated. "Without that knowledge, an attack is unlikely to significantly delay Iran's mastery of enrichment with gas centrifuges."
According to Albright, an Israeli or U.S. attack would result in broader popular support for Iran's ruling clerics and could lead Tehran to sever ties with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
"Iran would likely launch a 'crash' program to quickly obtain nuclear weapons," Albright said in an interview. "An attack would likely leave Iran angry, more nationalistic, fed up with international inspectors and nonproliferation treaties, and more determined than ever to obtain nuclear weapons."