On November 5th, the UK Guardian revealed that members of the UN atomic watchdog agency, the IAEA, were seeking clarification from Iran on evidence that Iranian scientists had come into possession of highly advanced, proven working weapon designs. This design, if they do in fact have it, is the same design developed by Pakistan and dramatically shortens the time it would take for Iran to assemble their refined fuel into a bomb. Furthermore, this design is already weaponized. If true, Iran will have gone directly from concept to something that can effectively be delivered by missile. Just how did Iran come into possession of an advanced design?
Building A Working Bomb
Building a working nuclear weapon is deceptively complex. The goal is to get enough of the nuclear material, either highly enriched Uranium or Plutonium together that they form a run-away chain reaction, at which point there is a release of energy. Early US designs, when we first invented the atomic bomb, involved separating portions of the material and forcing them together using explosives.
While this may sound simple, the explosives must be very precisely made, and must fire at very specific times with a very low margin for error, measured in less than 1/1000th of a second. The amount of circuitry and support electronics to make this happen caused early US designs to be the size of a Volkswagen Bug. In fact many nuclear weapons programs start with a large, complex “gadget”, such as what it is assumed the North Koreans have tried several times to detonate without any real success. These devices have no practical use as a weapon, unless you were to load one into a shipping container and send it to your target. They won’t fit on a missile, and you need a very large bomber to carry them.
Enter in this suspected Iranian “advanced design”. From the UK Guardian:
According to a dossier prepared by the IAEA, Iranian scientists may have tested high-explosive components of a “two-point implosion” device that could enable Iran to eventually install small nuclear warheads on its ballistic missiles. The article reported on speculation that the Pakistani nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan or a Russian weapons expert may have helped the Iranians to master the synchronized high explosive detonations necessary to build the warhead.
A.Q. Khan is the father of the Pakistani bomb, which they derived from a Chinese design, which was itself derived from blueprints stolen from US weapons labs over the 1980s and 1990s. It has long been rumored the Khan was willing to sell the design and supporting information for the right price to any state or non-state cartel willing to pay.
This design is radically different than the typical large, complex gadget that most countries explode as their first weapon. It was designed specifically to be delivered by missile, and has many improvements such as reduced complexity in the detonation circuitry. It is easier to build, easier to fuel and easier to deliver than anything Iran could have come up with on its own in the next 20 years.
From the IAEA report cited by the Guardian, the weapons design is progressing steadily in Iranian labs. Long before the first nuclear detonation takes place at the test range, a series of smaller tests are conducted on the components of the bomb itself. Atomic bombs work by igniting high explosives in a specific pattern that causes a set of shock waves to compress radioactive metal (called a “pit”) into a tight shape. This compression places enough of the atoms in close proximity that a run away chain reaction forms, resulting in a nuclear explosion.
To get to a working device, engineers must translate the design into real world mechanical and electronic components, and test them. The detonators for the high explosives must fire in correct sequence at the correct time, and the casing for the radioactive components must survive the explosion long enough for the pit to be compressed. This activity, the building of unfueled warhead devices and exploding them to determine if they are working as designed, is precisely what the IAEA has determined was taking place.
Impact of Negotiations With Iran
This report from the IAEA, if accurate, describes an Iranian weapons program that is in full research and development mode, actively seeking to perfect their weapon design and possibly detonate a nuclear explosion before the world community can stop them. The Iranians are masters of stalling for time, and for brinksmanship, but this has every hallmark of a program that is working to their first live test in the near future. The time remaining to remove Iran’s capability to threaten the world with atomic weapons is quickly drawing to a close. Make no mistake, a nuclear Iran will likely set off a middle east arms race where multiple wealthy nations expend their petrodollars to maintain parity with their neighbors.
The Bottom line
If Iranian engineers are testing static and un-fueled devices, they are very close to being ready to conduct their first test. Whatever action the world is going to take, diplomatic or military, must happen soon – or the world will have to cope with a nuclear armed, fundamental islamic state.