How the US enables the Iranian bomb

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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3 Responses to “How the US enables the Iranian bomb”

  1. Robman says:

    Right on target, as usual, Vic.

    But not just the U.S. Most of the West.

    There is an anti-Semitic element in this, but that is a minor supporting factor. That is part of the larger rationale for “doing nothing”, the knee-jerk stereotype of the ‘hypersensitive, paranoid Jews’. Add a dollop of a more recent Jewish-related stereotype, with a modern Israeli “package”: “Those ‘trigger happy’ Israelis'”.

    The larger issue is a massive exercise in unbelievable, abject cowardice.

    The West doesn’t want to do anything, because doing something necessarily means an ugly, expensive confrontation. No matter how well it turns out in the end, between here and there is a big spike in oil prices, a huge – if temporary – shock to the world economy, and some blood and a lot more national treasure spent in yet another war against a Moslem country, and these never seem to turn out as we would like.

    We don’t seem to “win” such wars; they start out with a lot of impressive fireworks and wind up with an ugly, drawn out fight against a bunch of savage terrorists who can’t really do that much to us in the greater scheme of things, but they can expensively tie up our military, and once that phase gets under way, it never seems to end.

    Why can’t we “win” despite all our advantages in money, technology, and firepower?

    Same reason we couldn’t win in Vietnam, despite all the same advantages.

    Our enemy a) would sacrifice just about anything to win; they really BELIEVED in what they were doing, b) we aren’t sure what the heck we believe in any more and what is worth sacrificing anything for, c) they know how to manipulate public opinion in our own society using this leverage.

    They make us look like the big bad bully to our own people, make us feel guilty, and at the same time, make us feel that the price they will exact against us, even if it is small compared to what we can do to them, is a lot more than we are willing to pay.

    The only developed Western country that can’t afford to be taken in by this dynamic, in the here and now, is – you guessed it – Israel. For them, it is obviously “victory or death”. How inconvenient for the rest of the Western world, to have someone in our number who actually must defend themselves!

    This doesn’t mean we in the rest of the West are any safer, in an ultimate long-term sense than Israel. We are only safer for the immediate moment (well, unless you were on one of the planes hijacked on 9-11).

    It only means we have the apparent luxury of indulging our own ignorance and wishful thinking a bit longer. That is all.

    If Iran really does get a deliverable nuclear weapon, it may not be very much longer at all.

    Since that would really make us in the rest of the West have to sit up and consider the kind of threats Israel faces every day – assuming we’d even accept that the bomb could be used against us as easily as Israel, which some won’t even acknowledge – it is imperative that we “wish” this threat away. We have to rationalize it out of existence.

    It is amazing how far we’ve sunk as a civilization, in terms of will and moral certainty as to what the heck we stand for, are willing to fight for.

    70 years ago, imperfect as we were, we knew. We knew with religious certainty, that we were better than the Imperial Japanese, that we were better than the Nazis, we weren’t going to let them bulldoze their way into controlling the world, and we sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives in a comparatively short time to make damn sure they didn’t win. And we would not stop unitl we defeated them utterly. No matter what it took.

    Yes, we’d pay a price, but we could squash Iran like a bug, and we could do it with only a small fraction of the kind of sacrifices we made during WW2. We could have imposed our will on Iraq, too. Yes, we’d have had to probably engage in methods to do so that would make for a lot of nasty articles in The Nation magazine, and Hollywood types would have been aghast, etc., but we could have done that. We could have done the same with Afghanistan/Pakistan. The America of the 1950s surely would have, given the same circumstances.

    If the Saudis, back then, had been found to be subsidizing organizations like Al Queda, and these organizations hijacked airliners and flew them into our buildings in say, 1941, we’d have bombed them into the stone age and occupied their country and hunted down every radical fundamentalist Moslem cleric and shot them down like the dogs they are.

    If the Pakistanis, back then, were aiding and abetting something like the Taliban/Al Queda in Afghanistan, who were immediately responsible for such an atrocity against us, we’d have teamed up with India and rolled over them like a lawnmower going over dandelions.

    And so now, this little junkyard dog punk regime in Iran is getting ready to make nuclear weapons so as to make sure that we’ll pay a HELL of a lot higher price to confront them in the near future than we’d pay right now, and since we can’t even face that much smaller price now, they laugh like hell at us and go full speed ahead to get their nukes, all but salivating at the thought of how they’ll be able to extort us then they can make us pay that much higher price for interfering with whatever lunacy they conceive of.

    But, inconvenient little Israel can’t afford to play that game. What a bunch of party poopers. Can’t be complete pussies like the rest of us. How embarassing, having them show us up for the wimps we are. We have to talk them out of this before it is too late!

    What an incredibly dark, low, and dishonest time this is.

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    This piece raises many questions.
    What does it mean to have all subsystems ready?
    Is there a way of assembling the subsystems without revealing this to outside observers?
    How long does it take from ‘having the subsystems’ to putting it together and having a deliverable weapon a missile? Again can this process be done covertly?
    Is ‘testing’ required before one has an operable weapon? And again is this something which can be done without their being outside observation and scrutiny?
    Is it conceivable that Iran could put together a number of weapons in a very brief time and launch them without any detection whatsoever, and without preemption on the part of Israel or the U.S.?

  3. Vic Rosenthal says:

    Only an actual explosion is 100% detectable. It is very hard to know what is going on underground when inspectors have been kicked out, so a great deal of work can go on undetected. Computer simulations are also useful. Lots of testing can be carried out “dry” without actually creating a nuclear explosion.

    Missile testing with dummy warheads would be necessary and hard to hide.

    I am not a nuclear bomb engineer (!) but my guess is that a weapon can be developed undetected, lacking only a final test.

    Of course, I am only talking about information that can be gathered without ‘human intelligence’. Most likely there would be leaks if the program got that far.

    The chances of them getting to the point of launching a weapon without detection are probably slim. The weapon would also have to hit its target and actually work without testing. Keep in mind also that the retaliation for such an attack would be far worse for the Iranians than any preemptive attacks.

    There is no doubt in my mind that Iran is committed to getting a bomb and that Israel will stop them preemptively. The only question is ‘when’.