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The Business Online: US could attack Iran next month

US could attack Iran next month


Tehran’s vow to hand nuclear technology to its allies gives Bush a powerful reason to act

WITH the re-referral of Iran to the UN Security Council by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), the international community has signalled its concern – but no more.

There are even deep divisions over imposing meaningful sanctions. But US Vice President Dick Cheney has long spelled out quietly, but clearly, that Tehran will simply not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.

It would be entirely out of character for Cheney and the US administration to issue threats and then back down on an issue they consider vital to US security, particularly in the face of Iran ratcheting up the rhetoric and going out of its way to be provocative, stepping up its limited uranium enrichment.

President Mahmoud Ahma-dinejad and other officials have also threatened to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; ban further IAEA inspections, and export nuclear technology to their allies. This last sinister threat was made by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to Sudan’s rulers. They have also threatened to launch attacks against US and allied interests – presumably in Iraq and possibly Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the West Bank – in retaliation for any American or Israeli attacks on nuclear facilities.

Iran has said it will cut back oil production, a threat that sent prices soaring in a speculative frenzy wholly unwarranted by current production levels, which comfortably exceed demand despite the refinery shortage.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric has been stepped up against Israel as a “failed regime” destined for destruction and a call issued for the return of Jews to Europe in deliberately anti-Semitic language.

Ahmadinejad claims that Iran has passed the point of no return in its uranium enrichment programme, and will operate 3,000 centrifuges by this time next year, with 50,000 eventually being assembled.

Few observers take this seriously. But some officials in Washington argue privately that the point of no return could be June, while the Israelis put it at the end of the year.

For internal reasons, Ahmadinejad craves an Israeli attack, or failing that, an American one, so as to seize complete power.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s more militant line is deeply ominous, suggesting that he is bending to the President’s views. Iran’s moderates, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, have been uncharacteristically silent in recent weeks. The intricacies of Tehran’s power struggle are hard to analyse, but Ahmadinejad seems just as likely to be reinforced if the West gives way to his threats as if it stands up to him.

The threats from Tehran seem to give the Bush administration little room for manoeuvre if it is to retain its credibility without resort to military action. The British, under former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, have rejected military action as “nuts”, but Straw’s stance seemed aimed primarily at Prime Minister Tony Blair, who would back a US strike.

The outcry against Blair from his Labour party would be such that he would have to seek Conservative support, which might or might not be forthcoming under new leader David Cameron.

The US would not seek United Nations authorisation for such action, because it would have no need for a complex coalition-building process and military build-up that preceded the full-scale invasion of Iraq.

What is contemplated is an unexpected strike lasting a few days at most. This would be presented to the world as a fait accompli in a presidential broadcast stating the seriousness of the threat – as President Bush senior did for the invasion of Panama.

The American range of military options is limited. Recent talk of using tactical nuclear bunker-busting weapons can be dismissed as disinformation designed to unsettle the Iranians. Washington would not use such weapons against a non-nuclear target. None of Iran’s nuclear facilities is so crucial or so deeply embedded that nuclear arms would be required.

Conventional bunker-busting bombs would destroy the giant cave at Natanz, which is only 50 feet under ground. The Isfahan facility is on the surface. Others are too small to require nuclear attack.

The nuclear disinformation is just an answer to Tehran’s disinformation that it already has a bomb which it would use in the event of a conventional raid.

The options currently being considered by the US are:
* An overnight raid from carriers in the Gulf and air bases in Iraq, involving 600-1,000 sorties. While this would do damage, it would not be enough to justify the furore it would generate.

* More extensive raids lasting several days to cripple Iran’s nuclear effort for several years. This would involve substantial attacks against air defence facilities, and calibrated attacks on non-nuclear military targets such as military and intelligence headquarters. If Tehran retaliated, more attacks would follow.

* An option gaining support in the Pentagon involves paratroops landing to seize military installations and defend them while nuclear facilities were thoroughly destroyed.

This would involve US – and probably also British – forces on Iranian soil, though it would not amount to invasion as the forces would be withdrawn as soon as the job was done, preferably after only a few hours.

The military effort would be considerable, and the troops would be exposed to enemy fire and capture. The Iranians might use their old tactic of massing “human shields” against the allied forces. The military trade-off between doing the job less well with less risk, or more completely at more risk would come into play for Washington.

The Bush administration is concerned about the possibility of a retaliatory Iranian-backed Shia uprising in southern Iraq and Baghdad, as well as the prospect of Iranian air strikes to disrupt oil exports from the Gulf, and an Iranian oil embargo.

But some in the White House argue that these are empty threats because they would backfire much more on Iran. To counter oil moves, the US would release some of its strategic petroleum reserve, as the Saudis used some of their spare capacity.

While the Bush administration is sticking to its formula of “diplomacy for now, but all the cards are on the table”, Washington has quietly ratcheted up the rhetoric.

The latest report on terrorism by the US State Department describes Iran as the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism, for the first time implicating its government and the military and intelligence services in supporting extremists in Iraq, Lebanon and the West Bank. There is more than an echo here of the allegations that Saddam Hussein had acquired nuclear technology and the claim that Iraq sponsored terrorism – which were both later discredited.

In Iran’s case there is no question that it is close to acquiring nuclear technology – peaceful, it claims – or that it boasts of seeking to export Islamic revolution and has links with extremist movements.

Israel has drawn attention to Iran’s recent acquisition of North Korean BM-15 missiles which have a range of 1,500 miles and are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

That, coupled with Ahmadinejad’s pledge to hand nuclear technology to friends – perhaps including terrorists – would give Washington a powerful argument for acting. There are those in the White House who argue that Tehran is indulging in Cuban missile-style brinkmanship, but it appears perilously close to the edge. Some senior sources in Washington believe an attack could come as soon as June.

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