As a general rule, serious security concerns and hyperbolic news reports are a bad combination. The November 27 Associated Press “Exclusive,” based on an Iranian graph reportedly now in possession of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), provides the latest example.
The AP acknowledges upfront that the document, which appears to depict calculations of nuclear warhead yield potential, was leaked by officials from a country that wishes to “to bolster their arguments that Iran’s nuclear program must be halted before it produces a weapon.”
That should have led the AP to exercise greater caution before running it with the explosive and misleading headline: “Diagram suggests Iran is working on nuclear bomb much more powerful than Hiroshima.”
First of all, the reasons for concern about the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program have been widely known for some time and were laid out in some detail by the November 2011 IAEA report on Iran. Although the most troubling evidence apparently dated from a structured program that the U.S. Intelligence Community assessed in 2007 to have been halted in the fall of 2003, the IAEA report also mentioned nuclear weapons modeling studies, which had been conducted in 2008 and 2009.
The Associated Press story explains the graph in the context of these studies, but buries a comment from David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security as doubting it is part of a blueprint for an actual weapon in the making.
Albright is not the only scientific expert who is skeptical of the claims being made about the graph’s meaning. For example, Yousaf Butt and Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress of Monterey’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies, as well as Frank von Hippel of Princeton University regard the level of sophistication needed to produce such a graph as corresponding to that found in graduate or advanced undergraduate level nuclear physics courses.
In fact, similar diagrams outlining basic warhead yield characteristics have been circulating in the open scientific literature for many years, including the seminal volume The Effects of Nuclear Weapons by Samuel Glasstone and Philip Dolan, first published in the 1970s by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Energy Research and Development Administration. (See Figure 7.84 from page 311 of the volume, below.) You can get all 700 pages on a CD-Rom from the internet for only $19.95 plus shipping.
Furthermore, the Associated Press story does not change the U.S. Government’s assessment that Iran would require, not a few weeks, but many months to build a deliverable nuclear weapon, if it decided to do so. Secretary of Defense Panetta recently estimated that it would take two to three years, similar to the estimate made by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In order to implement such a crash program, Iran would need to expel IAEA inspectors, use existing facilities and stockpiles to produce weapons grade uranium, and probably test a nuclear device, all of which would raise the alarm to the international community.
If value is to be derived from the AP story, it is to remind us of the need to get more clarity and cooperation from Iran regarding its nuclear program, and more specifically, for Tehran to agree to the IAEA’s “structured approach” to address concerns about “possible military dimensions.” Officials from the IAEA are scheduled to meet with Iranian nuclear officials on these issues in mid-December.