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If Iran sanctions fail, what options remain to block its nuclear ambitions?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 14, 2012 - WASHINGTON - The golden dome and minarets of the Shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh rise from the ancient holy city of Qom, the Iranian center of pilgrimage and religious scholarship for Shi'a Muslims.

A few miles to the north, near the town of Fordow, is a highly fortified, underground facility that recently began enriching uranium that, when refined to a higher grade, could be used to develop a nuclear weapon.

It is no coincidence that the Iranians are transferring their most enriched uranium from a massive facility in Natanz to the more fortified Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, so close to Iran's holiest city, where 50,000 Shi'a seminarians from 70 countries study.

And, given that move and reports that Iran has made progress in creating weapons-ready uranium, it is hardly a coincidence that Israel is reported to be considering launching a surgical strike against Iranian sites believed to be involved in developing a nuclear capability.

The potential nuclear threat of Fordow, the religious significance of nearby Qom, and the concerns of Israel are all factoring into U.S. consideration of how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat -- which that nation's leaders disavow -- if the current economic sanctions do not convince Tehran to back down.

And 2012, for a number of reasons, is likely to be a crucial year for such decisions. Describing the Iranian threat "the most urgent national security challenge facing the United States," a report this month by a Bipartisan Policy Centertask force recommended that the Obama administration -- supported by Congress -- adopt a three-track strategy to pressure Iran, augmenting diplomacy and economic sanctions with "visible, credible preparations for a military option" as a last resort.

"We're not advocating war with Iran," said former U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., who co-chaired the Bipartisan Policy panel. "What we are saying to the president and his chief policy-makers: If you feel that all other options have been exhausted, and that the moment has come that it is in the best interests of the U.S., Israel and the international community, then we are prepared to support you."

But the Obama administration, while developing contingency plans, is not at the point of making such a decision. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "we will not tolerate an Iran that develops a nuclear weapon. And yet they continue, obviously, to try to improve their nuclear enrichment capabilities. That's something that concerns us a great deal."

On Iran's threat to close the Straits of Hormuz to international shipping, Panetta said this country also has "made very clear that that is a red line for us. That strait is extremely important" to commerce, and closing it "would have a huge economic impact."

But the defense secretary disavowed a recent report that he is concerned about a possible Israeli attack on Iran this spring, saying: "We do not think that Israel has made that decision."

And Panetta backed continued U.S. and international economic sanctions, at this point, rather than military intervention. "My view is that we ought to keep the international community together in applying that kind of pressure," he told senators.

Those economic sanctions -- toughened late last year in response to bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J. -- could, in theory, lead to the collapse of Iran's central bank and force the nation's economy into a kind of barter system in making international transactions such as oil sales.

Most members of Congress appear to back such sanctions -- and, possibly, harsher actions -- against Iran. "They need to be threatened, they need to be isolated and they need to be punished," said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in an interview. By punished, the senator, a member of the Armed Service Committee, said she meant "every sanction we could possibly muster."

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters that he has argued for years that "we need to impose stronger sanctions on Iran as long as it continues developing its nuclear capability. I'm very hopeful the people of Iran understand that its government's pursuit of this nuclear capability and its support of terrorist activities around the world are responsible for creating these economic challenges."

Kirk, who is recovering from a stroke he suffered on Jan. 21, has been one of Congress' harshest critics of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In an interview before his stroke, Kirk told the Beacon that the tough new Iran sanctions were "a crippling move against Iran's currency," which has fallen sharply in value.

But Kirk said he was concerned that the Obama administration might not aggressively enforce those sanctions and project military strength in the face of Iran's recent saber-rattling threats to block the Strait of Hormuz and the future presence of U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.

Early Tuesday, a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group led by the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln passed through the Hormuz strait -- shadowed by Iranian patrol boats -- and ended its routine Gulf mission. The last time an American carrier group left the Gulf, in December, Iran's army chief warned the U.S. against sending another carrier back into the Gulf.

On Sunday, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the region -- Vice Admiral Mark Fox, commander of the 5th Fleet -- said that Iran's naval forces have prepared boats laden with explosives that could possibly be used in suicide attacks against ships in the strait, through which a fifth of the world's oil supply passes in tankers.

But Fox said the Navy has "built a wide range of potential options to give the president" to stop the Iranians from blocking the 30-mile-wide strait. "We've developed very precise and lethal weapons that are very effective, and we're prepared," Fox told reporters. "We're just ready for any contingency."

Presidential Politics and Iranian Troubles

A U.S. president contemplating the possibility of military action involving Iran in an election year is likely to exercise caution in light of what happened to President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

After Iranian zealots had held hostage 52 Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran for months, Carter ordered a rescue operation, called Operation Eagle Claw, on April 24, 1980. The humiliating failure of that mission -- thwarted by a sandstorm and an aircraft crash that killed eight U.S. servicemen and one Iranian civilian -- became a key factor in the election campaign that Carter lost six months later to Ronald Reagan.

The 444-day Iran hostage crisis finally came to an end the day after Reagan's inauguration in January 1981, but the strained relations between the two countries -- which date from Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution that deposed the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979 -- continue to this day.

With the exception of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., who wants the U.S. to stay out of Iran, the contenders for the GOP nomination to oppose Obama in November all support aggressive U.S. action to thwart Iran's nuclear-weapon ambitions.

Obama, who has been relatively cautious about committing U.S. forces abroad, is mindful of the risks of a failed military intervention and is balancing numerous factors in deciding how best to block Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

In his State of the Union speech, Obama vowed that "America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal." However, he said "a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible."

Why would Iran agree to dismantle its weapons program? Obama said Iran's "regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent."

Responding to questions about rumors of an Israeli strike, Obama told NBC this month that he did not believe Israel has made a decision yet, and that he still hopes to reach a diplomatic solution in tandem with an international coalition that has been enforcing economic sanctions against Iran.

But Obama's hand may well be forced this year if events in the volatile region get out of control. This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged that Iran was behind the recent car bombings that hit Israeli diplomatic vehicles in New Delhi and in Tbilisi, Georgia. On the opposite side, Tehran officials have alleged that Israel had a role in the deaths of several Iranian nuclear scientists, including one who perished in a car bombing in Tehran last month.

The tension has risen to the point that the Anti-Defamation League sent out an alert Tuesday to Jewish organizations in the United States recommending that they "operate with increased vigilance" until the tensions ease.

Meanwhile, on Saturday -- the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his government would soon announce significant advances in its nuclear program. "In the coming days the world will witness Iran's announcement of its very important and very major nuclear achievements," Ahmadinejad said in a speech in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square that was televised nationwide.

Rallies organized by the Iranian government drew tens of thousands of Iranian demonstrators, some of them carrying flags and posters of the Islamic Republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some in the crowds chanted "Death to Israel" and "Death to America."

Despite such events, it is clear that Iran's 74 million people are hardly unified behind their troubled government. Internal dissent has widened, experts say, along with worsening tension between the nation's religious and political leaders. Also, the parliament and many Iranians blame Ahmadinejad for the nation's severe economic problems.

With a parliamentary election scheduled in a few weeks, the harsher U.S. and European sanctions have been raising prices and complicating international financial transactions. About 60 percent of Iran's economy relies on oil, making the nation heavily dependent on food imports -- the price of which have risen dramatically in recent months.

The parliamentary election will be the first nationwide vote in Iran since the 2009 presidential election, which was disputed by opponents of Ahmadinejad, sparking street protests that were brutally suppressed.

But Iran's internal dissent has been controlled, in part, by Revolutionary Guard suppression of protests and by the actions of the Tehran regime and the court system in imprisoning or putting under house arrest many political opponents.

Should U.S. Strengthen Israel to 'take Out' Iran's Nukes?

If the United States is hesitant to strike directly against Iran, some experts suggest that it should provide Israel with the arms needed to mount a more credible threat against Iran's installations.

Michael Makovsky, a native St. Louisan and former staffer for then-Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., who directs the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Project, thinks that option makes sense.

"Iran's nuclear development is advancing rapidly, amid rising speculation of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities," Makovsky said at a briefing to present the center's report this month. He quoted Israel's defense minister as stating that "time is running out" for Israel to strike.

The reason that Israel feels a time constraint is that intelligence from various sources has indicated that Iran is capable of producing its first nuclear weapon in two to six months, once the required amount of uranium isotope (about 20 mg.) is enriched, by cycling it through centrifuge "cascades" to about 90 percent.

Blaise Misztal, associate director of the bipartisan group's national security project, told reporters that Iran could, in theory, produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in about two months. "The real danger here is the Qom plant," he said. And the possible time frame of a few months before Iran can assemble a nuclear weapon that could be used against Israel is fueling rumors that Israel is mulling a quick strike.

But there are doubts whether Israel, using its current military hardware, would be able to do enough damage to fortified Fordow and the other seven or so nuclear sites scattered around Iran, to make a strike worth the political, military and economic damage that it might cause. Analysts quoted by Time magazine said the potential Iranian targets were so scattered and so well fortified, that Israel would likely fall short of its goal.

And an op-ed last week in Israel's most influential newspaper, Haaretz 's senior defense writer, Amir Oren, concluded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "has not started to prepare either his country men or his colleagues for the blood, toil, tears and sweat" that would result from a strike against Iran. "His belligerent talk has thus far frightened Israelis more than the Iranian regime."

The Bipartisan Policy Center report recommended that the Obama administration should augment "the credibility of the Israeli threat by bolstering its capacity to strike Iran's program" by providing Tel Aviv with 200 GBU-31 "bunker-busting" bombs as well as three aerial refueling tankers to help Israeli bombers get to the Iranian sites, which are more than 1,000 miles away from Israel's air bases.

While such weapons might give Israel more credibility in mounting a surgical strike, some military experts doubt whether even the U.S. military -- deploying, among other weapons, its latest bunker-buster, Boeing Corp.'s Massive Ordnance Penetrator (GBU-57) -- would be able to destroy Iran's nuclear program completely.

The Pentagon has requested about $81 million to continue development of advanced bunker-busting bombs of the sort that could be used against Iranian nuclear facilities, and congressional appropriators recently approved that sum. According to reports, Pentagon officials described the request as "urgent" to address several issues pinpointed in initial testing of the new bunker-buster.

The Massive Ordnance Penetrator, known as the MOP, is a 20-foot long, 30,000-pound bomb that is so large that current bombers, such as the B-2 and the old B-52s, have to be retrofitted to carry it. Boeing Corp., which makes and tests the bombs, began delivering them to the Air Force Global Strike Command last fall for testing.

According to some reports, the new bunker-buster would be capable of penetrating up to 60 meters of rock or concrete before exploding. But the detonation would likely lead to consequences far beyond the partial destruction of nuclear installations. For those and other reasons, some believe the deterrence of having such a weapon in the American or Israeli arsenals may be enough to give pause to the Iranian leaders.

"From the outside," wrote Haaretz's Oren, "even the strongest proponents of readying for action against Iran say such a posture is necessary in the name of deterrence, not because they are counseling for an actual attack."

About the Strait of Hormuz:

Where Is The Strait?

The channel is a narrow strip of water separating Oman and Iran. It connects the biggest Gulf oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

At its narrowest point, the strait is 21 miles (34 km) across and consists of 2-mile wide navigable channels for inbound and outbound shipping and a 2-mile-wide buffer zone.

Oil Shipments:

Hormuz had a daily oil flow of almost 17 million barrels in 2011, up from 15.5-16.0 million bpd in 2009-2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Flows through the Strait in 2011 were roughly 35 percent of all seaborne traded oil, or almost 20 percent of oil traded worldwide. U.S. warships patrol the area to ensure safe passage.

On average, 14 crude oil tankers per day passed through the Strait in 2011, with a corresponding amount of empty tankers entering to pick up new cargoes. More than 85 percent of these crude oil exports went to Asian markets, with Japan, India, South Korea, and China representing the largest destinations.

In addition to crude oil, 2 million barrels of refined oil products are exported through the passage daily, as well as liquefied natural gas.

Alternative Routes:

Industry sources have said that the United Arab Emirates has delayed the launch of a crucial oil pipeline to bypass the Straits to mid-2012. The Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline project has a capacity of 1.5 million bpd and this could rise to 1.8 million bpd.

Other alternate routes could include the deactivated 1.65-million bpd Iraqi Pipeline across Saudi Arabia, and the deactivated 0.5 million-bpd Tapline to Lebanon. Another operational pipeline route for Saudi crude is the 1,200 km (745 mile) Petroline, or "East-West Pipeline", across Saudi Arabia from Abqaiq to the Red Sea. The East-West Pipeline has a nameplate capacity of about 5 million bpd.

Strategic Corridor:

Iran first warned on Dec. 27 it could stop the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz if more sanctions were imposed on the country. The U.S. Fifth Fleet says it would not allow any disruption to shipping in the Strait.

Four days later U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law a defence funding bill that imposes sanctions on financial institutions dealing with Iran's central bank, which is the main conduit for oil revenues.

EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to ban imports of Iranian crude from July in response to Western suspicions that Tehran plans to build nuclear weapons. Iran has confirmed the start of uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow nuclear plant, Iran's Arabic language al Alam TV reported. However Iran says it is developing nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes.

Iran could mine the Strait as it did during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet is responsible for an area that includes the Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean. It consists of 20-plus ships, with about 15,000 people afloat and 1,000 ashore, with a Carrier Strike Group, an Amphibious Ready Group, combat aircraft, and other support units and ships. The carrier USS Abraham Lincoln completed a "regular and routine" passage through the strait on Jan. 22, accompanied by strike group of warships.

Iran's navy consists of 23 submarines and around 100 patrol and coastal vessels. It is no match for the firepower of U.S. sea forces, but Iran could still cause havoc in the region using unconventional tactics, such as deploying small craft to attack ships, or using allies in the area to strike U.S. or Israeli interests.

Previous Incidents In The Strait:

In 1988 the U.S. warship Vincennes, in the Strait, shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 on board, in what Washington said was an accident after crew mistook the plane for a fighter. Tehran called it a deliberate attack.

The United States said Iranian boats had threatened its warships by aggressively approaching them in the Strait on Jan. 6, 2008.

In June 2008, Revolutionary Guards commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari said Iran would impose controls on shipping in the vital Gulf oil route if the country were attacked.

In November 2010 a U.S. statement that militants were behind a blast on a Japanese tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in July increased concerns about security. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the failed raid on the M.Star. It was the first such militant attack in the Strait.

Sources: Reuters/International Energy Agency (IEA)/U.S. EIA

(Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit;)

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.