Friday, February 03, 2006

Why U.S. Wages Diplomacy With Defiant Iran - Why U.S. Wages Diplomacy With Defiant Iran: "Strike on Nuclear Sites Could Derail Reformers, Trigger Broad Retaliation

Iran's massive uranium-enrichment complex at Natanz, much of which is buried underground, could be taken out with bunker-buster bombs. Its conversion facility at Isfahan, where uranium feedstock is produced, is above ground and easier to hit, though nearby storage tunnels could be more of a challenge.

The Russian-built Bushehr power plant, once the major focus of U.S. anxiety until the discovery of Natanz, is a less likely target. Washington says it doesn't want to deny Iranians nuclear power, just the ability to make weapons. Once the reactor goes online, an attack runs some risk of an environmental disaster, but its fuel, once irradiated, could provide plutonium for a weapons program.

Even a "surgical strike" probably wouldn't stop there. Iran has airfields only a 30-minute flight from U.S. bases in Iraq and has recently moved some missiles northward in range of U.S. forces. Late last year, the Iranians conducted very public naval exercises showing how they might choke off oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

The bigger question is how much of Iran's nuclear complex is still hidden from U.S. satellites and the world. IAEA investigators, who have been tracking Iran's purchasing patterns, suspect the government may be concealing smaller workshops and facilities. Even if it hasn't built a covert program, Iran may have already produced and hidden enough raw materials and equipment to jump start one.

Iran is still believed to be at least three to five years away from being able to enrich enough uranium and build a bomb. Yesterday, U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte placed Iran -- with its nuclear and missile programs and support for terrorists -- second on his list of threats. He also said the U.S. had no evidence Tehran has acquired a nuclear weapon or amassed significant amounts of weapons-grade material.

The White House is hoping Iran may throw off its clerical leadership before that happens -- though officials acknowledge that democracy is behind in the race.

There is also the question of what Israel might do. The Israelis, whose 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor set back Iraq's nuclear program for years, have the skill. But Israel's F-15 jets likely wouldn't be able to reach Iran without getting permission from the U.S. and Iraqis to cross Iraqi airspace. Israel also has to worry about retaliation from Hezbollah terrorists who have thousands of missiles based in southern Lebanon. That would have to be balanced against Iran's repeated threats to wipe Israel off the map."

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