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Could Iran's new nuclear bunker increase the risk of an Israeli attack?


This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows construction on a new underground facility at Iran's Natanz nuclear site, on April 14, 2023.

If Israel keeps its far-right government and Trump returns, chances of an attack on Iran will increase. By Paul Rogers


Reports that Iran is constructing a very large, deep bunker as part of its nuclear programme mean there is a renewed risk of an upsurge in tension, and the potential for conflict, most likely involving Israel but always with risk of it spreading much wider.


Context here is important. During Barack Obama’s second term in the White House, countries including the UK, France and Germany, worked hard with the US to forge an agreement with the Iranian regime to avoid Iran developing nuclear weapons. A powerful motivation was the risk of Israel otherwise taking unilateral action.


Israeli politicians, and especially prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have long regarded a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, with the clear implication that they would take military action to prevent it developing such weapons. It would not be the first time that Israel has taken such action. It destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear research reactor in Baghdad back in 1981, and more recently Israeli aircraft were involved in an assault on a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.


After protracted negotiations, a successful agreement with Iran was reached in 2015, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was adopted as part of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, coming into effect in January 2016. The agreement itself involved the US, Russia, China, UK, France, and Germany, together with the EU, all committing to the progressive easing of economic sanctions on Iran. Tehran, for its part, agreed to limit its nuclear programme so that nuclear weapons development would be stopped.

The Israeli government was against the agreement from the start, and many hard-line elements in Iran were also cautious, if not actively opposed. Even so, the deal held and was viewed in Western capitals as the best that could be achieved in the circumstances. Much would depend on whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was able to verify compliance with the agreement.

In the event, that became irrelevant with Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, bringing in an administration opposed to the deal from the start. By 2018 the US had withdrawn its support on the grounds that Iran was developing long-range ballistic missiles (primarily designed for nuclear weapons delivery) and was, at the same time, increasing its influence across the Middle East.

In practice, much of Iran’s increased influence stemmed from the West’s disastrous war in Iraq more than a decade earlier, but for Trump that was beside the point.

Trump’s withdrawal was accompanied by the imposition of even more severe economic sanctions on Iran than had been in place before, leading many in Tehran to argue that negotiating with the United States had been a complete waste of time.

After Trump lost the 2020 election, Biden’s administration did engage with Tehran to seek a way out, but although there has been some progress, with both sides saying they want a renewed deal, it has been minimal because of disagreement as to how to proceed.


Israel, under its most right-wing government since its founding in 1948, remains bitterly opposed to dealing with Tehran.


This is where we have been for the last couple of years, with many in the Iranian government deeply suspicious of even talking to Biden’s people, given that Trump could be back in the White House in less than two years.

Israel, under its most right-wing government since its founding in 1948, remains bitterly opposed to dealing with Tehran. It has refrained from a full-scale attack on the Iranian nuclear programme but has repeatedly intervened to disrupt the programme through cyber-attacks and assassination attempts on key Iranian nuclear specialists and military leaders, one casualty being the military leader of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), General Qasem Soleimani, killed in January 2020.

At the same time, elements of the IRGC have maintained tensions in the waters of the Gulf, with numerous aggressive patrols, having developed a remarkable array of small, fast attack craft and submarines able to operate in shallow waters. The US and NATO countries respond with their own patrols, and there have been periods of substantial tension, including one just last week.

Given the earlier Israeli actions against Iraq and Syria, one element of IRGC thinking has long been that Iran must at least get to the threshold of actually developing nuclear weapons, even if it refrains from testing them. To achieve this, one tactic has been to locate major components of its nuclear research underground to keep it safe from Israeli attack.

From the Iranian perspective that may make sense, although the United States does have ‘bunker-busting’ bombs designed to attack such protected facilities. The US Air Force’s inventory includes the world’s most powerful such weapon, the GBU-57, that can strike targets 60 metres underground.

What is now reported is that Iran is building a large underground bunkernear the Natanz nuclear site in the Zagros Mountains of central Iran. This is as much as 100 metres deep underground, substantially deeper than the GBU-57 could destroy, even if two bombs were dropped on the same spot in quick succession. Official US sources rarely discuss such matters in public, but the Israeli press has fewer qualms.

The Israeli response has been an acknowledgement from the national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, that the location of the site would complicate any military strike. But he added: “What is possible to say about this matter is that there is no place that can’t be reached”. No further detail was given.

The site is still under construction and may not be fully operational for a year or more, and much will depend on political developments in Israel and the United States during that time, with Iran unlikely to change its position. If a far-right Netanyahu government is still in power at the end of next year, and Biden fails to be re-elected, then the risk of an Israeli war with Iran rises hugely.

If Biden’s people can get a deal with Iran before then, then well and good, but that will be difficult because of mistrust in Tehran. The chances are that the new Natanz bunker will be completed but might be moth-balled as a bargaining counter. In those circumstances, Israel may decide to take action anyway.


Text: Paul Rogers for openDemocracy, CC BY-NC 4.0

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