Bombing Iran (peer-reviewed edition)

The subject of an Israeli or American attack on Iran has been debated and discussed with unusual intensity over the past few months. Only a few of these accounts have taken much stock of the academic literature pertaining to the issue (one exception, from Colin Kahl, here). Here are a few relevant studies.

First, consider the oft-cited precedent of Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. In last summer’s International Security, Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, an Assistant Professor at the Norwegian Defence University College, published Revisiting Osirak: Preventive Attacks and Nuclear Proliferation Risks. It has a fairly simple argument:

The Israeli attack had mixed effects: it triggered a nuclear weapons program where one did not previously exist, while forcing Iraq to pursue a more difficult and time-consuming technological route. Despite these challenges and added delays resulting from inefficient management, within a decade Iraq stood on the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability. Ultimately, I conclude that the Israeli attack was counterproductive. (p102)

The Iraqi programme in the 1970s was “directionless”:

Iraq’s efforts to move toward a nuclear weapons capability during the late 1970s were informal and incremental. They lacked the institutional foundations and dedicated resources that constitute a nuclear weapons program in any meaningful sense of the word …  Iraq’s nuclear efforts during this period can be characterized as a form of “drift”—an exploration of the technical foundations for a nuclear weapons program without an explicit political mandate guiding these efforts. (p109).

But then, the Israeli attack on Osirak

effectively forged an alliance between Iraqi nuclear entrepreneurs and the Iraqi leadership. This alliance produced a more determined and organized effort to acquire a weapons capability … Saddam’s decision to start the program in September 1981 came with the offer of a “blank check”: in other words, abundant and consistent funding. From 1983 until 1991, the program’s staff increased by 60 percent annually. According to Jafar, the Iraqi nuclear establishment spent 792,899,913 Iraqi dinars on the weapons program from 1982 to 1988, and an additional 669,446,170 dinars during 1989–90. (p117)

That Iraq took so long to get a weapon (and was overtaken by the First Gulf War – something that just isn’t going to happen to Iran) was down to its own stupidity rather than the bombing:

 It seems unlikely—but not impossible—that another targeted state would make as many ill-advised decisions in their efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability following an attack. (p130)

Several years ago, Dan Reiter, also a political scientist, had reached a similar conclusion [PDF] about Osirak:

It must therefore serve as a cautionary note for future endeavors. Indeed, even the limited successes at Osiraq are unlikely to be repeated, as many states (including Iraq, North Korea, and Iran) learned the lessons of Osiraq and after 1981 sought to disperse and conceal their nuclear facilities, making future raids even less likely to succeed. (p365)

The second paper, Attacking the Atom: Does Bombing Nuclear Facilities Affect Proliferation? by Sarah E. Kreps and Matthew Fuhrmann, published in the Journal of Strategic Studies last April, takes a broader look at the question:

Our findings challenge both sides of the debate on whether force works and suggest that neither perspective is as clear cut as its proponents would have us believe. The view that strikes “are generally ineffective, costly, unnecessary, and potentially even counterproductive” downplays evidence of prior strikes that delayed the target state’snuclear program. The competing view that strikes might be a panacea for international proliferation does not take into account the number of instances in which attackers failed to destroy key nuclear facilities inthe target country. We offer a more nuanced picture; we show that there have been instances of both success and failure and explain why there is variation. (p163)

But, on the specific question of Iran, the authors are skeptical:

In sum, given that Iran already possesses the requisite knowledge to enrich uranium – and this knowledge cannot be taken away – the best possible outcome of military force would be delaying Tehran’s ability to build nuclear weapons by around five years. Based on our survey of the historical record, it is far from obvious that military force would yield even this modest return. Policymakers should also be aware that multiple attacks against Iran might be necessary. (p183)

The third and final paper is Targeting Nuclear Programs in War and Peace: A Quantitative Empirical Analysis, 1941–2000 published a couple of years ago by the same authors, Fuhrmann and Kreps, in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. It comes at this from a different angle, asking, “When do states attack or consider attacking nuclear infrastructure in nonnuclear weapons states?”. They find that

states are likely to attack or consider attacking nuclear facilities when they are highly threatened by a particular country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Three factors increase the salience of the proliferation threat: (1) prior violent militarized conflict; (2) the presence of a highly autocratic proliferator; and (3) divergent foreign policy interests. (p1)

Such attacks are more common than you might think:

In 1942, British commandos launched an attack against a suspected nuclear facility, targeting the Norsk-Hydro heavy water plant in German-occupied Norway. This raid represents the first use of military force to hinder nuclear proliferation, but it was not the only time that a nuclear program was targeted in the twentieth century. New data collected for this article reveal that fifteen separate attacks against nuclear facilities occurred between 1942 and 2000 and attacks were seriously considered on fifty separate occasions during this period. (p2)

And some interesting examples:

[B]etween 1979 and 1987, Israel requested cooperation from India in attacking Pakistani nuclear facilities because operational success depended on the use of bases in India for launching and refueling … Countries may also request cooperation from another state to blunt the potential consequences of attacks. The United States requested assistance from the Soviet Union in attacking Chinese nuclear installations during the early 1960s because Washington hoped that Moscow’s involvement would deter a violent response from Peking and limit the further deterioration of East–West relations. (p5)


 Not only did Taiwanese officials discuss the possibility of raiding Beijing’s key nuclear facilities but at least one senior official privately advocated for military action. During a visit to Washington in September 1963, General Chiang Ching-kuo—Chiang Kai-shek’s son—lobbied for strikes against nuclear Chinese nuclear facilities in private meetings with U.S. officials, including President John F. Kennedy and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. (p5)

See also Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities in International Security (though this was written in 2007, before the hardened facility near Qom was revealed).


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