“What people get wrong about nuclear weapons,” says Samuels, “is [they think] that the knowledge is impossibly difficult. In the popular imagination, how you make a nuclear weapon is considered a great secret, akin to magic. And once you have figured it out, then physically producing the bomb would be easy. In fact, it’s entirely the opposite. It’s not hard to figure out how to build a bomb. My friend the truck driver figured it out. He gave me the plans for a nuclear bomb, which I have here in my desk at home. Anyone can order his book from Amazon.”
What’s really difficult is building and maintaining the industrial, technological, and economic complex required to sustain a nuclear weapons program. The capacity to produce a nuclear weapon is a good index of a country’s general level of development. “It’s not a big deal for the United States, the U.K., or France, for instance, to support that kind of endeavor,” says Samuels. “Same with Germany, which if it wanted a bomb would get there within a matter of months. Germany, the land of precision machinery, has an economy and the industrial and technological culture that can sustain a national project of that scale. Same with Japan. Iran is a very different matter.”
Samuels breaks nuclear states down into indigenous and non-indigenous atomic powers. “The United States, U.K., and France’s bombs are indigenous nukes; so are Russia and China’s. These countries have the resources and capacity, the command and control structures to build and sustain a vast industrial apparatus. Countries like Iran and Pakistan fall into a different category. It’s not to say there aren’t plenty of talented Iranian engineers and chemists, but, for example, the Iranian economy is a mess, based solely on oil, and a fraction the size of Germany or Japan’s economy. All you have to do is land at [the] airport in Karachi or Tehran and you see very quickly you are not in Germany.”
Indeed, the sanctions regime on Iran follows this logic precisely. The point of sanctions is not just to seize Tehran’s cash, and punish those European or Asian nations and industries tempted to do business with a rogue regime—rather, it is to deny Iran access to the foreign industrial base without which it could not build a nuclear weapon. Sanctions relief doesn’t just mean that Iran gets huge infusions of cash and plenty of attention from foreign investors—it means Iran has a much easier time shopping for its nuclear weapons program.
This is how A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s bomb, did it. “His was an act of mind-boggling organizational genius,” says Samuels, “in which a single man was able to use the industrial base of Western Europe to supply all of the finely machined parts and tools necessary to produce a nuclear bomb, which Pakistan was unable to produce on its own.”
The question of knowledge, then, is trivial. It can be bought on the open market. You can buy the truck driver’s book online. What’s important is the infrastructure—very little of which Iran produces on its own.
“The idea that Iran has developed a fully indigenous capacity to produce nukes and has mastered all these engineering and chemical disciplines is very far from true,” says Samuels. “What Iran really has is a 25-year-long campaign of smuggling, stealing, borrowing, and hiring everything that the society can’t generate for itself. I don’t know where the certainty it would only take them a few years to rebuild comes from. There are obviously a lot of other assumptions baked in there. It seems to me more likely that the enormous amount of energy and money they’ve spent the last 25 years is not replicable. Either you can make nukes all on your own or you can’t. The Iranians, unlike industrialized Western powers, can’t.”
The White House’s mantra that you can’t bomb knowledge is simply evidence that it has already accepted an Iranian nuclear bomb. Consequently, the idea that a military strike would set the program back only two or three years is not an assessment based in fact, but a political slogan meant to rally support for the president’s policy decision.
Whether a nation’s nuclear program is indigenous or not, the program is much more vulnerable before it actually produces a bomb. Once it has built a bomb, it is less vulnerable. Which is why it feels safe in producing more bombs.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.