Iran has always claimed its nuclear ambitions are for peaceful purposes. Clandestine nuclear enrichment plants and blocked inspections of some nuclear facilities are good reasons to question those claims. Add to those an Iranian leadership with apocalyptic language and terrorist sponsorship in an already volatile region and the results could be catastrophic.
That is why the UN Security Council passed its fourth round of sanctions against Iran on June 9, with the United States three weeks later passing its toughest sanctions yet against the rogue state.
Will Iran now halt its uranium enrichment program and open all facilities to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)? Many analysts are doubtful and "Plan C" is being discussed, debated, and undoubtedly prepared for should the United States decide it's necessary. And in the aftermath of the Obama administration's failed diplomacy attempts with Iran in 2009 and 2010 and sanctions that are garnering little optimism, some say Israel has a plan of its own.
Iran's nuclear strides
Developments over the past 10 months in Iran's nuclear enrichment program have increased concerns even among those previously undaunted by the flagrant actions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cronies.
On Sept. 25, 2009, President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed the discovery of a clandestine underground nuclear facility near the Iranian city of Qom. And on Feb. 25, 2010, Iran announced that its nuclear plant in Natanz had begun enriching small amounts of uranium to 20 percent-levels Iran claims will be used to fuel a reactor that makes medical isotopes but others say puts the country on the fast track to acquiring a nuclear bomb.
An IAEA report released just days prior to Iran's jolting admission claims that the country's secret programs were operational beyond 2004-several years longer than previously believed-and that they were actively seeking a nuclear weapon.
No one knows how long it could take Iranian scientists to sprint to the finish line. The IAEA's May 31 report claims that Iran now has enough nuclear fuel to make two bombs if they start enriching to 90 percent purity, the level necessary for a nuclear weapon. Iran's recent jump from enriching to 4 percent purity (enough to run nuclear power reactors) to 20 percent purity is cause for concern but not yet proof that Iran is in the final stages.
And although the Natanz plant just added a second set of centrifuges (cylinders that operate like the drum of a washing machine to enrich the uranium), the enriched fuel must then be turned into reactor fuel rods, a complex process some doubt Tehran could master. Some experts say that if they can, Iran could have a nuclear bomb in three to five years. On June 27, CIA Director Leon Panetta said it would only take about two years.
Will Israel strike?
The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran has haunted Israelis for decades, and talk of an Israeli attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities has been circulating for several years.
Israel put a stop to Iraq's nuclear ambitions when it bombed the Osirak reactor near Baghdad in 1981, completely destroying it in less than two minutes. A clandestine attack on a North Korean--backed nuclear site in Syria several years ago is also credited to an Israeli military campaign and has raised the question of similar tactics being deployed against Iran.
President Obama was asked during an Israeli television interview in early July if he thought Israel was planning a surprise attack against Iran. "I think the relationship between the United States and Israel is sufficiently strong that neither of us try to surprise each other," the president responded.
But reports that Obama has withheld weapons contracts to Israel and redirected a shipment of arms on its way to Tel Aviv in March have drawn criticism among some members of Congress and speculation that the Obama administration is trying to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.
Meyrav Wurmser, director of Hudson Institute's Center for Middle East Policy, said Israel was ready and able to attack Iran but chose not to primarily because it "was afraid of the American reaction." She says Israel is "hoping to draw the U.S. closer to agreeing with an Israeli attack."
An Israeli air attack would likely involve flying over U.S.-controlled airspace and a 600-mile trek, but military analysts say Israel could decide to launch intermediate-range ballistic missiles instead. In May, Israel deployed three Dolphin-class submarines armed with nuclear cruise missiles to the Persian Gulf.
Iran has more than a dozen known nuclear facilities, and any attack on these sites will only push their nuclear endeavors back one to three years, the majority of analysts say, but that could be just enough time to avert a nuclear crisis.
Obama's shifting tactics
President Obama's warm welcome to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early July came as a surprise to those who had been following the growing rift between the two leaders in recent months. Netanyahu was shunned during his March visit to the White House during which press pictures were banned and Obama cut short his time with the leader to dine with his family. The U.S. president has been unhappy with Netanyahu's unwillingness to halt settlement building in the West Bank, a concession Obama deemed necessary to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
This time the leaders affirmed the "unshakable" bond between the United States and Israel-an about-face some attribute to pre-November campaign tactics.
During this same week, three U.S. senators met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and one of the three, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., claimed that "the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is back on track."
Joint concern over how to deal with Iran may also being pulling the two allies back to common ground as both nations realize that cooperation is essential to neutralizing Iran's agenda. "It is unacceptable for Iran to possess nuclear weapons, and we are going to do everything we can to prevent that from happening," Obama said during the Israeli television interview.
The three senators emphasized the importance of giving sanctions against Tehran a chance to sink in but acknowledged that military options should remain on the table. And if military action is deemed necessary, the regime should be dealt a solid blow, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: "I think it would be in the world's interest to make sure this regime's ability to strike back is neutered. There should not be a plane that can fly, a ship that can float, and their Revolutionary Guard should be greatly diminished."
The risks of a military strike are many: subverting a potential regime change from within, a radioactive cloud in the aftermath of an attack on nuclear facilities, and the potential for high civilian casualties. But if sanctions fail to deliver, the options will greatly diminish. And while evidence suggests that many Arab states would tacitly approve of an attack against Iran, most wouldn't have the strength or stability to resist the influence of an Iranian regime catapulted to superpower status by the acquisition of a nuclear bomb. And that is the fallout without Iran hitting the launch button.
World leaders will undoubtedly face tough decisions in the months to come.
A nine-page article in the United States Army's official magazine, Military Review, suggests a less promulgated course of action against Tehran: an attack on Iran's non-nuclear military assets.
George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni argues that Iran has learned from prior Israeli attacks on nuclear sites to build its facilities in mountainous caves or encased in massive walls of cement. Some are built in highly populated areas and others are in secret locations.
He claims an attack on non-nuclear sites would be more effective and would result in significantly fewer civilian deaths than targeting nuclear facilities, and he proposes that civilians be warned in advance.
Etzioni suggests the secret police complex in the middle of Tehran as one possible target: "If that building can be taken out and some of the secret police can be killed-they're the kind of people who torture and rape their dissenters-I don't think many people will cry about it." Other potential targets include the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guard, naval vessels, and air defense installations.
Critics of Etzioni's proposal say such an attack is the equivalent of launching a full-scale war against Iran. Etzioni told me that the notion of having a "nice little limited war" by hitting Iran's nuclear sites and going home is "unimaginable."
Etzioni believes halting Iran's nuclear ambitions is essential: "So if we're not going to stand up to Iran, we may as well go home and forget about in any way being an international player. If Iran is going to go nuclear, I don't see what is going to keep Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Libya from going the same way. We are at a turning point here." He says we can still save the "nuclear abstinence club."