Tough Questions: Iran's Nuke Complex

David Martin is National Security Correspondent for CBS News.
Will there be a strike – either by the U.S., Israel or both – against Iran's nuclear complex? And will it happen before the Bush administration leaves office? I doubt leaders in either country know the answers to those questions.

Israel is putting the pressure on, telling the Bush administration in every way possible: "if you don't do it, we will." That's a threat designed to be heard not just in Washington but in every capital of the world – including Tehran. Israel wants the Iranians to know that it really will strike if uranium enrichment continues and it wants the rest of the world to know that the only way to stave off military action is with much more draconian economic and diplomatic sanctions that will persuade Teheran to change its mind.

Everyone agrees on two things: 1) Iran with a bomb would be a disaster and 2) bombing Iran would be a disaster. The only argument is over which would be the greater disaster.

One school of thought says that Iran would be like any other country that has the bomb – afraid to use it for fear of retaliation. But even those who believe that Iran would play by the same rules of deterrence that every other nuclear state plays by acknowledge that at the very least an Iranian bomb would cause other oil rich states to get a bomb of their own and nobody thinks a nuclear arms race in the Middle East can have a good outcome. It's really a moot point because Israel is certain that Iran with a bomb would be a greater disaster and Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent it.

The real question is: "what is Israel's red line? What will it take to trigger a strike?" You can be sure Iran has thought about that a lot. The most simplistic scenario is that Iran kicks the IAEA inspectors out, and within six to 12 months has enriched enough uranium to bomb-grade levels to have a weapon. Iran is unlikely to give Israel such a clear signal. A more likely scenario is that Iran would divert some of the low enriched uranium from its plant at Natanz to a secret enrichment facility where it could be brought to bomb-grade quality.

Whatever its game plan for enriching uranium, Iran is at the same time improving its air defenses. Iran has bought SA-20 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia which could be up and operating by the end of this year. That would significantly increase the difficulty and risk of a strike, which is a complicated operation to begin with since so much of the Iranian nuclear complex is underground.

Israel could well decide it can not wait for Iran to upgrade its air defenses. Israel could also decide that it can't wait for a new American administration to get its act together. Although both Barack Obama and John McCain have said all the right things about support for Israel, the fact is that every new administration has to reinvent the wheel. It could easily take months before a President Obama or McCain decides what to do about Iran's nuclear program. According to U.S. intelligence, which puts the earliest Iran could have a bomb at 2010-2011, there's time enough to do that. But the Israeli estimate of 2009 doesn't leave time to reinvent the wheel.

A very well informed person I know used to totally discount the possibility of a strike against Iran before the end of the Bush administration. Now he puts it at slightly better than 50 percent. One thing is certain: The next President will be staring disaster in the face – either in the form of an Iran that still seems intent on building a bomb or an Iran that has been bombed and has unleashed its terrorist operatives against Israelis and Americans everywhere.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.