The leaks of classified material – published in today’s NYT and elsewhere – make it clear that something really did happen to Iran’s nuclear weapons strategy in 2003, something that was recently unearthed and partly corroborated, but that persuaded 13 of the 16 Intel agencies to revise downwards the threat profile associated with Iran’s nuclear bomb ambitions. The reservations of the 3 agencies are reasonable and should give us pause.
Predictably, many on the “wobbly right” (a reference to British Prime Minister M. Thatcher’s scold) and the loony left (yes there are still some sane members of the left) have seized on the occasion to pretend that, once again, we were misled by our own government. The truth is that we are being misled, once again, by our enemies.
HOW TO BUILD YOUR OWN A-BOMB –
THE N I E REVISITED
THE NIE HAS PROVIDED NO GROUNDS FOR ANY RATIONAL OBSERVER TO THINK THAT IRAN SIMPLY ABANDONED ITS ATOMIC BOMB AMBITIONS.
Building Your Own A-bomb
Natural uranium is not fissile, i.e., it can’t be simply aggregated into the critical mass needed for an atomic fission reaction to become self sustaining – which is what happens in the melt down and explosion scenarios. What is needed to make that happen is a high concentration of the rare isotope, Uranium 235.
When large scale industrial processes increase the 235 concentration from the natural 1% to about 3 to 5%, a suitable fission reaction can be induced by bringing the 235 enriched fuel rods close together. This is how reactors generate power.
Managing an A-bomb explosion is much trickier.
First, the 235 concentration needs to be increased to weapons grade – about 90%. Then a new problem appears – one that had stumped the WWII Nazis and Russians. Just how does one manage to keep the sub-critical mass components safely separated and how then can they be brought together suddenly and precisely enough to bet a real explosion instead of a large meltdown? Thanks to Pakistan’s notorious A Q Kahn, that part of the bomb making recipe has been distributed, like some malevolent Johnny Appleseed, to Korea and – intelligence now believes – to Iran.
In WWII “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were the nicknames of the a-bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Little Boy had a highly enriched uranium core and Fat Man had a plutonium core. Fat Man was much more powerful, but plutonium is much more difficult to refine than weapons grade plutonium.
It’s the Regime, Stupid
Not enough plutonium occurs in nature for bomb making, but it can be created out of depleted uranium. Pipes of depleted uranium (U 238, not fissile) can be “cooked” in peaceful nuclear reactors into a new metal that -via the alchemy of neutron bombardment – is a mix of U-238 and Plutonium-239. The latter is prime bomb material, in part because of its greater explosive potential per pound. It turns out that the used fuel rods of so-called “peaceful” reactors can be reprocessed for use in atomic bombs. Any country with a nuclear industry can – given the resources and time – make weapons grade plutonium from spent fuel rods. Canada ran a plutonium extraction plant near Ottawa, selling the product to the US military.
This brings up the central issue. No one fears Canada. Every rational player in the western security community fears Iran. Any country that has a nuclear program will be able, over time, to divert the products of its own peaceful nuclear activities into bombs. The key is whether we are talking about rational, responsible regimes or the other kind.
The current regime in Iran is the other kind.
Natanz – The Nuclear Trojan Horse
Iran maintains a huge well fortified uranium enrichment site at Natanz, a short drive south east of the city of Kashan. Most of the facility is underground. They are reportedly running (or soon will be running) about 50,000 centrifuges (used to separate/concentrate the U235). That’s a lot of centrifuges, even by first world standards. The underground part of the facility alone is about 60,000 square meters.
Teheran had declared that it wants Iran to become “self sufficient” in nuclear power over the next two decades (a worthy goal, say, for the US or a post terror Iran).
A facility this large is much bigger than one just intended for weapons making, but its very size makes it easy to do both at once without detection.
In late 2006, the IAEA found that, among other “suspicious activities” the Iranian regime had possession of “diagrams showing how to mold uranium metal into the shape of nuclear warheads and other traces of highly enriched uranium at sites linked to military research”.
MSNBC reported in November the same year that “Tehran has shrugged off both Security Council demands that it stop developing its enrichment programs and urgings that it cease construction of a heavy water research reactor that produces plutonium waste. It insists it wants enrichment only to generate nuclear power and says it needs the Arak research reactor to produce isotopes for medical research and cancer treatment.”
About That Syrian Faculty
Every Middle East security expert will tell you that Syria is Iran’s client. In this context, then, what are we to make of that mysterious facility 50 miles from the Iraq border that jets from the IDF blew up in September? Intelligence reports converge here: Syrian military personnel and Korean technicians on site, satellite images capturing a rapid Syrian site cleanup after the bombing, apparently right down to the dirt. This was no aspirin factory, and Israel’s special forces and air assets don’t pick targets casually.
What Really Happened in 2003?
I now think that a combination of budget pressures and worries about the very kind of attack that Israel visited on Syria led Iran to decide to continue its nuclear weapons program by hiding it in the open, cloaked within its civilian reactor program
Iran already has access to the bomb assembly technology. All that remains is to acquire or make the fissile bomb core material.
Iran will be proceeding on two fronts: (1) to buy weapons grade fissile material on the black market (2) to bleed off the necessary material over time from their “civilian” program at Natanz and possibly elsewhere.
Nothing has changed. We were deterring the Iranian regime before by making plain that: A. If necessary, the US will destroy suspected nuclear bomb facilities before they can generate weapons to be used against us or our friends. B. In the meantime we insist on transparency and meaningful oversight. Never forget: They seek a fait accompli.