When I posted Wrong but mostly right back in June of last year, I wrote, “Iran has reached and passed the threshold. The implacable mathematics of the enrichment process decrees that Israel must attack soon.” Now, if you will, is “soon”. Much has happened in the interim. First, an internal Israeli policy debate concerning a preemptive strike was leaked to the press. Subsequently, several key nuclear facilities, including the uranium hexafluoride plant in Esfahan, were attacked by unknown parties. It is not unreasonable to assume that these attacks are part of the covert war against Iran that began under the Bush-43 administration. Thus, the war is underway.
Despite cyber and covert wars, the Iranian program continues to progress. On 8 January, the New York Times reported that the Fordo enrichment facility in Qom (NYT uses Qum) is about to become operational.
“Already Iran has produced enough fuel to manufacture about four weapons, but only if the fuel goes through further enrichment, nuclear experts say.
Some of the fuel at Fordo, Mr. Abbasi said, would be enriched to 20 percent purity for use in a research reactor in Tehran; because of the oddities about how uranium is enriched, those batches would be the easiest to convert for use in weapons.” [Emphasis mine]
As readers of my blog will observe, the “oddity” is that enrichment is a logarithmic process. If we assume that our desired end product is 95% enriched uranium for a bomb, the energy cost to get to 3.5% (low enriched or reactor grade) uranium is over 60% of the total. To get to 20% (medium enriched) uranium uses nearly 90% of the total energy cost. “Easiest” hardly describes it. Most people will assume a linear relationship, not realizing that only 10% of the work remains to go from 20% to 95%.
The strategy Iran is following is brilliant. A stockpile of uranium is being amassed that is enriched to reactor grade, which is permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Another stockpile is created that is medium enriched, which is also compliant with the provisions of the NPT. Instead of racing to the finished line, Iran sedately walks right up to it. All it takes then is a single step to cross it.
How might the final step be taken? Spirit away the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium overnight to a number of widely dispersed facilities. They could be nondescript warehouses or similar buildings. Each could house a standard 164 centrifuge cascade. Iran has tested advanced centrifuges that are roughly 5 times more efficient that the first generation centrifuges installed at Natanz and (apparently) at Qom. These more efficient centrifuges would be ideal for the enrichment endgame. With a dozen such clandestine facilities, Iran could have 2 weapons sitting on ballistic missiles in the first month and every month thereafter until the feedstock was consumed. (The calculations are straightforward. I’m not going to show my work here - I’ll leave it as an exercise for the student.)
Iran’s strategy is predicated on the bureaucratic and political inertia of its adversaries to make “breakout” feasible. Thus far it has worked flawlessly. In my previous postings, when I posited a low threshold at which a preemptive strike against Iran was necessary, I assumed that policymakers would want to avoid the situation that is about to obtain.
The problems posed for the US (and Israel) by the Iranian strategy cannot be overemphasized. Given the above scenario of 12 dispersed centrifuge cascades, let’s posit that Iran diverts enough 20% enriched uranium for 10 bombs. How long would it take for the diversion to be detected? Once diverted, could the nuclear material be tracked? Could the clandestine sites be discovered and attacked in time to prevent bombs from being made?
It’s possible that the diversion might be detected quickly. Both the US and Israel fly drones over the sites of interest and the US has spy satellites available for additional monitoring. Israel likely has substantial humint on the ground and might thereby have advanced warning of a move. Best case is that the enriched uranium could be interdicted before it could be moved. Given the stakes, prudence dictates a rather more pessimistic view of intel capabilities. If small amounts are diverted on a regular basis, the activity might be easier to conceal. But, we can’t rule out a sudden move of the bulk of the inventory in the space of a few hours. The thing to bear in mind is that the amount of 20% enriched uranium feedstock needed to produce one bomb is less than 200 kg. There are many ways to package the uranium hexafluoride to make it appear innocuous.
Once the diversion has occurred, the clock starts. Bombing Natanz, Qom, and the other sites will not solve the problem. Unless the dispersed enrichment sites are detected and destroyed before they can begin processing the feedstock, in 5 or 6 months, Iran will have 10 warheads and a very credible deterrent.
How close is Iran to being able to step across the line? It’s all contingent on the amount of enriched uranium that the Iranians have on hand and whether “hidden in plain view”, dispersed sites actually exist. Based upon history, US intel is likely to get it wrong. The Israelis, in contrast, have repeatedly demonstrated that they have a very effective intelligence gathering apparatus. It will be the Israelis who present the US with the critical information that the time has come to attack.
I’ve been consistently wrong on when the balloon would go up. Iran was never going to negotiate its nuclear program away so what we’ve seen is US policy makers – in both the Bush-43 and Obama administrations – temporizing while various monkey wrenching operations have been executed. Strangely, the one thing that might produce a US attack is the impending election. Gimlet-eyed little Hillary is the warhawk who will have to convince Obama to drop the hammer on the Iranians. Her arguments will be simple. If Iran gets nukes, Obama’s nuclear disarmament initiatives will be dead and so will any chance he might live up to his Peace Prize. There is also the matter of what Obama getting tough with Iran would do for his reelection chances. My personal view is that it will make no difference on the outcome but there will be other schools of thought both in and out of the administration arguing that it will. Suffice that I think there is better than a 50% chance that Obama will give the go ahead before election day.