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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Retaliation Against Iranian Nuclear Sites Would Be Counterproductive
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Arms Control NOW


As the Israeli government considers its response to Iran’s April 13 retaliatory attack, a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities should be off the table. Targeting Iranian nuclear sites in reaction to a drone and missile attack that did minimal damage to Israel would be a reckless and irresponsible escalation that increases the risk of a wider regional war. Furthermore, a large-scale attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is more likely to push Tehran to decide that developing nuclear weapons is necessary to deter future attacks.

While the U.S. military rightly helped Israel shoot down the wave of Iranian drones and missiles, President Joseph Biden has already said that Washington will not assist Israel in a counterattack against Iran. That is the prudent and wise choice. Further escalation of the latest exchange of fire between the two countries, which began with Israel's attack on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus, Syria, serves no country's interests.

But Biden should go further by making it clear to the Israeli government that the United States will oppose any retaliation against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and urge other states to pressure Israel to refrain from targeting these facilities. Furthermore, during this critical period of heightened tensions, the United States also must redouble its effort to expand international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program to deter Tehran from diverting materials and provide greater assurance that any dash to the bomb will be quickly detected.

The Guns of April

Former U.S. National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton speaking in Jerusalem, August 2018 (Photo: U.S. Embassy in Israel)While a dangerous escalation, Iran’s April 13 attack appeared to be carefully calibrated to provide Israel with time to intercept the missiles and drones. Tehran used the attack to send a message to the Israeli government that Iran will retaliate against future attacks while signaling that it does not seek further escalation. Iran’s mission to the UN even stated that the attack was a “response” to Israel’s “aggression against our diplomatic premises in Damascus,” referring to Israel’s April 1 attack that killed several high-level members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and that the “matter can be deemed concluded.”

Israeli officials, however, say they are planning to respond, even if not immediately. According to war cabinet member Benny Gantz, Israel will “exact a price” when the time is “right.” While any military response risks furthering the escalatory spiral and igniting a broader conflict, an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which some former U.S. officials such as John Bolton are encouraging, would be even more reckless because it could push Tehran to pull out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and openly or secretly pursue the development and production of nuclear weapons. An attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure also risks Tehran targeting U.S. troops in the region and igniting a broader regional war.

Iran's Nuclear Potential Cannot Be Bombed Away

Iran’s nuclear program is too advanced and dispersed for the proliferation risk to be effectively neutralized by military strikes. Tehran already has the necessary capabilities to build nuclear weapons—that knowledge cannot be bombed away. Striking Iran’s facilities now would set back the program, but those setbacks would be relatively short in duration.

A 2012 report published by the Iran Project and endorsed by former high-level military officers and diplomats assessed that a U.S. strike or joint U.S.-Israeli strike would set Iran’s nuclear program back four years and an Israeli unilateral attack two years. Since then, Iran has developed more efficient uranium enrichment capabilities and is constructing a new, deeply fortified nuclear facility at Natanz, developments which suggest that Tehran could reconstitute its nuclear program more quickly than the 2012 assessment.

Furthermore, there is a greater risk now that Tehran may have already diverted certain materials, such as advanced centrifuges used to enrich uranium, to covert sites. Due to Iran's actions after the U.S. decision to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not been allowed to access certain facilities, including centrifuge workshops, since 2021, increasing the risk that Tehran has already moved machines to undeclared locations or will do so if a strike appears imminent. If Tehran can preserve even a small number of advanced centrifuges in the event of an attack on its nuclear infrastructure, it will be better positioned to build back its program following a military strike.

In the long term, military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities increase proliferation risk. Iran’s typical response to acts of sabotage against its nuclear program is to build new facilities that are more difficult to target using conventional munitions and expand its activities. After Israel sabotaged the Natanz enrichment facility in 2021, Iran began enriching uranium to 60 percent, an unprecedented level for the country and close to weapons-grade levels (90 percent). Iran also responded to a July 2020 attack on a centrifuge workshop at Natanz by beginning construction on a new, deeply buried facility at the same site.

A large-scale attack risks Iran retaliating beyond hardening its facilities and accelerating its program and could push Tehran to make the political decision that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter future attacks on its territory. Iran would likely withdraw from the NPT in this scenario, removing any obligation for IAEA inspections, and making it more difficult to rally the international community to pressure Iran to refrain from building a nuclear arsenal and negotiating constraints on its program.

Transparency and Coordinated Diplomacy

Pressuring Israel to refrain from an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is necessary, but it is insufficient to stabilize the risk of proliferation during this crisis. Amid heightened regional tensions when the risks of miscalculation and proliferation are higher than ever, surveillance of Iran’s nuclear facilities is crucial. The United States must prioritize working with allies and partners to closely monitor Iran’s nuclear sites using remote means, such as satellite imagery, to provide greater assurance that the movement of materials from the declared nuclear program is being tracked.

Additionally, the United States must expand its efforts to support the IAEA as the agency works to implement safeguards activities and expand access to Iran’s facilities. Currently, the IAEA regularly inspects sites where nuclear materials are present, but not critical facilities that support the country’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s blind spots increase both the risk of proliferation and miscalculation of Iran’s nuclear advances.

As part of this effort to enhance transparency, the Biden administration must encourage Iran’s partners, particularly China, to press Tehran to allow the IAEA inspectors to visit sites that support the nuclear program and provide information to the agency about new facilities. Access to areas such as centrifuge production workshops is particularly critical now because if Tehran fears an attack on its nuclear infrastructure, it is more likely to divert materials to a covert site. Monitoring and inspections can help deter diversion and provide greater assurance that any movement toward weaponization or covert activity will be quickly detected.

The United States or one of its partners will likely need to put an incentive on the table for Iran to allow for more intrusive verification—but that would be a small price to pay to reduce the risk of proliferation and miscalculation. Expanding monitoring would also be in Iran’s interest as well if it wants to prevent further escalation, retain its nuclear leverage, and keep open a path to a diplomatic solution to the standoff over its sensitive nuclear activities at some point in the future.