Nuclear Mangos

This blog is intended to provide reliable technical analysis of nuclear issues with non-state actors and nuclear beginner states. Some technical issues have important policy implications that citizens in a democracy should be able to make informed decisions about. The motivation for the blog has been the incredible amount of lies & hyperbole on the Iran situation of early 2006. The blog title is to remind you constantly of the quality of minds in charge of our nuclear security today.

Location: MA

Until recently I was a physics professor at Harvard, where I taught the nuclear and particle physics course, among others. I've recently left that position to work as an R&D physicist in security applications. I have never done classified weapons work.

Monday, December 03, 2007


I'm having a very disorienting experience reading the just-released declassified summary of the Iran NIE. A document has been released from this Administration which seems in solid contact with reality and with which I find myself largely in agreement. More than that, the points of disagreement probably find me a tiny bit more hawkish than the document.

The key conclusions are (emphasis mine):

A. We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

B. We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.

C. We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program. Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them.
• We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.
• We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of
producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.
(INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of
foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.) All agencies recognize the
possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015.

We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo
the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many
within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible.

H. We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial
capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.

I really can't disagree with any of that--except possibly the importation of some weapons-grade material. It's possible that by that, they are referring to what is likely Pakistani contamination of imported centrifuges.

But in the main: they don't seem to be building a weapon now. They really couldn't build a weapon before 2009 at the earliest, and perhaps as late as 2013. Actions to date have shown that it may be possible for the cost-benefit calculus of the Iranian leadership to conclude that weapons are not in their best interest. All that said, they may very well be pursuing a breakout capability and seem very likely to acheive that by 2013-2015 at the latest. And that said, if Iran wants a weapon, we can't really stop them.

If that to you sounds like a situation in which you should be fueling up the F-18's, then I think you need to understand more about what is wrong with the 1% doctrine.

It's also useful to ask: what's different this time? After all, the summary of the Iraq WMD NIE was completely wrong. (A fact which the Cheney factions are going to use to argue that we must act now in Iran. The irony is killing me.) There has been some evidence that the classified full report on WMD was not nearly so inaccurate as the summary.

Here are the key conclusions of the Iraq NIE:

  • If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year.
  • Without such material from abroad, Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until 2007 to 2009, owing to inexperience in building and operating centrifuge facilities to produce highly enriched uranium and challenges in procuring the necessary equipment and expertise.
    • Most agencies believe that Saddam's personal interest in and Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotors--as well as Iraq's attempts to acquire magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools--provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program. (DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is underway but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.)
    • Iraq's efforts to re-establish and enhance its cadre of weapons personnel as well as activities at several suspect nuclear sites further indicate that reconstitution is underway.
    • All agencies agree that about 25,000 centrifuges based on tubes of the size Iraq is trying to acquire would be capable of producing approximately two weapons' worth of highly enriched uranium per year.
The first of these points is inane. If I acquired sufficient fissile material from abroad, along with a tidily-sized grant to hire enough of the right people and to equip a spiffy new lab and to buy enough pizza to keep everyone in the lab 18 hours a day, I could build a weapon in a few months to a year. (Or so I think. But making sure of that is exactly the point of the lab!)

Iran, a relatively wealthier national government with a larger technically trained populace, has been pursuing their (civilian) enrichment program, with outside aid, operational experience, and no difficulties obtaining equipment, since 2002. Five years later, it is hobbling along (see below) an has a minimum of another two years to go. That's at least seven years from go for a program with outside aid and no constraints imposed by the need to operate clandestinely. That puts in a pretty clear light how likely it was that Iraq would be able to run a clandestine operation to produce weapons in a shorter time.

Also, I highlighted the DOE portion in the third point. Most people think that the DoD makes nuclear weapons, but actually, in the US, it's the DOE. If DOE is telling you the tubes are not for enrichment, they are the ones who would know. That knocks out, in turn, the third and fifth subpoint. What are you left with? The entire Iraq WMD argument is left resting on the fourth point--the observation that there are more people and activities at some sites suspected of being nuclear. That's so shoddy that embarrassing doesn't even cover it.

This time around is very different. Which is to say, the NIE is not obvious fantasy. Unlike Iraq, Iran is indisputably actually operating enrichment cascades. The Iranian enrichment rate capability is, within a large but containable uncertainty, quantitatively known. This has allowed technical, third-party groups such as ISIS to make technically credible estimates of when enough uranium will have been enriched to make weapons-grade material available. These are not the sort of wild-guesses of the Iraq NIE about what bogeymen in the dark might be doing, but rather based on known quantitative data on an operational program. That's a world of difference.

Among the ISIS observations is that the enrichment rate acheived to date implies very large down-times and therefore likely considerable technical difficulties. Their conclusion is that should Iran run flat out, without concern for the long-term survival of the cascades, and without any concern for external political ramifications, and without any further technical difficulties, then they might able to build a small number of weapons at the end of 2009. This seems in good accord with the NIE. To the extent any of those assumptions are not met, the date gets pushed outwards.


The other big difference this time is, of course, that Dick Cheney and his crew did not have their mitts all over this NIE before it was drawn up. He only got the chance, apparently, to object after it was already written.


Even from the beginning, when we were being assured that US intelligence would be able to draw up a list of potential nuclear sites, even the likes of Bill Kristol were admitting military strikes would, at best, buy us a couple of years. Now, Atrios brings up an excellent point:

It must be understood that since our intelligence agencies don't believe Iran has a nuclear weapons program, it also means that they don't know where such a program would be physically located if it did exist. This means that any desires of Dick Cheney and his people to bomb Iran simply involve... bombing the shit out of Iran.
Emphasis mine.

emptywheel has written up a timeline of Iran-NIE related events; it accords well with Seymour Hersh's comments. Long and short: this NIE has been floating around for at least a year.

I realized I left a hawkish teaser in the post and didn't follow through on it. It's simply this: regardless of the conclusions of the NIE, we should be acting as if (a) Iran is pursuing a breakout capability and (b) there's really nothing we can do to force them to stop. I think that outlook puts the policymaker in the right frame of mind: what can we do to induce them to stop, or to manage the consequences if they acheive that capability? Those are the questions where a policymaker can actually choose meaningful options.

(More disorientation there, as George Bush and I agree that the conclusions of the NIE don't really change very much. It's just that we've come to the opposite conclusions! It seems to me only one of them is, in the main, supported by the intelligence community's data...)

And a final note. If we lived in a normal (not even necessarily rational) political system, this NIE would be a death blow to military action. This report basically says, "Stop panicking and pull yourself together, man!" With its conclusions known to the Administration, at a minimum, since July, there is no way around the fact that they've been caught lying for the past five months. There's no way around the fact they're hysterical ninnies.

In a normal political system, at this point I could kick back, pour myself a brandy, stop worrying about whether my family should be in a coastal metroplitan city in case of a war, and have no worry greater than kicking myself for not having shorted oil. But we don't live in that sort of system. So help me God, the MSNBC headline this morning was, "Bush: Iran Report is a Warning Signal". We still have to work to make it through another fourteen months.

By the way, now that blogger's fixed, you should really click on the graphic for this post to enlarge it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't seen anybody suggest this as a motivation for the suspension in 2003, but how about:

Iran's real motivation for building a nuclear weapon was deterrence against Saddam, but after we defeated Iraq's military in 2003, that need evaporated.

Why then does Iran continue to insist on performing its own enrichment when it's so much cheaper to buy LEU on the open market?


10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because David, it then leaves Iran hostage to LEU suppliers.

As Amenijad has said, people take their money, sign contracts and don't deliver, or attach "strings".

11:30 AM  

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