Why the brouhaha about a heavy-water production plant?

by Dave Schuler on August 27, 2006

What’s so significant about Iran’s announcement yesterday about an indigenous heavy-water production facility? Answer: deuterium production can be used as a basis for a fusion weapon which potentially has thousands of times the power of a fission weapon. More here from Anticipatory Retaliation. Technical details here.

I don’t honestly know if Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons development. I think that the preponderance of the evidence leads one to conclude that they are. The IAEA has never certified that Iran is not pursuing such development; what they have certified is that Iran is not living up to its obligations under the NPT. In my view that suggests that the IAEA thinks that Iran is, in fact, developing nuclear weapons but is reluctant to say so.

Whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons or not the regime has apparently convinced the Iranian people that they are. I suspect that the thinking that Hoder, the dean of Iranian bloggers, explores here, is probably pretty typical.

And, as I noted yesterday, there’s very little we’re likely to do about it and we probably need to think about how we’ll live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

For those who continue to believe that the U. S. or Israel or the U. S. and Israel will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, that’s simply not on. There are only three military alternatives available:

  • bombing (anything short of exterminatory bombing won’t accomplish the objective and will probably have a rally-round effect)
  • a raid in force of Iran’s nuclear development facilities (it’s hard to imagine how such a raid could be carried off successfully, we don’t know where all Iran’s facilities are, and it would be, at most a delay which further motivates the actions we’re trying to prevent)
  • an invasion and forcible regime change a la Iraq (there aren’t the available forces, there isn’t the political will or, said another way, “you and whose army?”)

UPDATE

In the comments to my post of yesterday on Iran Jeff Medcalf, whose opinion I respect greatly, proposes another military alternative:

For example, we could seize the Iranian oil fields and the area near the Straits of Hormuz and hold them with a relatively small force, while hammering Iran’s nuclear, military, government, terrorist, energy and transportation infrastructures into the ground with air strikes. The combination of depriving Iran of revenue and destroying their ability to act would be sufficient that their surrender would not even be required; we could neuter Iran.

IIRC that scenario has been wargamed and the conclusion was that there was no way to make it stick.  I’ll look around and see if I can find the link.  The virtues of that approach is that we do, in fact, have the air, naval, and special forces resources to execute it.  But, as Jeff notes, it would have costs, and IMO one of the casualties would be Republican control of the House and Senate in November so I doubt we’ll see it before then.

After then?  ¿Quién sabe?

As to Jeff’s suggestion of a preventive nuclear strike by Israel I think that would require some specific events to occur and we haven’t seen those yet.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

mark safranski August 27, 2006 at 8:52 pm

Hi Dave,

There is also the ” Collapsing Iran” scenario via a sustained EBO campaign, detailed by John Robb. This would certainly interrupt progress on nuclear weapons but leave the U.S. with considerable levels of blowback and Iran as a large, failed state, region to try and manage.

http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2006/04/collapsing_iran.html

Wicked problems….

Dave Schuler August 27, 2006 at 9:20 pm

Thanks for the link, Mark. Most appropriate.

Since my reason for supporting continued U. S. presence in Iraq is to prevent it from becoming a failed state, I can hardly relish the prospect of Iran’s becoming a failed state.

However, it brings up an interesting thought. If Iran descends into chaos, is Iraq more or less likely to succeed?

Andy August 27, 2006 at 10:02 pm

Wow, now I’ve heard everything:

But, as Jeff notes, it would have costs, and IMO one of the casualties would be Republican control of the House and Senate

So partisan politics are now considered a casualty of war?

I agree with your assessments of the military options. As I just commented in yesterday’s post, Jeff’s proposal is unworkable from a military standpoint.

The Arak HW production plant will not be used for fusion devices. It would be almost impossible for Iran to build a successful fusion weapon without testing. They would need to master many aspects of fission weapons first – again, all without testing. Fusion weapons require advanced fission triggers that Iran will probably not be able to produce. This just isn’t a realistic scenario from a technical standpoint. Besides, the plant is right next to the HW reactor the Iranians are building, so it’s pretty obvious what deuterium is for.

Dave Schuler August 27, 2006 at 10:11 pm


So partisan politics are now considered a casualty of war?

I’m not certain how to take that, Andy. I certainly agree with Clausewitz that war is politics by other means and that every politician takes politics into consideration before acting.

Bush’s dilemma is that if he acts he runs a very strong risk of a Democratic House and Senate that would be angry at him. Could he avoid impeachment? If he doesn’t act, he runs whatever risks are attendant to a nuclear-armed Iran. My view of politicians is that, once they’ve reached a certain level of office, they’ve completely conflated their own fortunes with the good of the electorate and the country.

Cernig August 27, 2006 at 10:28 pm

Dave,

I think that the preponderance of the evidence leads one to conclude that they are. The IAEA has never certified that Iran is not pursuing such development; what they have certified is that Iran is not living up to its obligations under the NPT.

I’m not sure what the “preponderance of evidence” is. I’ve looked as hard as I can and found no “evidence” to say Iran is pursuing a weapons program that actually stands up in the light of day – and neither have the IAEA. Much has been debunked as the made-up products of regime-change groups such as the MeK. If you like, send me an email with a bunch of links and I will have another look though. I’m always willing to be convinced otherwise.

The original secrecy is self-explanatory – they knew if they were open about a peaceful program then Americans would never believe it and look for reasons to bomb a nation that has been on the enemy list since 1979. Then again, the US has been on the list of nations inimical to Iranian democracy since 1953.

That secrecy was certainly a violation of the NPT but since then they have complied up till last week. Uranium enrichment is allowed under the NPT. What Iran failed to comply with was an entirely voluntary additional protocal negotiated with the EU3 which was never binding and which they dropped when they decided that the EU3 were not negotiating in good faith – letting the US be organ-grinder behind the scenes while the Europeans played the parts of dancing monkeys. To refer Iran to the Security Council for a breech of an additional voluntary protocol is actually outwith the power and remit of the IAEA and was an illegal move. Only intense US pressure allowed it to happen or allowed the Security Council to consider it at all, looking the other way on the legality.

Last week the Iranians refused IAEA inspectors access to their enrichment plant. That is the first breech of the NPT by Iran in several years.

The IAEA have never certified that Iran’s program is entirely peaceful, true…but then again that is true of 46 out of 70 programs the IAEA are currently monitoring. Are we to bomb or sanction all 46 nations?

What the IAEA have said, as a matter of public record, is that in 3 years of intrusive inspections they have found NO evidence of a military program. They note they still have stuff to clear up so they can’t say for sure there isn’t one but they’ve found NO signs so far.

Then again – according to John Bolton – Israel, Pakistan and India did not act illegaly by keeping their actual weapons programs secret because they didn’t join the NPT so there was no agreement to abide by its rules. Thats lawyerspeak you can slice any way you want…but the fact remains that Iran could have gone that route too and chose not to, . Why doesn’t that count in their favor at all? It certainly suggests they have no weapons program.

Lastly, on the “Iran is building a nuke because it needs it for self-defense” argument – it seems logical until you consider…Saudi Arabia planned to buy nukes from Pakistan until dissuaded by the US. Iran could certainly have done the same thing. Then we wouldn’t be wondering at all. Iran would have done this if it could, by the “self-defense” argument, surely…and it definitely could have.

The fact that Iran hasn’t already got nukes is an argument that it doesn’t want them.

Regards, Cernig @ Newshog

Dave Schuler August 27, 2006 at 10:48 pm

A good place to start for evidence is in this post of mine. The recent House IC report is also a good source.

Other evidence includes that they’ve apparently convinced a number of our intelligence professionals that they are as well as their own people.


That is the first breech of the NPT by Iran in several years.

Not true. Iran has been out of compliance continually for the last several years.

“I know it [Iran] is trying to acquire the full fuel cycle. I know that acquiring the full fuel cycle means a country is months away from nuclear weapons, and that applies to Iran and everyone else.”

Mohammed ElBaradei, quoted in Haaretz, 6Dec20055.

The reason I perseverate on the “preponderance of evidence” is to distinguish both the level of proof necessary for the conclusion and the burden of proof. “Beyond reasonable doubt” would require that we accept Iranian nuclear weapons as a fait accompli before we could decide that they were, in fact, developing them. That’s obviously too high a bar.

And the “preponderance of evidence” standard requires that both the affirmative and the negative on the proposition produce evidence. At this point the only evidence supporting the negative is Iranian denial (which even the Iranians don’t believe).

I completely agree with your point that a nuclear-armed Iran would be profoundly de-stabilizing and, in my view, would sharply increase the likelihood that undeterrable nogoodniks would get their hands on nuclear weapons. From some where.

Cernig August 27, 2006 at 11:24 pm

Dave, That link to your previous post contains a lot of opinion and not a lot of evidence. You can’t point to a lot of people who have an axe to grind against Iran and say “see, if they say Iran has a weapons program it must be true” and call that evidence.

However, I did finf the link to the NTI on that post worth having. I will read it later in detail but for now will note these words from their timeline:

Although Iran began developing its nuclear program in the 1950s, it was slow to progress until late in the 1960s, when the U.S.-supplied 5MW thermal research reactor (TRR) went online at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC). In 1973, spurred by an influx of oil revenues, the Shah of Iran embarked on an ambitious goal of modernizing the country and building its image abroad. He did this by shifting the country’s budgets toward the military and the newly established Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). The Shah set his goal high: “…get, as soon as possible, 23,000MWe from nuclear power stations.”

The Shah’s plan was just fine with the US – redirect oil revenue into nuclear power plants, investing for the future. It rings hollow that now anyone in the administration can use the “Iran has oil so it can only want nuclear technology for weapons” argument. Especially since Cheney and Rumsfeld were central to the sale of that first reactor!

Your readers may find a link to The Arms Control Wonk archives for the keyword “Iran” useful.

Regards, Cernig

Andy August 27, 2006 at 11:36 pm

Dave,

My comment about politics is that it’s a sad state of affairs when people consider partisan political calculations into a decision to go to war. The fact that a President would consider such factors is an indication, in my opinion, that war is probably not a good idea since support of the American public is suspect. I personally don’t think Bush would make such a calculation.

Your El Baradei quote is misleading. Once Iran has mastered the fuel cycle (which they have not), and once they have the necessary infrastructure (which they don’t), then they are potentially “months” away from having the nuclear material necessary to develop a weapon. From the information we have Iran is not “months” away from nuclear weapons. For example, the UF6 used in their small experimental cascade was of high-quality from the Chinese. When the Iranians tried to run some domestic UF6, the cascade apparently crashed. The Iranians still have technical and quality control hurdles to cross before full-scale production can begin. Once that happens, and it’s difficult to predict when it will, then they will be “months away” from a weapon.

Also, you need to be careful of “preponderance of evidence” arguments. Analysis of capability and intent comes down to a lot more than the amount of evidence on either side. We had a “preponderance of evidence” for example that Iraq had WMD stockpiles, but of course, in hindsight, that evidence was weak and misinterpreted. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence to support a weapons program, but it is far from definitive in my opinion. Like I said in another post, Iranian actions are consistent with an advance civilian program that could weaponize in a short period of time, should that become necessary. Although we may not want Iran to pursue such a program, we have no legal right to stop them under the NPT. As a result, international support for sanctions and other measures will not come unless there is clear evidence of Iranian transgression. We need, obviously, to work on getting that evidence by continuing to pressure Iran and exposing any deception we or the IAEA finds.

Dave Schuler August 28, 2006 at 12:07 am

Cernig:

The NTI link was the most important one other than for demonstrating that Iran has clearly convinced people that they’re pursuing nuclear weapons. I thought the reasoning of the State Department quote was sound.

I follow Arms Control Wonk pretty closely; they’re a valuable resource on the technology.

Andy:

I think we view politicians differently. I think that all politicians always weigh the partisan political considerations. In re: Iraq this recent post at Austin Bay’s site is interesting.

I think I agree with the bulk of your last paragraph. In case haven’t checked the rest of my posts on Iraq and Iran I never favored the invasion of Iraq and I’ve consistently opposed the use of force in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. I think that such acquisition would be disastrous for the Iranians and, ultimately, for the region and probably the world. I think we should have done what was necessary to put some sort of sanctions regime in place years ago. “What’s necessary#148; has little to do with proof that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

The Lounsbury August 28, 2006 at 12:16 am

Sieze the Iranian oil fields?

That’s a bloody “suggestion” by that dimwit?

Good bloody fucking lord. As if one retarded American military adventure of negative benefit is not enough in the decade, the ignoramus yahoos want another?

Nothing would be more prejudicial to American interests than such idiotic adventurism.

It would have a certain irony, however, the country that rightly killed Suez adventurism engaging in its own mentally-challenged adventurism.

Andy August 28, 2006 at 12:45 am

Dave,

You’re probably correct on our differing views of politicians, at least in respect to how much a politician may weigh partisan political factors into a war calculus.

I’m also a new visiter here, having just recently found your blog, so I haven’t read your previous posts yet. So if I came across as overly ignorant or combative, my apologies.

Andy August 28, 2006 at 12:48 am

Also, sorry to post this here, but I can’t seem to find an email link. I’m getting a spam filter warning with each comment I make, and one of my comments from “Living with a Nuclear Armed Iran” is missing.

mark safranski August 28, 2006 at 12:52 am

Cernig wrote:

“Then again, the US has been on the list of nations inimical to Iranian democracy since 1953″

What Iranian democracy existed in 1953 and who wanted one ?Mossadegh ? His police and his Tudeh semi-allies cracked heads in the street as well as in the mosque. Sometimes the police cracked the heads of Tudeh for good measure as well.

Had Mossadegh lived ( and not fallen to the Tudeh) Iran would have resembled the sort of authoritarian nationalist system that prevailed in Egypt, Indonesia, Syria and places too numerous to mention. Spirit of the times. Democracy had zero to do with Mossadegh’s ambitions or his overthrow.

Jeff Medcalf August 28, 2006 at 1:01 am

Lounsbury,

I must say that as a thinker, you show no evidence in your comment above, and as a demagogue you show no talent. (You read Chris Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, Ann Coulter or Michael Moore if you want to learn how to demagogue well.)

If you’d like to make a point, I would be glad to discuss it, but I have no interest in responding to name calling or to bare assertions without evidence or logic.

The Lounsbury August 28, 2006 at 1:58 am

I’m not a “thinker” you twit, I’m a financier.

Leaving aside idiotic bloggy pretensions to intellectualism, your idiocy isn’t worth “thought” mate. The stupidity of your suggestion is self-evident to anyone with the barest acquaintance with the region, its history and current politics, you stupid whanker.

But I do remain amused you suggest a Suez kind of event as a “solution” to the Iran issue, it does show how very, very little you Bolshy Right fools in the US understand.

The Lounsbury August 28, 2006 at 2:05 am

Mark old man:

Democracy had zero to do with Mossadegh’s ambitions or his overthrow: Well, zero is too strong. Little would seem fairer.

And yes, Mossadegh’s regime would have likely slid towards popular nationalist authoritarianism of secular left bent, probably resembling Syria to an extent. Rather like how the religious regime in Iran has slid towards popular nationalist authoritarianism.

However, this leaves aside the popular perception. Like it or not, as UK and France have Suez, the US has Mossadegh on its popular sins list, which regardless of accuracy or not – and one can quibble pointlessly about this, in the context of political impact – frame interpretation of actions.

That last is the important part, not so much the historian’s interpretation, still less the American partisan (which I am not labelling you I may add).

Dave Schuler August 28, 2006 at 3:08 am

Lounsbury, Mark knows that Mossadegh’s overthrow is a topic I’ve returned to several times here. He’s assumed the role of culture-hero with Iranians and I doubt there’ll be any persuading them out of it. Questioning how a government with overwhelming popular support could be overthrown by a handful of U. S.-paid thugs, whether the Mossadegh government would have persisted regardless of U. S. intervention (I wonder whether Iran would have become a Soviet republic without the intervention), or whether Iranians would really have been better off under a Mossadegh government are details that don’t seem to occur to them.

Self-delusion is a common human trait and neither Americans nor Iranians are immune to it.

The Lounsbury August 28, 2006 at 4:32 am

People like and need mythologic reference points.

Not a matter of occuring, it’s a matter of creating a safe reference point.

Delusion or not aside, what I wanted to highlight was the issue of dealing with actual political framing of events in region, rather than engaging in self-deluding navel gazing as was done in re Iraq.

Engaging in navel gazing gets one into nasty binds when it turns out the object of the policy or whanking on doesn’t follow your own self-regarding line of thought.

The contemptibly stupid suggestion “The combination of depriving Iran of revenue and destroying their ability to act would be sufficient that their surrender would not even be required; we could neuter Iran.” is an example of such navel gazing (as well as utter dimwittedness, given it rather suggests an inability to learn basic lessons from the recent Leb land and Iraq fiascos).

Never mind of course inevitable damage and disruption to Gulf area hydrocarbons production on both sides would cause an unprecedented price spike and would run the risk of sustained amounts of production taken off line (or the magical abstracting away from how one would hold such things in the face of the inevitable Iranian nationalist, Arab-Islamic and general global reaction to such incredibly stupid adventurism of the drunk moron on a bar stool quality).

mark safranski August 28, 2006 at 6:19 am

Hi Col-

Little or zero, either is fine. It doesn’t really matter. Iran as a liberal democracy wasn’t uppermost in anybody’s mind at the time in Teheran, London or Washington.

I agree with you that Mossadegh has become iconic ( and thus mythic) rather than a historical figure for the Iranians. The regime’s use of Mossadegh is ironic and cynical but politically quite astute. Not much that can be done about that now.

OTOH, I feel quite free to start chipping away at the myth when it is employed by Western leftists (if that is what Cernig is) who don’t really know what they are talking about. Not that I am any kind of Iran expert myself, but I generally do know what he USG was up to and why in this period of time. Better to get the facts straight to keep the discussion on track.

Dave Schuler August 28, 2006 at 6:48 am

Mark, FWIW, my take on Cernig is that he’s left-leaning, reasonable, and inclined to be non- or very faintly partisan.

Jeff Medcalf August 28, 2006 at 8:41 am

Lounsbury, any chance at all at a civil discussion, since you seem to have points worth addressing, or should I just assume that anything I say is going to be met with ad hominem and invective?

The Lounsbury August 28, 2006 at 3:07 pm

The last item is a fair cop Mark, my nit picking aside.

Cernig August 28, 2006 at 11:13 pm

Dave, FWIW, I agree with your assessment of yours truly :-)

But come gentelmen, the fact remains that Mossadegh was truly democratically elected. That’s what we all say we want in the M.E., right? The rest is straw-men and “what-ifs”. You cannot carp if democracy doesn’t do what you want it to nor can you argue from what someone might have done had they remained in power.

(Greg Djerijian gets this spot on today)

(On this one, at least, Wikipedia agrees with other sources such as the Britannica so I will cite the former since it is free.)

Having said all that, Lounsbury is of course correct – the public perception in Iran is what really matters and Iranians think of Mossaddeq as a hero.

Regards, Cernig

mark safranski August 29, 2006 at 8:20 am

Hi Cernig

To be “democratically elected” does not a democrat make. Nor was Mossadegh a respecter of Iran’s constitution under which he came to power, being, by political instinct, autocratic and ruling primarily through emergency powers.

Setting aside the anarchronistic debate over “democracy”, the problem the Eisenhower administration had with Mossadegh was that he was perceived as too weak ( and to an extent, incomprehensible – Mossadegh’s political skills didn’t travel well outside the Iranian context and U.S. officials were somewhat bewildered by his performance during discussions) to hold Iran against Soviet influence. Having pressured the Red Army to leave Iran only 7 years earlier, the USG did not welcome the prospect of a possible return and Soviet troops on the strait of Hormuz.

Statesmen *must* deal with the ” what-if” questions. The world is not run according to principles of an American law court with rules of evidence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. A Soviet Iran would have had long term geopolitical consequences and that was a real risk that had to be considered in 1953. A fait accompli in that regard would not have been ” correctable” without nuclear brinksmanship, if at all.

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