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Context of 'March 5, 2007: US Plans to Strike Iranian Nuclear Facilities May Actually Spur Iranian Development of Nuclear Weapons'

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Iran conducts a limited air strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, after being publicly exhorted to do so by Israel’s chief of Army intelligence. The Osirak reactor is at the same site as the Iraq Nuclear Research Center, in al-Tuwaitha, where Israeli intelligence believes the first Arab atomic bomb will be assembled. The strike is part of a larger strike by Iran against a conventional electric power plant near Baghdad. The strike inflicts only minor damage, and the plant is quickly repaired and brought back online. Iran will not conduct any further air strikes against Iraqi nuclear facilities throughout the entire Iran-Iraq War. In fact, it is not clear whether the Iranian strike is a pre-planned bombing raid by Iranian war planners, or an air strike by two pilots with a chance at a target of opportunity. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992; Institute for National Strategic Studies, 5/1995] In June 1981, Israel will obliterate the Osirak facility (see June 7, 1981).

Entity Tags: Israeli Field Intelligence Corps

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

The US intelligence community releases a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, the first of its kind since 2001. Its central conclusion is that Iran is about ten years away from manufacturing enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. That doubles the previous estimate of five years. (The “five years away” estimate has been a staple of US assertions about Iran’s nuclear program since 1995.) Even then, the report states, it is unclear whether Iran would have the technology capable of using the uranium in a functional nuclear device. The NIE gives little support for recent statements by Bush administration officials that assert Iran is working hard to develop and deploy a nuclear weapon, and that such deployment could happen much sooner than ten or even five years. President Bush has said repeatedly that while he wants to resolve the crisis with Iran diplomatically, “all options are on the table,” meaning a potential military strike is being considered. The NIE says that Iran is conducting clandestine work as part of its nuclear program, but there is no way to know if that work is on nuclear weapons development. Iran is, the report states, acquiring technologies that could be diverted to bomb-making. It is uncertain whether Iran’s ruling mullahs have decided whether to build a nuclear arsenal, the NIE says, but, according to a senior intelligence official, “it is the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons.” The White House has refrained from attributing its assertions about Iran’s nuclear program to US intelligence, as it did with Iraq before the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to Iranian efforts to conceal its activities, and questioned why, since Iran has tremendous oil and natural gas reserves, it would need a nuclear energy program. The administration is riven with infighting and competing viewpoints on Iran’s nuclear program, and this NIE does little to resolve those differences. The NIE also says that the US intelligence community still knows far too little about Iran’s nuclear program. The intelligence community gathers most of its information from communication intercepts, satellite imagery, and reports from the UN inspectors who have been investigating Iran’s nuclear program since 2003. Those inspectors have found facilities for uranium conversion and enrichment, results of plutonium tests, and equipment bought illicitly from Pakistan, all of which raised serious concerns but could be explained by an energy program. Inspectors have found no evidence that Iran possesses a nuclear warhead design or is conducting a nuclear weapons program. Deputy Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden says that since the October 2002 NIE, which wrongly concluded Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program (see October 1, 2002), the rules governing the creation of NIEs have been revamped to mandate “a higher tolerance for ambiguity,” even if NIEs would be less conclusive in the process. [Washington Post, 8/2/2005] In 2007, a new NIE will conclude that Iran actually stopped work on a nuclear weapon in 2003 (see December 3, 2007).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Bush administration (43), United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, Michael Hayden

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

The BBC reports that US plans for air strikes on Iran extend well beyond that country’s nuclear power plants and nuclear development sites, and include most of Iran’s military infrastructure. If ordered, US air strikes would target Iran’s air bases, naval bases, missile facilities, and command centers. The US insists it has no plans for any strikes against Iran, but evidence suggests otherwise (see September 2004). However, diplomatic sources say that US military planners have already selected their target sets inside Iran. The BBC claims that such a strike would be triggered by US confirmation that Iran is indeed building a nuclear weapon, which the US has asserted is the case but Iran denies. Another trigger could be if the US learns that Iran is behind any high-casualty attack on US forces inside Iraq. The US air strike plans include B2 stealth bombers delivering “bunker-buster” bombs on the nuclear facility at Natanz, which is deep underground. US officials insisted in January that they had evidence Iran was providing weapons to Iraqi Shi’ite insurgents, but those reports were soon debunked by US military officials. [BBC, 2/20/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

A report by a nonpartisan British think tank, the Oxford Research Group, warns that military strikes against Iran could actually accelerate Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. The report says military action could lead Iran to change the nature of its program and quickly build a few nuclear arms. Frank Barnaby, the nuclear scientist and arms expert who authored the report, says, "If Iran is moving towards a nuclear weapons capacity it is doing so relatively slowly, most estimates put it at least five years away." But an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities "would almost certainly lead to a fast-track program to develop a small number of nuclear devices as quickly as possible." It "would be a bit like deciding to build a car from spare parts instead of building the entire car factory." Western powers have threatened to expand sanctions on Iran; the US has not ruled out using force against Iran, but says it wants to give diplomacy a chance. [BBC, 3/5/2007]

Entity Tags: Oxford Research Group, Frank Barnaby, Iran

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

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