Dec 06 2007

Cold War Myopia On Iranian Nukes

Published by at 10:19 am under All General Discussions,Iran,Syria

Addendum: I want to put this snippet from the recent NY Times piece at the top because it underlines what my points have been over the last few days. The post below outlines why we are right to question this sudden change in view on Iran. But my other recurring point is this NIE was NOT a consensus view of the intel community – and here is more proof form reporting by the NY Times which supports that made by the Washington Post yesterday:

In fact, some in the intelligence agencies appear to be not fully convinced that the notes of the deliberations indicated that all aspects of the [Iranian] weapons program had been shut down.

As I outline below the preponderance of evidence for both views would, at best, leave us assuming we have no idea what is happening. The record to date shows a lot of evidence that Iran is working on nuclear weapons, as I show below. So to change that record requires something phenomenal – and from what is being leaked to shore up this NIE it looks less than phenomenal. Much less.

Bottom line – if this is true all Iran has to do is prove it! For those interested John Bolton is out today slamming the report as well. – end addendum

Some people just can’t adjust to a changing world. I note for example those mentality stuck in the Vietnam era on the left who fantasize about Iraq being another Vietnam (you should see the email I get from some guy Ken Hoop and the glea he takes in any violence against America and its Iraqi allies – it is truly sick). Or those who think the Cold War standoff which relied on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) will work when faced with people ready to Martyr themselves against their enemies. I can go on and on listing examples of people who cannot think outside their comfy little boxes.

There are degrees to this element of human nature, we all grow old and stuck in our ways. But sometimes that can be very dangerous – like when we couldn’t fathom the idea terrorists would use commercial airplanes as weapons against us. It is not with evil intent people have made the mistake of falling into this trap. It happens.

And so it seems with the latest NIE – if we can believe the wave of new leaks coming out to shore up the assessment now that it has taken a beating publicly. Before it was photographs from an Iranian controlled tour of parts of their nuclear facilities which determined the technology (that was allowed to be photographed -hint) was inadequate for near term nuclear capability. An event easily staged for an arrogant Western intelligence community too comfortable with their superhuman abilities (at least in their own minds).

Now we hear the change has to do with some conversations overheard and some documents captured years ago. The problem is the focus of those documents and conversations are a specific type of nuclear weapon which are more applicable to the arsenal of the world’s super powers, not something a terrorist nation would use:

American intelligence agencies reversed their view about the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program after they obtained notes last summer from the deliberations of Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program, senior intelligence and government officials said on Wednesday.

The notes included conversations and deliberations in which some of the military officials complained bitterly about what they termed a decision by their superiors in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons, including a warhead that could fit atop Iranian missiles.

Emphasis mine. Let’s stop right here and understand this a little better. If anyone has seen the pictures of the first atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan they were massive. Check out this chart to see the evolution in warhead yield (fission to fussion) along with the shrinking of the bomb to fit on missiles. It conveniently shows dates for the milestones made to produce a high yield warhead small enough to fit on a missile.

But missiles are not the only way to deliver a bomb. And, in fact, they are the most easily tracked way so that everyone on the globe will know where the bomb came from.

Missiles and warheads follow very well defined and understood trajectory paths – they have to. During power flight you cannot make wild changes in direction because the stresses would tear apart the missile – so a pretty much straight line needs to be followed. In ballistic flight physics dictates the path. While it takes a lot of classified capabilities to back-track missiles to the exact launch site, tracking them back to the country they came from is trivial. Which is why this Cold War era weapon system makes no sense when thinking about a terrorist state.

Iran and North Korea and others would want missiles tipped with nukes as a defensive deterrent, but not as an offensive weapon – that requires stealth and deniability. Hence a smaller bomb with lower yield, possibly packed in a car or a truck. Bombs that could fit in a backpack may have limited destructive power, but they would be a terrible threat in a world where backpacks are common in every public space. And then we have the dirty bomb format of nuclear weapons.

The NIE states one thing quite clearly – the Iranians continue their centrifuge work to develop highly processed uranium – something they do not need to operate their nuclear power reactors. And in fact these centrifuges represent costly and wasteful spending, consuming large financial resources that would be better applied to oil refinery capacity than delaying the operation of civil nuclear power. If cost benefit truly is the driver, as the NIE claims, the centrifuge program makes no sense for commercial power and lowering Iran’s energy reliance. Buying nuclear fuel and building refineries would allow Iran enormous financial independence regarding their power and fuel needs.

Centrifuges do produce weapons grade nuclear material however, and once you have a workable bomb design then you can make a bomb of various sizes. And Iran may have that design – thanks to Bill Clinton of all people (the original article can be found here and excerpted more below):

Deep in the bowels of the CIA, someone must be nervously, but very privately, wondering: “Whatever happened to those nuclear blueprints we gave to the Iranians?”

The story dates back to the Clinton administration and February 2000, when one frightened Russian scientist walked Vienna’s winter streets. The Russian had good reason to be afraid. He was walking around Vienna with blueprints for a nuclear bomb.

To be precise, he was carrying technical designs for a TBA 480 high-voltage block, otherwise known as a “firing set”, for a Russian-designed nuclear weapon. He held in his hands the knowledge needed to create a perfect implosion that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction inside a small spherical core. It was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world, providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia from rogue countries such as Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short.

On paper, Merlin was supposed to stunt the development of Tehran’s nuclear programme by sending Iran’s weapons experts down the wrong technical path. The CIA believed that once the Iranians had the blueprints and studied them, they would believe the designs were usable and so would start to build an atom bomb based on the flawed designs. But Tehran would get a big surprise when its scientists tried to explode their new bomb. Instead of a mushroom cloud, the Iranian scientists would witness a disappointing fizzle.

The Russian studied the blueprints the CIA had given him. Within minutes of being handed the designs, he had identified a flaw. “This isn’t right,” he told the CIA officers gathered around the hotel room. “There is something wrong.” His comments prompted stony looks, but no straight answers from the CIA men.

In Vienna, however, the Russian unsealed the envelope with the nuclear blueprints and included a personal letter of his own to the Iranians. No matter what the CIA told him, he was going to hedge his bets. There was obviously something wrong with the blueprints – so he decided to mention that fact to the Iranians in his letter. They would certainly find flaws for themselves, and if he didn’t tell them first, they would never want to deal with him again.

The Russian was thus warning the Iranians as carefully as he could that there was a flaw somewhere in the nuclear blueprints, and he could help them find it.

You can figure out where this story ends – we screwed up and gave the Iranians working designs for a nuclear bomb trigger. This is why am I now unconvinced that rumors of a ‘complex design’ effort to fit nukes on missiles being halted somehow equates to a harmless Iran. In fact there is other recent reporting that directly contradicts the NIE. First, from the above article we learn a mistake at Langley caused the entire CIA network of spies to be rolled up – blinding us in Iran:

The CIA officer had made a disastrous mistake. She had sent information to one Iranian agent that exposed an entire spy network; the data could be used to identify virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran.
Mistake piled on mistake. As the CIA later learned, the Iranian who received the download was a double agent. The agent quickly turned the data over to Iranian security officials, and it enabled them to “roll up” the CIA’s network throughout Iran. CIA sources say that several of the Iranian agents were arrested and jailed, while the fates of some of the others is still unknown.

This espionage disaster, of course, was not reported. It left the CIA virtually blind in Iran, unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the most critical issues facing the US – whether Tehran was about to go nuclear.

Not reported? Which means people reading NIE’s might think the same level of insight and confidence exists on later intel than that coming in prior to the loss of assets. That’s comforting. Now we know WHY NIEs on Iran need to be taken with a grain of salt. Especially when they seem to have ignored recent foiled attempts to smuggle nuclear fuel to Iran. For example and from CNN:

In 2002 35 pounds of weapons grade uranium was found in Turkey heading for the Syrian or Iraqi border:

Turkish officials said Saturday they have seized 34.6 pounds of uranium and arrested two Turkish men in Urfa, a town in southeastern Turkey. U.S. officials are in touch with authorities to get information about the seizure.

Maybe this is why the NIE cannot say whether Iran has got their hands on smuggled nuclear material. Or maybe they were unsure because of this UK based plot to smuggle to weapons grade material to Iran:

A British company has been closed down after being caught in an apparent attempt to sell black-market weapons-grade uranium to Iran and Sudan, The Observer can reveal.

Anti-terrorist officers and MI6 are now investigating a wider British-based plot allegedly to supply Iran with material for use in a nuclear weapons programme. One person has already been charged with attempting to proliferate ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

During the 20-month investigation, which also involved MI5 and Customs and Excise, a group of Britons was tracked as they obtained weapons-grade uranium from the black market in Russia. Investigators believe it was intended for export to Sudan and on to Iran.

This came out about 6 months after the Litvinenko story broke concerning Polonium-210, a material used in nuclear triggers to ignite the warheads. Is it just coincidence a UK firm is found to be moving weapons grade uranium to Iran from Russia around the same time Russian Po-210 is being moved through London – and ends up killing someone?

How about reports of smuggling the final element needed for a bomb (Beryllium)into Iran?

I am not saying there is a smoking gun here, but what kind of evidence would it take to debunk all these indications of nuclear weapons components headed to or in Iran? And how do you get this indisputable evidence of Iranian innocence when your spy network was recently compromised taken out? I assume it is possible all these reports are CIA efforts at disinformation – if I wanted to really fantasize.

But then we have one of the authors of this report under oath in front of Congress this summer saying the exact opposite of what he is saying now.

Here’s the deal. After years of the intel community claiming Iran was working to build the bomb, years of stories of foiled plots to get nuclear weapons into Iran and years of belligerence from Iran itself I think everyone deserves a better case for the sudden change in perspective other than ‘we heard two guys talking (rumor has it over open communications of all things), found some documents and saw some nifty photos from some overseas photographers on tour’. And if better is not forthcoming then I think we have a case for totally restructuring out intelligence community – beginning by tearing down existing fiefdoms so trf wars, biases and politics cannot get confused with national security.

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Cold War Myopia On Iranian Nukes”

  1. dave m says:

    Superb analysis AJ. It’s what makes this site one of the best.
    Shame it won’t get on Fox News? You should be one of their
    But the one thing I can’t shake off – was this just a rogue
    CIA hatchet job on President Bush? All Bush need have done
    was hold up the report in his hand and say “This report is a lie”.
    The battle would have been furious but we would know where the CIC stood.
    I still have this unpeaceful uneasy feeling that Bush approved the
    message and was signalling that “the world” had better not count
    on America fixing it this time. I call it the “Atlas Shrugged”
    So I am less interested in the exact specifics of the production of
    another Plame-like report than I am interested in President Bush’s
    rebuttal of it. So far he has produced none.
    I’ll ask it again, are we into the setting up of plausable
    deniability of an Israeli attack which is already scheduled?
    So far none of the official stuff makes any sense.

  2. cali_sun says:

    thanks for all the info; Bolton’s opinionpiece in the WP can be added as well.
    Today, another newsreport surfaced reported by Newzbusters, that a shopment of highly dangerous material on its way to Iran was intercepted by Dubai.
    Conveniently, nobody of the MSM here in the US has reported on it. Strange isn’t?
    As Rush said yesterday, this NIE stinks to high heaven; and I agree that this was clearlt a hitjob on Pres. Bush, to assist the dems in their campaign, as Plame a her lying husband in 2004.
    Have you found out anything else, whether Rockefeller, and the dem party had their hands in this cookie jar as well?
    Please keep this stroy up, it is huge, and the repercation could’nt be any worse.

  3. S says:

    It is asountounding the intel cultural inertia which seals their OODA loop. Perhaps we should begin to ask why the intl community is so deathly afraid of coming to grips with the “big” problems: Russia/China. [when you play scared you lose].

    Intel community is infected with State types, which makes it worse than useless. A few people escape the criticism spotlight here. Sec. Rice comes first! She is a national embarrasment – and to think the PC crowd had her for President a few short years ago. She is an utter lightweight, equally afflicted with the inability to escape recent history: that is the dubous Clintonian notion that we should all just get along (sheep in wolf’s clothing). Gates is also suspect. This is someone who has been around the culture for so long (he is a product of it) that it is virtually impossible for him to even contemplate what needs to change let alone implement them which would mean offending his lifetime colleagues. Furthermore, he has invited back a few of the people who are part of the malignancy. Having come into contact with the community, it is clear the culture is self feeding and not in a good way.

  4. Terrye says:

    The whole point is that we do not know what is happening, not really. And this report does not say that Iran has given up their desire for a nuclear bomb. But the truth is I hope it is right, I really do not want another war. I also do not think it is a hatchet job on the president. The point is if the intelligence people had been a little less slam dunk and a little more we don’t know for sure before the invasion of Iraq Bush would be better off today.

    So the point is that even if the report is true, it shows that Bush’s policy has produced results. On the other hand if it is not true, we need to keep in mind that all the intel is guess work at best and put more pressure on Iran to prove its intentions.

    Let us remember that we have been through this kind of thing with North Korea before as well.

  5. Terrye says:

    And it should also be remembered that Cheney is accepting this report. I think the right has to be careful here. I respect Bolton, but Cheney has access to information that Bolton does not have. I have no idea if this report is reliable, I have my doubts about all these kinds of reports really, but my concern is that people do not give the impression that they will only believe or accept the information they want to hear. And why would anyone want to hear that Iran is building a nuke, right this minute.

    We need to take politics out of this process. I know that sounds naive, but the truth is not about politics, at least it should not be.

    I still consider Iran dangerous. Unless and until there is a change in the regime there I always will. But that does not mean that I don’t think this report can be true. I don’t think the Iranians will cave to diplomacy, but they are quite capable of playing cat and mouse. Their view is of the long term.