The Middle Eastern nation’s Islamic regime had been working on nuclear weapons for several years. European companies provided technical expertise and hardware for the nuclear reactors in spite of diplomatic attempts to keep them from doing so. Finally, scant months before the reactor was scheduled to go on line, the Israeli air force launched a surgical strike. Flying their F-16 Falcons farther than the manufacturer believed to possible without air-to-air refueling, the Israeli pilots achieved complete surprise. Their bombs totally destroyed the reactor and they escaped without any losses to the attacking planes.
This may sound like a fictional attack against present-day Iran, but the attack described above actually took place almost thirty years ago. On June 7, 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor being built by the French. The raid was internationally condemned at the time, but if it had not happened, Saddam Hussein would have possessed nuclear weapons when he invaded Kuwait ten years later. A nuclear armed Iraq would have made liberating Kuwait much more difficult.
Now history seems to be repeating itself again. Iraq’s old nemesis and an avowed foe of Israel, Iran, is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. Since the Iranian government revealed in 2003 that it was in the process of developing technology to enrich uranium, a necessary step in building a nuclear weapon, all diplomatic efforts to suspend the Iranian nuclear program have failed. In fact, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed on April 11, 2006 that Iran succeeded in enriching uranium at a facility in Natanz.
The seeds of war with Iran were planted in 1979 when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a revolution against the corrupt government of the Shah, Reza Pahlavi. The United States had a long relationship with Iran, beginning with a CIA plan that aided the Shah in retaining power after Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh attempted to seize control of the country in 1953.
Mossadegh had nationalized oil companies operating in Iran. Upon returning to power, the Shah contracted with a consortium of eight western oil companies to operate Iranian oil fields. The Shah used Iran’s oil revenues to create a modern military that, the American government hoped, would help to stabilize the Middle East and keep the Soviet Union at bay.
Unfortunately, the Shah’s government became increasingly repressive. Iran’s majority Shiite population disapproved of the westernization that came with Iran’s oil wealth. The Shah used his military to crack down on protesters and dissidents. Iran’s secret police, the SAVAK became infamous for its brutal methods. In 1978, the son of the Ayatollah Khomeini died at the hands of the SAVAK. The Iranian Revolution started two months later. In January 1977, President Jimmy Carter had called the Shah “an island of stability” in the Middle East. Almost exactly two years later, the Shah fled Iran. Two weeks after that, Khomeini returned from exile and established an Islamic Republic.
Since the Revolution, Iran has been a prominent supporter of terrorism throughout the world.
The new government assumed control of a secret nuclear weapons program begun by the Shah. This reactor, located in Bushehr, was totally destroyed by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. This did not stop Iran from working with Syria, Libya, and North Korea to create a nuclear weapon in order to counter Israel’s nuclear capability.
In 1995, Iran contracted with Russia to build a light water reactor at Bushehr under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. However, in February 2003, Iran removed the IAEA cameras and seals from its facilities and began the process of enriching uranium. All diplomatic efforts to convince Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment programs have failed.
Iran already possesses Russian Scud missiles with a range of over 300 miles. These missiles can be fitted with nuclear warheads. More disturbing, Iran is currently developing the Shahab (Emissary) 4 missile. The Shahab 4 would have a range of over 1200 miles, which would place both Europe and Israel within its range. Iran also intends to use the Shahab 4 to place satellites into orbit. Orbital capability would place Iran one short step away from an operational Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with a nuclear warhead. Such a missile would even threaten the United States.
An alternative strategy for a nuclear attack on the US involves launching a Scud from a cargo ship. Iran tested shipboard methods of launching Scuds as far back as the 1990s. In this scenario, a ship just off the US coast would launch a nuclear-armed Scud at American targets. Such an attack would give minimal time to intercept the missile or alert people in the target area to take cover, especially considering that the US has no permanent anti-ballistic missile (ABM) sites. The US and Poland plan a missile defense system in Europe, but no such system exists for the continental US.
The religious beliefs of Iran’s leaders make Iran’s nuclear developments all the more troubling. Iran’s ruling mullahs, as well as President Ahmadinejad, believe that the Mahdi, a kind of Muslim Messiah, will return to earth soon to usher in a period of Islamic rule. Devotees of the Mahdi believe that they can speed his return by creating a period of chaos in the world. President Ahmadinejad believes that he has a mandate to pave the way for the Mahdi’s return and often says so in his speeches, including a 2007 address to the United Nations.
In case there was any doubt about Iran’s intentions once it obtains a nuclear weapon, Ayatollah Hashemi-Rafsanjani made it clear in a 2001 speech. Rafsanjani is a former Iranian President and is currently the leader of one of Iran’s ruling administrative councils.
Rafsanjani stated that, “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave any thing in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” In other words a nuclear war would destroy Israel, but would not wipe out the Muslim world. He further said, “Jews shall expect to be once again scattered and wandering around the globe the day when this appendix is extracted from the region and the Muslim world.”
The combination of Iran’s apocalyptic religious leaders and high tech weapons is a threat that Israel and the West cannot afford to ignore. Accordingly, while the US has pursued diplomatic options, Israel has stated that Iran will not be allowed to gain nuclear weapons.
A strike on Iran’s nuclear program would be much more difficult than the strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, however. In addition to providing the Iranians with a nuclear reactor, Putin’s Russia is supplying them with air defense weapons. In 2007, Russia delivered Tor M-1 (SA-15) surface-to-air missiles to Iran. Russia has also contracted to deliver the advanced S-300 (SA-12).
Additionally, striking Iranian targets would be much more difficult logistically. Iraq’s program was concentrated south of Baghdad. In contrast, Iran has nuclear facilities at Bushehr, Esfahan, Arak and Natanz. With facilities spread out across the country, it would be very difficult to be certain of totally destroying the program. There may be other secret facilities buried underground that would not even be considered for attack.
An Israeli air attack would have to cross Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and US-occupied Iraq. The long distances involved would require air-to-air refueling, which would have to be accomplished at higher altitudes with large tanker aircraft. Given the high level of military activity in the area, it is likely that the strike force would be picked up on radar and would lose the element of surprise.
Since the United States occupies Iraq, the chances of a successful US strike are significantly higher than for Israel. US forces would not have to deal with the long distances and could successfully mount a surprise raid. The problem remains one accurately targeting and destroying all of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
If the US or Israel attacks Iran, there is little doubt that it would start a new war in the region. If the attack is unsuccessful, the war could escalate to a nuclear conflict since Iran might even already have a limited number of nuclear weapons. Even if the attack is successful, Iran might be convinced to launch a conventional attack on Iraq in retaliation.
If the US and Israel decide to wait and pursue further diplomacy, Iran will almost definitely join the nuclear club in the next few years. At that point, the country could become a suicide bomber on an international scale. Rafsanjani’s comments show that the leaders of Iran do not consider the loss of their country to be a deterrent if other Muslim nations survive, provided that Israel does not.
It is extremely likely that war with Iran is imminent no matter what action the United States and Israel take. Either we can launch a pre-emptive strike which may lead to full-scale war or we can wait for Iran to develop a weapon which they will very likely use. In either case, Ahmadinejad will have created the chaos that he believes will usher in the reign of the Mahdi.