Iranian nuclear weapons: dubious reporting, dubious red lines

In an interesting if thinly sourced piece on how Iran is withdrawing IRGC special forces from Syria, The Sunday Times threw in this nugget at the end, as if it were no big deal:

Western intelligence officials see the next few months as a race between Iran’s programme to build a nuclear bomb and sanctions intended to ruin its economy.

This is a remarkable and, if untrue, irresponsible claim.

Both the United States and Israel continue to believe that Iran has not yet decided to build a nuclear bomb (which is distinct from conducting activities relevant to the fabrication of a bomb). This is a clear and widely-sourced claim. See Jeffrey Lewis here, Micah Zenko here, the chief of staff of the IDF here, Haaretz reporting here, and DNI James Clapper, here (“we don’t believe they have actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon”).

There is a debate over when Iran would acquire enough uranium enriched to 20% required for one bomb, and whether and how quickly Iran could securely and/or secretly further enrich that to weapons-grade. But these debates are are all hypotheticals. In fact, Iran’s conversion of 20% enriched uranium to fuel plates actually makes it harder and slower to produce a bomb (for some strange reason, the media has only picked up this story a few days ago despite it being obvious from the IAEA’s August report).

The Sunday Times is saying is that Iran is racing for a bomb, which directly contradicts this very large and diverse mass of reporting and analysis.

My guess is that they did not mean to make this claim. But it is staggeringly poor journalism, and a very dangerous claim in the current environment. American newspapers were chastened by their experience of interpreting and reporting on WMD intelligence prior to the Iraq War, and have responded impressively and maturely. British newspapers – with a few honourable exceptions – have shown poor judgment, repeatedly made alarmist claims, and failed to convey the nuances of this technically complex subject.

Moreover, if Iran were racing for a bomb, which it is very obviously not, then the constraint would not be sanctions. Sanctions, however severe, are not going to bring down the regime in the space of the (at most) eight month period in which Iran could, if it wanted, have more than adequate 20% enriched uranium for one or more bombs. The constraint is instead  the risk of detection and vulnerability during breakout. A dash for a bomb can easily outrun sanctions, which operate only over a longer period. Saddam hung on for 12 years, even as sanctions inflicted a devastating toll on civilians (“near apocalyptic” as early as 1991). But it would still run into the other obstacles.


Red lines:

On a related note: as it’s a day of the week ending in “y”, Israel has thrown out a new red line for Iran’s nuclear programme. Netanyahu’s UNGA speech appeared to place his desired red line at the point at which Iran obtains enough 20% enriched uranium for one bomb, a point he estimated would arrive during the spring or summer of 2013 (this seems reasonable, but it ignores the possibility that Iran will keep converting some to fuel). This Netanyahu line differs from the presumptive American red line(s) insofar as Iran would cross this one even before making any decision to enrich beyond 20%.

Now,  according to Special Envoy for the Israeli Prime Minister Zalman Shoval, “the red line for Israel is when the Iranians have produced enough fissionable material from which they can produce at least a dirty bomb within a short time”.

This is an even more incoherent red line than many of those suggested earlier, for the simple reason that enriched uranium is not used in dirty bombs:  “these materials, perhaps counterintuitively, are not radioactive enough. Their radioactive emissions don’t travel far and are blocked by simple barriers, including skin and clothing. A dirty bomb would use small amounts of highly radioactive materials such as cesium or cobalt, not uranium”. If Iran did use uranium in a dirty bomb, it wold need “some 1,400 tons of uranium – when all Iran has now is 6 tons total”.


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