Friday, April 6, 2012

The Threat from Iran: James Woolsey

Let me jump right in into Iran’s nuclear capability debate because there are several points that I think need to be understood.

The danger from an enemy having a military capability is partly a matter of his intentions and partly a matter of his capability.  Let’s say a word about intentions. There has grown up over the course of the last several years, as Iran’s capability of having a nuclear weapon has grown, the notion that there are really only two types of leaders in the word: There are rational leaders, some are nice, some are not nice, and then there are irrational leaders and the latter are crazed maniacs with no capability for rational action whatsoever.  

And then what we are facing in dealing with Iran is basically a standoff between two rational groups of people, one the American government, the Israeli government, our allies etc. on one side. On the other side an Iranian government that is rational, reasonable, able to be engaged and spoken with, perhaps having some, some  really most improper ideas, things we disagree with, but nonetheless - rational.

Well, I once wrote a paper years ago on Hitler as a diplomat. From 1933 to 1939 Hitler was superbly rational in the tactical sense. He was a total sociopath whose objective was to kill all the Jews and conquer Europe for a 1000 year empire, but tactically, he was as shrewd as they come.  He rivaled Metternich at his best.  He had the chanceries of Europe eating out of his hands. He was a sociopath. And it is important I think to realize that this third category of international national leaders, being a sociopath, is unfortunately more common than many others would like. For example, we know now from Soviet documents that were released or stolen after the Cold War ended, that Castro pushed very hard during the Cuban missile crisis for essentially there be a nuclear war. Happily he did not care  if Cuba would be destroyed. He wanted so much that the   United States be destroyed, and he was not even a religious fanatic. He was just a fanatic sociopath.  That almost tipped things into a tragic direction, but happily on the other side the Soviet Union was basically a bunch of thugs with a cover story their ideology was very substantially dead. By the early sixties there were more true believing revolutionary Marxist-Leninists in the bookstores of the Upper-West Side of Manhattan by that time, than I think there were in the Kremlin. Those guys did not want die for the principle of each according to his ability, to each according to his need – they wanted to remodel their dachas.

We were, in a way, lucky with our opponent in the Cold War because they were thugs with a cover story.  They were not, on the whole, sociopaths. Unfortunately, the Castro model, the Hitler model, the model of the sociopath is one we may well need to deal with in Iran.  And it should not provide any kind of relief to hear from either the former head of Israeli intelligence, or anybody else, that they are rational. They may well be quite tactically quite shrewd and rational. The Persians invented chess, they are quite good at it. But rational in that sense doesn’t mean that you are not a sociopath, after the model of Castro and others.

Second point is about capabilities. People tend to think that most change is linear, and so if you hear that it only takes 3 percent enriched uranium to power a nuclear plant and it takes 90 percent enriched uranium for a weapon, most of us tend to think that, well, you have to do 30  times more work on the enriched uranium and only then you will  have enough for the bomb. Wrong. Those curves are not linear.  Once you have 3 percent enriched uranium you have done about 60 percent of  the work you need in order to have weapons grade nuclear material Once you have done enriched uranium to 20 percent, which we know Iran is doing now, you have done 80 to 85 percent of the work you need to get to weapons grade.  And indeed with some types of bomb design, admittedly rather simple, not particularly effective, nothing that any bomb designer from Lawrence Livermore or any place that worked on these weapons would have been proud of,  but something that would go boom and have a mushroom cloud and radioactivity. You can do that under some circumstances with the 20 percent enriched uranium that the Iranians are already producing.

So we do not have a situation where there is a single bright red line that either a CIA spy or a Mossad spy, or anybody else can find has been crossed and then people can say eureka, now the Iranians have a nuclear weapons capability. Now, why am I not talking about the weapons themselves? Because for a simple nuclear weapon of the sort that we dropped over Hiroshima, the weapon itself is unfortunately relatively simple to design. Graduate students get elements of it off the web and do it from time to time at good universities and then it gets locked up.  But it’s unfortunately not that hard to do. A simple so called shot gun design of the weapon where a slug of highly enriched uranium is blasted into a socket of highly enriched uranium, by bringing the two together forcefully the mass goes critical and you have a nuclear explosion. That was Hiroshima.

We dropped that weapon on Hiroshima in the middle of, we thought at the time, actually it was right at the end but were worried  that it might be the middle,  of a brutal war, one of the most brutal humans have ever fought, in the Pacific. And we did it without it ever having been tested in the history of the world.  What we tested in Alamagordo was a plutonium weapon, somewhat more sophisticated, and we did need to test that before we dropped it on Nagasaki. But the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima had never been tested.  Three quarters of a century ago in the history of the world and we were sufficiently confident it would work, we used it and we were right.

So the long pole in the tent is not designing the weapon. If you want to get something that is small and has a lot of yield and you put in on a warhead of a missile   then that takes some time and effort and work. But something that you can detonate in Iran’s desert and have a mushroom cloud and radioactivity, and everybody in the world says ah Iran is a nuclear power, unfortunately, that is relatively easy to do in terms of weapon design. This is the reason that the National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 was so deceptive.
Basically its headline that Iran had stopped working on its weapon may have been right and the footnote that said Iran is still enriching uranium was right, but the headline should have been the footnote and the footnote should have been the headline. The weapon design itself if you are talking about a simple weapon, unfortunately is not that hard to do.

One final point. The only way to use nuclear weapons is not to have intercontinental or even  medium range ballistic missiles. One can put a weapon inside a freighter and blow it up and sink it in a harbor. There are lots, unfortunately, a number of ways that are not the most effective but would still be devastating for nuclear weapons to be used. So we have to deal over the course of the months to come and Bibi Netanyahu said the other day that it is a matter not of days to weeks, yet, but it also is not a matter of years, it is a matter of months.  We have some months. I do not know whether it is three or ten or eight, or what. We have months not years to decide how to deal with this capability that I am afraid we have an enemy who would be entirely capable, in one way or another, using it.