Could military force still be used against Iran?

Will U.S. use military force on Iran?
Will U.S. use military force on Iran?

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Story highlights

  • Israel has vowed to act alone if necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon
  • U.S. President Barack Obama is pressing hard for a diplomatic solution
  • Both Israel and the United States would face numerous logistical challenges to launch a successful military strike

Washington (CNN)Does Thursday's framework deal on Iran's nuclear program take the military option off the table?

Not entirely, but it's a lot closer to the back burner than it was before.
The parties reached a preliminary deal to curb Iran's nuclear efforts Thursday, which gives the five world powers negotiating with Tehran until the end of June to work out all the details.
    The diplomatic progress lessens the likelihood of a strike, but it doesn't completely rule it out. Critics such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might still decide the deal is so bad that force will be necessary to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon. And American and European distrust of Iran -- and a decision by Tehran to violate the deal and rush toward weaponization -- could bring the West to the same point.

    An Israeli strike?

    Israel, which isn't at the negotiating table, has vowed to act alone if necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And an Israeli military intervention could set back Iran's program several years -- likely two to three, according to several military experts.
    The Israeli Air Force, which took out nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria in secret missions, could pummel most of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, slowing Tehran's path to a bomb and forcing the Iranians to either begin rebuilding or give up on their nuclear ambitions, which they maintain are peaceful.
    But despite Netanyahu's tough rhetoric against Iran and the deal in the works, the Prime Minister hasn't acted. That's partly because Tehran hasn't come close enough to a nuclear weapon to send jets scrambling, but it's also because the United States and world powers have continued to sit around the table with Iran. And Wednesday's framework deal only strengthens the diplomatic momentum.
    "It will be very difficult for an Israeli government to act when the international community, including all the superpowers, reach a deal," said Gen. Amos Yadlin, who served as the head of Israeli military intelligence and as the country's military attache in Washington. He stressed Israel's need for "legitimacy" — or international understanding — for its position that an attack was necessary before it would take that step.
    Israel would face biting public criticism and potentially even U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the action if an Israeli strike came amid a continued diplomatic push, according to Dan Arbell, former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
    "It will cloud the relationship that Israel has with these countries," Arbell, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said of the P5+1, the five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany that have been negotiating with Iran.
    Instead, it's more likely Netanyahu would stick to public diplomacy and work through the U.S. Congress rather than green light a unilateral strike. But if Iran violates the term of the agreement, that could open up the door for Israeli action, Yadlin said.

    Limits on Israeli capabilities

    Even if Israel did decide to act, military experts said it could degrade but is unlikely to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
    "They would be operating at the extreme combat radius of their aircraft," retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona, CNN military analyst, explained.
    Without any partners in the region that would let them land and refuel, Israeli pilots would need to take off from Israel, hit all of the necessary targets in Iran and quickly fly back to Israel before running out of fuel.
    "For the Israelis to do this would be a real military risk," Francona said. "On paper, you could pencil it out, but there can be no room for error."
    Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, another CNN military analyst, assessed that Israel doesn't have enough aircraft to strike all the targets in one run.
    Israel almost certainly wouldn't be able to destroy all of Iran's nuclear facilities, as two are in underground bunkers -- including one of its largest, Fordo, buried beneath more than 200 feet of rock under the side of a mountain.
    But under the framework agreement, that site will no longer host any of Iran's uranium enrichment activities for 15 years, which should go some way toward assuaging Israeli concerns about the hard-to-strike facility. One-third of the plant's centrifuges will remain there in storage.
    Current and former Israeli military officials project more confidence in Israel's capabilities than the American analysts, but they won't go into the details of what a strike would look like.
    Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu's former national security adviser, held back when asked whether Israel could neutralize the Iranian threat on its own, but he stressed that Israel is more capable than many other nations and could inflict some real damage.
    And Yadlin said the world shouldn't underestimate the "innovation and unconventional thinking" that helped Israel successfully carry out challenging, high-risk missions such as the 1981 strike in which a squadron of fighter jets, including one piloted by Yadlin, destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. American military analysts did not think Israel would be able to put that reactor out of commission.
    Iran would almost certainly retaliate in the event of an Israeli strike, either firing rockets that could reach Israel or using proxies Hamas and Hezbollah to launch attacks or both. All of which could lead to a wider regional war.
    But from Israel's perspective, the threat of Hamas and Hezbollah, Yadlin said, doesn't compare with the threat of a nuclear Iran, a country that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

    The Saudi angle

    There's a chance, though, that Israel could get some help from its neighbors. Some Sunni Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, fear a nuclear-armed Iran almost as much as Israel does.
    Public coordination between Saudi Arabia and Israel, especially at a military level, would be completely unprecedented but isn't entirely out of the question.
    Relations between the two countries, both U.S. allies, have largely been defined by antagonism over the Palestinian issue, but behind the scenes, Israel and Saudi Arabia have become closer over shared concerns of Iran's nuclear ambitions and worries that the United States hasn't been aggressive enough in countering Tehran.
    If Saudi distress over Iran's nuclear progress were to reach Israeli heights, Saudi Arabia could go as far as giving Israel access to its airspace to reach Iran or even permission to land and refuel on Saudi territory.
    But while the Saudis would certainly be "cheering privately," Arbell said the Saudis are likely to be "very cautious" about getting mixed up in an Israeli strike.
    An American effort, however, would increase the likelihood of some type of Saudi role.

    U.S. military means

    Like Israel, the United States has already drawn up plans to dismantle Iran's nuclear infrastructure through military means. And the United States could almost certainly count on the help of Gulf states, which consider the United States, as opposed to Israel, one of their strongest allies.
    Francona explained the United States would need to use land-based aviation, rather than aircraft carrier-based jets that can't hold the same payload, and would likely launch an attack from air bases in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Bahrain.
    J. Matthew McInnis, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who previously advised the U.S. Central Command on Iran, said he is very confident that the "U.S. military can have a devastating impact on the Iranian nuclear program."
    The United States would be much better positioned than Israel, for instance, to destroy Fordo thanks to its 15-ton bunker-busting bombs. But that doesn't mean the United States doesn't face any military limitations.
    Hertling, a retired U.S. Army general, stressed that while America has the military capabilities to strike all of Iran's nuclear facilities -- at least those it's aware of -- there's always a chance strikes could fail to destroy all the nuclear infrastructure they hit.
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    "It's not a video game that you can point at a target and say, 'OK, I've destroyed that,' " Hertling said. "The biggest misconception is the belief that we can eliminate all the nuclear capabilities of Iran if they decide not to go along with diplomatic efforts."
    And as long as U.S. diplomatic efforts continue -- as they are expected to under the framework agreement -- President Barack Obama is extremely unlikely to turn to a military solution.
    Elected on a platform of diplomatic engagement and a lighter U.S. military footprint around the world, Obama has resisted calls to drop negotiations and take a harder line toward Iran.
    Obama has repeatedly stated that he is keeping "all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran," as he did during his State of the Union address earlier this year and, in slightly different wording, just this month in an interview with Vice News.
    But Obama has avoided the term "military options" in recent years, using it much less frequently than he did in 2012 and 2013, instead emphasizing his preference for a diplomatic solution.
    This week, Obama administration officials did once again more explicitly refer to the possibility of the use of force. On Tuesday morning, newly minted Defense Secretary Ash Carter told NBC "the military option certainly will remain on the table" and later that day, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, "the military option has been on the table for quite some time and it continues to be on the table today."
    But these statements, coming as talks stretched pass their Tuesday deadline, and coupled with a U.S. threat to walk away entirely if a satisfactory deal couldn't be reached, may well have been an effort to put pressure on Iran as negotiations went down to the wire. Many in Washington said they still didn't expect the U.S. administration to think of resorting to force any time soon.

    A preference for diplomacy

    With the announcement of the deal on Thursday, Obama seemed very disinclined to consider military force. He used some of his most forceful language yet to warn about the downsides of military action in defending the framework agreement from critics who have suggested other paths would do more to constrain Iran.
    "We can bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, thereby starting another war in the Middle East and setting back Iran's program by a few years. In other words, setting it back by a fraction of the time that this deal will set it back," he said in the Rose Garden right after the deal was brokered. "Meanwhile, we'd ensure that Iran would raise their head to try and build a bomb."
    He asked rhetorically, "Do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented, backed by the world's major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?"
    McInnis said Obama wouldn't start seriously considering a military option unless the talks were heading for a dead end.
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    "I don't see the White House actually going there right now unless things change," he said. "If the President does not see a deal on the horizon, I think [he'll bring] back the military option."
    Obama has committed to keeping Iran from securing a nuclear weapon, and despite the limits of military action and his preference for diplomacy, there's a chance Tehran could force his hand.
    To keep the military option viable, the United States has been pushing for the final deal with Iran to secure a one-year breakout time -- keeping Iran at least a year away from producing enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb.
    The one-year breakout framework would give the United States and its international partners more time to exhaust diplomatic measures -- from more negotiations to additional sanctions -- before considering the last-resort military option.
    Hertling pointed out that a military strike isn't an easy or automatic solution, pointing out that it's "an act of war."
    He pushed back against the notion that "if things go wrong, we can just attack and bomb that nuclear facility and everything will be OK." Instead, he said, many intermediary steps would be needed.
    Hertling stressed, "There's a whole lot of range between a deal going bad and bombing."