Roving thoughts and provocations

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Iran and the Bomb: An Update

IIPA/Getty Images
The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant as the first fuel is loaded, August 21, 2010

With everything that is happening in the Middle East and North Africa, it seems that the matter of the Iranian nuclear program has been put on the back burner. Indeed, something happened this year that may have added to this complacency. It appears that the Siemens company in Germany revealed to Israeli and American intelligence officials the details of centrifuge control mechanisms that the Iranians had acquired illicitly. On the basis of this a worm—the “Stuxnet worm”—that could cause these centrifuges to run wild was created and apparently tested in the Israeli nuclear facilities in Dimona. The details of the worm have not been revealed, nor is it clear how it was installed. What we do know is that it is an exceedingly complicated bit of malware—perhaps the most complicated so far created.

The Iranians acknowledged the existence of this worm but stated that they would soon overcome it. As I will explain, it looks like they have. Of course the Israelis, for whom Iran’s nuclear program is matter of existential importance, have never put this on the back burner. Netanyahu made that very clear on his most recent American visit. I think one can assume that the Israelis will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. But I want to discuss the basis of their concern.

On May 24, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) distributed a report on their latest findings from Iran. It is a very disturbing document. One item in the summary states,

While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOF’s [Location Outside Facilities] declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement, as Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation, including not implementing its Additional Protocol [an agreement that Iran signed in December 2003 giving the IAEA additional powers of inspection], the Agency is unable to provide credible evidence about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

The rest of the report, of which I will give samples, illustrates this. First there’s the matter of uranium enrichment. The Agency reports that as of October 2010 Iran had produced 2,119 kilograms of low enriched uranium, but between then and May 13, 2011 it had produced 656 kilograms. This implies that now they are producing enriched uranium at a faster rate than before. In addition, they have produced some thirty kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium. This degree of enrichment is on the boundary between low and highly enriched uranium and is the stepping stone to the degree of enrichment needed to make a weapon.

But this is the least of it. The Iranians have announced plans to build ten new enrichment facilities of which so far five sites have been designated. There is no imaginable need for such a proliferation of facilities for a peaceful program. The IAEA inspectors were denied the right to visit the most recently built facility at Qom—the bulk of the earlier work was done at Natanz—so they were unable to determine the actual purpose of this site. The inspectors found out that in addition to the centrifuges—of which new and more sophisticated types are being employed—the Iranians are now using laser technology to separate uranium. This frenzy of activity strongly suggests that the uranium is intended for use in a weapon.

If one were willing to suspend disbelief, one might try to argue that they are enriching uranium for dual use in power reactors. (In fact the only power reactor in Iran, Bushehr, uses fuel supplied by the Russians.) However, on the matter of heavy water, such unconvincing arguments are even more difficult to make. In heavy water, the protons are replaced by deuterons, which are bound pairs of protons and neutrons. Heavy water can be used as the moderator in a class of reactors suitable for making plutonium—the main ingredient in missile warheads—and that use natural uranium as fuel. The Iranians agreed to suspend work on heavy water, but in fact, according to the IAEA report, they have gone on doing it.

In particular, they are studying the use of uranium deuteride. If this is strongly compressed it initiates a blast of neutrons that enhances the fission chain reactions. A Chinese design for an implosion weapon that the Iranians got from the Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan makes use of such a compression. Despite attempts by the Agency to get the Iranians to come clean about this work, they claim that anything to do with heavy water goes beyond the Safeguards Agreement. One can draw one’s own conclusions.

Having studied Iran’s nuclear program for some time, I’m struck that there seems to be no visible dissent against it in Iran. While very courageous people have protested on the street against the theocratic regime, I have never heard even one of them say anything negative about the country’s nuclear activities—quite the contrary, they seem to be a source of pride.

A striking case is that of the Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose moderate positions and defense of pro-democracy protesters has led to his losing power. One needs to recall that in 1989, after the death of the Ayatollah Khomenei, Rafsanjani became the president of Iran, and that until March of this year, he was the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts which chooses and can dismiss the Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani played an essential role in the resumption of the Iranian nuclear weapons program—which had been suspended for a number of years—after Khomeini’s death. This included the dealings with A.Q. Khan and the purchase of an entire array of items relevant to the manufacture of a nuclear weapon. At Friday prayers in December 2001 Rafsanjani said,

If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in its possession, the strategy of colonization would face a stalemate because the application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damage in the Muslim world.

In other words, such a bomb would destroy Israel, but would produce only marginal damage in the Muslim world. More recently, in 2010, he has said that Iran’s program is “irreversible.”

If this is the general Iranian belief then a policy of deterrence would seem to be irrelevant: Rafsanjani is talking about a fight to the death that amounts to national suicide.

What, then, to do? As I said, it is very clear what the Israelis will do. They must have drawn a line in the sand. Perhaps they will wait until the Iranians test or perhaps they won’t. As for us, it is not yet an existential matter and all choices seem bad.

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