There has been a lot of debate recently about the continually putative Iranian nuclear weapons program. This obviously poses a risk and it seems at least plausible to assume that developing nuclear weapons is an Iranian goal. But we still have to be careful about the claims that are being made to make sure that we understand the severity of the situation, and I’m not sure that some of the stories being bandied about are entirely accurate. Here are a few things that bear consideration:
On February 2 an Israeli general (Aviv Kochavi) asserted that “International intelligence agencies are in agreement with Israel that Iran has close to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is enough to produce four bombs.” This is misleading at best. A hundred kilograms of uranium enriched to 20% U-235 will have about 20 kg of U-235. But a fissionable mass of 94% pure U-235 weighs about 16 kg so Iran might have enough uranium with further enrichment to the weapons-grade level to make a single nuclear weapon – maybe two – but certainly not four.
There have been a number of stories about possible American or Israeli attacks against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (here is one of them) in response to any of a number of possible provocations. The problem is that Iran has a widely dispersed nuclear infrastructure and some of their facilities are in populated areas. Israel’s 1981 attack against Iraq’s Osirak reactor caused a serious setback to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program because Iraq had a very limited nuclear infrastructure that was fairly easy to take out – if Iraq had been pursuing a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program then this attack undoubtedly set back these efforts by several years. But Iraq had a very limited nuclear weapons program in 1981 – a single attack against a single target could do significant damage. This is not the case in Iran – Iran has so many installations in so many locations (some of them in heavily populated areas) that anything short of all-out war is unlikely to have any lasting impact. Unless a nation is willing to either visit utter devastation upon Iran, to occupy the nation, to spark a successful insurrection against the current government, or to attack targets located in the midst of large civilian populations then it must assume that an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities will be at best a stumbling block. At worst, an unsuccessful attack might even spur Iran on to greater efforts under the assumption that presenting the world with a fait accompli will deter any future military action.
There have also been a number of people stating that an Iranian nuclear weapons program poses an existential threat to Israel. But an “existential threat” is something that threatens a nation’s very existence. But is this really the case? I agree that any nuclear attack against any nation would be devastating and terrible and I know that a single nuclear weapon detonated anywhere in Israel would affect a huge number of people. But I’m not sure that I agree that a single – even a double – nuclear weapon detonation would wipe Israel from the map or would cause it to vanish from the family of nations. It is entirely plausible to believe that Iran understands that there would be overwhelming retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack against Israel and that this threat alone will deter Iran from using the nuclear weapons it might develop against Israel. This is not to say that a nuclear attack against Jerusalem or Tel Aviv would not be a huge and terrible blow – rather, to point out that the radius of destruction of a nuclear weapon is far smaller than the size of Israel. Should Iran choose to use a nuclear weapon against Israel there would be untold damage and suffering – but it is not likely that such an attack would remove the state of Israel from the map.
I do not want to minimize the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, to suggest that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be acceptable, or to appear blasé about the consequences of using such a weapon against Israel. But I do want to suggest we think clearly about this topic. We cannot make good decisions unless we can accurately assess the threats (and our allies) face or the potential consequences of the actions of all parties.