Keeping an Eye on Iran

As some of you know, early in my career I worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where I served as a research physicist. Of course, the design and production of cores for nuclear bombs was the primary focus of our work there, and ever since, I guess you could say I have been a student of the topic. One of our very first contracts at SAIC was with the Defense Atomic Support Agency (today known as the Defense Threat Reduction Agency) to analyze nuclear weapons effects data.

I recently read an interesting article in the New Yorker magazine titled “Iran and the Bomb.” The article discusses the question of whether or not Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. The article’s author — Seymour Hersh — makes the assertion that Iran is not currently developing nuclear weapons, nor does the regime in power have any particular desire to do so for the foreseeable future.

This assertion goes against the conventional wisdom of recent U.S. presidential administrations, which have considered the development of a nuclear weapon by Iran to be a forgone conclusion. However, the most recent update to the National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) by the Director of National Intelligence indicates that there is no evidence that Iran has a bomb-building program in place. Apparently, Iran was once pursuing the development of a nuclear weapon, but the program was halted in 2003.

It has long been thought that the primary motivation behind such a program was Iran’s desire to defend from an Israeli attack, or possibly to attack or intimidate Israel itself. However, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the actual target of Iran’s bomb-building program was Iraq, not Israel. Iran’s leaders suspected — as did the Bush administration — that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including nuclear bombs. But once the U.S. dismantled the regime of Saddam Hussein, and no WMDs were found, that threat went away, along with Iran’s need for a nuclear weapon.

Iran does continue to enrich uranium, so the potential for Iran to someday develop a nuclear weapon remains. In fact, Iran recently announced that it will triple its capacity to enrich uranium to the 20 percent level. This move is quite different, however, from having an active bomb-building program. It is my understanding that Iran’s production of a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium would cut by more than half the time needed to enrich to levels above 90 percent, some quantity of which is required to produce a working nuclear weapon. We must therefore remain vigilant for evidence that Iran is diverting enriched uranium for military purposes, and be ready to counter the threat if it ever does materialize.

— Bob