Monday, February 15, 2010

Parsing the Iran News

We have a Hillary Clinton interview and a claim from Iran that the P5+1 have made a new offer on the enrichment front. And, um yeah, a "highly newsworthy" story that President Ahmadinejad has called for world nuclear disarmament while saying that Iran will never build nuclear weapons.

I see little indication that reporters are applying much mental effort to any of these stories. It probably would be worthwhile for them to indicate in the Clinton stories that Ahmadinejad again called for nuclear disarmament. But he has said such things before, so whether this latest repetition is "highly newsworthy" is open to question. And, sorry to say, for those of us who have been watching Iran for a while, it has the look of yet another shiny thing being dangled in front of those who still believe that Iran's nuclear program is completely innocuous.

Likewise, atomic energy organisation chief Ali Akbar Salehi's claim, with no details, that there is a new offer on the table has a shiny look to it. The news story adduces some Turkish actions to imply that perhaps Turkey will play a role, which has seemed a possibility in the past, but there's really not much to the story beyond that Iran has made another claim.

Clinton has been quoted in a number of ways, frequently indirectly. I'm looking forward to a transcript on the State Department website, which hasn't shown up yet. She seems to be focusing on the Revolutionary Guard, which is not a bad idea; split them from the rest of the government, make them look like they are subverting the revolution into a military dictatorship, which may in fact be happening. I've seen reports saying that she claimed that Iran is making nuclear weapons, but I have also seen quotes to the effect that "evidence is accumulating" that that is a possibility. The two are quite different.

I belong to an e-mail list that is convinced that the United States government is ready to bomb Iran now, or to let Israel do it. You may have seen some of this on other blogs. I find this unpersuasive. Around the turn of the year, the administration provided several press availabilities in which they emphasized the difficulty of getting a desired effect from bombing Iran. If I recall correctly, they even had some Israeli statements to that effect. Clearly there are people who want to bomb Iran, but they've been agitating for quite a long time now, and the Obama administration seems less inclined in this direction than the Bush administration was. And, in this latest interview, when asked if an attack was planned, Clinton said "no." That hasn't been widely reported either.

So, like the prospect of an Iranian nuke, the prospect of Iranian bombing seems some distance away. But if indeed Iran is in favor of universal nuclear disarmament, it is playing some dangerous games indeed, which tend to give those in favor of bombing much of what they want. For example, President Ahmadinejad's claims that they have already enriched some uranium to nearly 20%. This is improbable, unless they had begun to do it long before he said they did.

Update: Some good thinking here.


MT said...

Could you remind us what percentages reflect what sort of critical threshold for enrichment, if any, and what sort of time trajectories we should have in mind? Rules of thumb for Iran or for in-general? Is it ridiculous to compare the time-frame of the Manhattan Project, which I guess we all know by the end must have been able to produce a sufficiently enriched (%?) critical mass in the space of a year or so? I guess you've told us it comes down to a throughput capacity that even spy agencies are only guessing at. I could use a reminder though of what we can reasonably assume.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Helmut asked me something similar in an e-mail this morning, so I guess it's time.

There seems to be no single "rule" as to how long a country needs to develop nuclear weapons. The United States developed uranium enrichment and plutonium production technology, along with two successful bomb designs in something like 26 months, and that was from scratch. Of course, it was an all-out war effort and billions of dollars were spent on it.

Conversely, North Korea has had quite a bit of time and not much money to come up with two bomb designs that would give ugly results in a city but are not successful by nuclear weapons design standards.

The prediction for how long it will take Iran to get a bomb has been in the range of 3 to 5 years for the past couple of decades. Without doing any calculations, my guess is that that's still good. And they'd have to kick the IAEA inspectors out first, unless they've got a secret installation we don't know about.

Arms Control Wonk has an estimate of the separative work capacity of Iran's centrifuges. That isn't too helpful, though, without some calculation of how many SWUs (separative work units) are needed for the various enrichments.

I'll try to get some numbers and links together in a post.

Andy said...


The US, France and Russia have all denied making any new offers to Iran.