A quick note about Iranian nuclear weapons….

Iranian leader Ahmadinejad inspecting a uranium enrichment facility

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.

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4 Responses to “A quick note about Iranian nuclear weapons….”

  1. Kenneth J. Arrow February 20, 2012 at 2:01 PM #

    That even a few Iranian bombs constitute an existential threat to Israel is so obvious, even from Dr. Y’s own account, that I can only wonder. It is true that the Negev is untouched by bombs on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but that is hardly relevant. Not only would two or three bombs wipe out most of the population, but they might also decapitate the military and political leadership. Yes, we must, “accurately assess the threats.”

  2. Dr Y February 21, 2012 at 10:03 AM #

    I appreciate what you’re saying, but I am not sure that I totally agree. Again – I am not trying to deny the horror of a nuclear attack. But I visited Hiroshima several years ago and today it is a fairly typical Japanese city. My hotel was within the zone of what had been utterly destroyed in 1945, but had I not known where I was I would never have guessed.

    I have also looked at simulations of what a nuclear attack would do to Washington DC, LA, and NYC – a 10 kT nuclear device would cause untold suffering, but each city would survive and would likely rebuild. I suspect that the same would be the case in Israel, were it to be attacked.

    I think that the recovery of any nation struck with nuclear weapons would depend primarily on not only the severity of the attack, but also on the willingness of the international community to help rebuild – but most importantly on the determination of the nation attacked to recover. The biggest question is whether or not Iran would be willing to risk an attack that they would have to assume would bring devastation upon their own nation. If they were to do so I have no doubt that the United States and other nations would help to rebuild the area attacked.

    But most importantly, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the determination and courage of the Jewish people and I fully believe that these characteristics would carry the day. I cannot believe that they would let even such an attack destroy what they have built or that they would let themselve be driven from Israel by any nation.

    So – I guess I would have to say that I agree with you that a nuclear attack on Israel would be a horrible blow that would try the nation and its people as sorely as any event since the nation was founded. But I think that the nation of Israel would continue to exist.

  3. Dr Y March 5, 2012 at 11:40 AM #

    After a long lunch with a very dear friend (who spent some time taking me to task for this posting and my reply) I realize that I approached this topic differently than did Professor Arrow, my friend, and likely many readers. In particular, I was approaching the question of “existential threat” in a very narrow manner – looking specifically at the number of people who would be killed by a nuclear weapon and the damage to the nation’s infrastructure – I was considering almost solely the damage from a nuclear blast and nothing more.

    My friend told me that my reply angered him and as we talked I realized that I was taking a much narrower view of the question than did Professor Arrow or my friend. In fact, my friend made a very convincing point that when we also consider the societal and political impact – let alone the potential regional impacts – a nuclear attack on Israel might well leave most of the population and infrastructure intact, yet still pose a threat to the nation itself. I was looking at the question through a sort of conceptual blinders and I apologize for missing the broader picture.

  4. BillinNYS April 10, 2012 at 6:31 PM #

    I am not concerned with the enrichment of uranium by the regime…their missiles cannot throw a shotgun-type device using a uranium trigger that would have any appreciable yield….I am concerned about plutonium, however. Plutonium devices, implosion devices, can be made small enough to fit their missiles and have an appreciable yield, up to 50-60 kilotons. Possible work on a neutron gun for boosting yields into the higher-fission ranges or even work on a secondary for a fusion device suitable for strategic EMP attacks greatly concern me. These, though, are probably way beyond their ken, unless they brought them from former USSR stocks.
    I think they’re aiming for a “Trinity” type event, seismic or above ground, to announce to the world their invulnerability to ‘regime change’ when they are most vulnerable, and hope the world dithers while they develop a real deterrent.

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