After reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy article in The Atlantic about Israeli calculations on whether to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, I’m left with an observation and a judgment.
First, the observation. We’re being ushered into an unusual conversation here. Months before the destruction of the reactor outside Baghdad in 1981, PLO headquarters in Tunis in 1985, the “uncompleted military facility” in northeastern Syria in 2007, or the arms convoy from Iran in the hills of northern Sudan in early 2009, there were no magazine features full of Defense Ministry types discoursing about timelines on a not-for-attribution basis. What’s more, if the Israeli government ever seriously contemplated sending its very capable air force against Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile fleet in the late 1980s or (who knows?) perhaps Algeria’s nuclear reactor in the early 1990s, the decisive meetings of the inner cabinet weren’t exactly held at an al fresco table on the Tel Aviv promenade. Still less did the minutes appear on newsstands outside the UN. One senses this is not how or when real decisions of this sort are made.
It is, on the other hand, one way to inject urgency into the broader discussion about Iran policy. In fact, it’s how Israeli officials have tried to keep the Iran nuclear question high on the agenda in foreign capitals for some time now — and not just in Washington, either.
Second, the judgment. The nuke nerds — you know who you are, people — have failed to contribute effectively to the Iran policy conversation. Too often, it seems, we’re just talking to each another in our own special jargon of UF6, SWUs, SQs, LWR, NPT, NFU, BOG, NSG, and so on and so forth. Amid these minutiae, the larger debate has managed to bypass what I’d consider the hard-won insights that this community has produced on the Iran question over the last several years. That’s a disappointment.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
In the interests of a shot at redemption, here’s some plain American English about Iran’s nuclear program.
(Disclaimer: While the following comes out of years of discussions with scientists and experts, I’m still just speaking for myself.)
1) “To go nuclear.” Anonymous officials like to talk about “going nuclear” without saying what they mean. Just what is it that Iran is supposed to be capable of doing in nine months, five days, and eight hours — give or take thirty-three seconds depending on the sighting of the new moon — that they cannot do now? Making heaps of highly enriched uranium? Presumably not. They’re technically capable of doing that already, and have been for a few years now.
To “go nuclear” could mean, A) to accumulate the knowledge and materials necessary to fashion nuclear weapons. There’s not much left for Iran to do on that front — possibly nothing at all. This is bad, but could be worse.
Or it could mean, B) actually building nuclear weapons in secret. This is worse, but still denies Iran the potential political benefits of owning the bomb.
Or it could mean, C) doing what North Korea did between 2003 and 2009: renouncing treaty obligations, kicking out inspectors, building maybe half a dozen devices, and testing a couple of them. That’s the worst.
Any journalist conversing with a Senior Administration Official who talks about when Iran will “go nuclear” really ought to ask them which of the above things they mean, because they’re very different things.
2) “To break out.” This usually refers to Scenario (B) or (C) above. U.S. intelligence officials like to talk about this subject in terms of timelines, while carefully obscuring their assumptions. That leaves room for a variety of misunderstandings.
Before the Qom facility was exposed in September 2009, many assumed that Iran would someday decide to use its big facility at Natanz to make highly enriched uranium for a bomb, even though its location is known, it’s full of cameras, and international inspectors visit frequently — probably more often than you realize.
As it turns out, though, the intelligence community had a good hunch that the Iranians would actually try to build a secret facility somewhere else instead, far from prying eyes. They even slipped that detail into the much-maligned 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. So it turns out that the official breakout-capability timelines involve activities like excavation and pouring concrete.
That’s not to say that there’s no technical component; it’s possible that the Iranians wouldn’t want to forge ahead until they get an improved breed of gas centrifuges working, because their current ones are terrible and would take a long time to do the work. Whether that sort of thing is factored into the IC’s timelines, I don’t know.
3) “To achieve breakout capability.” My personal favorite. This is related to the distinction between Scenario (A) above and Scenario (B) or (C). The ability to break out is not the same as the intention to do so. And by “intention” I don’t mean “desire” — I mean “intention.” Here’s an example of desire without intention: “I’d really like to ride my motorcycle on a winding mountain road, but it’s too risky.”
The point is, Iran could dig a bunch of holes in mountainsides and even perfect the IR-3 or -4 or -5000 centrifuge, but that doesn’t guarantee that they’d immediately complete a facility or two, quietly commence enrichment operations, build bombs, etc. They might wait for the heat to die down first, or hold the option in reserve against being attacked. By the same token, if they were really prepared to accept the risk, they could have started doing it today or last week or last year at Natanz with the machines they have, and just dared us to bomb it. Breakout is fundamentally a political decision, not a technical threshold.
4) “Playing for time.” And here’s the bottom line. If Iran is going to achieve breakout capability at a hidden facility somewhere — call it Son of Qom — then bombing Natanz won’t address that problem. It’s often asserted, with an air of worldy maturity and sobriety, that a resort to arms will only provide a few years’ breathing room. If Natanz were the only possible place in Iran to set up centrifuges, that would make a certain sense. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t. The truth is closer to the opposite. Iran today is at worst pursuing Scenario (A) or (B). Bombing Natanz is liable to produce Scenario (C), breakout à la Pyongyang, full speed ahead.
The name of the game today isn’t bombing, it’s intelligence. To play for time, we try to catch Iran at building the Son of Qom in preparation for Scenario (B). But when that happens, if we are clever, we won’t bomb Son of Qom, opening the door to Scenario (C). Instead, we’ll shut that sucker down with a press conference. That’s intelligence, too, in the plain sense of the word.