Six Months to Doomsday

The normal news programs were suspended, and President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry occupied our TV sets. The news was stupendous: Iran has agreed to back down from the nuclear weapons program it had previously claimed it was not engaged in. But while Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry talked long, they said very little. Rather than announcing details of a plan in which Iran allows inspectors to supervise the destruction of its stockpiles and fabrication equipment, Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry talked about how sanctions were only one piece of the equation, how Iran would get the chance to prove its intentions, and asked, "what are the alternatives?" Words of surrender. The deal fell far short of the hype. Iran has agreed that if some sanctions are lifted, then within six months, Iran will dilute its existing stockpile of 20% enriched uranium and will stop expanding its program. So what could happen in six months under these terms?

It took Iran from early 2009 until November 2013 to produce 200 kg of 20% enriched uranium. Some simple math would suggest a rate of 40 kg per year, but Iran greatly increased its production capabilities during that time, and can probably produce upwards of 1,000 kg per year, enough for about 7 bombs every year (1.7 months per bomb). In terms of Iran's current production capabilities, six months is a long time. Their current program needs to shrink, but this deal keeps it in place.

The proposed deal only focuses on the production of moderately (above 5%) and highly (above 20%) enriched uranium. There are two reasons to prohibit Iran from producing even moderately enriched uranium. First, most modern bomb designs require "weapons-grade" uranium (general considered as over 80% enrichment). This has led many to the incorrect conclusion that bombs cannot be made with uranium enriched to lower levels, but it would be more correct to say that it is impractical to make a bomb with less than 80%, as even 10% can be used to for bomb manufacture. The amount of fissile material required for a bomb does not scale linearly with the enrichment level. A bomb using 80% enriched uranium would require around 60 kg of it, while a bomb using 10% would require around 700 kg (that's 48 kg of the U¬235 isotope in the 80% bomb versus 70 kg in the 10% bomb). The 10% bomb would also be rather inefficient, perhaps having a yield of 5 to 8 kilotons versus 15 kilotons for the 80% bomb, but it would make more fallout. It is highly unlikely that a 10% bomb would find its way inside the warhead of a ballistic missile, but a 10% bomb could be floated up the Potomac in a cargo container. In terms of destructive power, it would be far better to enrich the 10% material to weapons grade, which bring us to the second reason.

It is easy to further enrich moderately enriched uranium to weapons-grade levels, which is why no one uses less than weapons-grade uranium in bombs. This enrichment process can be performed in a small, covert facility, safe from nosy inspectors. Gold mining provides a good example to explain high enrichment. There might be an ounce of gold in a ton of gravel. At great expense, gravel is dug from the ground and fed into large, multi-stage separators that filter out gold particles and heavy silt. A hundred tons of 0.003% ore might produce 100 pounds of concentrated mud containing 3% gold. This mud can be taken into a small shack and hand-panned to remove the silt and leave the gold, requiring very little effort. As the enrichment level increases, the amount of material that needs to be processed drops, as does the portion that needs to be removed.

A uranium bomb is a very simple design; so simple that the Little Boy design was untested until used against Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Right now, Iran is just a few dozen kg short of being able to fabricate a 20% bomb, but in 6 months, Iran could easily have 3 weapons-grade bombs on the assembly line, all made in a facility we know nothing about. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is well aware of the threat from covert enrichment and reactor facilities, as well as the threat from surface transported and delivered nuclear weapons. The agency frequently releases Small Business Innovative Research grant topics seeking things like remote standoff detection to detect nuclear bombs at a distance, such as before entering our ports, and remote reactor sensing to pinpoint clandestine reactors from a distance of 200 miles. We probably already have some capability, but the problem with all of it is that we detect nuclear devices and facilities after the enemy has them. The question is: do we detect them with enough time to react?

In terms of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, this deal accomplishes identically nothing. Iran promises to dilute its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium that we know about. Inspectors will be allowed into the low-enrichment facilities that we know about. Iran gives up on a plutonium bomb, or at least the facility that we know about. Given the size and duration of Iran's bomb program, there could be a lot that we do not know about.

The greatest concern we should have about Mr. Obama's and Kerry's statements is the idea that Iran will have six months to prove its intentions. Iran has already proved its intentions. They enriched to 20% while constructing clandestine facilities related to non-enrichment aspects of nuclear bomb testing and manufacture. Do Obama and Kerry require an EMP, neutron burst, ground tremor, and mushroom cloud as proof? Once Iran becomes an official nuclear power, will the world be as willing to impose sanctions? If Iran really has no interest in a bomb, then why all the dishonesty and secrecy about it? If they come clean and abandon the program, all of the sanctions vanish, not just some of them.

The foreign policies of the Obama administration have been a never-ending tragedy of failures. The only success has been the sanctions imposed on Iran, by Congress, against Obama's objections. This author knew people from Chicago's Palestinian and Middle Eastern community in which Barack Obama was heavily involved. Many of them believed Obama to be a Muslim, and all of them knew that Obama viewed Israel as a mistake that needed to be corrected. As with all of Obama's perceived failures, were they really failures due to his inexperience and lack of critical thought, or were the outcomes the ones he desired? Even guessing, he should have had a few successes. Either way, there can be no confidence in his Middle Eastern policy, or any of his policies.

The thumbscrews are working, otherwise Iran would not be complaining about them. The current deal is the equivalent of Iran saying, "loosen the screws, and I promise to tell you my favorite color." We could care less about your favorite color, we want to stop your clandestine nuclear program. Tighten the screws another turn! Will Congress once again force success upon Obama? 

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