This week the IAEA is expected to release a new report on Iran’s past work in developing nuclear warheads:
A Western diplomat who has seen drafts of the report said it will elaborate on secret intelligence collected since 2004 showing Iranian scientists struggling to overcome technical hurdles in designing and building nuclear warheads. The scientists’ studies include computer modeling of warhead design and field-testing the kinds of high-precision conventional explosives used to trigger a nuclear chain-reaction, said the diplomat, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the board’s internal deliberations. Some of the work continued after 2003, when Iran is believed to have halted its nuclear weapons research in response to international and domestic pressures, the official said.
There will be a lot of noise concerning this report, with calls for military action and concern expressed for the safety of our allies in the region. The threat to the U.S. will likely be expressed through the scenario in which Iranian officials “hand off” a nuclear weapon to Hezbollah terrorists to be used against the homeland.
Putting aside questions of preemption and deterrence of nuclear armed states, I would like to list just a few points salient for homeland security:
- The difficulty faced by Iran in producing nuclear weapons (assuming that or a virtual arsenal is their goal) should not be taken as evidence that it is a task too difficult for terrorists. The nuclear aspirations of a state differ greatly from that of potential nuclear terrorists: a state desires an arsenal and not simply one (or, if they’re lucky, more) weapons; a state requires the ability to secure fissile material for multiple bombs, including the capability for enrichment or reprocessing, while this technology would be beyond the reach of non-state groups; a state’s weapon design would have to be generally of predictable yield and operate within particular design constraints, while a terrorist weapon would just have to have a good chance of working or even producing a fizzle to achieve much of the desired effect; and a state would want to fashion a small warhead deliverable by rudimentary ballistic missile or small aircraft, while terrorists could do with an improvised device weighing a ton or more.
- If Iran does develop a nuclear weapons capability, that does not automatically mean that Hezbollah or Hamas would have access. A rudimentary nuclear arsenal would be highly valuable to a new nuclear state and it is considered unlikely that such prized “crown jewels” would be turned over to unreliable actors for deployment in situations not directly controlled by that state. Instead, the greater danger in the connection between proliferation and nuclear terrorism is that the increased amount of bombs or simply fissile materials increases the potential for sympathetic insiders to facilitate transfer to wanna-be nuclear terrorists. In other words, it is more likely that officials below those in charge of the nuclear weapon programs in Iran (or Pakistan) might be moved to share their access with terrorists against the wishes of their superiors and national leaders.
It is important to keep some perspective…nuclear terrorism remains a threat and a nuclear-armed Iran would be a very negative outcome for our national security, but this week’s news should not be taken as a sign that the sky is about to fall.
Update: As soon as I schedule this post, Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick publishes additional detail on what is contained in the IAEA report:
Intelligence provided to U.N. nuclear officials shows that Iran’s government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings.
Documents and other records provide new details on the role played by a former Soviet weapons scientist who allegedly tutored Iranians over several years on building high-precision detonators of the kind used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction, the officials and experts said. Crucial technology linked to experts in Pakistan and North Korea also helped propel Iran to the threshold of nuclear capability, they added.
Interesting details, and I’m sure the actual report will contain even more, however nothing that yet radically changes the overall threat picture. While the names and other specifics were not previously public, this reporting seems to reinforce already existing perceptions about the nature of Iran’s nuclear work. More worrisome would be Iran’s recent moves to shift its nuclear facilities to locations underground and the installation of advanced centrifuge equipment.
Update 2: The IAEA report can be found here: http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/IAEA_Iran_8Nov2011.pdf