A note of caution regarding Iran.

In 2003 American intelligence discovered that Iran was conducting a massive nuclear program. International monitoring of Iraq’s program focused on fuel-development because these created a large foot-print that could be tracked by satellites and imports. Meanwhile, a whole series of increasingly-severe international sanctions followed. Eventually, in August 2013, Iran was forced to begin negotiations with six major powers.[1] Currently, the six powers want Iran to greatly reduce its uranium and plutonium production for an extended period. This is intended to block an Iranian “breakout” to possession of a nuclear weapon. Those negotiations are supposed to conclude at the end of March 2015.

Under these conditions, it is useful to consider a recent report in the New York Times.[2] Producing potentially weapons-grade material is one thing. Actually turning that material into a weapon is something else. So, does Iran know how to build a nuclear weapon?

The International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.), a UN agency, has accumulated a lag amount of material that shows that Iran has been working hard on warhead design. Iran has dismissed this evidence as forgeries by the Americans and the Israelis. The IAEA claims to have confirmed the American and Israeli material through other sources.

Knowledgeable people assign priority to the nuclear “fuel” over the “knowledge” factor for a good reason. The fuel is the hardest problem to solve and knowing how to build a bomb without the means to make a bomb doesn’t constitute much of a threat. However, the Times correspondents point out that there are both bad actors (North Korea) which possess nuclear fuel that they might be willing to transfer, and a black-market.[3] Between 2007 and 2009, I.A.E.A. inspectors tried to discover what was happening inside certain laboratories. The Iranians stone-walled the inspectors. Since the beginning of negotiations in 2013, the Iranians have continued to rebuff inspectors interested in the “military dimension” of the issue.

The I.A.E.A. has published a list of a dozen critical technologies for building a warhead. Some of them are dual-use technologies that can apply to legitimate civilian purposes. The I.A.E.A.’s file of secret material on Iran’s nuclear program alleges that the Iranians have pursued work on all twelve. However, of the twelve, only one is under discussion. One is electrical detonators. The Iranians have claimed that these were used for civilian purposes (like mining). Two others have been raised, but have not been addressed by the Iranians. The second is “explosive lenses.” The third is computer modeling and calculations of a bomb’s release of subatomic particles. The remaining nine have never even been discussed at all. The fourth is a “neutron initiator,” a sort of spark-plug. The fifth is the technology for a long-distance test-firing. The sixth is a Uranium-235 metal core of a bomb. The seventh is the system for fusing, arming, and firing the weapon when it reaches its target. The eighth is a re-entry vehicle, that is, a capsule that protects the weapon during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The ninth is a fuel compression test run on a mock core. The tenth is a complex program management organization. The eleventh is procurement activities, in this case run through ‘front” companies. The twelfth is the covert acquisition of bomb fuel.

None of these allegations can tell us how far the Iranian may have moved toward being able to build a weapon. The Iranian rejection of transparency creates a terrible dilemma. Keep the sanctions in place and wait? Strike a deal and hope for the best? Bomb them now?

[1] Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the United States.

[2] William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “What Iran Won’t Say About the Bomb,” NYT, 8 March 2015.

[3] Both some of the former states of the Soviet Union and Pakistan are at least conceivable sources.

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