Airstrikes against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities would delay a weapons program by at most three years, according to intelligence assessments that have been consistent since 2009, according to a U.S. defense official.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who hasn’t addressed the topic publicly since taking the post, agrees with the intelligence community view that was expressed by predecessor Robert Gates starting in 2009 and then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, said the official who is not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Speculation about whether Israel will strike Iran increased with release yesterday of a United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency report, which said Iran has been trying to develop the capabilities to produce an atomic bomb small enough to put on a missile capable of hitting Israel.
Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons facilities are dispersed over a broad area 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) and multiple countries to the east of Tel Aviv. Some are underground. Iran has repeatedly asserted that its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian goals, such as power generation.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday in an interview with Israel Radio that Israel “has not yet decided to embark on any operation” against Iran.
The current U.S. intelligence view, classified documents released by WikiLeaks, and intelligence community testimony have raised the question of the effectiveness of any raids.
Barak, in a June 2, 2009, meeting with U.S. lawmakers, “estimated a window between six and 18 months from now in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable,” he was quoted as saying in a WikiLeaks-released State Department cable.
“After that, any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage,” Barak was quoted as saying.
Iran is following the lead of China and Russia in protecting its Natanz and Qom nuclear facilities by moving them underground, Defense Intelligence Agency Director General Ronald Burgess told a Senate Committee in February.
“Buried, hardened facilities and improved air defenses are key elements of Iran’s extensive program to protect its nuclear infrastructure from destruction,” Burgess said.
“The spread of western tunneling technology and equipment is contributing to a rise in construction by countries and organizations that have not previously used modern techniques,” he said.
Authorities in Tehran announced recently that they’re moving some uranium enrichment from a more vulnerable site at Natanz to a location at Qom that is 90 meters (295 feet) under rock, said David Albright, who is founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
Gates on several occasions publicly, including in April 2009, said “even a military attack will only buy us time and send the program deeper and more covert” and that at best would set back Iran’s nuclear program by two or three years.
Gates also said bombing “would bring together a divided nation and make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons.”
Mullen in a Feb. 10, 2010, press conference said it was safe to assume “they’re pretty close” to developing a bomb and a strike might “delay it for one to three years.”
“Based on the assumptions that you make, it could be earlier or later but, by and large, that’s been pretty steady,” Mullen said “So when I talked about a military strike not being decisive, it’s really in that realm,” said Mullen, who left the position Oct. 1.
U.S. diplomatic cables released by the website WikiLeaks give context to U.S. and Israeli views on striking Iranian nuclear facilities.
Israeli officials in a Nov. 18, 2009, meeting reiterated to U.S. officials that they viewed 2010 as a “critical year -- if the Iranians continue to protect and harden their nuclear sites, it will be more difficult to target and damage them,” it said.
“Both sides then discussed the upcoming delivery of GBU-28 bunker busting bombs to Israel, noting that the transfer should be handled quietly to avoid any allegations the U.S. government is helping Israel prepare for a strike against Iran,” the cable said.
The GBU-28 is a 5,000-pound bomb that’s the U.S.’s top air- dropped weapon for penetrating deeply buried facilities. The bomb was first sold to Israel in 2005. It’s carried on Israel’s F-15I, that nation’s version of the U.S. F-15E, the primary U.S. aircraft capable of dropping the bomb.
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