February 21, 2012

MIGHT WANT TO CHOOSE ANOTHER METAPHOR:

Crying wolf about an Iranian nuclear bomb (JACQUES E. C. HYMANS, 17 JANUARY 2012, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)

It is one thing for Iran to want nuclear weapons; it is an entirely different matter for it to actually build them. Even taking the darkest possible view of Iranian nuclear intentions, the historical record provides ample reason to doubt that Iran is on the verge of entering the nuclear weapons club.

As strategic analysts Anthony Cordesman and Khalil al-Rodhan remind us, in the 1990s, high-level American and Israeli policymakers repeatedly warned of an Iranian bomb by the year 2000. When that did not come to pass, policymakers warned of an Iranian bomb by the year 2005. Then they said it would happen by 2010. Now the talk puts Iran's nuclear debut in the 2013-2015 time frame, if not sooner.

The story of the boy who cried wolf comes to mind.

This is not to deny that the Iranian regime has made some progress toward the bomb during its quarter-century of intensive nuclear efforts. Most notably, Iran has accumulated a decent amount of low-enriched uranium, enriched to about 3 percent, and a small amount enriched to around 20 percent. The country has recently embarked on a major campaign to build up its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, and once this is accomplished, Iran will be well-positioned to amass a significant quantity of bomb-grade, 90 percent enriched uranium. Bottom line: Today, Iran is about halfway to its putative goal; not many countries have been able to make it even this far.

That being said, however, it is crucial to recognize that the quality of Iran's nuclear workmanship has been consistently poor, so it has been able to progress at no more than a snail's pace.

For instance, Iran imported powerful Pakistani P2 centrifuge models in the mid-1990s, but it was not until 2011 that it finally began using a version of them in its enrichment drive. Even now, the vast majority of the Iranian enrichment effort relies on the very inefficient Pakistani P1 centrifuge design. 

Indeed, in recent years -- despite the headlines about Iranian nuclear progress -- its number of working gas centrifuges has actually been declining, due to wear and tear, poor maintenance, a lack of spare parts, and impure feedstock. (As of 2005, Iran's uranium hexafluoride gas feedstock was still not much better than "garbage.")  As a result, even before the devastating 2010 Stuxnet virus attacks, the Iranian program was already experiencing a "tremendous slowing down," in the words of former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen.

Is it really reasonable to expect such low-quality, brittle technical infrastructure to create a single, Hiroshima-size nuclear device -- let alone a bona fide nuclear weapons arsenal?

In the story a wolf eventually shows up. In reality, North Korea doesn't even have nukes yet.

Posted by at February 21, 2012 5:20 PM
  

blog comments powered by Disqus
« IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW MANY TIMES YOU GET IT WRONG, YOU'LL GET IT RIGHT EVENTUALLY: | Main | MODERATE IS AS MODERATE DOES: »