Strategic Analysis

I have been asked to  discuss Iran’s nuclear weapons  potential – and I will, but I’m going to take a broader look.

The short answer is that the centrifuge approach that Iran is pursuing is capable (when mature) of producing either low-enriched uranium(LEU), useful for power reactors, or HEU, highly-enriched uranium, which can be used to make a fission bomb, among other things.  Just for general information, natural uranium is about 0.7% U-235.  LEU means that the fraction of U-235 is somewhere under under 20% (3%-5% in light water reactors) , while HEU  is more highly enriched.  Typical uranium nuclear weapons are usually >85% U-235, although the real nuclear players use plutonium cores nowadays . You can make a gun-type fission bomb with highly enriched HEU, which is simpler to develop than implosion, although less efficient.

Given sufficient highly enriched HEU, making a gun-type bomb is not too hard.  South Africa managed it.   Probably Iran could as well.  Producing the fissionable material, in the case of HEU, is harder than using it in a bomb. For plutonium,  which requires implosion, designing and building the weapon is difficult, possibly more difficult than preparing the fissionable material.

Times have changed.  Back in the 1940s,  no one had mastered the centrifuge approach, and the US used cumbersome and expensive gaseous diffusion, along with even more expensive calutrons.  Enrichment was hard, and it was easier to make LEU and run a breeder reactor to make  plutonium, which could separated by chemical processes.

Zippe, confined in a sharashka in Siberia after WWII,  made centrifuges work.  After his release (and  isn’t that a strange thing?), his work was commercialized by a European consortium, Urenco.  Zippe further improved  the method’s efficiency by switching the rotor material from aluminum to maraging steel: the productivity of these gizmos varies directly as the square of the strength-to-weight ratio. Later, people used carbon-fiber reinforced materials.

Since these centrifuges run at 1500 revolutions per second or more, figuring out how to make them work wasn’t easy. Some bright guys failed before Gernot Zippe.  However, assuming that the recipe has already been developed and you have it, developing Zippe-style centrifuges is possible, although still tricky.  Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani engineer who worked for  a Uranco subcontractor, got that recipe and took it home, where it became the basis of the successful Pakistani nuclear program.  Later, he, or more likely the Pakistani government,  traded that recipe to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

At one time, the Bush administration thought, or at any rate claimed,  that Iraq had a centrifuge-based  atomic program, but that wasn’t the case.  I thought the claim of a nuclear program was obviously false before we invaded.  My reasoning was as follows.  Iraq was broke, except for the oil-for-food program, and we tightly  controlled all that money.  It was also under pretty tight sanctions, limiting the technical goodies that could be imported even if they had had any money. Iraq wasn’t able to make the goodies locally: they had a very limited technical base. The Baathists also had very limited human resources available: something like 80% of the population was Kurdish or  Shiite and thus untrusted, leaving about 4 million Sunni Arabs as potential physicists and nuclear engineers.  That was manpower enough for South Africa, and for Israel, but let’s be real.  The Arabs are near-zeros in science and engineering and have been so for centuries.  Sheesh, a big fraction of Iraqis were illiterate.

And the icing on the cake was that this all had to be done in a way that was invisible to our ‘national technical means’  – which means spy satellites, but other things as well, such as communications intercepts,  detecting funny xenon and krypton isotopes, etc. This would also include humint, if we were any good at it, which we’re not.

Everything that the Bush administration said about this was bullshit.  There were technical types employed by the Feds in the national labs – Sandia, Livermore and Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, who knew better, but they were ignored.  Try to remember that the decision-makers in our government,  the elected and appointed people, know nothing.  They don’t know anything technical.  They don’t know much about history or biology.  Silvestre Reyes, who used to be  head of the House Intelligence Committee, has no idea whether Al Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite.  He was a Democrat: but of course the Republican committee members didn’t know either.  Nor did top FBI antiterrorism officials.  Or McCain.  Or Bush.  While the general public still can’t find Iraq or Iran on a map.

But I digress. Can Iran make this work? Sure looks like it.  Iran has some money. It has a better technical base than Iraq, basically because they don’t completely live off oil. They make cars, trucks, steel: Iraq didn’t.  If you look at available human resources, I would guess that more than half of Iran’s population of 70 million would be clearable on such a program.  This is not to say that they are any smarter than Iraqis, but numbers and resources help.

Do I think that Iran is or will become a strategic threat to the US?  No.







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40 Responses to Strategic Analysis

  1. dearieme says:

    It was bloody stupid of Urenco (British, Dutch, German) to develop the centrifuge because many countries incapable of developing it were perfectly capable of stealing it. .

  2. j says:

    The US recognized Iran as a strategic threat in 2006 because of its advanced ballistic missile capability combined with nuclear weapons. The Iranian-made Fajr-3 ballistic missile can avoid radar and has multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRV). Extrapolate to 2022 and factor in messianic Islamic leadership and you get a worried world.

    • gcochran9 says:

      No, it can’t. Anyhow, in practice, Iran has not been particularly crazy. Less crazy than the US, certainly.

      • sr says:

        You have no idea who will lead Iran in 2022 or 2062. I agree that the current old men who run the country are unlikely to nuke the US, but they’ll be dead or senile soon. There certainly have been leaders in history who would have used them and I don’t see any reason to believe that there never will be again. AFAIC, any nuclear proliferation is threat to the US and everybody else.

      • Bob Arctor says:

        “You have no idea who will lead Iran in 2022 or 2062.”

        This is, from a practical perspective, an utterly pointless hypothetical. Who knows who is going to lead the UK, France, China, Russian Federation, Israel, Pakistan, India or for that matter the US, in 2062? Maybe we should go ahead and take out all eight of them now, just to be on the safe side. God knows who could come to power in those countries!

      • sr says:

        Bob, letting those countries get nukes was a mistake, and at least in some case was recognized as such at the time. The Rosenbergs got the chair for their roles in giving information about the atomic bomb to the Russians. It would be great if they gave up their nuclear weapons programs, but it’s kind of hard to take a country’s nukes away once they have them. Just because we screwed up with those countries doesn’t mean we should purposely screw up with Iran too.

        And your comment leads to another objection to allowing nuclear proliferation – nuclear leads to more nuclear proliferation. If the fact that eight foreign countries, including three that are or have been hostile to the US in living memory, or have powerful factions that are hostile to the US, means that we should not prevent further nuclear proliferation, then replacing those numbers with nine and four would be a stronger reason to allow nuclear proliferation in countries 10, 11, and 216.

  3. j says:

    Nota bene: Nuclear weapons are not necessarily bombs.

  4. Jim says:

    I suppose that if it were up to Obama we probably won’t attack Iran. But the decision will be made in Tell Aviv not in Washington. How scared are the Israelis really of Iran?

  5. j says:

    Anyhow, in practice, Iran has not been particularly crazy. Less crazy than the US, certainly.

    But your question was not if “crazy” US represents a strategic threat for Iran, which clearly does, but if Iran is a strategic threat for the US. Your opinion that Iran has not been particularly crazy (I disagree, is not crazy enough to blow up the Jewish Community Center of Buenos Aires? and then to bribe the President of Argentina to cover up them…!) is irrelevant. Russia has been always extremely rational and careful, yet its weapons are a constant worry for Europe and the US. Do you need yet another country with the means of erasing Washington from the map?

    • Bob Arctor says:

      The average middle-class “flyover country” American has well over a hundredfold more true enemies in DC, NYC and LA each than we have in Teheran, or for that matter the whole Middle East.

      Endless wars for Israel, mass immigration of third-worlders, the destruction of blue-collar employment, etc. weren’t plots devised in the slums of Cairo or Amman but right here at home by men wearing $5000 suits. Almost all of the horrific disasters this country has suffered in the past few decades were domestically inflicted.

      • Maciano says:

        Five years ago, I would have called you anti-American. Now, I must admit, your statement rings true. Of all Western countries, the US seems most committed to shooting itself in the foot with pointless policies and blind devotion to universalist principles that do not help its population one iota. I really don’t get it.

        I’m not even American, but it sure pains me to see a sort of ideological auto-immune disease destroying some of the finest achievements ever built by man: America and its constitution. Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Iraq or Mexicans.. Why is the US bothering with sideshows like that?

        China, Europe, Russia, maybe Brazil and India some day — these countries matter.

        The rest is all noise.

  6. pinchermartin says:

    “At one time, the Bush administration thought, or at any rate claimed, that Iraq had a centrifuge-based atomic program, but that wasn’t the case. I thought the claim of a nuclear program was obviously false before we invaded. My reasoning was as follows. Iraq was broke, except for the oil-for-food program, and we tightly controlled all that money. It was also under pretty tight sanctions, limiting the technical goodies that could be imported even if they had had any money. Iraq wasn’t able to make the goodies locally: they had a very limited technical base. The Baathists also had very limited human resources available: something like 80% of the population was Kurdish or Shiite and thus untrusted, leaving about 4 million Sunni Arabs as potential physicists and nuclear engineers. That was manpower enough for South Africa, and for Israel, but let’s be real. The Arabs are near-zeros in science and engineering and have been so for centuries. Sheesh, a big fraction of Iraqis were illiterate.”

    Using this same kind of reasoning — which employs a general approach to available material resources (both domestic and abroad), money, manpower, and technical base — did you think the North Koreans had a nuclear capability before they demonstrated one? Why?

    • gcochran says:

      The method I mentioned is capacity analysis: could a given country, with the actual resources available, complete a particular large and complex task? If the answer is no, it’s not going to happen. But even if the answer is yes, they are capable, you don’t know that they will do it. Off the top of my head, there must be at least 25 countries that could whip up a simple fission bomb fairly easily but have not chosen to do so. By the way, this makes talk about limiting nuclear proliferation fairly pointless: information and technical talent are too widespread.

      North Korea had working reactors, and plenty of smarts. There was never much question whether they would be able to make a bomb or two.

      You might ask why our government didn’t notice that Iraq couldn’t do it. I’m not saying that nobody working for the Feds knew this, but the people running the show don’t seem to have known. First, they didn’t want to know, since they wanted to invade Iraq and were looking for excuses – God knows why. Second, the political types really know very little. It might be that ignorance or denial of the zones of thought played a role – I don’t know. I can imagine a future manufactured crisis in which the Feds allege that Uganda is building a time machine (with evil intent), and brand as a racist anyone who points out that they aren’t up to it.

      Interestingly, Iran is somewhat marginal on this, in terms of human capital. That’s why assassinating Iranian scientists might possibly make a difference. They don’t have a lot of bench depth.

      • albatross says:

        It seems like the assassinations would have a bigger impact on the future–convincing younger scientists that they’d rather not be involved in the program, since people involved in it seem to have a high probability of having their car blow up when they turn the key or some such thing.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        The director of the Mossad has been quoted as saying “The removal of important brains” from the Iranian Nuclear Project has frightened other Iranian nuclear scientists into requesting they be transfered to civilian projects.

  7. ziel says:

    Releasing Zippe was bizarre. Was it just a mistake made amidst the confusion arising from the change in leadership after Stalin?

    • gcochran says:

      You have to wonder. I’ve not seen an explanation. Khruschev wasn’t into imprisoning people for the sheer fun of it, unlike Uncle Joe, but releasing someone with key strategic knowledge…? Maybe it was a bureaucratic mistake. They did seize his notes, but that hardly made a difference.

  8. dearieme says:

    My wife complains that I’m just too subtle sometimes. So, in case of doubt: it is bloody stupid of the USA to develop weapons X, Y, Z because many countries incapable of developing them are perfectly capable of stealing them.

  9. JH says:

    Thanks for the post.

  10. Rachelle says:

    Despite all of the noise about weapons of mass destruction [which includes more than just nuclear weapons] the legal reason for invading Iraq had nothing to do with WMD.

    Recall that that on the first invasion we were coming to the aid of an ally, Kuwait, which also was a source of oil for the US. Iraq began the games by invading Kuwait.

    Hostilities were suspended short of total submission subject to certain conditions. Saddam repeatedely failed to honor the commitments he gave to secure the first truce. In fact, he continued to shoot at Allied planes enforcing the no-fly zone so, to some extent, hostilities [that Saddam began] never really stopped completely.

    At some point, one must decide whether international agreements of this sort are truly going to be enforced or abandoned altogether. The League of Nations failed miserably when Italian troops invaded Ethiopia. The victors of WW I stumbled when Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland and, with the help of the Soviet Union, began to re-build Germany’s airforce. We all know how that ended.

    The legal argument for resuming hostilities against Iraq could be made without arguing that Saddam actually had WMD. Whether it was wise is a different matter.

    As for Iran acting more rationally than the US…is it really rational to tell a small country with nuclear weapons and the means to delvier them that you will destroy them at the earliest opportunity? That seems like asking for big trouble for no gain. Not really rational at all.

    • gcochran says:

      All nonsense.

    • Rachelle says:

      UN Resolution 687 (1991)
      UN Resolution 1441

      The legal basis for resuming the war was failure to compy with the resolutions.

      The original cause of the war was the Iraqui invasion of Kuwait.

      How hard can that be to understand?

      • gcochran9 says:

        Of course the Iraqis then let inspectors run everywhere and find nothing, so we invaded. Just as we invade everyone who violates UN resolutions.

        Give me a break: stop saying stupid things. At least stop saying them here. Or you’re banned.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Of course Kuwait was not an ally. Nor is WMD anything more than a phrase designed to confuse, one that lumps together weapons that differ in danger by about four orders of magnitude. Not that Iraq was working on any of those flavors. Nor has Iran threatened war against Israel. Banned.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        You must be pals with Rich Lowry, with that openminded attitude. Thanks, I’ll ban myself.

        • gcochran9 says:

          If it was up to me, Rich Lowry would be eating out of garbage cans. But I am intolerant, in my own way. I see no reason to put up with comments from anyone who repeatedly posts untruths. I have spent – wasted – lots of time on discussion boards correcting people, but they don’t stay corrected. No more of that, not on this blog.

          As for rachelle’s comments about the Bush’s administration’s justifications for invading Iraq: all bullshit. Personally, after a trillion dollars and four thousand deaths spent for absolutely fucking nothing – which was clear to me before we ever invaded – I’ve had all I can take from those bozos and their fans.

      • Ilya says:

        Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, in 2008: “But we are on a collision course with the occupiers of Palestine and the occupiers are the Zionist regime,” he said. “This is the position of our regime, our revolution and our people.”

        Since 2008, there’ve been various statements by Iran regarding Israel and its existence as a Jewish state. I’m wondering in anything changed (as of early 2015) regarding your position on Iran and, further, any potential nuclear deal with the regime.

  11. says:

    gocochran: “but let’s be real. The Arabs are near-zeros in science and engineering and have been so for centuries. Sheesh, a big fraction of Iraqis were illiterate.”

    True, they probably did not have the native ability to build advanced artillery or a super gun either, but then there was Gerald Bull.

    I am not sure they had to use their own talent…just their own money.

  12. ghazi-less says:

    A brother-in-law was an engineering graduate student at the University of Toronto in the 1970s. He has mentioned several times that the Iranian students were the best at that time (not my memory of the Iranians, but he was at a better school). No doubt there are plenty of smart people in Iran–it is the homeland of the Parsis, after all. They, like the Koreans, have the brains to develop nuclear weapons. It’s a shame that the world is in such a state that they think they need those weapons.

    • Aidan Kehoe says:

      There are huge class divisions in Iran, though, and the best of the middle class often leave. My understanding is that at least the civilian infrastructure is ramshackle at this point, essentially because of this.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        The exodus of the best and brightest from these countries is a crucial part of their continued decline, not to mention a boon to the economies like Canada that selectively let them in. Canada has been very shrewd in allowing citizenship to immigrants that will benefit their economy.

  13. That Guy says:


    Do you think the Iranians are keen on having the bomb because:
    1. They fear some future intervention by the USA or China?
    2. They want to be regional power players – like maybe forming a greater Iran, incorporating the Shi’ite areas of Southern Iraq, Kuwait and some of the Gulf States area?
    3. They fear the ambitions of neighbors like either/both Pakistan and Turkey?
    4. They really do care about Palestinians – the least likely option, in my opinion?

  14. Anonymous says:

    In view of rising persecution of Shias elsewhere in the Middle East and South Asia, I can certainly well believe that Iran partly sees herself as the regional protector of Shias. Also, if nuclear Pakistan ends up run by the Taliban or something like that, it would make a lot of sense. I believe also it would be important for them in this respect not to be seen to back down in the face of American and Israeli pressure. The Palestinian issue certainly seems tangential in light of the current Sunni-Shia tension, but I can that maybe Iran wants to retain her influence over the Palestinian Islamic groups, which seem to be pulling away towards Egypt, now that the Muslim Brotherhood is taking over there. And with Egyptian control comes, very probably, influence of militant Sunnis with little more time for Shias than for Zionists.

    What do others think?

  15. j says:

    Provoking Iran into blocking the Straits of Hormuz would benefit hugely the United States (and Russia) and would spell the fall of the European Union and China. The US imports no oil, and Russia supplies to Europe. The doubling of the price of oil would bankrupt Europe and China. The US would be in the post-WWII situation of sole superpower in a ruined world. Bush and Cheney – where are you when we need you?

  16. j says:

    Israel could do it for a share in the profits, but you cannot steal horses with Obama.

  17. Luke Lea says:

    Do you believe Pakistan has nuclear weapons? Israel doesn’t seem very worried.

  18. Chris says:

    Iran is a strategic threat to the USA’s influence in a number of areas, not to the USA’s security – but you can hardly run a military, espionage and diplomatic campaign via selling this to the public.
    The real issue with Iran (especially at present) is the North Dome/ South Pars gas field between Iran and Qatar(they both share it). The EU wants to get its hands on it via a pipeline, but wants it via Qatar. Iran has other ideas, hence the Syria war, which was/ is over who gets the pipeline, because Assad sided with Iran (look on a map, to get to Turkey you either build piplines through Iraq or Syria, and Iraq is not on the tables for Qatar/USA/EU as that is now Iran’s back yard). Russia is also involved, as Russia needs to limit gas supplies to Europe for it’s own leverage, and Assad also cited Russian interests as a reason for not agreeing to the Qatar pipeline. It’s as simple as natural gas supplies.
    Note the Ukraine situation is largely due to this as well (Syria that is) as the real aim was the Crimea and Sevastapol to impact Russia abilities to supply Syria and project it’s power in the Mediterranean.

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