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The Iran Nuclear Deal
Ex-SecStates Bring Out the Knives

Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz deliver a tour de force critique of the Iran framework deal. The essay is easily the smartest thing we have seen written on the subject thus far.

It starts by dishing out heaping portions of skepticism as to the enforceability of any putative final agreement. Consider the challenges: the size of Iran, the complexity of its program, the skill the Iranians have developed for deceit and concealment, and the intricacies of both domestic and international politics, which could make punitive action both too slow and too weak to prevent Iran from making a final dash for the bomb should it so choose.

They also go on to point out that the deal as currently outlined does not appear to sufficiently limit Iran’s research and development efforts. Once the term of the deal expires, the country could emerge with even more powerful and efficient technology ready to be weaponized at the drop of a hat.

But the Secretaries’ key argument, which is in our view the most devastating, has to do with the consequences that even a so-called successful deal would have for regional stability in the immediate future:

Absent the linkage between nuclear and political restraint, America’s traditional allies will conclude that the U.S. has traded temporary nuclear cooperation for acquiescence to Iranian hegemony. They will increasingly look to create their own nuclear balances and, if necessary, call in other powers to sustain their integrity. Does America still hope to arrest the region’s trends toward sectarian upheaval, state collapse and the disequilibrium of power tilting toward Tehran, or do we now accept this as an irremediable aspect of the regional balance?

This is a line of argument that should be familiar to our readers, as we have taken pains to highlight evidence for it whenever it comes up. For example, as WRM wrote in the weeks before the framework was announced:

[President Obama’s supporters] don’t get the causal connection between the quest for an Iran deal and regional disorder. So caught up are they in the “Negotiations always good, confrontation always bad” worldview that they haven’t come to grips with the reality that in the Middle East, Obama’s regional strategy of withdrawal and accommodation to Iran undermines rather than supports the goal of a nuclear deal.

And Adam Garfinkle has spent much electronic ink arguing that President Obama’s quest for an Iran deal may, paradoxically, yield the very nightmare scenario the President is trying to avoid: a multipolar nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

In any case, the Kissinger/Shultz piece deserves close reading. Given the stature of the authors, these arguments will likely be repeated by smart opponents of the deal in Congress ahead of the June 30 deadline. And beyond that consideration, it strikes us as having the virtue of generally being right.

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  • jeburke

    Noteworthy also is the way they shred Obama’s cavalier assumption that, if the worst happened, a nuclear Iran could be deterred.

    • Andrew Allison

      Might I suggest that “misdirection” would be a better formulation than “cavalier assumption”?

  • Blackbeard

    Here’s what I believe is going to happen:

    1. Iran will get nuclear weapons and it won’t take 15 years.
    2. Iran’s Sunni competitors (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, turkey, etc.) will respond by getting nuclear weapons of their own.
    3. The old Cold War rules of deterrence don’t apply to a non-Westphalian state such as Iran. They believe they are on a mission from God.
    4. Therefore those nuclear weapons will be used. Hundreds of thousands if not millions will die.
    5. The 70 year taboo against the use of nuclear weapons will be broken. The use of nuclear weapons will become “conventional.”

    It may be that, in the end, this outcome couldn’t have been avoided and that we were lucky to have delayed it 70 years. Nevertheless history will not forgive Obama for hastening it along.

    • Ellen

      I don’t think Iran – in the end- will get nuclear weapons for the simple reason that Israel and some of its friends of convenience in the region (eg, Saudi, Turkey, Egypt, etc) will go to war to prevent this from happening. Come to think of it, they are already at war. The defeat of the Alawite/Shiite regime by al Nusra (with help from Israel, Saudi, and Turkey) will be such a humiliation for Iran, that the tide will turn against the regime one way or another. As Yitzhak Shamir used to say, “Something will happen,” and Iran won’t be able to go nuclear.

      What I agree with you on is that history will not forgive Obama. He will go down as a much bigger knave and failure than Jimmy Carter. “First black president” will be a footnote, compared to the murder and mayhem that the Noble Prize Winner is setting loose in the Middle East. That will be his main legacy.

      • Pete

        Sounds like wishful thinking to me

      • Kevin

        I have grave doubts Isreal, Saadi Arabia, Turkey and or Egypt will be able to use force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It’s possible but I wouldn’t bet on it. Limited conventional bombing probably couldn’t end the program, Iran’s center of gravity is too far from these countries for them to invade, these nations would find cooperation during hostilities difficult to maintain and the reaction if the rest of the world to any prolonged aggressive campaign by them would be very negative. (For example Russia and or China woukd surely prop up the Iranians with arms supplies and more while the U.S. and Europeans might impose sanctions on the aggressors.)

        Maybe a quick Osarik on steroids raid might set the Iranian back a bit – but that is not guaranteed and would only temporarily stymie the Iranians.

        But I agree the judgment if posterity on Obama’s fiasco of a Middle East policy is likely to be harsh – for all the good it will do us.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Your analysis is careful and thoughtful, but I am not sure that I agree.
          While you are correct that most of the states mentioned (with the important exception of Israel) are unlikely to muster the political will to even cooperate with one another, much less take active steps against Iraq, simply passive acceptance of actions by other states (notably Israel) will be enough. Moreover, such states face much more serious problems with a nuclear Iran than they do with Yemen for instance (which is largely a Saudi problem, however much it may be spun differently) and are unlikely to accept it without at least seriously considering alternatives.
          While the Chinese and Russians might consider support for Iran (the Chinese already do so, and the Russians do as well, albeit on a much more muted level), there are limits to what they are willing to accept, and what they can or would do about it. The Russians share a border with Iran, and have problems with the Islamic groups coming across that border, as well as long-term ambitions on Iran. They may enjoy the influence they gain from support (and the way it forces the West to bumble along), but in the long run a nuclear Iran is not in their interest. The Chinese want the oil, but antagonizing the rest of the oil-producing states in the reason doesn’t help them either. In both cases, it is hard to see what either country would do that they are not already doing to help Iran in any case.
          It is extremely difficult to imagine the West (even a twit like Obama) taking action against weapons customers such as Saudi Arabia, who represent tens of billions of dollars in purchases. The French aren’t going to forfeit decades of patient diplomacy and commercial contracts with the Saudis, for instance, and the UK is even less likely to. As for the US, you shouldn’t underestimate the immense power of the Saudi lobby here, nor the intense dislike for the Iranians pretty much everywhere outside of the Oval Office.
          While I would agree with you at a ground campaign is unlikely (for purposes of our discussion, I am not including in this analysis the small number of ‘in and out’ commando raids that would occur), a sustained air campaign would likely accomplish what needs to be done. Even the deeply buried facilities must have power and air connections above ground, and these can be readily destroyed from the air. These raids (which would likely cover a considerable bit of the Iranian air defense network as well) are well within the capacity of the Israelis, though discreet participation by the Saudis (AWACS, air refueling, passage rights) is certainly possible (by no means certain) as well. Even without American involvement, the damage that the IAF could do would be sufficient to set the Iranians back by several years.
          You suggest that the Iranians can be delayed, but not denied, in their quest for a bomb, and while that is true in some ways, I think you overlook that the Iranian government is unpopular, their economy is in shambles, and their leadership is not terribly competent. While they would certainly get a temporary boost of nationalistic popularity in the aftermath of successful strikes against them, the furor would die down over time, and the other problems would remain. A failed nuclear program combined with continued sanctions (as well as whatever collateral damage from the strikes – accidental or deliberate – does to their economy) would be a serious problem for the leadership in Iran, one that might be fatal to them. My point is that a delay of a few years might very well be sufficient to end the threat, and if not…well, it can be done again…

    • Dan Greene

      >>”a non-Westphalian state such as Iran.”

      What does that mean exactly?

      >>”They believe they are on a mission from God….Therefore those nuclear weapons will be used.”

      Well, we believe we are on a mission from God, we are the only ones ever to have used them to this point, so maybe you’re onto something there.

      • rheddles

        What leads you to think we believe we are on a mission from God? Which god? Which religious leader on earth has the power to over rule our political decisions and decide who may run for office?

        • Dan Greene

          The American notion of its exceptionalism, and its special role (or “responsibility” as it is usually phrased) to bring “democracy” and “freedom” to the world because, in Madeleine Albright’s words, “We see further, etc,” is clearly a “mission from God” infused by the Old Testament emphasis of Anglo-Protestantism and given additional force by the power of organized Jewry who unsurprisingly love the idea as much or more than its original American progenitors.

          From your last sentence, I think you are conceiving of the concept in overly narrow terms.

          • Anthony

            Dan, to return an earlier and appreciated reference (as well as underscore exceptionalism idea):

          • rheddles

            Judging by your last sentence I think you view religion in overly broad terms. The United States is not seeking to spread any religion around the world at the tip of a sword. Iran and its proxies are.

            And I hardly see “organized Jewry” as a proselytizing religion running about its periphery forcing people to choose between conversion and death, more as an oxymoron, and in any case hardly a staunch supporter of Anglo-Protestantism, whatever that is.

          • Dan Greene

            “The United States is not seeking to spread any religion around the world at the tip of a sword.”

            Untrue. The religion is democratism with its own particular blend of OT, NT and democratist ideologies, and our sword is much bigger than Iran’s. Beyond the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution, what attempts has Iran made to spread Twelver Shi’ism, if that’s what you are referring to? It’s true that, beyond Islam, Iran has a broader self-image as an agent of Persian culture and its ostensible benefits, but that by itself is not necessarily incompatible with US goals and practices and is not unlike our self-image.

            You’re wrong about organized Jewry, because you assume that what organized Jewry would promote, if anything, is Judaism. That’s why its seems like an oxymoron. Democratism is what they are promoting as well with an even more heightened sense of being chosen for the mission than American Anglo-Protestantism. Very akin to Jews in the forefront of promoting Bolshevism/Marxism. Now the self-glorifying impulse expresses itself in the promotion of democratism with the American state replacing the Soviet state.

            Needless to say, all proselytizing involves a good deal of self-interest and the threat of an “offer you can’t refuse.”

          • rheddles

            Needless to say, most proselytizing involves a good deal of self-interest and the threat of an “offer you can’t refuse.”

            Yeah. I always feel that gun to my head when the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists come calling.

          • Dan Greene

            Yes, you’re right. There are exceptions. But in the long sweep of history, there is a distinct relationship between proselytizing and coercion. They’re obviously not synonymous, but the compulsion to spread the “good news” of Christianity, Islam, Marxism or democracy very often becomes, as I say, an offer not to be refused.

      • Blackbeard

        >>”a non-Westphalian state such as Iran.”
        What does that mean exactly?<<

        The Peace of Westphalia ( ended the Thirty Years War and gave us our modern concept of the sovereign nation state. The idea that it's wrong to invade and conquer another nation state stems from the concepts crystallized in the various treaties that came out of the Peace. It was only after a hundred years or more of terrible religious violence that the European powers were willing to agree to those principles.

        In contrast, Islam has never had its Thirty Years War, although I suspect we may be seeing its beginning right now. Iran doesn't respect borders, the idea of the nation state, or the concept of sovereignty. Iran believes that its mission to conquer and unite the world under the banner of Islam takes precedence over all those silly western secular ideas.

        Kissinger's book World Order ( is very good on this subject and I recommend it highly.

        • Ellen

          You are totally right, but this idea of conquest for Islam (Fatach, in Arabic – no coincidence that it is the name chosen by the main faction of the PLO) is part of the fundamentals of the religion. Those who are pleased to call Islam a religion of peace are blithely ignoring that religious conquest is the way that Islam became a major religion covering the entire Mideast and North Africa, rather than a minor cult restricted to the Arabian peninsula. Khomeini’s Iran is therefore acting faithfully according to the original intent of the founders of Islam.

          Abiding by the rules of the Treaty of Westphalia, which gave precedence to secular nation-states, is a European rule and preoccupation, never accepted by Muslims in the Middle East. The fact that the Arab states now go along with it, reluctantly, is due entirely to the fact that they are too weak and disintegrating to continue their jihad against Israel. Iran under its theocratic leadership, feels no such limitation. They are overplaying their hand and will come to ruin, just as the Arabs did. But, in principle, they are under no compulsion to abide by the Treaty of Westphalia, given they were not a party to it. Neither, by the way, was the State of Israel. Think about that for a minute.

          • Blackbeard

            Agreed, it isn’t just Iran but Islam in general that does not accept Westphalian ideas.

          • Dan Greene

            This concept of a “Westphalian state” is a very hazy one and open to all sorts of self-serving uses.

            After two world wars launched by all these “secular European nation states,” with tens of millions dead, the West is really not in a position to lecture the rest of the world about how it should develop towards some Platonic ideal of political organization.

            >>”The fact that the Arab states now go along with it, reluctantly, is due entirely to the fact that they are too weak and disintegrating to continue their jihad against Israel.”

            Sounds like a total non sequitur. Hard to figure out what relationship you imagine between the “Westphalian state” and the Israel-Arab wars.

        • Dan Greene

          So where does the US invasion of Iraq (among other countries) fit into this notion of who is and is not a “Westphalian state”? When was the last time that Iran invaded another state?

          • Blackbeard

            Permit me to quote from Kissinger’s book, as he says it much better than I can. He says that any system of world order rests on two components: “a set of commonly accepted rules that define the limits of permissible action and a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down, preventing one political unit from subjugating all others.” 

            And who enforces that restraint? There must be a power, or a group of powers, that are willing to use force, if necessary, to ensure order. In the post WWII world that power has been the US and its allies. Who appointed us to this role? No one of course. It fell to us because we had the power and the will. It seems, at least under Obama, that we no longer have the will. Look at today’s middle east if you would like to see what the post-Westphalian world will look like.

            As for Iran not invading anyone, when Iran uses its surrogates, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, that is an invasion of a sort. I suspect we will be seeing more direct action from Iran soon as order continues to disintegrate in the region.

          • rheddles

            I’m not sure the mullahs have enough domestic support to mount a conventional invasion of any of their neighbors. And they have sufficient disgruntled Shia minorities in all their neighbors to create instability through terrorist activities and when conditions are right, support a takeover. That’s worked well for them so far. They will save what few capable conventional forces they have to defend against the Great Satan.

          • Dan Greene

            How has it worked well for them so far? The only reason the Iraqi Shias are free is because of our invasion. The Bahraini and Saudi Shia continued to be crushed by the Saudi government. And the Lebanese Shia are in better shape than they once were but are in no position to take over Lebanon even if they had a mind to. The Yemeni Zayidi Shia have been rebelling against the central government for over a decade for reasons that had nothing to do with Iran.

          • rheddles

            Three outta five ain’t bad. Give ’em time. They don’t have the bomb yet.

          • Dan Greene

            So it’s really more about an hegemonic power keeping order than it is about the Westphalian state. Does the Soviet Union’s control of East Bloc count? It just sounds like Thucydides to me: “The strong do what they can. The weak suffer what they must.” “Keeping order” is quite likely to become self-serving imperial control. Again, we should think of Athens gradually corrupting its Delian League alliance into a group of bullied semi-colonial subject states.

            I’m not looking for perfection. It’s an imperfect world. But Kissinger’s construct is simply a rationalization for the Melian dialogue.

          • Blackbeard

            When Athens confronted Melos, as Thucydides tells the story, they demanded subjugation or destruction. Melos refused and Athens proceeded to lay siege to Melos as they had threatened to do, and to starve the resisting inhabitants into surrender, slaughter the men of military age, and enslave the women and children.

            And this is what you compare to US post WWII policy?

  • schmiddi

    so if this is all about Iran is the enemy of our so called allies, friends and buddies in the middle east then explain to me how exactly are the Sunni countries our friends? 9/11, AlQaeda, ISIS … you name the terror organization and there is a money trail all the way to Riad (the home of our dear friends). Why do we consider those that funded 9/11 our allies?
    At the end of the day all those countries are shady to say the least, but Iran’s involvement in international terrorism has been fairly limited to the region (Hamas mostly) while support of terror groups by Sunnis have gone from Afghanistan to Africa and Europe. So to say that Sunni Arabs are our friends while Shia have a long track record of hating us is a bit selective. and yes i am aware that anti Israel and anti America rhetoric is common up to the highest level in Shia governments but let’s also be clear that Sunni are not pro Israel or pro America its just that because of the economic benefits they don’t say it in public, at least not the top dogs.

  • Angel Martin

    i see that the White House is missing no opportunity to be haughty in victory.

  • Anthony

    All of this post framework…brings to mind “the truth is often avoided because it is ugly and unpleasant. Never appeal to truth and reality unless you are prepared for the anger that comes from disenchantment. Life can be so harsh and distressing that people who can manufacture ostensible opposition or conjure up knowable unknowns are like oases in the desert: Everyone flocks to them. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the….” So, what are we to make of it all – the cascading opposition?

  • Dan Greene

    The Kissinger/Schulz piece doesn’t raise any argument that hasn’t already been tabled. It’s true that the failure to issue a joint statement by all the parties might lead one to believe that they are farther apart than they have led us to believe. But the risk there is that there won’t be any deal come June rather than that there will be a “bad deal,” so it shouldn’t really worry those who don’t want a deal at all anyway.

    Some of the concerns are just comical, for instance the newfound concern over the size of Iran. If we can reach deals with a country the size of the USSR/Russia like the ABM, CFE and other treaties, then we can figure a way for IAEA to inspect facilities in Iran. At this point, opponents of any agreement with Iran whatever (who are really in pursuit of regime change) are throwing anything they can they think of at the wall and seeing what might stick.

    • CosmotKat

      What you fail to understand is that Iran is no Russia. Russia may have been and continues to be a rogue like nation they are not on a mission that would initiate the coming destruction of the world to bring their 13th Imam. Another way of thinking about it is to say the Evangelicals were ready to use nuclear war to hasten the rapture.

      • Dan Greene

        What you fail to understand is that Iran is not nearly as different from other nation states as you evidently imagine it to be. What is it that makes you believe that iran has this eschatological fixation that you and others ascribe to it? I think this meme is like many others in connection with Iran. Somebody says it and then others parrot it without even understanding what it is that they are claiming.

        And there is no 13th Imam. The 12th (Hidden) Imam is the “Mahdi.”

        • CosmotKat

          How many states are actively involved and supporting terror? I have no imaginations about Iran, I have their own words. How hard is that to understand? From your commentary you ascribe t the progressive notion that you just lift some sanctions, smile, and give them a hug and the everyone will play nice in the sand box. Uh Huh how has that worked for the last 10,000 years.
          Thanks for the correction.

          • Dan Greene

            First of all “terrorism” is a different issue than eschatology, so let’s be clear that we are switching topics.

            The honest answer to your question is “Many, including us.” We are, in effect, supporting “terrorists” (by the State Department’s definition) right now in our attempt to overthrow the Syrian government. Terror is a weapon that all states as well as many non-state actors use at some time or other. Iran is far from the worst.

            And I have said nothing remotely like the “hug” business that you are ascribing to me. Have no idea where you got that notion.

          • CosmotKat

            “First of all “terrorism” is a different issue than eschatology, so let’s be clear that we are switching topics.”

            In the case of Iran it is both so, you are very wrong..

            “The honest answer to your question is “Many, including us.”

            No, that’s not an honest answer, that’s your opinion. By insinuating the United States is a sponsor of terrorism you have said all there is know about who and what you are.

            “in our attempt to overthrow the Syrian government”

            What attempt, you mean the red lines? At the moment the Obama administrations “Who’s on First” foreign policy seems to be supporting the Assad regime in their alliance with Iran.

            “Terror is a weapon that all states as well as many non-state actors use at some time or other. Iran is far from the worst.”

            Terror can be many things and can be used in many ways, but terror as guerilla warfare is the domain of rogues states or revolutionaries in the modern world.

            “And I have said nothing remotely like the “hug” business that you are ascribing to me. Have no idea where you got that notion.”
            It’s implied euphemistically to describe the Kumbiya thinking of the progressives who think smart diplomacy has worked. It hasn’t and it won’t.

  • Dan Greene

    Good piece by Paul Pillar at The National Interest entitled “Bait and Switch Sanctioning:”

    “The sanctions from which Iran will get relief were enacted for the clearly expressed purpose of inducing concessions from Iran on the
    nuclear issue. With the framework agreement that was announced last week, that purpose has been achieved. But opponents of the deal are suggesting that the United States should now say, “Well, that’s not really what we had in mind for those sanctions. We’re going to keep them in place indefinitely because we don’t want to give you resources for doing other things.” How is that supposed to give the Iranians incentive to cooperate on anything, and specifically on nuclear matters? And for those who whine a lot about damage to U.S. credibility (many of those opposing the nuclear deal are among the principal habitual whiners), howwill this switcharoo affect how other nations view U.S. credibility, and how much they will believe the United States the next time it tries to use a tool such as economic sanctions to persuade someone to change a policy?”

    Interesting how much more varied TNI’s coverage of this issue and others is compared to TAI.

    Also, I keep seeing the phrase “Iranian hegemony” to include in the Kissinger/Schulz piece. When is someone going to define and elaborate on that term? What would it look like? What is the scenario for development? Somehow, the people who use it don’t like to have to explain what it might actually mean.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    It would make perfectly good sense to play hardball with Iran on a nuclear deal if it weren’t a nuclear threshold state already. But it is.

    I’ll skip most of the math, but it’s here [link color is black, which is kinda silly] if you’re interested. Bottom line:

    Today, with 10 tonnes of LEU and 19,000 centrifuges, Iran can make about 44 medium-tech implosion devices with 20 kt yields, at a rate of about 1.5 bombs a month. If it decides to sprint for a bomb, it’s highly unlikely that any kind of international action will stop it in time. Only unilateral military action has a prayer of stopping it, and that would rely on intelligence from some source other than the IAEA.

    Assuming the deal gets bullet-proofed (a huge assumption), then, with 300 kg of LEU and 6000 centrifuges, Iran can make only one bomb, and it will take two-and-a-half months to make in a sprint. That’s a longer time horizon for detection. Furthermore, and even more important, one bomb doesn’t constitute a “breakout”; it constitutes a threat, but not a very credible one. On the other hand, 3 or 4 bombs constitutes a credible threat, especially if you test one.

    We have already failed to contain Iran. They can make a bomb whenever they want. To that end, the deal can’t hurt, and may help quite a bit.

    • Dan Greene

      Agree with much of what you say. People are terrified of Iran’s current, estimated 2-3 month break-out capability which they have had for several years at least. Why then have they not gone for the 90% enrichment and made a bomb? And if they haven’t done so at this point, why do we think they will try to do so after concluding an agreement that rids them of the sanctions? So much muddled and confused thinking on the subject and all driven by those with ulterior motives who want no agreement at all. They are concerned, not with Iran’s supposed quest for nuclear weapons, but rather with its ability to be a major player in the region. So their answer is to starve the Iranian people until they overthrow the government at which point some useful stooge–as they imagine it–is put in place. An agreement and the lifting of sanctions would undermine that sordid little plot.

      Total fantasy on their part, but they consistently get away with it.

      • Tom Chambers

        I also agree with TheRadicalModerate. And to your question, “why then have the Iranians not gone…and made a bomb?” I would suggest, are we really sure that they haven’t? We can be sure they haven’t tested one, which is not quite the same thing. Intelligence estimates can be wrong (e.g. Iraqi WMD). It would be interesting to know how much faith our government puts in this particular estimate. But I concur, this deal can’t hurt and at least buys some time.

        • Dan Greene

          It’s a good point. But if they do, then where would they go from here? They obviously want to rid themselves of sanctions. What do they do with this hypothetical untested bomb? Reveal it after sanctions are repealed and hope that there won’t be a mechanism or the agreement of Russia/China to reimpose them? While those two are highly suspicious of our manipulation of UNSC actions once they have agreed to them, neither wants Iran to actually develop nuclear weapons–certainly not in the short term anyway.

        • TheRadicalModerate

          I’m on shakier ground here, but I’d guess that for the Iranians to have weaponizable nukes, they need to do a test. The way you get things to fit into a warhead is to make long, skinny bombs, which can be achieved with techniques like two-point hollow pit implosion, where the explosive lenses are designed to crush a hollow ellipsoid of fissile material into a critical spherical shape. That’s certainly a higher level of technology than would be safe to use without a test.

          The alternative is to go with less complex designs, but they a) are a lot bigger, probably too big for a missile warhead, and b) require more fissile material, which you want to avoid during a breakout, because the more weapons you can make, the safer you are from retaliation.

          You can game this out a lot of different ways, but I suspect one of the least efficient paths is to own a small number of large-dimension bombs that you can’t test. The only way to deliver those is to smuggle them into your enemy. The Iranians simply don’t have the heavy bombers to do the job (although I suppose that they could do a suicide run with a bomb in a C-130).

          However, the “small number of non-warhead bombs” scenario is useful if you want to do a plausibly deniable nuclear terrorist attack. This is why I’ve always liked the idea of a US policy that would assume that any unattributable nuclear attack was the work of all rogue nuclear states (a club that would initially only have North Korea and Iran as members, but had Pakistan on the waiting list), requiring full retaliation on all of them together. If you put a rogue state’s security in the hands of the most crazy member of the club, then the incentive for not being a rogue state is much higher.

          • Dan Greene

            Why would Iran for which, as we are saying, there is no evidence of nuclear weapons possession be on your “rogue” list while Pakistan, a confirmed non-NPT nuclear weapons state (NWS) is only on the waiting list?

            And of course, if by “rogue” we mean states other than the five original NWSs that have now become NWSs outside the NPT framework, then you have left two states off your list.

          • TheRadicalModerate

            You can work the definition of “rogue” any way you want. If you want Pakistan on the list, it’s easy to put them there, but we may have more leverage with them by threatening them with being on the list than by actually putting them on it.

            How ’bout “nuclear or nuclear threshold states that are either state sponsors of terrorism or who have threatened the United States with nuclear attack” as a definition?

            The weak spot in this policy (and it’s a big one) is that the rogue states would have to believe that we’d actually execute it, and convincing the world that by executing it we weren’t monsters. If we restricted the policy to nuclear attacks on US soil, we’d be on pretty solid ground. But if we threw an umbrella over the Middle East as well, then things get dicey.

          • Dan Greene

            I agree with your last paragraph, more or less. I’m not big on designating “rogue states” of any kind. We identify threats but treat other states equitably. Not much more that you can do. I do not agree with labeling Iran as a rogue state, for example. It’s really just a big propaganda exercise.

          • f1b0nacc1

            You forget that the Iranians have a substantial number of other options other than simply putting weapons on a missile. You mention the suicide cargo aircraft (a C-130 sounds like an interesting choice, but a bit slow…what about an old Phantom or even one of the few F-14s that they have managed to get flyable?), but they have cruise missiles (remakes of Chinese designs, for the most part, but some Russian models – and copies – as well), cargo ships, all sorts of fascinating methods, if they want. Even those mini subs that they have acquired might be useful in this way.
            One or two bombs are only enough to put them in the crosshairs of an enraged West, though quite frankly I wouldn’t take threats of retaliation seriously coming from this government.

          • TheRadicalModerate

            You almost certainly can’t make a spherical implosion device that’s aerodynamic enough to sit on an external hard-point platform like an F-4 or F-15. You can probably make a gun-type bomb that would do the trick, but they’re wildly inefficient in their use of fissile material and downright scary wrt safety. Cruise missile warheads are even smaller than ballistic missile warheads, and subject to the same restrictions on dimensions.

            But two-point linear implosion devices with hollow pits just aren’t that complicated. You can do all the physical tests you want with depleted uranium, which allow you to get to an arbitrary degree of sophistication before you assemble a live bomb. I suspect (but can’t prove) that, these days, the purpose of testing is much more to demonstrate that you have a bomb than it is to verify your design.

            Ships, subs, etc. fall into the category of “deniable attacks”. See elsewhere in thread for my opinion on how to deal with those. Also, I’ve responded to you elsewhere on why the likely outcome of a breakout isn’t a couple of bombs but 3 or 4 in rapid succession.

          • f1b0nacc1

            If you are going to build an arsenal (which is really what I mean when talking about a bomb factory), then you have to test and you cannot go with most of the ‘low-rent’ nukes we are talking about. I believe we actually agree on this (by the way, though it may be a bit too ‘civilian’ for someone with your obvious experience in the field, John McPhee’s “The Curve of Binding Energy” has a wonderful section on nasty things to do with very primitive nukes), but I am not sure why a nuclear Iran wouldn’t simply start with some gun-type bombs (wasteful true, but a small nuke is like a small tumor…very frightening even if it isn’t as dangerous as a big one) which are simple and relatively non-challenging, and can be used in some of the low-rent venues already described. Though they would be wildly unsafe and wasteful, gun type weapons are somewhat reliable (certainly simpler), and could be mounted on aircraft or cruise missiles, though with very poor yields.
            In point of fact, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine a mixed strategy of some low-end bombs either planted or deliverable through non-traditional means with some high end systems deployed as they become available. Test one of the low end ones once you have enough in place to do some real damage, and go from there….

          • TheRadicalModerate

            The reason why “don’t test” is viable is because the simulations you can do are very, very good these days. As long as you have a modern industrial base to do the necessary fabrication and machining (and there’s no reason to believe that Iran doesn’t have these abilities), then there’s really no need to go for the gun-type bomb first. There’s very little magic associated with the hydrodynamics code needed to do the sim.

            If Iran sprints, we’re going to find out about it, which means that the goal of the sprint is to deter the preemptive attack, rather than to avoid the sanctions. For that, you don’t need to prove that your design works. The US and Israel have to assume that it does. So we have to do threat analysis based on the low-end estimates of how much fissile material Iran needs to build a bomb, which is where I get my 9 kg number. More bombs that probably work is better than a very small number that certainly work.

            After that, however, as soon as you’ve hit your 3 or 4 bomb initial goal, you can test with impunity. The sanctions aren’t going to get any worse with a test, and the test data will be invaluable in fine-tuning the design.

            Bottom line: Other than when you decide to test, we’re pretty much in agreement. (There, now I feel more certain.)

    • f1b0nacc1

      Yes and no….
      The Iranians certainly have enough to make a few bombs (44 is rather optimistic by any standards), but all that does is guarantee them a few shots before they are exterminated. The Iranians have much bigger goals in mind than simply a few show pieces, or something to make invaders think twice, they are interested in sustaining hegemony in the region, and that requires far more than a bomb or bombs, that requires a bomb factory and the means to deliver them. With those in place, whatever countermeasures their neighbors take (the Saudis buying a few bombs, for instance, or the Turks ‘nuking up’, etc.) would be insufficient to deter them, and the Iranians could get about the serious business of conquest and blackmail.
      A few bombs gets them very little, a factory gets them much, much more, and that is what they have in mind. Hence stopping them (even with what they have already) is indeed a high priority, even though it isn’t sufficient to return to a blank slate that might be preferable.

      • TheRadicalModerate

        On the 44 bombs, I encourage you to check my math at the link I provided above. (TAI, in its wisdom, has decided that links should be in a block font.) A medium-tech implosion design can yield 20 kt with about 9 kg of 90% HEU.

        Beyond that, my only quibble with what you’ve said is that there’s a bootstrapping process associated with getting to the “bomb factory” model: you have to break out quickly enough that nobody decides that preemption is still on the table after you’ve got your first batch of bombs. That means that you need 3 or 4, not 1.

        I was pretty surprised when I actually ran the numbers. Iran can make more bombs than you think, much faster than you think, with what it currently has.

        • f1b0nacc1

          I have seen these calculations before, and while I don’t dispute the math, my (admittedly limited, and if you have more direct experience, I will freely concede the point) experience with this sort of thing suggests that the ratio of bombs to HEU is probably significantly overstated. It isn’t a question of physics, but engineering….lots of material gets wasted, poor initial design, that sort of thing. I don’t doubt that eventually they can build a whole lot more than 44 though, which is the basis of my whole point about a factory rather than a few.
          How many you have is not the same thing as how many you can credibly claim to have, which is why low-end bombs (delivered through any means that will work) might be a good place to start. If you have 1-2, but can credibly claim that you can deliver them, you can also claim you have more…who is going to risk finding out if you are lying or not?
          Finally, on the subject of how fast….I would be shocked if they didn’t have 1 or 2 already, at least very primitive ones. The point is that 1 or 2 doesn’t get you anywhere unless you are ready to roll the dice, and I don’t believe that they are. This is precisely why the West looking weak at this point is so completely self-destructive

      • Dan Greene

        >>”A few bombs gets them very little, a factory gets them much, much more, and that is what they have in mind.”

        How do you know that that is what they have in mind?

  • JR

    What is this “Iran deal” everybody is referring to? It seems that Iran and P5+1 left Switzerland with drastically different interpretations of everything, from sanctions to centrifuges to inspections. So what was accomplished, exactly?

  • Jerome Ogden

    Many readers are too young to remember Tom Lehrer, satirist, pianist and Harvard mathematician, whose clever lyrics poked fun at all the
    shibboleths of the 1960s, including the angst about proliferation after China got the bomb and Indonesia announced it was developing one. He satirized that fear in “Who’s Next?” (see him perform it on youtube at

    The current angst about proliferation in the Middle East recalls this stanza:

    Egypt’s gonna get one too,
    Just to use on you know who.
    So Israel’s getting tense.
    Wants one in self defense.
    “The Lord’s our shepherd,” says the psalm,
    But just in case, we better get a bomb.

    Who’s next?

    On a more serious note, it is possible that “a multipolar nuclear arms race in the Middle East” may turn out to be the Domino Theory
    of the 21st century. An arms race is a plausible scenario if Iran goes nuclear, but, just as the Dominos did not fall when Vietnam turned communist, a nuclear arms race is by no means a certainty. Saudi Arabia, for instance, may abstain from developing its own bomb because it would be confident that Pakistan’s and Israel’s nuclear arsenals would be on its side in any scenario involving a nuclear showdown with Iran. Turkey would have NATO at its back. The smaller Sunni states would be unlikely to go nuclear if the two giants abstained.

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