A preemptive military strike would accelerate and not stop the production of a nuclear weapon by Teheran, Iran experts have told the British government.
Teheran is "between five and 10 years" away from producing a nuclear weapon, Dr. Frank Barnaby of the Oxford Research Group told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee during hearings Wednesday on the foreign policy implications of Iran's nuclear program.
However, if Teheran's "nuclear facilities are bombed, this would produce such a popular support, including among the scientific community, for the government, they would accelerate their program and they could do it within one or two years," Barnaby said.
Editor's Notes: The confident Iranians
The London-based foreign policy think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported in January that it is likely to take up to a year for Iran to be able to begin production of weapons grade uranium.
"If and when Iran does have 3,000 centrifuges operating smoothly, the IISS estimates it would take an additional nine to 11 months to produce 25 kg. of highly enriched uranium, enough for one implosion-type weapon. That day is still two to three years away at the earliest," the IISS said in its annual report, The Military Balance.
A preemptive strike would be counterproductive, concentrating Iran's disparate nuclear efforts into a single program, Barnaby argued. Iran is pursuing a "big program for producing nuclear fuel for a number of nuclear reactors."
If attacked, "we simply encourage them to reduce their program and concentrate entirely on a nuclear weapon which they could do very much more quickly."
A military strike on Iran's Bushehr reactor "would be a Chernobyl," causing widespread environmental damage in the region and would spark outrage among the world community, he said.
The threat of a nuclear armed Iran had also been overstated, Dr. Ali Ansari of St. Andrews University told the committee.
"What we have in Iran is a political problem, not a nuclear problem per se." Iran's nuclear weapons program is "by and large a defensive measure," he said. Building the bomb provides "legitimacy" to the regime and allows Iran to "throw its weight around" in the region.
A nuclear program is "a sign of modern achievement" and a boost to national prestige, Ansari said, yet there is "no real constituency within Iran for a nuclear weapon as a military tool."
"In a military sense," Teheran believes it "could only build one bomb every three or four years," Barnaby said. "It just isn't feasible" as an offensive weapon and "isn't really a military option."
Ansari criticized calls for a preemptive military strike on Iran's nuclear production facilities and urged the West instead to provide a "sense of security" to Teheran through diplomacy that would "persuade them not to go down the [nuclear] route."
A unilateral attack by Israel or the US against Iran's weapons program was unlikely, the two experts told the committee.
The testimony before Parliament comes the week after former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton told The Daily Telegraph the West should, as a last resort, attack Iran before it develops nuclear weapons, saying the risk from a nuclear armed Iran outweighs the fallout from a military strike.
If diplomatic pressure is unable to resolve the crisis, "we've got to go with regime change by bolstering opposition groups" and "if all else fails, if the choice is between a nuclear-capable Iran and the use of force, then I think we need to look at the use of force," Bolton told the Telegraph.
Ansari urged caution, however in involving the West in Iran's internal political maelstrom. "Fomenting ethnic separatism" among Iran's non-Persian minorities was "pernicious," he said. "That is the one truly red line that I wish the likes of John Bolton, Michael Ledeen" and "the other neocon favorites would really stop talking about. It's a real powder keg," he said.
Ledeen, an Iran scholar and fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, discounted Ansari's comments, telling the Post that he and Bolton "have never supported separatism of any sort in Iran, ethnic or religious."