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Iran’s Nuclear Sites Are Vulnerable, and Iran Can’t Deter an Attack—For Now

Weighed against the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, what risks is the United States willing to take?
September 8, 2022
Iran’s Nuclear Sites Are Vulnerable, and Iran Can’t Deter an Attack—For Now
A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows an Iranian flag in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

The state of Iran’s nuclear program is unclear. There are three possibilities: First, Iran doesn’t yet have a nuke but could relatively soon; second, Iran doesn’t have a nuke because it still doesn’t possess the knowledge; or third, Iran already has a nuke. What we do know is that Iran has enough uranium to build one nuclear weapon. Three consecutive administrations have declined to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities militarily despite the imminence of the threat for fear of stumbling into war. Their apprehension, along with the political failure and technical deficiencies of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, abetted the Islamic Republic’s efforts toward nuclear breakout. But the fear of war rests on a mistaken understanding of Iran, and there may still be time to ensure nonproliferation.

The strategy to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not unprecedented—nor is its failure. We tried a remarkably similar strategy with North Korea, a regime harder to predict and coerce, and which had some 25 million inhabitants of Seoul, including more than 100,000 Americans, as hostages to its conventional artillery. Striking North Korea would have been very risky. The strategy of negotiation, “strategic patience,” and alternating harsh sanctions with concessions didn’t work with North Korea, or when we tried them again on Iran.

Some would argue that it was worth repeating our previous failure to avert war. But—what war? In previous military encounters with the United States, Iran has given no indications that it has any appetite for escalation.

In 1988, an Iranian mine severely damaged USS Samuel B. Roberts while the ship was escorting a Kuwaiti oil tanker. The United States sank six of Iran’s twelve navy ships a month later. Iran didn’t retaliate. Rather, the operation contributed to the end of the Iran-Iraq War after eight years by making the regime in Iran nervous that the United States, which had been calling for an end to the war, would escalate its attacks. Ruhollah Khomeini made the decision grudgingly, calling it “a chalice of poison” he had to drink.

More recently, after an escalation of Iranian proxy attacks against the United States, in the early days of 2020, the United States killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s celebrity-general and one of the most important and powerful men in the country. Iran needed to save face domestically, so it had to retaliate. But fearful of escalation, it tipped off the American military in advance of the operation in an effort to avoid American casualties (though they ended up wounding several American service members anyway).

Then there is the third and ongoing precedent: Iran has mostly not retaliated against Israel despite all the Israeli sabotage operations inside Iran and direct attacks on Iran’s military in Iraq and Syria. (The most notable, possible exception was the strike in Erbil, Iraq, suspected to be against an Israeli intelligence base.) Moreover, most of the U.S. presence in the Middle East is in the Persian Gulf, and Iran’s influence there—including in Iraq—is diminishing.

The Islamic Republic has historically gone only as far as America has allowed it. The increase in its aggressive behavior—from killing hundreds of American military men and women in Iraq, to accelerating their nuclear weapons program, to downing a U.S. drone, to abetting a genocide in Syria, to attacking world’s largest oil facility in Saudi Arabia—has been because they have not met resistance. In the rare instances that America showed resolve, Iran pulled back.

The only realistic escalation concern between the two countries is that Iran might direct its proxies to attack American military assets and/or personnel in Iraq and Syria. In the small possibility that it happens, aren’t militia attacks a price worth paying to prevent a nuclear Iran?

There are operational objections to a military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. Some raise the specter of the Iraq War. This is piffle. No one is suggesting that we send 100,000 troops across the border. Striking isolated facilities with bombers and/or missiles would no more produce a quagmire than it did when the United States struck Libya in 1986 or Somalia and Afghanistan in 1998—or when Israel took out Syria’s nuclear site in 2007. The reason is clear: Iran is aware that fighting insurgency, not conventional war, is the weakness of the U.S. military. So if the Islamic Republic invites a conventional war in Iran, especially when it can’t count on the support of the Iranian people, it is committing suicide.

The other hesitation is that Iran’s facilities are too deep under the ground that dismantling them through air strikes might be impossible. There is a conflict of opinions about whether Israel has the capacity to strike Iran’s facilities that are buried under mountains. Furthermore, the Israeli Air Force would require multiple trips because it doesn’t have heavy bombers. The U.S. Air Force and Navy are significantly larger than their Israeli counterparts. In particular, the Air Force’s heavy bombers can strike more, wider, and deeper in a single trip. Unlike the small Israeli Navy, the U.S. Navy could strike Iran’s nuclear facilities from far away. And even if total destruction of every site isn’t an option, every tunnel has a mouth, and destroying the entrances to the sites would be enough to render them at least temporarily inoperable.

Total destruction of Iran’s nuclear program would be ideal, but even limited damage would be an asset. It would delay Iran’s acquisition timeline and strengthen America’s negotiating position.

Americans have painted a caricature of Iran, devoid of reality and informed by cowardice and ignorance, and they won’t let go of it. It’s been a quarter century since America found out about Iran’s nuclear program. The country has changed so much since, as has the scale of the program, but American strategy has not, despite its lack of results.

Attacking Iran is not risk-free. But the risks are negligible compared with the certain cost of inaction because they involve a leading state sponsor if terrorism, a weak regime teetering on the brink of a difficult leadership transition while losing the loyalty of its people, developing nuclear weapons.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.