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February 04, 2010

Comments

Hey, this isn't an NIE, this is Blair's Worldwide Threat assessment. Unless I'm missing something, I don't think a new NIE on Iran has been completed.

Crap Spencer, you're right. I blame Steve Hynd!

Thanks for the quick check. I'm a bad blogger.

How is it even remotely possible that military action--anywhere--is still being bandied about as a reasonable course of action? Are we just not spending enough money we don't have yet? (Leaving aside ethical and humanitarian issues, that is.)

Don't blame me, blame ISIS. It's right there in the URL for their PDF version.

Regards, Steve

PS: Arms control wonk reads the tea leaves. Short version: it reaffirms the 2007 NIE, sorta. http://trunc.it/5bzi2

Just a joke of course Mssr. Hynd. My own damn fault.

Third reason: it's a stick to use in diplomacy. If Iran has virtual nuclear capacity but doesn't move forward, then provoking them into moving forward would be bad for the US, Israel, etc.

But your first reason isn't a reason for stopping at virtual capacity; it's just a general argument for developing on the nuclear weapons track. And virtual nukes do have a big disadvantage- it takes a while to bring them online, so they can't be used to react to eg a major military move by the US along the lines of the Iraqi invasion.

Nuclear weapon related program activities?

And virtual nukes do have a big disadvantage- it takes a while to bring them online, so they can't be used to react to eg a major military move by the US along the lines of the Iraqi invasion.

I'm wondering about this CW. The buildup to the invasion took many, many months. It takes a while to position that much material and manpower to ensure overwhelming force.

On the other hand, Afghanistan was very quick and dirty to start with. But I don't think Iran is conducive to such a light force structure, nor are there locals as amenable as the northern alliance.

I've been an advocate of the "virtual deterrent" theory around here before (to some mockery as I recall), but I'm not sure that the factors that make it practical for, say, Japan or Germany also apply in Iran. Japanese and German nuclear expertise vastly exceeds that available in Iran. Iran has, what, 1 or 2 operating reactors? Japan has 53 reactors, Germany has dozens, both have physics research establishments that are much more extensive than those of Iran.

The virtual deterrent idea relies on the ability to produce a working bomb without testing. That's something Japan and Germany are probably capable of. It's much less clear that Iran is capable of that or would be confident that it had a working design without testing. (Even if they had received plans from Pakistan, there would always be suspicion that they were subtly sabotaged until a test was conducted.)

It took Pakistan 25 years to produce a working nuclear weapon, and they had a nuclear-armed state right next door providing a strong incentive, and a lot less outside interference in their ability to run reactors, process uranium, and conduct tests. It took Britain 7 years and they benefited from early cooperation with the US; it took France 15 years. Again, in both those cases they had much less outside interference in running reactors, obtaining fuel, and so on.

So the idea that Iran is imminently going to be able to build a bomb is probably silly. On the other hand if they are allowed to finish building their enrichment plants and reactors and so on, and to run them uninterrupted, they will eventually be able to do so. So far the measures taken against Iran seem to have been fairly effective in substantially slowing down the program.

Airstrikes would provide an excellent incentive for a crash program to develop a working weapon with far more of the country's resources devoted to it, so since the current program of irritating sanctions, financial measures, and multilateral pressure seems to be working reasonably well, all one can really hope for is to slow it down long enough that Iran changes enough that it no longer seems like a reasonable course of action - which is what happened to South Africa, so it's not a totally unprecedented hope.

I'm not sure that the factors that make it practical for, say, Japan or Germany also apply in Iran. Japanese and German nuclear expertise vastly exceeds that available in Iran. Iran has, what, 1 or 2 operating reactors? Japan has 53 reactors, Germany has dozens, both have physics research establishments that are much more extensive than those of Iran.

I don't see how the number of operating reactors is relevant. If you have any brains at all, you standardize reactor designs, so that running one reactor gives you no more operational knowledge than running a thousand reactors. In any event, I don't see how expertise in operating a reactor is relevant to bomb design. They are...very different skills.

As for physics research establishments, again, I don't see the relevance. A simple bomb (i.e., one that has not been miniaturized) requires basic physics and lots of engineering knowledge. In my experience, advanced physics research groups don't necessarily have tons of practical engineering knowledge.

Given that South Africa was able to build a bomb, I don't see why Iran would be incapable of doing so.

I don't see how expertise in operating a reactor is relevant to bomb design. They are...very different skills.

I was using number of reactors as a rough proxy for the number of nuclear scientists in a country. Standardization or no. Bomb design is a different specialty to reactor design, but in a country without a nuclear weapons establishment, the nuclear scientists from the power industry & physics establishment are going to be the ones tapped for bomb design, and there are incomparably more of them in Japan and Germany than in Iran.

But I agree Iran will eventually be able to build a bomb. I said so. What I was saying is that I don't think they would consider themselves to possess a virtual deterrent without a test, because they don't have the depth and sophistication in their nuclear scientific establishment. Almost all other nations that actively pursued a bomb have also tested them, except for South Africa and Israel, and there is some question about the last two.

I'm wondering about this CW. The buildup to the invasion took many, many months. It takes a while to position that much material and manpower to ensure overwhelming force.

Good point. Some circumstances might require a quicker response (say, the Israelis nuking Tehran), and even with the invasion buildup, do you want to be trying to finish your nuke while the US is bombing the crap out of anything remotely related to your nuke program? You might make it, you might not. Whereas a tested nuke in hand is a relatively sure thing, and a lot easier to protect from airstrikes.

So far, the only pros I can see to virtual capability
1)don't have to change the earlier ruling on nukes (seems like a minor objection, really)
2)doesn't rile the international community as much as actual nukes/tests

Doesn't seem like a great deal, compared to the guaranteed deterrent of a provable nuke.

Maybe they go ahead and build some nukes, but don't test them. Let everyone know that they're there, under the table. Untested they might not work, but they'd work pretty darn well as a deterrent regardless.

As a technical matter, there are a number of different designs of nuclear weapons with different tradeoffs. Unsurprisingly, the principal tradeoff is efficiency vs. complexity.

Were I running a crash program with a short deadline and limited opportunity for testing, I'd pursue either a gun-style (Little Boy) or 2-point linear implosion design. Both are simple but inefficient. The Manhattan project had enough confidence in the gun-style design that they skipped testing, I believe South Africa did the same.

The problem with these designs is that they have poor efficiency. They require a comparatively large amount of expensive U235 or Pu and don't produce the blast of more complex designs.

To pursue a real weapons program, of course, you'd want to use designs that 1) used scarce fissile material more efficiently and 2) produced bombs with greater power. This leads to Fat Man-type implosion bombs and eventually multi-stage devices.

From a technical perspective, any country with reactors and the expertise to separate Uranium isotopes or extract Plutonium is essentially at the threshold of producing (inefficient) weapons.

If its plan used a simple-but-inefficient design, Iran would have some reason to consider itself to have a deterrent, even without tests.

(There's no reason to believe it could achieve first strike (or even second strike) capability without testing.)

A nearly-assembled bomb is not distinguishable from one on the rack. They can put it together at their leisure. We'd find out about it as the missile is launched.

The government and society of Japan is not like Iran; Cooperation is at a different level. The level of trust is different.

Since nobody can be sure they haven't assembled it, we all have to take the precaution of acting as if it is already assembled.

I assume the US knows if a warhead can be miniaturized to fit the one-ton payload of Iran's current missiles, or if testing is required. But we may not know of all the technical help they are getting from outside. For example, China gave excellent technical support to Pakistan in it's nuclear weapons development. Who knew?

A virtual warhead is just one that hasn't been launched. Yet.

Also, it's important to remember that Iran's nuclear weapons program is not for defense or deterrent. There isn't anybody who wants to invade Iran who is waiting around until after Iran gets nukes. The regime is 31 years old, everybody who wants to invade has already tried. That means Saddam, and he's dead.

The only international opposition Iran has, is caused by it's nuclear weapons program. So clearly the weapons aren't going to make Iran safer.

International opposition maybe but the US always kept the threat of war on the table since the Islamic revolution. Parts of the Bush administration wanted to invade Iran and stated so unambiguously. If Iraq had not been such as disaster, my money would have been on it to already have happened by now. And the nuclear threat was not the main reason for such invasion plans but on the one hand the desire to control Iran's resources (and, more important, to keep China from it) and on the other the assumed Iranian threat to the flow of oil through the gulf (which at least has a precedent to be based on). A regime that has reasons to think that the enemy is prevented from going to war with it only by its incompetence and distraction by other, similar, actions would presumably (and imo justifiably) feel safer, if it had a tool of revenge (and be it posthumous revenge).
As I have said on an earlier occasion, it would be a nice touch, if a timed nuke would explode right under the victory parade of the invaders in the capital city, preferably with the invader's leader(s) present.

Thanks Hartmut.

Also, it's important to remember that Iran's nuclear weapons program is not for defense or deterrent. There isn't anybody who wants to invade Iran who is waiting around until after Iran gets nukes.

Today. Nobody wants to invade today. Or, nobody in power wants to invade today. I don't know how you could be so certain about what threats Iran will face 10 years from now. I understand that you're willing to be cavalier with the safety of the government and people of Iran, but you ought to understand that they don't share that attitude.

The only international opposition Iran has, is caused by it's nuclear weapons program. So clearly the weapons aren't going to make Iran safer.

And we have always been at war with Eurasia.

After a while, having assimilated the datum that the biggest holder of WMD overkill on the planet is distracting everyone with errant absolute rot and drivel about who constitutes a threat, I find it harder to be patient with the decades-long fact-free repetition of same.
http://opitslinkfest.blogspot.com/2009/12/20-dec-mission-in-afghanistanetc.html

Unless people can get it into their heads that "bombing Theran" is the same as "bombing New York" or "bombing Paris", I fear the worst. There are actual people living there, going to work, studying at university, going skiing, having parties, going shopping, falling in love - just like we do. I feel silly pointing that out, but it seems necessary.

indeed

@Carleton Wu:
By your logic, all the nations of the earth should have nuclear weapons. Everybody else has been hoping to move to a nuclear-free world someday. Or do you think Iran is planning on making new enemies by it's behavior?

@Hartmut:
If oil were the goal, then conquering Iraq would have been a lot easier than installing democracy. Just slice off the oil fields and let the dictator stay in charge of an impoverished country.

If the war in Iraq (or the goal for Iran) were to exclude the Chinese, it's a strange way to go about it. China now has excellent access to Mideast oil, thanks to Uncle Sam. China just signed 2 lucrative oil deals with Iraq according to this Businessweek article:
http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D9DK2FH01.htm
And also see this article from CFR:
http://www.cfr.org/publication/15765/china_reaps_benefits_from_our_5year_war_in_iraq.html

The US doesn't need to invade Iran or Iraq to keep the waterways open. The US Navy can do it from sea very nicely.

And your implication that Iran's nuclear weapons program is a reaction to US intervention in Iraq is the opposite of logical. Iran's nuclear program, in various forms, started in the 1950's. Iran benefited from the Gulf War of 1990. Khomeini died in 1989, right before that war, so no single event can be tied to later buildups. See this history for a rundown:
http://www.newsweek.com/id/146950/page/1

Iran has no defensive need for nuclear weapons. Iran has no domestic energy shortage. Iran hides and lies about it's nuclear work. Iran has several series of ballistic missiles that are only useful for carrying WMDs. Your analysis fails.

Iran would prefer to sell its oil instead of burning it domestically. The US agreed with that while the Shah was still in power and sold nuclear technology to his regime.
That there are other ways to keep the sea lanes open did/does not change the desires of certain parts of the US political establishment. When the invasion idea became unfeasible there still was the openly discussed plan to Copenhagen the Iranian navy daring Iran to retaliate.
Also that the Iraq war strengthened the hands of both Iran and China has nothing to do with the motivations. Otherwise one would have to claim that Hitler wanted to turn the Soviet Union into a superpower becasue his invasion had that result.
As for slicing off the oil fields: the Bush administration discussed plans to take the Shiite provinces of Saudi Arabia (that's where the oil is) and to give them to Iraq in order to control the oil through the puppets in Baghdad. So, the scenario is anything but absurd (although it should be).

Thanks again Hartmut, for saving me the time.

Funny argument about Iraq: the results prove our intentions! (nevermind that "democracy" wasn't supposed to kick in for several years, if that, pending a US "viceroyship" - it was only after Sistani said, and I quote, "Hells no" that the US agreed to expedited elections along the lines that Sistani demanded.)

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