Let us bet on the fact that nobody will bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, at least for quite a while. There is no Iranian nuclear test in the offing. Up to now, the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have uncovered no diversion of declared stocks of uranium for use in a nuclear explosive device. Of course, clandestine activities could always take place in some remote places of the vast Iranian territory, undeclared to the inspectors of the Vienna Agency. Let us even assume that such activities are actually taking place. Could they bring Iran, without being detected, at a distance of just a few screwdriver turns from the bomb? There is a big gap between paper and computer work as well as laboratory-scale experiments on one side, and the full-scale production of materials and equipment required for a nuclear arsenal on the other. The former can be easily hidden, the second is much harder to conceal. In the history of nuclear proliferation, the only surprises to the outer world have been the first Russian test in 1949 – though one could guess that it would happen sooner or later –, and the 1974 Indian nuclear test. But the world was then more naïve, and the methods of collecting information on such programs much less sophisticated: no observation satellites, no electronic eavesdropping… Recently, the progress of Pakistan or North Korea towards the bomb could be closely monitored, and the upcoming of their first tests was hardly a surprise for people concerned.
How can Iran come close to the bomb? It has only two practical ways at its disposal: expel the IAEA inspectors, as North Korea did, and use its formerly declared facilities, Natanz and Fordow, to produce the necessary highly enriched uranium. This, of course, would amount to a formal declaration of intention to produce a nuclear engine and the following period would become for Iran a zone of all dangers. North Korea is immune from strikes on its nuclear facilities because of China's protection. But Iran is a lonely country. It is doubtful that Russia would rush to its help, once assured that the Bushehr nuclear plant that it has fathered would be left untouched.
The second way would be to develop a wholly clandestine program starting with the extraction of uranium ore, followed by the production of the uranium concentrate called yellow cake, then its conversion into gaseous form, and finally its enrichment up to 90%. All of this through industrial processes treating hundreds of tons of ore, dozens of tons of natural uranium ready for enrichment, and tons for low enriched uranium in store for higher enrichment. There would be thousands of centrifuges spinning underground for months and years. Plus all the experiments to be conducted around the engineering of the bomb. Such a vast and multi-faceted program would run indeed a high risk to be uncovered long before approaching its ultimate goal.
This assessment has been amply endorsed by the main intelligence services, American, European and Israeli alike. But things become more intricate when one claims it has the right, not only to stop Iran from acquiring the bomb, but to prevent it from acquiring the technical and scientific prerequisites for producing a nuclear engine. Assessments become inevitably hazier, the zone of uncertainty expands, anyone can produce its own definition of the forbidden threshold and decide to act accordingly. This is where we stand today.
And from such a slippery position, things could fairly easily go astray. In the United States, the Congress could, one vote after another, funnel the Administration into ever narrowing straits. A presidential candidate pledging to bomb Iran could get elected. In Israel, a difficult internal situation could confer a fresh appeal to some demonstration of strength. The destruction of the Iraqi reactor Tammuz took place in 1981 three weeks before an election that Menahem Begin was bound to loose. And there is always the risk of a major unexpected event in the like of September 11 or the Arab Spring, introducing in current games a new paradigm. In the spring of 2001, the U.S., Britain and Canada had come to the conclusion that the comprehensive sanctions imposed for a decade upon Iraq were producing little effect on the regime but dire consequences for the population. They proposed the Security Council to replace them by smart, better targeted sanctions. This should have signaled the beginning of the end of the Iraqi crisis. In came the Twin Towers attack. The smart sanctions were finally approved by the Security Council in May, 2002. But at this time, the chariots of war had already entered Afghanistan and were rolling towards Iraq.
Thus, crises getting out of hand start begin as crises that the main actors believe they can control. This painful conclusion brings us to try to imagine what could be the results and the consequences of a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
The Fordow enrichment plant is widely believed to be the place chosen by Iran to produce, would it take such a decision, enough uranium enriched to 90% for one or two bombs per year. It would therefore be the first target of a strike. Buried under some 300 feet of rock, it can accommodate about 3,000 centrifuges. The last IAEA report confirms that Fordow has started at the end of 2011 to enrich uranium up to 20%. This percentage is considered to be the upper limit of low enrichment. Uranium produced in Fordow is supposed to end up fueling the small research reactor sold by the Americans to the Iranians in the late sixties. It seems difficult, even with "bunker busters" to reach and destroy the heart of a facility so deeply buried in the mountain. Only nuclear tactical bombs could do the job. Of course, the access to the facility would be brought to collapse. The centrifuges, which are fragile devices, would suffer serious damages under the secondary effects of the explosions. All of this would take months, perhaps one or two years to repair. Another solution would be to transfer the undamaged and repairable centrifuges to others, even more remote places. Production would be significantly delayed, but the setback could be absorbed in the medium term.
The Isfahan conversion facility and the Natanz enrichment facility, built on plain, open ground, would suffer much heavier damages. The Iranians could then feel happy to have built at least one of their nuclear facilities underground. For years, they have been under regular threats of strikes over their nuclear facilities, and pressed simultaneously to keep all of them above ground, as so many goats used as baits for the tiger.
Of course, one hopes that the Bushehr power plant would be left aside from any planning against Iranian nuclear facilities. It has already started producing electricity and its nuclear heart is therefore highly radioactive. Its destruction could very well produce a Fukushima- type accident on the shore of the Persian Gulf, which forms a closed sea.
And about the response of Iran, what forms could it take? Considering the serious shortcomings of the Iranian army, navy and air force, on can hardly imagine Iran taking the risk to enter into some kind of conventional war with any of its neighbors of the Persian Gulf. Any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz could not be sustained over a few days. Iran could shoot a few dozen missiles equipped with conventional warheads towards Israel. This would be a painful act of vengeance, but with no strategic consequences. It could ask the Hezbollah to unleash the stockpile of hundreds, and probably thousands of missiles of different types accumulated with its help since the end of the last war in Lebanon. But the Hezbollah could very well end up fully destroyed in the new war which would follow.
What about a covert war of terror in Europe, in the United States and beyond? Apart from the rather unconvincing recent episodes taking place in Georgia and in India, it appears that there have been no terrorist activities coming from Iran or its friends in the last fifteen years. Of course, there was also the recent assassination attempt of the Saudian ambassador in Washington. But the investigation of the case does not seem to progress. The main suspect has finally refused to plead guilty. Passed the initial political declarations and the vote of a resolution pointing at Iran by the United Nations General Assembly, the interest in the case seems to have been waning.
There is one form of vengeance little spoken of, that Iran could activate in full respect of the Law. This would be to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article 10 of this international agreement states: «Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country." If a strike came from Israel, it would be indeed an extraordinary event to see a country alien to the NPT, and having no nuclear facility controlled by the IAEA, bomb the nuclear facilities of an NPT Party, placed under permanent control of the Agency, and from which no diversion of nuclear material has been ever signaled. If the strike came from the United States, we would see an NPT Party authorized to keep a nuclear arsenal destroying the facilities of another member of the same Treaty, committed not to acquire the bomb, and from the time being having no bomb at all.
What would be the legal consequences of such a withdrawal? Iran would still have the duty to keep all its nuclear existing facilities, whatever the damages inflicted, as well as the fissile material already produced, under the control of the IAEA. Indeed, the Safeguards Agreements contracted by the Agency have no link whatsoever with membership of the signatory country to the NPT. On the other hand, all new nuclear facilities, all newly produced fissile material, would escape from IAEA controls. New facilities could be deeply buried, or dispersed in the vast Iranian territory, or hidden in urban landscapes. Deprived of the capacity to inspect these facilities, the international community would loose a precious source of information on the Iranian nuclear program. Last and most important consequence, Iran would regain the freedom to detain a nuclear arsenal, as India, Pakistan or Israel.
Could we then assist to a wave of withdrawals from the NPT coming from neighboring countries rightfully worried by a nuclear Iran, like Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia? Such an outcome is possible, but not certain. The United States would deploy all its efforts to convince them to remain in the community of the Treaty members, even at the expense of enhanced military guarantees.
Let us follow up the track of an Iran rid of NPT constraints. Save for a Regime change, Iran, after healing its wounds, would be able to produce a first bomb in about two to three years. It would then have to learn to miniaturize and to harden this first device in order to produce deliverable nuclear weapons. Another five to ten years, at least, would be needed to put together a budding nuclear arsenal. Then comes the big question : thus equipped, would Iran be tempted to destroy Israel?
As the former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hussein Mousavian was recently reminding in several interviews, nuclear strikes over Israel could very well kill almost as many Palestinians as Jews. A land considered as especially holy by the Islamic Republic would be polluted for centuries to come. And, of course, the inevitable retaliation coming from Israel, and most probably from the United States, would produce even more dramatic consequences for Iran.
Another more likely hypothesis would be that the enemies of Israel, comforted by the existence of an Iranian nuclear umbrella, would be encouraged to create unending difficulties for the Jewish State. But in such a case, Iran would become the hostage by its own friends. It could very well find itself driven against its will into some diplomatic, and then military escalation. It is doubtful that Iran would light-heartedly contemplate such a perspective, knowing too well that, for decades to come, strikes it could inflict could hardly be compared with the ones it could receive.