MESOPOTAMIA NEWS BACKGROUNDER: What the stolen Iranian nuclear secrets do, and don’t, reveal

EAST KURDISTAN (IRAN) –  By Simon Henderson, opinion contributor — 07/17/18 09:30 AM EDT – THE HILL – At least three of the nation’s largest newspapers — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post — carried front-page stories Monday detailing what Israeli officials showed and told their reporters last week about the hoard of Iran’s nuclear secrets that Israel stole from a Tehran warehouse in January.

Although some may say that much of this information already was known, or assumed, the accounts are fascinating for the details they reveal — and what they don’t reveal. Israel’s intention in hosting the “show and tell”  clearly was to paint Iran as a continuing nuclear threat to the Middle East. And Israel’s target is American public opinion.

The Times recounted details of the theft itself: the Israeli team gave itself six hours, 29 minutes for burglary, leaving themselves two hours for the getaway before the alarm was raised. Despite a massive security alert, the Times speculated, “an escape from the coast, just a few hours’ drive from Tehran, appear[ed] the least risky.” The report hints that the agents likely headed north to the Caspian Sea and then eventually went by boat, perhaps to Azerbaijan (look at a map).

According to the Times, a uranium deuteride initiator was one of the “key technologies” that Iran acquired from Pakistani nuclear proliferator, Dr. A.Q. Khan. Hardly key, though certainly crucial to the physics of a nuclear explosion, the initiator is an inch or so in diameter and sits in a cavity at the center of the highly-enriched uranium core. When crushed by an “implosion” created by conventional high explosive, the initiator emits a burst of a million or so neutrons to boost the nascent uncontrolled chain reaction within the nuclear material.

The Wall Street Journal focused on Iran’s activities at the Parchin military research base, near Tehran, where high explosive tests were carried out in a specially-reinforced cylindrical steel chamber. It would have been used for perfecting the “implosion,” which has to be completely symmetrical. Technicians use special high-speed cameras and flash X-ray machines. The building that contained the chamber was demolished years ago and Iran made extensive efforts to clean the site by removing topsoil and covering the area with Tarmac.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post obtained a photo of Iranian engineers working on what is described as a non-working prototype of nuclear warhead assembly. If it is 13 inches in diameter, as it appears, it is almost certainly the design that China gave Pakistan in the early 1980s and that Khan passed to Libya as well. (The polished metal sphere would contain a five-inch-diameter, highly-enriched uranium core, suspended at its center. The metal sphere would be surrounded by specially-shaped high explosives — 22 hexagonal, 10 pentagons, as in an old-style soccer ball.)

Iran was “on the cusp of mastering key bomb-making technologies when research was ordered halted 15 years ago,” the Post report began. One of Israel’s motives in showing off its trove of documents is to demonstrate that Iran continued with the work after the 2003 cutoff, supposedly caused by Tehran wanting to avoid confrontation with the United States, which had just overthrown Iraq’s Saddam Hussein for his alleged continuance of weapons of mass destruction programs.

U.S. intelligence noted Iran’s move, although its continued development of uranium enrichment capacity and development of long-range missiles cast doubt in the minds of many that the weapons program actually had stopped. To my mind, Iran was beyond the cusp. It had worked out how to make a bomb, although perhaps a less sophisticated model than it might have wanted, but it lacked the necessary highly-enriched uranium. The bomb part of the program was, at best, paused while Iran continued work on the nuclear explosive and the missile to carry a warhead.

The 2015 nuclear accord to which Iran agreed with the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia went along with the sophistry that Iran has never had a nuclear weapons program. This was clearly nonsense. Supporters of that accord won the political argument at the time, but on a dubious intellectual basis.

Now the political argument has been rekindled by President Trump’s withdrawal from the accord. The Israeli discovery makes the argument of sticking with the accord much more difficult to sustain. Several questions remain. What happened to physical relics of the Iranian weapons program? The metal spheres, the flash X-ray machines, the “flying plates” that are part of the Chinese design? Is there another warehouse or two in Iran where this is stored or, worse still, where research continues?

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.