Sending a Bunker-Busting Message to Iran
Prussian leader Frederick the Great once lamented, “The ways of negotiation have failed up to the present, and negotiations without arms make as little impression as notes without instruments.” The same could be said about nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Obama administration has cut a deeply flawed interim deal, forgone new sanctions, and effectively taken the military option off the table. It’s time to increase the pressure on Tehran by boosting Israel’s military capacity to cripple Iran’s nuclear program.
It’s hard to imagine negotiations succeeding. The interim deal has undercut the leverage of the U.S. and its partners. It has triggered a rise in Iran’s oil-export revenue, while its nuclear-breakout timing remains unchanged due to increased centrifuge efficiency, as permitted in the deal. Tehran continues to deny inspectors access to key nuclear facilities. Recent tensions with Russia will only create new opportunities for Iran to exploit the U.S. in negotiations.
President Obama has already taken one potential source of leverage off the table by promising to veto legislation that threatens tighter economic sanctions on Iran. This leaves military pressure as the only option. But after the Obama administration’s unenforced “red lines” in Syria and Ukraine, Iran is understandably dismissive of the threat of U.S. military action. That leaves Israel.
The U.S. has previously recognized the importance of Israeli military pressure against Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, some of which is fortified and buried underground. In 2012, President Obama signed the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, which called for the delivery of aerial refueling tankers and bunker-buster munitions to Israel.
Israel has 2,000- and 5,000-pound bunker-buster bombs, some of which were delivered by the Obama administration. Iranian planners, however, might hope that these will prove insufficient to do major damage. The U.S. should remove such doubt by providing Israel with the capability to reach and destroy Iran’s most deeply buried nuclear sites. The U.S. could do this by providing an appropriate number of GBU-57 30,000-pound bunker-buster bombs, known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator or MOP, and several B-52 bombers.
The Pentagon has developed the MOP bomb specifically for destroying hardened targets. It can penetrate as deeply as 200 feet underground before detonating, more than enough capability to do significant damage to Iran’s nuclear program. There are no legal or policy limitations on selling MOPs to Israel, and with an operational stockpile at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the U.S. has enough in its arsenal to share.
Israel, however, also lacks the aircraft to carry the MOP. Which means the U.S. would need to provide planes capable of carrying such a heavy payload. Only two can do so: the B-52 and the stealth B-2.
The U.S. has only 20 B-2s and would not share such a core component of nuclear deterrence. Nor is the Pentagon willing to part with active B-52s. Of the 744 built since 1955, all but roughly 80 have been decommissioned, sent to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and, in compliance with arms-control-treaty obligations, mostly rendered inoperable. With plans for a new long-range bomber delayed by defense-spending cuts and sequestration, current plans call for keeping the active duty B-52s in service for at least another 20 years.
But there are more than a dozen of the relatively “newest” B-52H bombers-built in the early 1960s-in storage. Some of these should be delivered to Israel. There’s no legal or policy impediments to their transfer; they would just have to be refurbished and retrofitted to carry the MOP.
By transferring to Israel MOPs and B-52Hs the administration would send a signal that its ally, which already has the will, now has the ability to prevent a nuclear Iran. Once they are delivered-ideally as the current six-month interim deal is set to expire in July-Iran will be put on notice that its nuclear program will come to an end, one way or another.
Mr. Obama pledged in 2012, “We will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge-because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.” Transferring to Israel MOPs and B-52s would help preserve that pledge as well as put, as Frederick the Great suggested, arms behind the current negotiations and bolster chances for reaching an acceptable final nuclear deal with Iran.
Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on April 8, 2014