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.