Iran Building Nuclear Capable Missiles in Secret Tunnels: Options for the International Community

November 21, 2005

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile


Raymond Tanter


Iran Policy Committee

Good morning ladies and gentlemen of the press and interested observers.

The Threat

Iran's Growing Capabilities

On one hand, at issue is whether Iran is building nuclear-capable missiles in secret tunnels; and, if so if such construction represents business as usual type practices that are of little consequence. On the other hand, does such construction indicate something like a strategic war plan and therefore is of a greater import.

Assume for the moment that Iran were constructing nuclear-capable missiles in underground locations. In this respect, what are policy options available to the international community to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed missile-bearing state?

Evidence that Iran is in the business plan mode is the Iranian penchant for tunneling. Indeed, Iranians building tunnels is as common as Chinese digging for coal. As a result, Iran over time has dug and maintained a network of over 50,000 tunnels, some of which carry irrigation water from mountains to fields of Eastern Iran.

Given the inclination for tunneling, it is not a surprise to find reports in the press of underground military applications. Consider Jane's Defence Weekly, which published a report May 1, 1996, and the New York Times as well as Associated Press of April 30, 1996, which preceded Janes report.

Such reporting of military applications of tunneling shifts interpretation away from the business as usual to that of long-term strategic war planning. A U.S. Navy Captain, Mark Neuhart, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed these press reports. Neuhart stated that Iran was building tunnels along its Persian Gulf coast as protective storage sites for ballistic missiles. CENTCOM believed there was no evidence then of missiles in the tunnels, but that the tunnels appeared to be for protective storage rather than launch sites.

In November 2004, the news magazine Der Spiegel stated it had obtained documents from an intelligence service that Iran had dug a secret tunnel near an Isfahan facility preparing raw uranium for enrichment, even though operations there had been stopped.

A reason for hiding the facility in a tunnel is that Iran had promised the European Union on November 14, 2004 to halt all activities related to uranium enrichment. In addition, Iran is under legal obligation to disclose nuclear-related activities to the IAEA; hence, Tehran had a motivation to hide its suspect actions underground.

In December 2005, The Daily Telegraph reported that Tehran wanted help to build a large new network of tunnels and caves at a secret location in central Iran. The first stage of the proposed project was to involve construction of 10,000 square meters of underground bunkers. Each bunker would be divided into spaces of 1,000-2,500 square meters, large enough to house equipment needed to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Other indications of war planning is the source of assistance for Irans military tunneling technologyanother state in violation of the nonproliferation regimeNorth Korea.

Admiring Pyongyangs capacity to conceal its nuclear weapons program in spite of being under surveillance by United States satellites, Iran has obtained assistance from North Korea for hiding and dispersing Tehrans missile complexes.

Because North Korea specializes in technology used for construction of underground sites, Iran has cut several deals with to purchase equipment and technology from North Korea. In addition to Iran, moreover, Pyongyang has supplied tunnel-digging equipment for military purposes to states like Saddam Husseins Iraq as well as to Syria and Libya.

As a result of the information revealed at the Nuclear Control Institute-Iran Policy Committee press conference on September 16, 2005 and this IPC-sponsored press conference today, there is detailed evidence on the table that Tehran may be building nuclear-capable missiles at specific sites in Iran. If so, it would demonstrate an increased threat to those states within the Iranian missile envelope.

Unlike mere speculation a decade ago, evidence presented today is explicit and detailed enough to be treated as lead intelligence with which to compare with information derived from independent sources. Verification should be conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency and/or national intelligence services that have agents on the ground or satellite/electronic intercept capability coverage of suspect Iranian sites.

Irans Accelerating Intentions to Use its Capabilities

In a flurry of aggressive pronouncements, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls for destruction of Israel and the makes less direct threats against the United States and moderate Muslim-majority moderate states; senior regime figures, such as the Judiciary Chief, defend those threats as official Iranian policy; and Iranian students again threaten a Western embassy with violence.

These expressions of hostility are not indicative of djà vu all over again. Rather, such hostile expressions reflect Irans intent to engage in strategic war planning.

Options for the International Community

International Diplomacy

Heated rhetoric from Tehran not only occurs against the backdrop of its rapidly-advancing nuclear weapons program but also in the context of failing international diplomacy. Both EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) negotiations have reached impasses, as Iran seeks a complete nuclear fuel cycle.

To avert a complete breakdown in international diplomacy, the United States and its European partners adopted Russias proposal to permit Iran to enrich its own uranium if enrichment were conducted in Russia. But Iran rejected the Russian offer and threatened to deny IAEA inspectors desired access if the IAEA refers Iran to the UN Security Council.

As my colleague Paul Leventhal states on this panel, if Iran accepts the Russian offer, resumes talks with the EU-3, and withdraws its threatened actions in return for non-referral to the Security Council, such an outcome is bound to be a pyrrhic victory for the international communityone achieved with excessive costs, given Tehrans record of concealment and cheating on international agreements. To minimize such costs, it would be wise for the Governing Board of the IAEA to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for action. While proceeding to the United Nations, however, military planning should continue.

Military Action: Bunker-Busting Bombs Delivered via Stealth Aircraft

While diplomacy seems to be failing, military action to destroy Irans nuclear facilities also looks infeasible. Nevertheless, military action should be left on the table to reinforce diplomatic initiatives.

Underground tunnels that hide Irans nuclear program from the prying eyes of the IAEA also complicate military action against nuclear facilities and missile complexes. Irans facilities are hidden, hardened, and dispersed so as to make it difficult for military strikes to destroy the facilities. Although Stealth airplanes might be able to penetrate the radar systems of Iran, it is unclear whether it would be possible for the bombs to penetrate Irans underground nuclear and missile facilities.

One military option is the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, which may have the capability to destroy hardened deeply-buried targets. That is, bunker busting bombs could destroy tunnels and other underground facilities. But the Pentagons 2001 Nuclear Posture Review states that over 70 countries employ underground facilities for military purposes, while the United States lacks sufficient means to destroy these facilities. In addition, the Non-Proliferation Treaty bans use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, such as Iran. Such a prohibition might not apply as much to Israel. In this respect, the United States has sold Israel bunker busting bombs, which keeps the military option on the table.

Empowering the Iranian People via the Pro-Democracy Opposition

Ramping up rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution while building up the military might of the regime is business unusual in Tehran. To do business with Iran at a time of its hot language and military buildup follows Tehrans war planning, which the West needs to disrupt. As German strategist Helmut von Moltke observed, No plan survives contact with the enemy. By empowering the Iranian people to change their own regime the West can alter Tehrans war planning.

Empowerment requires working with Iranian opposition groups in general and with the main opposition in particular. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) are not only the best source for intelligence on Irans potential violations of the nonproliferation regime. The NCRI and MEK are also a possible ally of the West in bringing about regime change in Tehran.


In view of Irans growing capabilities, accelerating intentions to use its capabilities, failing international diplomacy, and infeasible military action against Iran, the most promising option may be to empower the Iranian people by working with the pro-democracy opposition.

To avoid having to choose between failing diplomacy and infeasible military action, the international community should place regime change in Tehran on the diplomatic table.

But the international community should realize that there is only one group to which the regime pays attention and fearsthe Mujahedeen-e Khalq and the political coalition of which the MEK is a partthe National Council of Resistance of Iran. By delisting the NCRI and MEK from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations listing maintained by the Department of State, it would allow regime change to be on the table in Tehran. With regime change in the open, Tehran would have to face a choice about whether to slow down in its drive to acquire nuclear weapons or not.