Archive for February, 2012

How the US enables the Iranian bomb

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012
The "Little Boy": a simple fission bomb of the type that destroyed Hiroshima. The Iranian bomb will likely be more sophisticated.

The "Little Boy": a simple fission bomb of the type that destroyed Hiroshima. The Iranian bomb will likely be more sophisticated.

Some years ago I had a job writing code for a large project. Every day my supervisor would come into my office and ask to see my progress. “Can’t you make the program display its opening screen and ‘Ready’ message?” he’d ask. No, I said, I was building data structures and writing subroutines. I was creating building blocks.

He was very unhappy. “You are not performing in this job. I need something to show management,” he said. I told him not to worry, my way of organizing a software development project was different from his.

One day he came in and I showed him that the program was almost complete. He was surprised. “How did you do all that so quickly?” he asked. He had simply assumed that I was goofing off during all those weeks that I was making the pieces. Fitting them together didn’t take long at all.

I think you know where this is going.

A useful nuclear weapon isn’t like a stone axe. It is a system made up of subsystems, which in turn have subsystems. You need the fissionable material, of course, which implies a whole set of systems to prepare it. You need to machine it, store it, handle it. You need a way to create a critical mass quickly, a non-trivial electromechanical problem. You need the appropriate control systems. You need to make it small and light enough and integrate it into a missile warhead or an aircraft system so that it can be delivered. You need to develop ways to simulate and ultimately test the weapon.

Many of the subsystems can be worked on in parallel. The building blocks can be created without assembling them into an actual deliverable weapon until the final stages of the project.

Iran is apparently taking this approach: create as much as possible of the subsystems first, and then put them together at the end.

But some say that there is a substantive difference between what they are doing and a weapons program. Juan Cole suggested in 2009 that Iran was only trying to assemble the technology and materials to build a weapon quickly if and when it decided it wanted one. This, according to Cole, doesn’t violate the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty or Islamic law which supposedly forbids random killing of civilians (both of these are doubtful, but never mind).

US officials have recently been talking like this too:

In Senate testimony on Jan. 31, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, stated explicitly that American officials believe that Iran is preserving its options for a nuclear weapon, but said there was no evidence that it had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon. David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director, concurred with that view at the same hearing. Other senior United States officials, including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made similar statements in recent television appearances. (my emphasis)

This strategy is called ‘nuclear latency’, or the ‘Japan option’, since Japan has the technology, know-how and fissionable material to quickly build weapons if it decides to do so.

So, without the ability to read the minds of the Iranian leaders, how can we tell the difference between getting one’s ducks in a row in case one might want to shoot, and lining them up in order to shoot? Are they engaged in something less than a weapons program or is this only a question of project management methodology?

There is no doubt that Iran is developing technology that can only be used for weapons, as noted in the IAEA report of November 2011. For example, the report describes development of fast-acting detonators and a control system which can be used to fire multiple explosive charges at almost the same instant (within 1 microsecond), something for which there are few applications other than nuclear weapons. There are numerous other experiments and projects that are very highly probable to be weapons-related. Most of this activity was completed by 2005 and it would be naive to assume that there hasn’t been further development in these areas.

Combined with their progress in enrichment, this certainly appears to be a weapons program. To continue the duck metaphor, it looks, walks and quacks like one. But until a device is detonated, it is still logically consistent to say that it is only aimed at obtaining nuclear latency.

This is a perfect justification to do nothing. How is it possible to prove that the program is intended to build a bomb or to do everything except build a bomb? It seems that the administration officials quoted above would require either an official announcement of their intentions from the Iranians or an explosion to convince them the program is for real.

The administration has set a very high bar for proof — unreasonably high.

The Iranian strategy is to play for time, doing as much development as possible without putting the final pieces together. And the administration’s strategy is to play along, assuming that until the final pieces are in place, Iran does not have a weapons program.

The outcome of this cooperative enterprise is guaranteed to be an Iranian bomb, unless Israel takes action.

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