Iran's nuclear program "goes industrial" – or not?

Prepare for all manner of frothing at the mouth from wingnuts about Iran’s “industrial scale” enrichment program.

Just as a quick primer: like many elements, there are multiple types – isotopes – of uranium. From a chemistry perspective, they all behave identically. However, they weigh slightly different amounts, and of the two that occur naturally (uranium-235 and uranium-238) only the less common uranium-235 can be used directly in a nuclear weapon (uranium-238 can be made into plutonium in a nuclear reactor, though). Enrichment is the process of separating out the uranium-235 for one of two purposes – to make a mix of roughly 5% U-235 and 95% U-238 for use in a nuclear power reactor, or a mix of roughly 90% U-235 and 10% U-238 to make a nuclear bomb. Depending on the sophistication of the design, somewhere between 20 and 60 kilograms of this mix would be required for a bomb.

Because they behave essentially identically in chemical reactions, the main way to separate them is to take advantage of the slight difference in mass, and the standard method of doing so is to atomise the stuff (by making it into a gas) and spinning it in a centrifuge, a little like panning for gold. Iran has been trying to master this very difficult task for some time now, and the guts of their current announcement is that they now have 1,000 of their centrifuge designs going at once, and plan to go to 2 or 3000 soon.

So does this mean that Iran will be making nuclear weapons any time soon?

Not according to Jeffrey Lewis. His latest post on Iran explains the severe limitations of Iran’s uranium program. The short version – because of various technical problems, Iran doesn’t seem to be able to keep its centrifuges running for more than 20% of the time, it’s not clear that they can actually mass-produce the centrifuges at all (which they would need to to actually produce enough material for even a minimal arsenal), and they don’t seem to be able to produce pure enough feedstock to actually feed into the centrifuges. These things spin so fast that if the stuff you feed in isn’t very pure, the centrifuge will break into a million pieces.

Short version? While the Iranians are undoubtedly seeking a nuclear weapon – or at least the option of building one at short notice (their enrichment plans make no sense whatsoever as a commercial enterprise) – everything we know suggests that they still a long, long way from either. Even if you buy the premise that imminent possession of a nuclear weapon by Iran justifies military action (I don’t), that point will not be reached until well after January 2009.

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Posted in Foreign policy, Iran, Middle East, Nuclear
25 comments on “Iran's nuclear program "goes industrial" – or not?
  1. Spiros says:

    “that point will not be reached until well after January 2009.”

    That’s not very comforting.

    You don’t have to be wingnut to think that the world will be a worse place if and when the mad mullahs get nukes.

    Iran is seeking to become the major power in the middle east, and making a pretty good fist of it, even without nukes. When they get them, they will try to lord it everybody. The Israelis won’t stand for it and will bomb the shizen out of them, with or without the support of the next US admnistration.

    It’s an ill wind.

  2. When they get them, they will try to lord it everybody.

    Nukes aren’t much good for lording it over anybody at all.
    “Do what we want or we’ll nuke you” isn’t a very credible threat.

    The Israelis won’t stand for it and will bomb the shizen out of them, with or without the support of the next US admnistration.

    Yeah, right. Israel will fly all the way over Iraq, find the hidden, underground, presumably decentralised bunkers where the centrifuges are, and attack them with ‘bunker-buster’ munitions capable of destroying them.

    Or not.

  3. As far as I can tell, a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities by Israel is all but impossible unless you assume that Israel uses nuclear weapons as part of the attack.

  4. Spiros says:

    ” “Do what we want or we’ll nuke youâ€? isn’t a very credible threat.”

    True, but “leave us alone while we are go about our business or we might nuke you, and if you threaten our existence we will nuke you,” is a credible threat.

    Israel has pulled it off for decades.

  5. Spiros says:

    “unless you assume that Israel uses nuclear weapons as part of the attack.”

    Why would you rule this out?

    Israel has made an art-form of doing the unthinkable. They bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1980. The world was horrified; Israel said “we don’t give a stuff what you think”, and that was that.

    Iran, or at least the current Iranian President, has made implied threats against Israel’s existence. Maybe he means it. Maybe he doesn’t. If Iran gets nukes, then there will an influential school of thought in Israel that says they should be taken out by whatever means necessary. Maybe this school of thought will win the argument. Maybe it won’t.

  6. John Greenfield says:

    The Iranians are playing with fire. US concern over any threat to its dominace of middle eastern oil and Israel’s legitimate existential anxieties, could see Iran suffering the same fate as Egypt in 1967.

  7. John Greenfield says:

    Robert

    I think you are correct. The Yom Kippur War showed that Israel is not equipped to win wars fought over long distances.

  8. Grumpy Old Leinad says:

    Darn Iranians turning their back on centuries of tradition with new fangled ‘industrial centrifuges’! In my day we milled every ounce of U-238 by hand!

  9. wilful says:

    Why shouldn’t Iran seek nuclear weapons? While it is a signatory to the NPT, that’s the same treaty that commits nuclear armed states to work towards their total elimination. Morally, the US and UK are easily painted as hypocrites.

    Personally, I’m far more worried about the likelihood of a fundamentalist regime taking over in Pakistan. We know they’ve got the bomb.

  10. John, just a point: central Iran is a hell of a lot further away from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv than the Golan Heights or the Sinai are.

    Spiros: I invite you to imagine the international reaction if Israel were to use use nukes in a preemptive sneak attack against Iran. Heck, there’d probably be an absolute trade embargo until the culprits were handed over to be tried for war crimes, and Israel gave up its nuclear weapons entirely.

  11. j_p_z says:

    “I invite you to imagine the international reaction if Israel were to use use nukes…”

    True, the use of Israeli nukes would be unthinkable and reprehensible; every bit as unthinkable and reprehensible as, well,… genocide! I invite you to imagine the international reaction if something as heinous as THAT were to happen in, oh, I dunno, say, southern Sudan. Unthinkable! Hell, there’d probably be an absolute trade embargo until the culprits were handed over to be tried for war crimes, and the northern Arab-Muslim Sudanese gave up their genocidal policies entirely.

  12. Craig Mc says:

    Short version? While the Iranians are undoubtedly seeking a nuclear weapon – or at least the option of building one at short notice (their enrichment plans make no sense whatsoever as a commercial enterprise) – everything we know suggests that they still a long, long way from either.

    Well, going by the Manhattan project timeline, the Iranians are at early 1944 – maybe twelve months away from their first bomb. It’s not like they have to discover how to do it – they’re standing on the shoulders of Dr.Khan.

  13. Craig: the Iranians have neither the scientific and engineering talent (which still matter), budget, or organizational skill of the Manhattan Project.

    Furthermore, they are using a fundamentally different method of enriching uranium – one that doesn’t require the massive industrial scale of gas diffusion, but requires extremely precise engineering. Centrifuge enrichment like the Iranians are trying was first developed by captured Germans in the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 50s.

    It took the Pakistanis many years to master the Zippe-type centrifuge, despite Khan stealing most of the design from the Europeans.

  14. Craig Mc says:

    Craig: the Iranians have neither the scientific and engineering talent (which still matter), budget, or organizational skill of the Manhattan Project.

    Neither did the Pakistanis – especially the budget.

  15. Craig: and look how long it took them to master the tech.

  16. Craig Mc says:

    Craig: and look how long it took them to master the tech.

    I don’t believe for a second that the Iranians are working in a vacuum. Everything Khan knew, they know. Their weapons program is effectively almost in parallel with Pakistan’s.

    So the question isn’t how much longer will they take compared to the Pakistanis, it’s how soon after the Pakistanis succeed will they?

  17. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Mr Greenfield, Israel WAS not equipped to fight long-distance wars. It is now. Israel would be the first to concur that such capability is key to its survival in an age of long-range missiles.

    The reason why the Israelis almost lost the October, 1973 “Yom Kippur” war not because it wasn’t able to fight a long-range war – no such conflict was actually taking place so your assertion does not make any sense, Mr Greenfield. It was traditional invasion by massed armies on the Zhukov-Konev model.

    The surprise attack was largely successful because the USSR supplied Egypt with state-of-the-art man-portable surface to air missiles, which unexpectedly stripped Israel of its air cover and Egyptians were able to make an effective invasion across the Suez.

    After a week of suffering substantial casualties on the ground, Israel weas able to convince its existence was at stake and the US came to Israel’s aid. Huge transport planes laden with ammunition, tanks, rockets, and spare parts started to lumber into Lod Airport 5-6 times an hour (Operation Nickel Grass) around the clock. Also, from Portugal came 50 Phantom jets whose US Air Force roundels were painted over with the Star of David upon landing and were in battle within half an hour. The planes came directly from USAF squadrons still in their US camo.

    Interestingly, as payback for Nickel Grass, the incensed Arab oil countries placed a petroleum embargo on the US and Western Europe, sewing the seeds of current Middle East oil politics, including Gulf Wars I and II and going into Iraq.

    Israel’s policy as far back as Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan was always to strike pre-emptively, this gave them political room to maneuvre – they didn’t have to ask anyone’s permissision. But they miscalculated with Sadat. Then the US airlift pushed Israel very firmly into the US geopolitical ambit from which there is no return for the foreseeable future. Although some would say that it is the tail (Doug Feith, et al) that wags the dog nowadays. It is not out of the question that with the current administration being what it is, a green light might be given to do whatever Israel feels is necessary.

    Israel will do anything, that is ANYthing, whatever it takes, to safeguard its existence. It is also a very paranoid polity, hence, ultimately, a political party or coalition that takes a belligerent attitude towards any threats against Israel will tend to prevail politically and be rewarded with administrative power. Israel’s “Never Again” shibboleth is taken very seriously indeed in Israel – it is taught from kindergarten.

    Israel will use nukes to destroy Iran if it sees that Iran is likely to put nuclear warheads on its long range missiles. No risk.

  18. Neilium says:

    G’day,
    just want to tax you commenters with.

    Given that the usa, was taken mostly unnawares on sept 11th, ” When a nuclear attack upon the united states occurrs, which target do you think will be the first?”
    I have my ideas.
    Neilium

  19. Henry, if Israel did that it would be signing its own death warrant.

  20. Tony D says:

    It’s really simple.

    Of course Iran is trying for a bomb. They will test it. Trade deals will follow.

    “Axis of Evil” Member status:

    Iraq – f*cked, out of the WMD game.

    Nth Korea – tested nuke, not making lots of deals right now but increased levels of negotiation and bribes likely to result in trade/NTB agreements. Measured on a long enough time-line this is probably advancing whatever plans they have quite well.

    Iran – working towards nuke, angling for deals, prob attempt to avoid decision making until test complete thereby leveraging best possible ROI. Risk of pariah hood lessened due to precedent (see Nth Korea).

    Iran & Nth Korean nukes aren’t a problem as they don’t really have global delivery capability, and don’t give me that crud about state-sponsored terrorism (really an act of inter-state war, just payload is delivered via non-state actors).

    They want nukes for their own protection against US aggression. Kinda understandable really.

  21. name required says:

    Israel’s view is that it would be dead anyway, if Iran gained the leverage of nuclear weapons.

    So Henry is perfectly correct. Israel would do everything in its power, politically and otherwise, to force the US to attack Iran. One bargaining chip it could use is the threat of pre-emptively launching its own nuclear weapons against whatever targets are in range.

    As a last resort, it would certainly do the job itself.

  22. John Greenfield says:

    Sir Henry

    It is refreshing to see somebody remembering the centrality of the Soviet Union in the middle east. Unfortunately, the western Left conveniently censored all references to the Soviets post-1989. Nowadays, they obsess on the so-called Jewish Lobby. If you read any of the rants of the Finkelsteins, Walt & Mearsheimer, the Cold War, Soviet Union, and Communism do not rate a mention.

    People are too gullible.

  23. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    I do not recall the “western Left” censoring all references to the Soviets post-1989. I am not even sure what that means. Does it imply that the western Left did the censoring after 1989? Or does it mean the western Left censored, at a time unspecified, all references to the Soviet Union as it existed after 1989. I wouldn’t agree with either proposition, anyway. It’s nonsense.

    Nowadays, they, i.e. the western Left, obsesses about the so-called Lobby? First of all, is there any western Left left? It’s sort of atomised post-1989. It’s all kinds of things. Certainly, none of the so-called Left regard the Marxist-Leninist states left standing, to wit, People’s Republic of China, North Korea or Cuba, as their spiritual home or even a role model.

    Now, about that so-called lobby. If I were a member of the Israeli government, or a functionary of The Shabak, I would certainly try to develop as powerful a lobby as I could possibly muster in the place that matters most geopolitically, i.e. Washington.

    Certainly, if I could trigger off some sort of split loyalty among US Jews in high and influential places, by whispering to them sotto voce, that come what may, Israel is a home of last resort for Jews, then I would do so. Many Jews in the US, are children of Holocaust survivors and they carry an uneasy reminder from their upringing, that Israel is a kind of deposit on a survival. Let us recall the little blue tins marked United Israel Appeal in Jewish shops and ask, what were they all about?

    So why deny the obvious? Yes, Virginia, there is a Jewish lobby in Washington’s corridors of power as there is in Whitehall, and good on it.

    Israel is truly ruly surrounded by states who wish it ill. On the other hand, Israel has behaved in an unneighbourly way and has pissed off a few of them over the years. It’s a tough neighbourhood out there and Israel’s political stance, since the ascendancy of the Likud especially, has not done itself any favours.

    Let’s face reality. This is not some late night imaginings from a western leftist, but a sober assessment from a moderate progressivist (within the bounds of the law).

  24. wbb says:

    I invite you to imagine the international reaction if Israel were to use use nukes in a preemptive sneak attack against Iran. Heck, there’d probably be an absolute trade embargo until the culprits were handed over to be tried for war crimes, and Israel gave up its nuclear weapons entirely.

    I’m jealous of your sunny view of the world, Robert.

  25. I invite you to imagine the international reaction if Israel were to use use nukes in a preemptive sneak attack against Iran. Heck, there’d probably be an absolute trade embargo until the culprits were handed over to be tried for war crimes, and Israel gave up its nuclear weapons entirely.

    I am afraid this will never happen.

    Israel will always find a way to get out of this and they will blame this on the Iranians and everyone will be happy that it is over.

    anyone who think that Israel will be punished for any wrong doing by international communities, does not understand the new world order.

    IMO, Israel can not attack Iran without the help of the US, and if they do, then Iran will retaliate by attacking US and US friendly placed in and around Persian Gulf as well as inside Afghanistan and Iraq.

    The world reaction will be on the Iranian response rather than the Israeli/American pre-emptive attack.

    Remember, that “US and it’s allies” are the civilized people in this conflict, and they can not do anything wrong.

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