A crisis with Iran need not lead to a war
The details reveal the true danger of Iran’s secret nuclear program
Israel's discovery of Iran's secret nuclear archive is extraordinary. Even more amazing is that Israel says it managed to smuggle out 55,000 pages of documents and another 55,000 files on 183 CDs. Explaining it during a televised news conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored one simple point: Iran has lied. Though he did not cite it, clearly the line in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - "Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons" - is nonsense, if Israel's documentation is accurate.
Many articles will dissect Iran's diplomatic duplicity. Some pundits may even examine a religious angle, arguing that Iranians can justify telling lies for a higher purpose. Its opponents will call for tossing out the JCPOA; others will urge its repair. Few will attempt to scrutinize the technical details that formed the basis of Netanyahu's case. That's a pity; it's challenging to comprehend, but not impossible.
What Netanyahu revealed suggests that Iran was much closer to a deliverable nuclear weapon than many experts - even those, including me, who previously were skeptical of its denials - may have imagined before the JCPOA was signed.
To understand this, here is a guide to some of the jargon and key details of Netanyahu's presentation:
Project Amad: In English, this translates to being Iran's Organization for Planning and Special Supplies; Netanyahu gave its dates as 1999 to 2003, but its work began earlier. Project Amad consolidated all of Iran's previous military-related nuclear activities. Iran is thought to have decided on the need for nuclear weapons after seeing Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq pushed out of Kuwait so easily by U.S.-led forces in 1991.
Kiloton: An explosion achievable by 1,000 tons of TNT, or its nuclear equivalent. Iran was hoping to produce a weapon with the power of 10 kilotons; Netanyahu labeled it as being the size of the American nuclear bomb that flattened the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, although that bomb exploded with the energy of about 15 kilotons. The Iranian nuclear device would have fit in a missile warhead, making it about three feet in diameter.
Uranium-235: This isotope of uranium can be used in a nuclear bomb. Normal uranium, known as U-238, won't work. U-235 makes up just 0.7 percent of normal uranium. It has to be enriched, therefore, typically by being spun in gaseous form in high-speed centrifuges, so that the U-235 becomes 90 percent of the metal.
Casting a nuclear core: A core is made up of two hemispheres of enriched U-235. Each hemisphere is cast as molten metal separately in a mold. Netanyahu did not say how much U-235 is needed, although it is probably around 20kg, or 44 pounds.
Implosion system: To cause a nuclear explosion, a core must be physically squeezed so that a chain reaction happens. This squeezing is achieved by conventional high explosive surrounding the core exploding in an inward direction - an implosion. It's extremely difficult to achieve symmetrically; think in terms of squeezing a grapefruit so that it becomes the size of a lemon without squirting any juice in your eye.
Nuclear test sites: Theoretically, a good design will work without testing but there is only one way to be sure. Iran apparently had identified five different potential locations; it would be interesting to know whether it had prepared any tunnels or infrastructure.
Shahab-3 missile: Shahab is Persian for "meteor." This missile design is from North Korea, where the missile is known as the Nodong. Pakistan uses the same missile, using the name Ghauri. Both the North Korean and Pakistani versions are nuclear-capable.
2003: This was when Iran notionally stopped its nuclear weapons work, although it continued the work covertly and continued to enrich uranium, claiming it needed the enriched product for a peaceful civil nuclear program.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh: The leader of Iran's nuclear weapons program, then and now.
SPND: The organization that continues to carry out Iran's nuclear weapons research. The initials translate as Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. It is based near Malek Ashtar University in Tehran. According to Netanyahu, many of Project Amad's key personnel work today for SPND.
Fordow: The initially-secret uranium enrichment facility that Iran built under a mountain near the city of Qom. It not only was hidden but also would have been difficult, if not impossible, to destroy even using the most advanced bunker-busting bombs. Netanyahu said it was planned during Project Amad, but its existence was not revealed until 2009.
IAEA: The International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based organization that inspects nuclear facilities across the world, was tasked with giving a "Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues Regarding Iran's Nuclear Program." In December 2015, Iran denied to the IAEA "the existence of a coordinated program aimed at the development of a nuclear explosive device."
MPI technology in hemispherical technology: MPI stands for multipoint initiation; an implosion is caused by the simultaneous detonation of separate charges of conventional high explosive. The greater the number of separate explosive charges (the "multipoint"), the better chance of a perfect implosion, causing, in turn, a nuclear explosion. Hemispherical technology relates to the spherical core of highly-enriched uranium being made up of two halves.
Metallurgical work: This refers to the need for the hemispheres to be exactly the same size and fit together perfectly, requiring a very high standard of casting and polishing.
Hydrodynamic modelling: Perfecting the implosion shockwave so that it is exactly uniform and of sufficient power that it forces the outer metal casing of the bomb, known as the tamper, to accelerate into the core. Think of metal being under such forces that it behaves like a liquid.
In sum, making an atomic bomb is as much an engineering challenge as anything else, provided the fissile material such as Uranium-235 is available.
Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author, with Olli Heinonen, of "Nuclear Iran: A Glossary," published in 2015 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.