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.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Audience of One

Earlier this week, the New York Times had a very interesting report on a possible Israeli plan to raid the Iranian nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz:

President Bush deflected a secret request by Israel last year [2008] for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex...

The White House denied that request outright, American officials said, and the Israelis backed off their plans, at least temporarily...But the Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran’s major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country’s only known uranium enrichment plant is located.

In my quick hits post last July, I hinted that I wanted to follow up on the combination of several news stories, namely:

  • President George W Bush has told the Israeli government that he may be prepared to approve a future military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if negotiations with Tehran break down, according to a senior Pentagon official.
  • The official identified two "red lines" that could trigger an Israeli offensive. The first is tied to when Iran's Natanz nuclear facility produces enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon... The second red line is connected to when Iran acquires the SA-20 air defense system it is buying from Russia.
  • Israel carried out a major military exercise earlier this month that American officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
  • Cordesman said Mullen came to Israel to deliver a message – that Israel did not have a green light to attack Iran and that it would not receive U.S. support for such a move.

I never posted that follow up. It has become timely again, with this report.

I think it is indisputable that Israel simply lacks the capability to deal a significant, long-lasting setback to the Iranian nuclear program. If the U.S.'s best-case scenario from a concentrated attack is a delay of a couple of years, Israel's best-case delay is probably measured in months.
Starting from this observation, I have always believed that Israeli actions with respect to Iran--whether rhetoric, covert action, intelligence-leaking, or military--have all been intended for an audience of one. That one being George W. Bush. So the "major military exercises," I believe, have always been intended only to push Bush towards U.S. military action, rather than as an practice run for actual Israeli military action.

This concern is echoed in the NYT report:

White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office.

There's not a lot of doubt in my mind about this.

On the topic of Natanz, there is an interesting post up at armscontrolwonk on analysis of uranium particle ages. The technical links at the end of the article are very interesting, and also bear on the effectiveness of nuclear forensics.


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