Friday, October 16, 2009

Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program: Oops, Let's Look at That Again

The headline is dry enough, and the first few paragraphs are hardly what I'd call heated prose. But this article got my attention anyway:
"U.S. Considers a New Assessment of Iran Threat"
The Wall Street Journal (October 16, 2009)

"Amid Pressure After Latest Nuclear Revelations, Spy Agencies Rethink a 2007 Judgment That Weapons Effort Had Been Halted"

"U.S. spy agencies are considering whether to rewrite a controversial 2007 intelligence report that asserted Tehran halted its efforts to build nuclear weapons in 2003, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say.

"The intelligence agencies' rethink comes as pressure is mounting on Capitol Hill, and among U.S. allies, for the Obama administration to redo the 2007 assessment, after a string of recent revelations about Tehran's nuclear program.

"German, French and British intelligence agencies have all disputed the conclusions of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, in recent months, according to European officials briefed on the exchanges...."

So Iran's Ayatollahs Get the Bomb: What's the Worst that Could Happen?

Odds are, I think, pretty good that Iran won't have more than the dozen or so nuclear weapons that North Korea probably has, any time soon: and probably nothing all that much more powerful than the devices that overheated parts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

More effective weapons, like the hydrogen bomb that put a mile-wide crater near Nam island in the Pacific, back in the fifties.1 More powerful bombs have been developed since then, of course.

However, it's quite expensive to build, say, a 100 megaton hydrogen bomb: and you need fairly specialized equipment to make the components. And, of course, people who can run the machines.

So I don't think that Iran will be punching mile-wide holes in the ground any time soon.

But it's remarkable, how much damage can be done with just a dozen or so kilotons-worth of atomic bomb.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Two Very Unpleasant Days
A piddly little 13 to 18 kiloton bomb vaporized part of Hiroshima, killed around 140,000 people, and make others really sick. The 21 kiloton bomb that went off over Nagasaki would have done quite a lot more damage, if it weren't for the hills there. Even so, about 39,000 people were killed.

Those were very unpleasant experiences, and I hope that sort of thing doesn't happen again.

On the other hand, I'm not going to indulge in the conventional apology for a decision made by President Truman, which saved thousands - maybe millions - of Japanese lives. And quite a number of American lives, for what that's worth.2

Like it or not, Japan's leaders during WWII had given no indication that they wanted to surrender (and yes, I know about the 'surrender/capitulation' translation - the story's been on campuses for at least thirty years).

On the other hand, experience in the Pacific theater had taught that Japanese forces were quite willing to fight to the death, rather than surrender. And quite capable of employing Japanese civilians for combat and combat support.

Accepting death before defeat can be an admirable trait, and won Spartans lasting fame at Thermopylae. But the resolve of Japanese leaders also indicated that an invasion of the Japanese homeland would most likely involve fighting until the vast majority of Japanese citizens were dead. Along with quite a large number of Americans. Including my father, who served on an LST slated for use in the invasion.

Without the reality-check of those nuclear bombs, a conventional invasion of Japan was, I've read and been told, was the only realistic alternative.

I'm one of the people who most likely wouldn't have been born, if President Truman had been 'nice.'

I'm not sorry I'm alive, and I'm not at all sorry that thousands (millions?) of Japanese citizens around my age and younger are alive, too. (More at "Unintended Consequences? The West May be Getting Over Hiroshima" (January 25, 2008))

Iran's Ayatollahs With A-Bombs

I think many people would agree that cities like Budapest, Vienna, Athens or Warsaw wouldn't be improved by having a nuclear bomb detonated over - or in - them. The same probably goes for Paris, Berlin, Moscow, London and Madrid.

Some of those cities aren't withing range of missiles Iran's known to have, today: but I don't think there's any reason to believe that something like Fat Man couldn't be shipped in via air freight.

As for the idea that London, say, wouldn't be hit because there are mosques there? Muslims who follow the wacky side of Islam have shown little if any reservations about hitting a mosque. Maybe if it isn't the one they go to, it's just another enemy target. The rationale doesn't matter: the fact is, Muslims blowing up other Muslims and mosques is a fairly routine news item, and has been for years.

All things considered, I don't think this period is one of Islam's shining hours.

But that's another topic.

A Hundred Thousand or So Dead Parisians Wouldn't be Nice

I think that people in France wouldn't like it if part of Paris was obliterated. They might even be irrité if bits and pieces of Madrid or Moscow started falling out of a mushroom cloud. Can't say that I'd blame them.

I wouldn't be happy, either: and I wouldn't be happy if an American city was nuked.

The sort of death and destruction that would go along with that sort of an even would be, as I said before, unpleasant.

What happened as a result of a nuclear strike probably wouldn't be pleasant, either.

Remember how many people felt after the 9/11 attack? 'Only' around 3,000 people died then. The death toll from a nuclear attack on a major city, even with a low-yield bomb, could easily be fifty times as large.

America, the likes of Professor Ward Churchill notwithstanding, took time to figure out who actually launched the 9/11 attack - and where they were based. Then, an American-led coalition ended the Taliban's control of Afghanistan: despite the 'nuke Kabul' rhetoric of some of America's more hot-headed citizens.

A nuclear strike in America might, or might not, provoke America to lash out thoughtlessly. But let's say the target wasn't in America.

Quite a few nations have, or most likely have, nuclear weapons:
  • US
  • Russia
  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • China
  • Israel
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • North Korea
Several of those countries have missiles that could deliver warheads a significant distance. I don't think it's beyond the realm of possibility that their leaders might, if they suffered a nuclear attack, respond in kind.

If the Iran's Ayatollahs ordered the attack, and used a missile launched from Iran, the sort of detective work that went into finding out that - despite the number of Saudi citizens among the 9/11 terrorists - the rulers of Afghanistan were responsible, and not Saudi Arabia.

Let's Say Iran Nukes Moscow

I really wouldn't like to read, sometime in the next few years, that part of Moscow had been destroyed, and that people could start moving back into the Tehran area in another few centuries.

On the other hand, that sort of scenario would end the "Iranian nukes" issue.

What to do? Short of Obliterating Iran

I have a great respect for the people of Iran and their history. I think the world would be better with Iran, than without the country.

The Ayatollahs are something else: but the Ayatollahs are not Iran. (See "Journalism in the Information Age, Or Nothing Says 'No' Like a Brightly Burning Motorcycle" (June 24, 2009))

An option that gets discussed in the news quite often is economic sanctions against Iran. It sounds like an attractive idea, and would be even more attractive to me if there were a good chance that it would work.

But so far, economic sanctions haven't done much more to Iran than give the leaders there something to talk about, and hurt the citizenry.

I'm not at all convinced that sanctions work, as a rule. Take North Korea, for example: economic sanctions have probably hurt Koreans who aren't connected with Kim Jon Il's government: but there's little reason to believe that he's suffered. His staff has probably had to scramble to keep up his supplies of lobster - but they're out of the loop when it comes to decision-making.

I'd love to have a practical, humane, popular, and swift solution to the problem of religious fanatics trying to get nuclear weapons.

I don't have one.

I do think that there's a chance that the Ayatollahs will mismanage Iran so badly that significant Iranians end their rule - and, probably, their lives.

Whether that happens before Iran builds and delivers a nuclear bomb depends on knowledge I don't have.

I'm afraid that military force will be necessary to end the threat of Ayatollahs with nukes. It doesn't need to be a 'nuke Tehran' approach. If the:
  • Iranian nuclear program is concentrated in a few places
  • Facilities
    • Can be precisely located
    • Are close enough to the surface so that 'bunker buster' penetrating bombs would be effective
Then maybe an equivalent to Israel's bombing of Iraq's reactor, back in 1981, would end the threat - long enough for fed-up Iranians to solve their problems with a new set of leaders.

That's a lot of "ifs," though.

So, do I think sanctions will work? No.

Would a precise military strike be effective? Maybe - but I think the odds are mighty slim. Even so: I think the odds are that someone is going to solve the 'Iranian nukes' issue with something between a comparatively precise attack, and a full-scale assault that will leave much of Iran in ruins.

Do I have a better idea? Other than wait and hope that Iran's people wipe out the Ayatollahs and their government: no.

Do I think this is a satisfactory state of affairs? Certainly not.

Related posts: In the news: Background:

1Mile-Wide Crater: Roughly

The crater wasn't exactly a mile across. Haskins's paper says that the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb had a 15 megaton yield, and produced a crater 6.500 feet in diameter and 250 feet deep. I think those numbers are rounded: but you get the idea. Hydrogen bombs have been built with a design yield of 100 megatons. ( For comparison, the nuclear bomb detonated over Hiroshima was rated at 12 kilotons. ( Or 13 to 18. Depends on who you read.

2Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and People Like Me

The civil rights movement in America taught us to think of people in terms of their ethnicity and ancestry. Every ancestor of mine that I know of descended from people in northwestern Europe, and I look it: melanin-deficient skin, blue eyes and all. You'd think that people in Japan would be utterly foreign to me.

It's a fact: I'd stick out like a sore thumb in Tokyo, if I wandered away from the usual tourist haunts.

On the other hand, I have a great deal in common with quite a few people in Hiroshima. And even more in Nagasaki. I'm Catholic. There are - and were - quite a few Catholics in those two cities. Quite a few of them died when those nuclear bombs went off.

I'm not happy about that. At all.

But I'm not going to rant about Yankee imperialism, for the reasons I've outlined.

That photo? According to an accompanying article, that's what was left of the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, after the "Fat Man" bomb went off. Like I said, I'm not happy about that.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.