Monday, March 5, 2012

Can We Have An Adult Conversation About Iran?

(Because the American president with a funny name met with the Isaerli prime minister with a funny name to discuss the Iranian president with a funny name)

One current political issue that keeps driving me into episodes of screaming crazies is the whole topic of Iran and nukes. It's like the media and the politicians are going through a bitter divorce with reality, so they deny even the most basic facts about the situation. Both AIPAC and the republican presidential candidates would have you believe that Iran is just about to start WWW3, nuking Tel Aviv sometime next week, regardless of the real facts.

Let's start with a simple reality, as shown in the chart above: The US and Russia have the vast majority of the nuclear weapons on this planet, by such a magnitude that if Israel and France piled all there nukes together it would still be only a tiny fractional threat. Fact number two: Iran is only approaching the capability of low enriched uranium, which is a long way short of weapons grade (damn, I need Sweaterman to give me numbers on this) uranium. And, as North Korea has proven, having weapons grade uranium doesn't mean you have a working nuclear weapon. But the third, greatest, fact to me is: why would Iran want to commit suicide by using a nuke against Israel? Yes, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has used some very provocative rhetoric, but he's not in charge of Iran. Clerical Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is, and a week and a half ago, Khamenei gave a major foreign policy speech in which he said:

“The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”

Now, you don't have to believe him. But let's use some basic logic: what would Iran actually gain by attacking Israel with a nuclear weapon? There is, simply, no profit for Iran in such an attack. Far more likely is that Iran would like to develop the capacity to build a weapon, which would then be a far more valuable bargaining chip toward ending sanctions.

Don't get me wrong; Iran is not our friend. They're hostile (with some justification) to America's and Israel's interests throughout the region. Sanctions have made our relationship even more adversarial, but we're still a long way from any legitimate grounds for war.

So let's consider what would actually happen if, worst case scenario, Iran actually did develop a nuclear weapon: regional escalation. Saudi Arabia (Sunni) would most certainly want a nuclear deterrent to (Shia) Iran, as would most likely Turkey. The risk of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or extremists would increase (although the greatest risk would still be from Pakistan and the unsecured remnants from the former Soviet Union) slightly.

Then, let's compare the risks of military action against Iran by either Israel or the US...(think about it for a while. I'll save that for another post.)

(BTW: Thanks to those who've hit the Paypal button. Any additional help is greatly appreciated)


SweaterMan said...

Low enriched uranium is under 20% U235. However what Iran would need for civilian commercial light water reactors is enriched to 3-5 % U235.

Anything above 20% is considered highly enriched and is weapon-usable in theory, but it's not really practical as the neutron count increases quickly (virtually exponentially, IIRC) and you need a much larger critical mass to get the weapon to explode cleanly. Larger critical mass means larger bomb, more difficulty in initiating and containing the reaction, and frankly, a larger problem in delivery. So, you go for higher enrichment to make those design parameters easier to engineer.

Looking it up, I see that Little Boy used 64 kg of 80% enriched U235, which was virtually all of the uranium that the U.S. was able to produce from 1941-1945 when we were flat-out wartime mobilized to do so. I think we only went with enough for one (uranium) bomb as the implosion method won out on design and especially scalability of the explosive size, but needed Plutonium for the reaction.

Obviously, even higher enrichment reduces the critical mass needed, but comes at a cost (85% enriched U235 crit-mass is about 50 kg).

Regardless, UN, IAEA and US observations and inspections have found that Iran is probably barely at the ability to enrich to the 3-5% range to a LWR commercial unit.

I, for one, am not worried that Iran could speed enrichment times up that quickly without the U.S. noticing.

Demeur said...

So glad you have visitors here who have far more knowledge than myself on the subject.
My only understanding on the matter is that scientists a while back figured out that it would take only two or three dozen detonations of these ultimate bombs to eliminate life as we know it on the entire planet. So here we sit at the ultimate Mexican standoff.