Article in Politics / International / Middle East
Military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be absurd and counter-productive. A military attack from the air could not destroy all of Iran’s nuclear capability. It would be much more sensible to move forward by negotiations without preconditions.
<p>The war against Iran's nuclear program has already begun</p>

In March 2012, Iran will hold an important election, perhaps the most crucial one it has ever had. The world’s attention is, however, mainly focused on Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran insists that this is for peaceful purposes only; western powers believe that Iran has ambitions to fabricate nuclear weapons.

Last November, the US, Canada and the UK announced new sanctions against Iran following the report from the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which said that the Agency has ‘credible’ evidence that Iran had experimented with nuclear-weapons design. (1). In addition, the US is freezing Iranian central bank assets and imposing an embargo on oil exports. But Iran was not referred to the UN Security Council because Russia and China were opposed to the move. Iran dismisses the threat of sanctions.

Covert attempts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme

Arguments are intensifying in both Israel and the USA about the need for a military attack to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme. At the moment a covert programme of assassinations, cyberattacks, and bombings is underway in an attempt to slow down Iran’s nuclear activities. Many experts believe that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency is mainly responsible for carrying out these attacks, which include the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Israel has a history of assassinations dating back to, for example, the killing in 1972 of the Palestinians involved in the Munich Olympic attack on Israeli athletes. The US CIA, however, is prevented, by Executive Order, from conducting assassinations, except for people suspected of being members of al-Qaida or the Taliban, on the argument that the USA is in combat with these groups.

On 11 January 2012, the fifth assassination in the past two years of an Iranian nuclear scientist took place, when 32-year old Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan was killed in Tehran when assassins on a motor-bike stuck a magnetic mine (limpet bomb) to his car. This attack was similar to earlier attacks on Iranian scientists, allegedly associated with Iran’s nuclear programme; each time the assassins used motor cycles (2).

On 12 January 2010, a Tehran University physics professor was killed by a remote-controlled bomb; in November 2010, two bomb attacks in different parts of Tehran killed one nuclear scientist and injured another; and in July 2011, yet another scientist involved in Iran’s nuclear programme was assassinated by a motor cyclist.

According to a report in the New York Times, the latest assassination “drew an unusually strong condemnation from the White House and the State Department, which disavowed any American complicity. The statements by the United States appeared to reflect serious concern about the growing number of lethal attacks, which some experts believe could backfire by undercutting future negotiations and prompting Iran to redouble what the West suspects is a quest for a nuclear capacity” (3).

The report goes on: “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expand the denial beyond Wednesday’s killing, “categorically” denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”

Western-imposed sanctions against Iran’s nuclear activities have not yet caused, and are unlikely to cause, Iran to falter in its nuclear activities. Quite the opposite – Iran has announced that it has begun enriching uranium at its new plant at Fordow. Built into 90 metres of mountain rock near the city of Qom, in the north of Iran, the facility, known as the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), would be extremely difficult, to say the least, to destroy by bombing.

The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant

The existence of the FFEP, only came to light after it was identified by Western intelligence agencies in September 2009. Tehran said it began the project in 2007, but the IAEA believes design work started in 2006. According to the IAEA, “all nuclear material in the (Fordow) facility remains under the agency's containment and surveillance”.

As Yossi Melman, an influential feature writer and columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, specializing in strategic issues and who reports on nuclear issues, wrote in a recent article, entitled The war against Iran's nuclear program has already begun (4), that a secret war against Iran's nuclear programme is underway. “It did not start this week or last month”, Melman wrote, “It has been under way for years, but only faint echoes have reached the public”.

For example, in June 2010, the computer system operating Iran’s main uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz was infected with a complex computer virus known as Stuxnet, which attacked the controller systems of the centrifuges, manufactured by Siemens, causing them to malfunction

At the end of 2011, a huge explosion occurred at a Revolutionary Guards military base some 40 kilometers (24 miles) west of Tehran. Among the many people killed was the Director of Iran's missile development programme, General Hassan Tehrani Moqaddam. Then, another powerful explosion occurred in Isfahan, which has a uranium conversion plant nearby. The extent of the damage done by the blast is unclear.

Each of these events involved key parts of Iran's nuclear programme – the conversion of uranium after it has been mined, the enrichment of uranium, and the means of delivering warheads by ballistic missiles. As Yossi Melman points out, these acts of sabotage require “sophistication, financial and technological resources, agents and precise intelligence. The prevailing assumption is that foreign intelligence agencies are initiating, managing and executing the secret operations”.

He goes on: “The Iranians, and international media outlets, believe these operations are the work of Israel's Mossad and possibly also a Western partner such as the CIA or Britain's MI6”. It has also been suggested that Mossad may have recruited Iranian dissidents to undertake operations in Iran.

Melman quotes Gary Samore, US President Barack Obama's special assistant and coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism, who said in May 2011, "I'm glad to hear they are having troubles with their centrifuge machines, and the U.S. and its allies are doing everything we can to make it more complicated." This is close to an admission that America and its allies are behind the sabotage of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Iran may be years away from a nuclear weapon

The IAEA claims that Iran plans to produce uranium enriched to 19.7 per cent in the isotope uranium-235 at the FFEP. It may soon have 348 gas centrifuges operating at the FFEP, producing about 8.4 kilograms per month of uranium enriched to 19.7 per cent in the isotope uranium-235. About 20 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 per cent, called weapon-grade uranium, would be needed to fabricate a nuclear weapon. The (19.7 per cent) enriched uranium produced at the FFEP could be further enriched at the plant to produce weapon-grade uranium for nuclear weapons.

According to Gregory S. Jones, in a paper produced for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (5), as of 1 November 2011, Iran had stockpiles of 2,810 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5 per cent in uranium-235 and 517 kilograms of uranium enriched to 19.7 per cent in uranium-235.

Jones concludes that, although Iran could produce weapon-grade uranium relatively quickly - in months rather than years – “this does not mean that I think Iran will become an overt nuclear weapon state any time soon. It can continue to move ever closer to the highly-enriched uranium required for a nuclear weapon with the blessing of the IAEA. Iran would only need to divert nuclear material from (IAEA) safeguards when it would want to test or use a nuclear weapon”. This may be years away.

A military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is not a reasonable option

The US Navy routinely sends warships through the Strait of Hormuz. Recently, Iran has been conducting a series of naval exercises in the Persian Gulf and has successfully test-fired a number of missiles – including, a surface-to-sea Qader cruise missile, a shorter range Nasr missile, a surface-to-surface Nour missile, and a medium-range surface-to-air missile.

Iran also has conducted naval exercises, lasting 10 days, near the Strait of Hormuz. These, according to Iran, were "mock" exercises on shutting the strait but said that it had no intention of closing it. To do so would be very damaging to Tehran, economically, politically and militarily. In any case, the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain would move to prevent such a closure. The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow 30-mile-wide (48 kilometres) channel, through which 20% of the world's oil is moved.

The combination of the US election this year and the escalation of media and diplomatic pressure around Iran’s nuclear programme is increasing speculation about a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, by Israel or the USA or both. An all-out military attack is, however, not a reasonable option.

But threats to attack, and counter-threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, will probably go on for the foreseeable future. Iran will want to demonstrate that it is a powerful country and that it will not allow sanctions to intimidate it or to affect its military posture. The US and the west will want to show that they are standing up to Iran. It is an old-style display of military power.


Military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be absurd and counter-productive. A military attack from the air could not destroy all of Iran’s nuclear capability. After a military attack Iran would devote all its scientific and technical resources to fabricate nuclear weapons as quickly as possible, will the full support of the Iranian people. It would be much more sensible to move forward by negotiations without preconditions.


1. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Vienna, 8 November 2011.

2. Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Julian Borger, Nuclear chemist is fifth victim of daylight assassins on motorbikes, The Guardian, 12 January 2012, pp.4–5.

3. Scott Shane, Adversaries of Iran Said to Be Stepping Up Covert Actions, New York Times, 11 January 2012.

4. Yossi Melman, The war against Iran's nuclear program has already begun, Hareetz, 2 December 2011.

5. Gregory S. Jones, Iran’s Efforts to Develop Nuclear Weapons Explicated, paper prepared for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, 6 December 2011.

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Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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