Argument

Report Card

Can the International Atomic Energy Agency stop a war with Iran?

A month ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told Iran that it was time for a sit-down.

It sought a meeting for two reasons. First, talks with Tehran to negotiate a so-called "structured approach" to wind down the IAEA's investigation and determine whether Iran had been working on nuclear weapons -- following evidence raised by Yukiya Amano, the agency's director general, back in November -- had ground to a halt in early June. Second, unless Iran made a significant goodwill gesture by the end of August, Amano would have to report to the agency's Board of Governors that, for nine months, Iran had refused to cooperate -- even as Israeli officials were signaling that they might attack Iran's nuclear installations without warning and soon because diplomacy had failed.

Now, Amano has done just that. Iran and the IAEA had a fruitless encounter in Vienna on August 24, and so six days later Amano filed his report to the IAEA governors. With war drums beating in Jerusalem, the report's language is sober and muted. The IAEA doesn't want to see a war in Iran. But the message of the report is clear: Iran continues to enrich uranium in violation of Security Council resolutions, and it continues to obstruct the IAEA investigation expressly mandated by those resolutions.

There are five salient points in the IAEA's 14-page document:

Fordow Centrifuge Installation: Beginning late last year, Israeli officials have warned U.S. counterparts that an expansion of uranium enrichment activity at the underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant was their main concern in part because the plant's product is uranium enriched to 20 percent -- much closer to bomb-grade product than the 3.5 percent enriched material Iran produces elsewhere. In the teeth of Israeli threats, earlier this summer, Iranian media reports citing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asserted that about 1,000 new centrifuges had been set up at Fordow. The math behind the new IAEA document confirms that Iranian claim. Of the nearly 3,000 centrifuges Iran has told the IAEA it intends to set up at Fordow, about two-thirds are now installed. However, so far none of the new machines is enriching uranium. Iran continues to produce 20 percent-enriched uranium with about 700 centrifuges it installed previously. If intensified enrichment activity at Fordow is an Israeli red line, the IAEA report says it hasn't been crossed.

Uranium Enrichment Continues Unabated: Charts at the back of the report show that in the three months since the IAEA's last report, and indeed for several years, Iran has steadily added to its inventory of enriched uranium at all three of its declared centrifuge plants. Iran's total stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium, including from the Fordow plant, is now nearly 200 kilograms, about 50 kilograms more than three months ago. Iran's biggest enrichment plant, at Natanz, has now put out just under 7,000 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent, compared to about 3,500 kilograms at the beginning of 2011 and 1,000 kilograms at the beginning of 2010. If cyber warfare and sabotage attacks launched by Iran's adversaries over the last three years were meant to cripple Iran's enrichment plant output, they did not succeed.

No Iranian Cooperation on Weapons Allegations: In a report to the board last November, Amano aired detailed evidence suggesting that, since the late 1980s, Iran had carried out nuclear weapons-related research and development activities. The new IAEA report spells out that Iran has persistently refused to comply with IAEA requests to address these allegations: "Despite the intensified dialogue between the Agency and Iran since January 2012, no concrete results have been achieved in resolving the outstanding issues. Given the nature and extent of credible information available... [i]n the absence of such engagement, the Agency will not be able to resolve concerns... which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program." The report also says that the IAEA has obtained new information which supports Amano's earlier allegations. It's anyone guess if and when Iran will answer the IAEA's questions, but many observers believe Iran is holding its cooperation hostage to advances in its negotiations with the P5 states and Germany. So far, that track has made little progress.

Cover-up at Parchin: During a meeting in Tehran in May, Amano asked Iran to let the IAEA inspect a specific location at a military installation at Parchin, after a former scientist working in the Soviet nuclear weapons complex, Vyacheslav Danilenko, told the IAEA he had helped Iran set up apparatus there which the IAEA suspects may have been used to conduct high-explosive testing for a nuclear weapons program. Iran told Amano that, unless the IAEA would agree to a new "work plan" that would terminate the investigation step by step, it would refuse. Meanwhile, the IAEA has obtained aerial reconnaissance data -- some publicly available, some not -- suggesting that Iran has sanitized the Parchin site to hide or remove escaping debris or emissions from such an explosive test: "Iran has not responded to the Agency's initial questions on Parchin and [Danilenko]; Iran has not provided the Agency with access to the location within the Parchin site to which the Agency requested access; and Iran has been conducting activities at the location that will significantly hamper the Agency's ability to conduct effective verification."

Uninterrupted Reactor Construction at Arak: In addition to Iran's enrichment plants, Security Council resolutions have ordered Iran to suspend construction at Arak of a heavy-water reactor typically used to generate weapons-grade plutonium. The new IAEA report documents that Iran has continued to defy those resolutions. On August 1, IAEA inspectors went to the site and saw workers installing reactor piping inside the reactor building. Separately, lack of cooperation by Iran is inhibiting the IAEA from drawing up an effective plan to inspect the reactor once it begins operating next year.

With the exception of the perhaps not insignificant detail that Iran's newly installed centrifuges at Fordow are idle, the IAEA report depicts an Iran that is defiant and determined not to bend to the will of the international community. That's where Israel enters the picture. The IAEA's eleventh-hour meeting with Iran this month testifies to Amano's understanding that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations would be the ultimate vote of no confidence in the IAEA's abilities. But Amano has little recourse. The IAEA's relationship with Iran deteriorated after his November disclosures, and the organization's mandate and mission gives Amano little negotiating leverage. The P5 and Germany have more, but there is no grand bargain on the horizon. The effects of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations would be profound and devastating, but if an attack happens -- as in 2003 in Iraq -- the IAEA would have little choice but to watch.

SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Shipping Out

Are aircraft carriers becoming obsolete?

For decades, aircraft carriers have been the tool-of-choice for crisis response. Policymakers in Washington and four-star commanders in the field invariably have turned to carriers when they needed to signal U.S. intentions, quickly reinforce military power, or provide decision-makers with options during a predicament. The Navy has responded to the enduring demands of these customers by making the aircraft carrier strike group the prime organizing feature of the Navy's surface and aviation forces, thereby drawing the biggest share of the service's manpower, budget, support, and training resources. And until recently, the Air Force seemed happy to cede this crisis-response role, because then it could focus on its own priorities.

However, new and disruptive weapons and technologies will soon upset long-standing assumptions and cozy inter-service arrangements. In particular, the spread of long-range anti-ship missiles threatens the ability of aircraft carriers to perform their traditional missions. What's more, these disruptions are occurring at the moment when U.S. policymakers are under pressure to find cheaper ways of performing essential military missions. And the Air Force could develop the technology and the long-range platforms to carry out many of the carrier's missions at less cost. All these factors could force planners to rethink air power from first principles, leading to stormy times for aircraft carriers and inter-service harmony.

The aircraft carrier's combat debut in the Pacific theater in 1941 instantly made the battleship obsolete. Aircraft carriers delivered more firepower, over longer ranges, with more speed and flexibility, over a wider variety of targets at sea and ashore. After World War II, the power of U.S. aircraft carriers forced adversaries to focus their naval spending on submarines rather than major surface ships, a trend still visible today. Without enemy surface ships to sink, the Navy's carrier pilots focused on projecting air power ashore, which they did against North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.

Over the past half-century, the Navy's carriers also became well-suited to crisis response. Carrier strike groups could typically arrive at trouble spots within days and without the need for tedious negotiations with host countries over permissions and basing rights. The Air Force was fine with this arrangement because, although its tactical fighter wings could theoretically perform a similar role, the service's doctrine called for large, well-established, and well-supplied bases from which it could reliably generate a high sortie rate. Such ponderous guidance could not deal well with fleeting contingencies, many of which occurred in austere locations.

But the proliferation of cheap but deadly long-range anti-ship missiles promises to upset these assumptions and arrangements. For example, China is putting anti-ship missiles on submarines, patrol boats, surface ships, aircraft, and trucks, giving it the ability to dominate its nearby seas. For the price of a single major warship, China can buy hundreds or even thousands of anti-ship missiles. And as it perfects its own reconnaissance drones, China will be able to thoroughly patrol neighborhood waters, identifying targets for these missiles.

The Navy's aircraft carriers will come under pressure to retreat from this missile zone. However, there is a limit to how far they can retreat while still remaining in the game. As large as U.S. aircraft carriers are, they can only launch relatively small short-range fighter-bomber aircraft. For example, the F-35C, the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, has a combat radius of just 615 miles. Mid-air refueling can extend this range. But refueling is not possible in hostile air space, and even with it, small fighters are constrained by the physiological limits of their single pilot.

The Air Force's long-range bombers, by contrast, with two pilots and room inside to stretch, have routinely flown intercontinental missions lasting over 30 hours. Recently, an Air Force B-1 bomber wing continuously maintained at least one of its big bombers over Afghanistan during a six-month deployment to a base in southwest Asia. While on station over Afghanistan, the B-1s responded to over 500 requests for close air support from troops in fire fights.

Ironically, just as the value and utility of its long-range bomber forces was increasing, the Air Force has spent the past decade focused on its F-22 and F-35 fighters, which, like the Navy's carrier aircraft, have to operate from vulnerable close-in bases and whose combat ranges are too short for the Asia-Pacific theater's vast expanses. But, after much bureaucratic resistance and delay, the Air Force is finally moving ahead with a new stealthy long-range bomber to supplement and eventually replace the legacy fleet that has withered over the past decade.

The arrival of the new bomber, when combined with the anti-ship missile threat and budget austerity, could force Pentagon planners to reassess the nature of air support, especially during crisis response in missile-contested war zones. That would be unhappy news to Navy and Air Force officials who have become comfortable with long-existing arrangements. If the missile threat in the western Pacific or the around the Persian Gulf becomes too great, policymakers and planners may conclude that too much prestige may be at risk with the deployment of a carrier strike group in response to a crisis. Diplomatic or tactical objections may similarly rule out an Air Force fighter deployment. That would leave long-range bombers as the only usable crisis-response tool and raise questions about the investments in more aircraft carriers and short-range fighters.

But beyond crisis response, Air Force bombers could redefine close air support as well. Until recently, supporting infantrymen in battle was assumed to be the job of small fighters. With precision-guided bombs, that is no longer true -- during their deployment in southwest Asia, the B-1s dropped bombs just 300 meters from friendly forces. By providing a continuous presence, troops on patrol always had air power overhead -- and very likely at a cheaper price than the cost of building, stocking, operating, and protecting air bases for fighters inside the combat zone.

There is another alternative. In a recent article in Proceedings, defense analyst Daniel Goure articulated a vision of aircraft carriers equipped with unmanned reconnaissance-strike drones, which, with mid-air refueling, could fly far longer and farther than jets with a human crew. Assuming the Navy could work out the considerable threats to their communications links (a problem the Air Force must also solve), drones could keep aircraft carriers in the fight even if they had been pushed back by anti-ship missiles. The Navy's carrier drone program is very active and well ahead of the Air Force's new bomber program. But even that success could backfire for carriers. If the Navy can perfect long-range drone missions, why not intercontinental drone missions? And if that's the case, a land base would work just fine. All of which could set up a new round of inter-service brawling inside the Pentagon.

BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images