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U.S. plans for Iran “options” and the nuclear weapons debate

Andrew Lichterman,

Jeffrey Lewis at responded today to the Seymour Hersh article on U.S. preparations and planning for an attack on Iran. Hersh reports that a debate is raging in the government over use of nuclear weapons against certain hard to destroy targets. Lewis suggests that it is unlikely that use of nuclear weapons is under consideration, arguing that the underground facility built for Iran’s uranium enrichment operations can be destroyed with existing U.S. conventional weapons. But there remain unanswered questions, and Hersh’s report that vigorous debate regarding nuclear weapons use against Iran is going on inside the government is as important as how “practical” such use might be.

First, Hersh is not the only one reporting that the government is considering nuclear weapons use in its ongoing planning for a possible attack on Iran. The Washington Post had a passage, buried far down in its story on U.S. options for an attack on Iran today, stating

“Pentagon planners are studying how to penetrate eight-foot-deep targets and are contemplating tactical nuclear devices. The Natanz facility consists of more than two dozen buildings, including two huge underground halls built with six-foot walls and supposedly protected by two concrete roofs with sand and rocks in between, according to Edward N. Luttwak, a specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
‘The targeteers honestly keep coming back and saying it will require nuclear penetrator munitions to take out those tunnels,’ said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst. “Could we do it with conventional munitions? Possibly. But it’s going to be very difficult to do.’”

This is a bit garbled regarding potential target depth, perhaps referring to one of the sources also cited by Lewis, stating that the Natanz facility is 8 meters (not feet) underground. reports, however, that Natanz has been reinforced substantially since that time:

“By mid-2004 the Natanz centrifuge facility was hardened with a roof of several meters of reinforced concrete and buried under a layer of earth some 75 feet deep.”

The 75 feet figure is consistent with Hersh’s story. Lewis notes the diverse accounts regarding depth, and believes that Natanz likely could be destroyed with conventional earth-penetrating weapons. Natanz has been the main focus of public discussion regarding possible nuclear targeting; one unanswered question is whether there are other hard to destroy underground targets in Iran on the U.S. target list.

Hersh’s discussion of planning for possible nuclear weapons use is not limited, however, to inferences from the nature of Iran’s facilities, and what it might take to destroy them. What caught my attention in his piece were the detailed comments (although from anonymous sources) regarding the heated debate over potential nuclear weapons use at the top levels of government:

“The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror confirmed that some in the Administration were looking seriously at this option, which he linked to a resurgence of interest in tactical nuclear weapons among Pentagon civilians and in policy circles. He called it ‘a juggernaut that has to be stopped.’ He also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue. ‘There are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries,’ the adviser told me. ‘This goes to high levels.’ The matter may soon reach a decisive point, he said, because the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran. ‘The internal debate on this has hardened in recent weeks,” the adviser said. “And, if senior Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive nuclear weapons, then it will never happen.’”

In the end, the internal debate as Hersh reports it supports the view that use of nuclear weapons in a “counterproliferation” attack against Iran remains unlikely, if only because the military itself would be strongly opposed. But if it is true that a significant faction at the top levels of government is seriously contemplating nuclear weapons use here, it should be a matter of the utmost concern, and should be met with unambiguous condemnation. A “preventive” war against Iran, a country that has attacked neither us nor its neighbors and shows no imminent signs of doing so, would be illegal, another act manifesting the rejection by the United States of the international legal framework that it played a leading role in constructing after World War II. An unprovoked nuclear attack would be an atrocity of historic proportions, definitively marking the United States as an outlaw state, ruled by criminals deserving of comparison with the most terrible regimes of the past.

2 Responses
M. Veiluva Says:
April 10th, 2006 at 5:15 pm
Now These People Are Worrying Me….

In my prior comment to John Burroughs’ March 1, 2006 entry, “Chatter About U.S. Nuclear Use Against Iran”, I agreed with John’s thesis that the US use of nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities was unlikely. I went further and posited that military intervention itself was unlikely, and was probably good old-fashioned Cold War saber rattling for the benefit of the Iranian regime.

Both the Hersh and Washington Post articles, I’ll admit, now have me worried. Hersh says flatly that military teams have been already ordered to operate inside Iran, which, of course, follows the usual trajectory of pre-invasion activity (as with the 2003 Iraq war) as covert groups identify targets and gather intelligence. What the Iranian government must think of all this hubbub is anyone’s guess.

The emerging precedent now appears to be Reagan’s 1986 airstrike against Libya, which was then widely accepted in the mainstream media as a justified anti-terrorism deterrent premised upon Libya’s involvement in harboring terrorist groups and suspected attacks. The airstrike is regarded as achieving its goals as a “surgical” use of military power to “bring Libya into line” - and decapitate the Quaddafi regime. Since 1986, it has emerged that the attack was far more expansive and punitive than originally disclosed, as Ramsey Clark described in a Nation article. According to Clark, the bombs fell not only on Quaddafi’s palace but residential areas as well, with small regard for “collateral damage.” Although Donald Rumsfeld was in the private sector at the time, he was closely associated with the Reagan presidency, including stints as special envoy to Hussein’s Iraq during that country’s eight-year war with Iran. (As it has since emerged, Rumsfeld’s visits made no protest of Iraq’s frequent and known resort to chemical warfare against hated Iran.)

The danger of the Libya paradigm is that the isolated and under-armed North African government has precious little in common with Iran, a regional power with considerable resources and support within the country. Iran can and will reach out, as it did during the Iran-Iraq War, to more equitably distribute the consequences of a pre-emptive attack.

The observations by many bloggists that this particular Administration is not particularly rooted in the “reality-based community” may be the closest to the truth. I am struck by the generalized nature of the denials by Bush - he simply says that the stories are “wild speculation” and that he remains committed to “diplomacy.” He did not deny any details. I don’t have time for the research, but however these phrases translate into German, I’m sure the words, or something like them, appeared in Berlin newspapers sometime in late August 1939.

Other folks initially downplaying the war talk are changing their minds as well, including Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear proliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), and Wayne White, the State Department’s top Middle East analyst until 2005, who now believe the Administration may not only be believing its own rhetoric, but pushing the limits of prospective action.

So, it’s 2003 again. Or 1990.

jacques Depelchin Says:
April 14th, 2006 at 12:12 pm
As an outsider, reading the discussions on whether to bomb Iran or not on whether to nuke it or not does remind me of Truman’s advisers canvassing the military on whether to bomb Hiroshima or not. Back then a threshold was crossed which, to this day, has not been acknowledged since, as Robert Jay Lifton has reminded us again and again, Americans cannot possibly do evil things.

The way the ground is being prepared also bears striking similarity. Back then save American lives, now Protect Americans. If necessary at any cost. It seems as if this equation of protecting American lives has been re-written in various ways ever since the settling of this country. Since, in the minds of those who are pushing for the same policies today, “IT” worked, why not apply it globally.

I am trying to say that what is at issue must be seen through a multidimensional understanding of the history of this country and the political-economic-financial-military system currently in place. It is not just about Iran, it is about who and how evil gets to be defined.

In the sense one is getting to the point where people around the world are not sure anymore who to fear who to trust.




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