Monday, March 23, 2015

Iranian Vulnerability
Their nuclear progress can still be stopped.
MAR 30, 2015, VOL. 20, NO. 28 • BY LEE SMITH 

The Obama White House is enlisting all its allies to make its case for the bad nuclear deal with Iran that, say administration allies, is better than no deal. The alternative, they claim, is war. And to what purpose? Many nuclear experts, Middle East analysts, and journalists argue, after all, that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would set the program back only two to three years. Indeed, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, asserted last week that setting Iran back “only a couple of years” is “the best-case scenario.”

However, it’s not entirely clear where that assessment—a couple years, or a few years, or two to three years—comes from. “When U.S. government officials have given specific estimates, like two to three years, these are for an Israeli attack on Iranian facilities,” says Matthew Kroenig, a former Pentagon official. “They’re not talking about a U.S. attack, which would obviously be more than what an Israeli strike could accomplish.”
Even then, says Kroenig, author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, these estimates regarding American strikes are based on worst-case scenarios. “That is, if after a strike Iran decides to rebuild immediately, encounters no significant difficulties, and is able to get whatever it needs in the international marketplace. But that’s hard to imagine.”
Kroenig, who worked on defense policy and strategy against Iran in the office of the secretary of defense, says it’s misleading that many experts claim the American estimates are the best-case scenarios when actually they’re worst-case scenarios. “Either these experts don’t know,” says Kroenig, “or they do know and they’re trying to make a case that is not intellectually honest.”

The larger point, say advocates of the White House’s proposed agreement and opponents of a military strike, is that once a nuclear program reaches a certain stage, you can’t undo the know-how that has already been acquired. That is, you can’t bomb knowledge.
Even proponents of a military strike concede there’s something to that argument. “The longer we go without doing something, the bigger Iran’s edge becomes,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “For instance, the closer they get to perfecting advanced centrifuges, the efficacy of any military strike goes down. More people will have the necessary knowledge to continue.”
During his speech to Congress earlier this month, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed this very issue, noting the argument that “Iran’s nuclear know-how cannot be erased, that its nuclear program is so advanced that the best we can do is delay the inevitable.” But as Netanyahu then suggested, “nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn’t get you very much.”
Here “infrastructure” is perhaps best understood to mean not only the facilities, equipment, and personnel necessary to run a nuclear weapons program, but also any given nation’s industrial and technological culture, its economy, and perhaps most important the society that produces them. The Islamic Republic of Iran comes up short in all these vital areas. And that’s why it has taken Tehran 25 years to buy, steal, and smuggle a nuclear weapons program from the outside world. The notion that it would take Iran only two to three years to restore a program it has taken more than two decades and tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars to build does not add up.
The idea that you can’t bomb knowledge is correct, says the journalist David Samuels. “But it also signals a larger misunderstanding about what part of making nuclear bombs is difficult.”
A few years ago, Samuels, a contributing editor to the left-leaning Harper’s, wrote a profile for the New Yorker of John Coster-Mullen, a truck driver who reverse-engineered Fat Man and Little Boy, the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
“All the leading scientists at Los Alamos say he got it right,” says Samuels. “He’s a very bright man, but he has no recondite knowledge of physics.” Rather, it was Coster-Mullen’s experience as a commercial photographer that allowed him to reconstruct the two bombs by decoding old documents.
“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.