Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Next Step

As we’ve often observed, developing a nuclear weapons capability is actually a multi-step process. Beyond the construction of an actual device, aspiring nuclear powers must also develop delivery platforms, create the necessary databases of intelligence and targeting information, and make the weapon small enough to fit atop a missile, or beneath a combat aircraft.

Without the B-29 Superfortress--and men like the late Paul Tibbets-- the out-sized nuclear weapons of 1945 would have been virtually useless; it took long-range bombers and highly trained crews to realize the awful strike (and deterrent) power of the atomic age.

Against that backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Iran is hard at work on nuclear warhead technology. The Iranian opposition group that first revealed Tehran’s nuclear- fuel program has given information on a reported warhead facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog group.

Information on the warhead facility, compiled by the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran, first appeared in today’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. The AP and Japan’s Kyodo news agency offered a summary of the Journal's report:

The facility at Khojir, a defense-ministry missile-research site on the southeast edge of Tehran, is developing a nuclear warhead for use on Iranian medium-range missiles, Mohammad Mohaddessin, foreign-affairs chief for the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran, reportedly said.

He also said the NCRI has identified a guest house on a military compound near Khojir that the group says houses North Korean specialists working at the warhead facility, the report said.


Mohaddessin reportedly said, however, the NCRI information was finalized in recent weeks and is current.

It was not possible to verify any of the NCRI's claims independently. On Tuesday, Mohaddessin passed the information, which includes satellite images, to the International Atomic Energy Agency and asked the agency to investigate.

An IAEA representative said the organization would check the NCRI's claim against the agency's own data and pursue it "if appropriate."

The NCRI is the Paris-based political wing of the Mujahedin e-Khalq, an exiled military group that has been seeking to overthrow the current Iranian regime since the mid-1980s. The United States and the European Union list the group as a terrorist organization.

While the NCRI (and its parent organization) may not be on the guest list for the next State Department soiree, the group does have a solid reputation in tracking Iran’s nuclear program. Running well ahead of most western intelligence organizations, the group’s claims about Iran’s efforts to produce nuclear fuel were later verified by the IAEA and other agencies.

Obviously, Iranian opposition groups have an interest in depicting Tehran’s nuclear threat in the gravest terms. But, let’s say for a moment that this report proves accurate, as did their information on the nuclear fuel program. What does that tell us about Iran’s overall nuclear effort?

Well, for starters, it’s another nail in the coffin of last year’s NIE, which judged, “with high confidence,” that Iran suspended its weapons development program in 2003. It makes little sense to pursue warheads for a weapons program that has (supposedly) been suspended. Readers will recall that senior U.S. intelligence officials have been back-pedaling from that assessment in recent weeks, admitting that Iran may have continued covert efforts while the “official” program was on hold.

Secondly, Tehran’s reported rush to build warheads reflects a nation that is anxious to flex its nuclear muscle. Making a nuke that’s small enough to fit on a medium or inter-mediate range missile is a time-consuming process. There is still some debate as to whether North Korea—which has had a crude weapons capability for years—can actually mount a nuke on one of its missiles. Iran clearly wants a missile-based nuclear delivery capability at the earliest possible date, to reach distant targets in Israel, the Middle East and even Europe.

Finally—and perhaps most disturbingly—Tehran’s interest in nuclear warhead production suggests a weapons program that is relatively advanced. Developing a viable warhead requires a design and technology baseline, i.e., the dimensions of a first-generation weapon, giving engineers some idea of what must be done to get the device on its intended delivery platform. If Iran is actively pursuing warhead design, it’s a safe bet that the country’s first nuclear warhead will appear well before the middle of the next decade—a timeline offered in a recent U.S. intelligence assessment.

In fairness, we should note that warhead research is adaptable for other weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological agents. But most intel analysts assume that Tehran and its partners (North Korea and Syria) have long since mastered that technology. That means the facility near Khojir may be what the MEK says it is—a research and production facility for nuclear warheads. And that would indicate that the threat from a nuclear-capable Iran is much closer that previously thought.

Hat tip: Powerline.

1 comment:

Consul-At-Arms said...

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