U.S. military strikes against Iran to try to stop their nuclear program could lead to a stepped-up effort to weaponize whatever material they could salvage, according to a new report by British think tank Oxford Research Group (27-page pdf).
There is a real possibility that Iran has constructed secret facilities in the anticipation of a military strike. It is also conceivable that Iran has built false targets, installations that appear to hold nuclear facilities but in fact act as decoys. With inadequate intelligence, it is unlikely that it would be possible to identify and subsequently destroy the number of targets needed to set back Iran's nuclear programme for a significant period. Furthermore, with the probable survival of key scientific personnel, it would only be a matter of time before Iran could rebuild its nuclear programme. The question is, how much time?
If Iran's nuclear facilities were severely damaged during an attack, it is possible that Iran could embark on a crash programme to make one nuclear weapon. In the aftermath of an attack, it is likely that popular support for an Iranian nuclear weapon capability would increase; bolstering the position of hardliners and strengthening arguments that Iran must possess a nuclear deterrent. Furthermore, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the NPT and, should it do so post-attack, would build a clandestine programme free of international inspection and control.
In the aftermath of an attack, following a political decision to change the nature of the nuclear programme to construct a bomb as quickly as possible, Iran could:1 Used stored, fresh nuclear fuel to produce HEU in a small centrifuge facility to fabricate a weapon.
2 Chemically remove plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel elements - from the Bushehr or Arak reactors, if either were operational - and use it to fabricate a nuclear weapon.
3 Assemble new centrifuges and produce highly enriched uranium (HEU). Some centrifuges might survive a military attack, but it is conceivable that Iran has stored additional centrifuges in secure locations.
This process would be hastened if Iran had a secret supply of uranium hexafluoride or if it had constructed a small primitive reactor, fuelled with natural uranium, to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. It is also possible that, post-attack, Iran could purchase additional needed materials from sympathetic states or on the black-market.
In the aftermath of a military strike, if Iran devoted maximum effort and resources to building one nuclear bomb, it could achieve this in a relatively short amount of time: some months rather than years. The argument that military strikes would buy time is flawed. It does not take into account the time already available to pursue diplomacy; it inflates the likelihood of military success and underplays the possibility of hardened Iranian determination leading to a crash nuclear programme. Post military attacks, it is possible that Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon and would then wield one in an environment of incalculably greater hostility.
It is a mistake to believe that Iran can be deterred from attaining a nuclear weapons capability by bombing its facilities, and presumably continuing to do so should Iran then reconstitute its programme.