Iran and the Nuclear Eventide Home Tour

Let’s disabuse the Iranian public of the nuclear power fantasy.

Some of you asked for something completely different.

Iran proudly switched on its first civilian nuclear reactor at Busheyr in 2011. It justifies its nuclear enrichment programme as needed for the development of civilian nuclear power. The USA, Israel, Europe and the IAEA do not believe this. Iran has turned down offers from Europe and Russia to guarantee supplies of reactor fuel and in 2010 announced it had achieved enrichment up to 20%, allegedly for a special reactor to manufacture medical radioisotopes, but well above the typical 2-3% enrichment of power reactor fuel. To the outside world, the objective of Iran’s enrichment programme must plainly be to allow to build atomic weapons if it chooses. I’ll go along with the CW.

But that’s not how the Iranian public sees it. According to Wikipedia:

Interviews and surveys show that the majority of Iranians in all groups favor their country’s nuclear program. Polls in 2008 showed that the vast majority of Iranians want their country to develop nuclear energy, and 90% of Iranians believe it is important (including 81% very important) for Iran “to have a full fuel cycle nuclear program.”

Polls on nuclear weapons give more mixed signals. Remember that officially, for both domestic and foreign consumption, the government claims not to be developing them. So a very large number of Iranians believe their government’s story that the enrichment is to develop civilian nuclear power. Their opinions matter in this strange constitutional theocracy: Ahmadinejad was re-elected President in 2009, with plenty of irregularities but a convincingly large majority. Iran is far from North Korea.

It’s time to open Iranian eyes to the hopelessly geriatric state of nuclear power in the world.
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Obama, Fox, the GOP, the media, and nuclear strategy: why not call a lie a lie?

The treaty Barack Obama just signed with Dmitri Medvedev, and the strategy statement that went with it, are impeccably sensible. Fox News runs footage of mushroom cloulds while Newt Gingrich lies through his teeth about what’s in the statement. The mainstream media sits on its hands, and only Jon Stewart does the job of an actual journalist.

The next time Newt Gingrich appears one of the Sunday talk shows – which he does constantly, despite having held no office since he left the Speakership in disgrace – some actual journalist, were one present, might ask him a simple question:

Mr. Speaker, why are you such a m@therf%cking liar?

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Alas, the only actual journalist left on TV works for the Comedy Channel. Too bad, really.

Look, this isn’t a close call. On an issue as important as nuclear strategy, Rupert Murdoch and his subordinates in the Republican Party have managed to spread an astonishing falsehood, and current journalistic conventions call for George Stephanopoulos to demand that the President of the United States respond to the lunatic ravings of a former half-term governor but do not call for anyone except Jon Stewart to call the liars to account. Not a single Republican leader – not even the formerly reasonable Dick Lugar – has come to the President’s defense when his borderline-insane enemies accuse him of opening up the country to biological attack. Instead, the Republicans, and their lickspittle from Connecticut, are lined up to use the ratification process to extract tens of billions of dollars a year in useless spending on “modernizing” the nuclear arsenal.

The brute fact of the matter is that the Republican Party has rendered itself utterly unfit to hold power, and has done so largely invisibly because the mainstream media lack the backbone to report what’s in front of their nose.

Little boys

What do we make of an amateur nuclear bomb scientist riding around with a cheesy replica of the Hiroshima bomb? One thing is clear: he should find a new hobby.

I’m not the smartest or most accomplished RBC contributor, but I am probably the nerdiest. How nerdy? I drafted these words at 35,000 feet en route to a funeral. In my backpack are two items for diversion: The December 15 New Yorker, and Ramamurti Shankar’s majestic Principles of Quantum Mechanics. These backpack reading companions turned out to be unexpectedly related….

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There is no cause for worry

The LHC doomsday scenario and similar risks.

The Large Hadron Collider has been switched on under Geneva and is being tuned up as I write. It’s featured on today’s Google search page.

It’s never reassuring when experts assure you things are quite, quite safe. Thus Steven Hawking in a BBC radio interview yesterday (times are from the audio clip):

2:50 The LHC is absolutely safe.

3:20 The world will not come to an end when the LHC turns on.

3:40 We don’t know what we will find when we run the LHC. If we did, it wouldn’t be worthwhile spending all that time and money to run the experiment.

Notice the wee contradiction? I’m sure Hawking, Bell and the other luminaries have checked the calculations carefully and are right to dismiss the doomsday scenarios that have been worked out. But the genuinely unknown is always a bit risky.

A later passage reveals I suspect the scientists’ real attitude:

5:55 Both the LHC and the space programme are vital if the human race is not to stultify, and eventually die out. Together they cost less than one tenth of a percent of world GDP. If the human race cannot afford that, it doesn’t deserve the epithet, human.

Not taking the tiny risks of venturing into the truly unknown would simply be cowardice. An older generation would have said: do your best and trust in God.

I can live with the LHC doomsday risk and anyway it’s too late to worry. (Just in case, let me say that it’s been a nice conversation here.)

We should spend some time on doomsday risks. One of the solutions to the Fermi paradox – where are the aliens? – is that advanced civilisations always self-destruct. We are now faced with two risks that are well above the giggle bar: climate disaster (not just major problems, which are certain) and a nuclear holocaust (not just regional wars, which are likely). This is an additional reason to keep crackpots away from nuclear weapons. Like Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad – and Sarah Palin.

Obama, nukes, and idiot-elite opinion

Any ignoramus knows that, if we have to attack al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan, we shouldn’t use nukes. And any sophisticated strategic analyst agrees. But a little learning is a dangerous thing, and reporters and politicians who know just enough strategic theory to get it completely wrong are ganging up on Barack Obama for saying something that’s obviously correct.

Barack Obama said:

1. Pakistan can’t be a safe haven for al-Qaeda. If there’s a good opportunity to attack al-Qaeda bases or leaders inside Pakistan, and the government of Pakistan won’t take that opportunity, we should.

2. If we did so, we wouldn’t use nuclear weapons.

Proposition #1 is arguable. Whether it’s right or not &#8212 whether it would be smart to make the threat, and whether it would be smart to carry it out &#8212 depends on lots of circumstances that I certainly can’t judge. But I for one find it hard to argue with the principle that al-Qaeda, having murdered 3000 Americans, is to be destroyed wherever it is found.

Proposition #2 is completely obvious. No al-Qaeda target in Pakistan could possibly be significant enough to justify breaking the taboo on using nuclear weapons. The threat adds nothing to our bargaining position vis-à-vis either Musharraf or bin Laden, partly because there’s probably nothing worth nuking and partly because the threat is utterly incredible: there’s no way any U.S. government would take the sh*tstorm of worldwide denunciation involved. (No, not even the current lunatic crew. I think you’d get mass resignations by the brass if the order came down.) And making the threat weakens us diplomatically by fuzzing the issue about which is the rogue outfit in the U.S./al-Qaeda confrontation.

The U.S. never publicly embraced the “No first use” pledge for historically sound reasons: using conventional forces alone, NATO didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of resisting an all-out Warsaw Pact assault on Western Europe. We were massively out-manned and out-tanked. We knew that, the Russki knew that, they knew that we knew that. So they had an infinitely potent threat to use in any confrontation with us &#8212 unless we had in reserve the counter-threat to “go nuclear.” On the other hand, we didn’t want to explicitly threaten to start a nuclear war on European soil, since that would have strengthened the anti-NATO forces in Europe. So we developed a policy of studied ambiguity. We didn’t explicitly threaten to use nukes, but neither did we promise not to use them.

That thought developed into the idea that we should never comment on the circumstances under which nuclear weapons would, or would not, be used, except for the explicit threat of massive retaliation for a nuclear attack on the U.S. itself. In principle, if Ronald Reagan had been asked about whether we might use nuclear weapons in Grenada, he should have said “We don’t comment on that,” even though everyone knew that the use of nukes in that context was utterly absurd.

Since we don’t currently face any conventional threat of Cold War dimensions &#8212 if a terrorist group is going to do more than enrage us, it would have to be with nuclear or biological weapons &#8212 there’s no particular reason now to maintain ambiguity in all circumstances. Obama’s best response to the question about nukes in Pakistan would have been “Are you kidding?” or “What kind of stupid question is that?” But “No” was certainly appropriate.

I thought HRC looked like an idiot, first attacking Obama first for saying that al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan weren’t off limits and then attacking him for saying that an attack on those targets would certainly be conventional rather than nuclear. But apparently the press is so devoted to the “Inexperienced Obama” narrative that any set of facts will be distorted to fit that narrative.

What’s most annoying is that Obama committed a “gaffe” only in terms of what might be called idiot-elite opinion. Any serious strategic analyst would say without hesitation that not using nukes in a hypothetical attack on al-Qaeda in Pakistan is an obvious decision, and that committing not to use them does some good and no harm. Any ordinary person would have no problem parsing the sentence, “We’ll attack al-Qaeda in Pakistan if we have to, but of course not with nukes.”

But a reporter or politician who half slept through a briefing from the Hudson Institute about nuclear strategic doctrine might have the vague sense that “We’re not supposed to say we won’t use nukes,” without any sense of the context in which that doctrine applies. And if the reporters and the politicians get together to say, “Ooooooohhhhhhh! Obama made a mistake! See how inexperienced he is!” some voters will wind up believing it, never noticing that the “mistake” consisted of reciting an obvious piece of common sense, with which the voter actually agrees.

Update More here.

Backing the wrong horse in Pakistan

Musharraf is going down. We backed a thug, and all we got is this lousy reputation.

So the Bushies decided that Parvaz Musharraf was our guy in Pakistan, the only thing keeping the Islamists out of power. A little dictatorship, a little state-supported terrorism (jn Kashmir), a little patronage of the A.Q. Khan network that peddled nuclear-weapons technology to all the bad guys in the world, a little sponsorship of the Taliban: after all, what do such trifles amount to, among friends? “Realism” dictated that we back him; he was a sunuvabitch, but he was our sunuvabitch.

As usual, (see under “Pahlevi,” “Battista,” “South African National Party,” etc.) the “realistic” option turns out to be not only immoral but wrong-headed even in purely cynical terms. According to the Financial Times, Musharraf is now so unpopular he probably can’t hold on to power, and neither of the the two civilian parties that (if Pakistan and the rest of the world are lucky) might take power owes anything to the United States. Instead, we’re identified with what may be the worst regime in Pakistan’s history of gross misrule, with all the popularity that goes with it.

If the civilians don’t get their act together, then we’ll get another military dictator, who also won’t owe us squat, or perhaps the Islamic parties, which couldn’t win an election, might be able to take over amid chaos, putting the Bomb at last in the hands of a thoroughly jihad-friendly regime.

As Michael Walzer once said, “There is neither profit nor glory in doing evil badly.”

Iranian politics and Iranian nukes

Shouldn’t the design of American foreign policy toward Iran start with an analysis of Iranian politics? Increasing the chances that Iran has a new President less crazy and less hostile than its current one ought to be at the top of our priority list. But that’s not the way foreign policy gets thought about.

William Perry’s account of Iran at today’s Burkle Center symposium was more or less as follows:

* The Iranians are years, but not many years, from being nuclear-armed, or at least in a position where they can’t be stopped from becoming nuclear-armed.

* The Israelis are nervous, and for good reason. But the military options are lousy, and even if Israel were to succeed in taking out Iran’s nuclear production capacity the blowback, on them and on us, would be intense.

* If we can’t keep Iran from nuking up, the anti-proliferation game is lost. A Shi’a Bomb will create a strong incentive for a Sunni Bomb. (The same is true, says Perry, if we can’t make the North Koreans roll back.)

* Since the military options stink, we’d better pursue diplomacy. The Bushite idea that talking to bad guys is bad because it just encourages them is silly. But diplomacy doesn’t just mean making nice: it means communicating specific threats as responses to specific actions. (Perry was devastating on the Bush Administration’s failure to draw a “red line” for the North Koreans back in 2002.)

* It may or may not be true that Iran’s capacity to threaten our army in Iraq (threatening to put out a call for jihad against the occupiers to the pro-Iranian groups among Iraq’s Shi’a) reduces our leverage over Iran. Maybe the threat is empty, and maybe, given sufficient provocation, we’d ignore it. But it doesn’t really matter whether Iran really has us “pinned down” in Iraq; what matters is whether the Iranians think so, and will ignore our threats against them in consequence. (To a question about whether U.S. withdrawal from Iraq might “embolden” Iran, Perry responded dryly, “How much bolder could they get?”)

* In dealing with Iran, we need help from the Chinese and the Europeans.

All of that sounded sensible. But in the Q&A I was able to raise the questions I usually ask about foreign policy: How likely is it that the Iranian political situation will shift enough to matter over the relevant time-horizon, and what if anything can the U.S. government do, or refrain from doing, to improve the chances that Iran’s politics will shift in a direction favorable to us?

To which Perry replied, “Those are two excellent questions. I don’t know the answers.”

Now that’s a very respectable response. I like it when experts are frank about the limits of their expertise.

But what bothered me, as it usually bothers me, is that the conversation then continued under the assumption that “the United States” and “Iran” and the other national players in this game are more or less unitary actors, so that “the United States” can threaten to do something that damages “Iran” as a way of coercing “Iran” to act (or not act) in a particular way.

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I-didn’t-know-that Dep’t: Launch on Warning

The U.S. and Russia are still in “launch-on-warning” mode, and Russian’s warning systems have been degrading over time.

UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations is having a two-day all-star conference on the emerging challenges of nuclear weapons, organized by Wesley Clark. I don’t know nearly enough about international relations to get invited as a scholar, but UCLA’s media folks decided to invite me as a blogger. (!)

William Perry, Defense Secretary under Clinton and a certified Defense Intellectual Heavyweight, gave a very good, thoughtful opening talk.

Here’s the most interesting fact I learned: both the U.S. and Russia still have their thousands of nuclear warheads on “launch-on-warning” status, which means that a computer malfunction on either end could put us into Fail-Safe territory, with top officials having minutes in which to decide whether to respond to an apparent attack or risk losing their capacity to counter-attack. And Russia’s warning systems have been degrading ever since the Soviet system fell.

There! Doesn’t that make you feel secure?

An expert’s take on N. Korea

The North Koreans tested a real warhead, not just a device, with an intended yield of about four kilotons. It fizzled. The tactical goal of the test was to make our aircraft carriers insecure, forcing them to keep away from the Korean coast. The strategic goal of the whole exercise is to get the U.S. to promise not to invade. From that perspective, the test was probably a mistake.

I had the chance to discuss the North Korean bomb test with a senior scholar who studies “bombs” for a living. He reports the following as the current consensus among international-security types:

1. The test was almost certainly a fizzle.

2. The North Koreans were probably trying to test a deliverable warhead (i.e., something small enough to be a warhead on the cruise missiles they have) rather than a mere test device. That increased the risk of a fizzle.

3. The intended yield was about 4 kilotons. That’s about a quarter the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Since the area of destruction grows as the square root of the yield, that means it would destroy about half the area that the Hiroshima bomb took out.

4. The obvious target for such a warhead would be an aircraft carrier. If North Korea were known to have nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, our carriers &#8212 which in the past have been used to threaten North Korea &#8212 would have to keep their distance.

5. Unlike a nuclear attack on a city (by North Korea or by a terrorist group to which North Korea had supplied a nuclear weapon), which would be national suicide, an attack on a purely military target such as a carrier would look more like an ordinary act of war than it would like an act of mass murder, especially since an attack over water minimizes radioactive fallout. The North Korean government could then reasonably hope to escape massive retaliation.

6. The tactical purpose of the test was to force the U.S. back to the bargaining table. The strategic objective is a security treaty under which the U.S. promises not to invade.

7. From that perspective, the test was probably a mistake; net-net, the North Korean bargaining position just got worse rather than better.

Attack the North Korean missile base?

Ash Carter and Bill Perry say “yes.”

I haven’t been following North Korean developments at all closely, so I’m not entitled to an opinion of my own. But I know this much: Ash Carter and Bill Perry are both very smart, highly knowledgeable, and not at all trigger-happy. If they think striking the North Korean missile site is a good idea, they’re probably right.

Update A different expert has a different view.