Thursday, November 15, 2007

When Knowing Is More than Half the Battle

I have maintained, since at least January 2005, that a military strike against Iran was unlikely due to the paucity of viable military options. Nevertheless, there has been no shortage of reckless rhetoric, bellicose posturing and eerie deja vu to make me doubt that stance - on more than one occasion. Further, there are powerful factions within the White House - and the wider conservative movement - that are urging for military confrontation. Thus, and because the results from an attack on Iran would be so detrimental to US interests, even those of us that think the eventuality unlikely, must speak out to ensure that actual events match our hunches, and that sanity (even begrudgingly) prevails.

In relation to this, there was a tidbit in recent news surrounding the IAEA's probes into Iranian activity that seemed to have connected some dots. First, some background. A few weeks back, I took note of an interesting shift "in rhetoric from President Bush regarding potential red lines associated with Iranian nukes that, if crossed, would require a military response from the United States." Here was the first example:

I believe [the Iranians] want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon... So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.

And the second:

In a speech Tuesday at National Defense University, Bush declared that "the need for missile defense in Europe … is urgent" because "Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles."

In that post, I argue that making "knoweldge" or usable "technology" the trigger instead of the possession (or near possession) of weapons grade material, or the actual weapons themselves, was a means of lowering the threshold for military confrontation. Weapons and weapons grade material are, by most estimates, several years away. Knowledge?...not so much. Which brings us back to the IAEA story:

Earlier this week, Iran released documents that the IAEA has been demanding for two years: blueprints showing how to machine uranium metal into spherical shapes appropriate for the core of a nuclear weapon.

Sounds like an important piece of evidence if one were seeking to build the knowledge/technology case. That link comes via Eric Hundman at Passport, who has this to add:

Fortunately, though, these documents apparently did not contain blueprints for an entire nuclear weapons core. Machining enriched uranium (or plutonium) metal into a perfect sphere is merely one of many engineering challenges posed by an implosion nuclear weapon—an explosives array must be carefully designed to compress the metal effectively, for instance, and as we've seen with Iran, the enrichment process itself is very difficult to perfect without help.

However, given Iran's track record for reticence in dealing with the IAEA in connection with these issues, it is quite possible that they are in possession of the additional technology required.

Not that such a fact should be considered a casus belli, but that danger exists.

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