The United States does not possess conventional armament powerful enough to destroy Iran's deeply hidden nuclear facilities, U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal late Friday, with American Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying Washington was "still trying" to develop more powerful bombs.
Late last year, Bloomberg reported that the U.S. Air Force received new 15-ton bombs capable of destroying deep underground bunkers, ahead of a possible attack on Iran's nuclear plants.
The bombs, designed to be delivered by B-2 stealth bombers and called Massive Ordnance Penetrators (MOP), "will meet requirements for the current operational need," U.S. Air Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jack Miller said in a statement in November.
However, speaking to the Wall Street Journal on Friday, U.S. officials estimated that even the 15-ton bombs would not be powerful to put a full stop to Iran's nuclear program, either because of some of the facilities' depth or their newly added fortifications.
One unnamed officials said Pentagon analysts estimated that currently held conventional bombs would not be effective against Iran's enrichment plant in Fordo, adding that a tactical nuclear would be the only option if Washington sought to destroy the facility.
"Once things go into the mountain, then really you have to have something that takes the mountain off," the official told the Wall Street Journal.
Speaking of the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, one official indicated that the U.S.' MOPs could suffice, adding, however, that "even that is guesswork."
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, the U.S. defense secretary referred to the need to develop bombs potent enough to pierce Iran's defenses, saying: "We're still trying to develop them," Mr. Panetta said.
Should Washington decide to use the MOP anyway, Panetta added, it could cause "a lot of damage" to Iran's hidden facilities, adding, however, that the bunker busters wouldn't necessarily destroy them outright.
"We're developing it. I think we're pretty close, let's put it that way. But we're still working at it because these things are not easy to be able to make sure that they will do what we want them to," Panetta added, saying: "But I'm confident, frankly, that we're going to have that capability and have it soon."
Despite questions regarding the MOP's ability permanently damage Iran' nuclear facilities, one U.S. security official speaking to the Wall Street Journal said that "the Massive Ordnance Penetrators are by no means the only capability at our disposal to deal with potential nuclear threats in Iran."
Another official said that the U.S. make up for the MOPs' current inability by using them in tandem with other guided weapons against a bunker's entry and exit points—provided, however, that U.S. intelligence is aware of the position of those openings.
New reports about the current American inability to end Iran's nuclear ambitions with a conventional strike came after, earlier Friday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the world must quickly stop Iran from reaching the point where even a "surgical" military strike could not block it from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Amid fears that Israel is nearing a decision to attack Iran's nuclear program, Barak said tougher international sanctions are needed against Tehran's oil and banks so that "we all will know early enough whether the Iranians are ready to give up their nuclear weapons program."
Iran insists its atomic program is only aimed at producing energy and research, but has repeatedly refused to consider giving up its ability to enrich uranium.
"We are determined to prevent Iran from turning nuclear. And even the American president and opinion leaders have said that no option should be removed from the table and Iran should be blocked from turning nuclear," Barak old reporters during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.
"It seems to us to be urgent, because the Iranians are deliberately drifting into what we call an immunity zone where practically no surgical operation could block them," he said.
Barak called it "a challenge for the whole world" to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran but stopped short of confirming any action that could further stoke Washington's concern about a possible Israeli military strike.
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