Iran’s Underground Tunnels

Iran has constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels to shield its nuclear facilities from attack, according to Western and Iranian officials.  The US and Israel have raised the possibility that they will bomb Iran’s atomic sites if the Islamic Republic does not reach a diplomatic agreement with the West that would inhibit the country’s ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels; although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated publicly that airstrikes would only set back Iran’s nuclear program one to three years, and it appears that President Obama will not pursue a military solution to the impasse even though he has not ruled it out.  Western officials believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge that Iranian leaders deny. 

The modern tunnel system has been under construction since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and its development has accelerated under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has extensive experience in tunnel building in and out of government.  Iran’s efforts have been assisted by Western engineering firms, including Terratec and Herrenknecht.

The existence of the tunnel system raises two problems for military planners.  One is that it conceals Iran’s nuclear sites and complicates the efforts of intelligence analysts to locate them for targeting purposes; the late discovery of atomic plants in Natanz and Qum, which were largely found as a result of information provided by the National Council of Resistance on Iran, a group of expatriate opponents of the Iranian regime, demonstrates the limits of US intelligence gathering capabilities and the  IAEA monitoring regime .  A second issue is that it makes it very difficult for air forces to destroy the facilities whose positions are known because bombs would have to penetrate thick layers of rock to destroy their targets. 

Pentagon officials are trying to find a solution to the second problem.  They are developing a new “bunker-buster” bomb, which has been named the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, that is 10 times more powerful than current models.  During the Bush administration there was talk of creating penetration weapons that would be armed with nuclear warheads to increase their destructive power.  It is unlikely that the Obama administration or future Democratic ones will pursue that path, but there is a significant possiblity that Republican administrations, which are generally more hawkish, will try to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons.  Some analysts argue that doing so would encourage further nuclear proliferation and undermine global security, but proponents believe it will have the opposite effect because hostile regimes will conclude that their arsenals could not be protected.

There is also a chance that Israel will develop more sophisticated tunnel-destroying bombs, including nuclear ones.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Iran’s underground facilities cannot be destroyed with the conventional weapons that his country possesses.  Israel, which in the past has attacked nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, might seek more powerful bombs to enhance its preemptive/preventative strike capabilities.  If Israel choses that option it would increase the likelihood that Israel will take what it considers preventative military measures against Iran, which has expressed a desire to wipe out the Jewish state.

The discussion about bunker-buster bombs and preventative war  raises the issue of deterrence.  Some policymakers believe that the Cold War model of deterrence, the basis of which was the threat of nuclear retaliation if foreign powers used atomic weapons against the US, is outdated in a post-Cold War world filled with hostile regimes who seek nuclear weapons and have ties, or might develop ties, with terrorist groups.  Such thinking is flawed because it would be foolish for a government to give terrorists such powerful weapons that could be traced back to their source and precipitate a nuclear counterattack against the offending state; and foreign leaders, who want to stay in power and stay alive, are aware of this.  There is no reason to believe that classical nuclear deterrence is no longer a valid strategy.

A related controversy is missile defense.  Some officials and analysts claim that missile defense systems are needed to deter other nations from building nuclear-tipped missiles and using them against the US or American interests overseas, and they also say that it would be a critical defense capabily in the event of an attack.  Others point out that such technologies are expensive and unproven and the risk of being attacked is minute.  The necessity of a missile defense system designed to thwart nuclear strikes depends on the effectiveness of classical deterrence and the likelihood of a first strike by an adversary.  The odds of an opponent intentionally starting a nuclear war are incredibly low, as is the possiblity of an accidental missile launch, so the usefulness of a national missile defense system for the US is dubious; although theater missile defenses against conventional warheads, which the Obama administration has embraced, could be useful in future conflicts.

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