On Oct. 19, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board argued that Iran may be closer to a nuclear weapon than even Israeli estimates and that it could be producing a “crude “gun-type” bomb of the sort that leveled Hiroshima”. From “Tick-Tock Tehran“:
A report earlier this month from the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) warns that Tehran may be closer than even the Israelis think to enriching uranium to about 90%, the grade needed for a nuclear weapon. According to the ISIS study, the Iranians could combine their stockpiles of civilian- and medium-grade uranium to produce a bomb’s worth of 90% uranium in about two to four months.
That doesn’t put Iran within sight of a bomb, at least not yet. “Iran would need many additional months to manufacture a nuclear device suitable for underground testing,” the report says, “and even longer to make a reliable warhead for a ballistic missile.”
But this judgment assumes that Iran seeks to have a sophisticated nuclear weapon from the get-go, rather than a crude “gun-type” bomb of the sort that leveled Hiroshima, and which would be much simpler to produce. The judgment also assumes that Iran has no more enriched uranium than what the International Atomic Energy Agency reports it has. Yet Tehran has a record of nuclear deceit. Intelligence analysts shouldn’t assume that absence of evidence means evidence of absence.
In other words, be afraid, dear reader, be very afraid, because an Islamic Republic is intent on destroying you while everyone is looking the other way. Of course, this assessment has little to with facts. (It’s no secret, by the way, that the WSJ’s editorial board is hawkish on Iran and practically every other issue pertaining to US foreign policy. We’ve highlighted some examples here, here and here.) Indeed, so outrageous was the WSJ’s spin that ISIS, an anti-weapons proliferation institution with no reputation for being soft on Iran, was moved to respond:
The Wall Street Journal published an editorial on October 19, 2012 titled “Tick-Tock Tehran,” which referenced our recent ISIS report, Iran’s Evolving Breakout Potential. We would like to point out a central conclusion of our report, namely that the chance Iran will “break out” and build a nuclear weapon in the next year remains low. A straightforward method to help keep this probability low is to increase the frequency of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of Iran’s main uranium enrichment plants. In addition, while we did not explicitly discuss this subject in our report, Iran is unlikely to build a gun-type nuclear weapon like the type that destroyed Hiroshima. If Iran decided to build a nuclear weapon, it would not be able to build a gun-type significantly faster than the other type of crude fission weapon, an implosion type that was used to destroy Nagasaki and has already been pursued by Iran, according to evidence assembled by the IAEA.
Iran can “currently break out in as little as 2-4 months”, note report authors David Albright, Christina Walrond, William Witt, and Houston Wood, but that could only occur if Iran made the decision to do so. While that likelihood remains low, an Iranian decision to breakout would be quickly detected:
Our estimates provide the length of time that Iran would need to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon, if Iran decided to do so. At this time, it is widely accepted that Iran has not made a decision to actually build a nuclear weapon, although it appears to be furthering its capability to make them.
Our estimate that Iran can currently break out in as little as 2-4 months provides adequate time for the United States to both detect and respond to the breakout before Iran accumulates enough weapon-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon. Because Iran fears a military response, it is unlikely to breakout. We assessed in our study that breakout times could reduce to about one month during the next year. But in all the scenarios we considered, the breakout would remain detectable to provide time for U.S. action. As a result, during at least the next year, our estimates support that the likelihood of an Iranian breakout will also be low.
And getting a weapon doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use it right away. ISIS states that Iran would need “many additional months” to produce a nuclear device suitable for testing and “even longer to make a reliable warhead for a ballistic missile.”
What did the WSJ base its WWII bomb-style assessment on? Clearly not expertise. ISIS’s response:
…The WSJ editorial offers a crude gun-type bomb of the type that destroyed Hiroshima as a way for Iran to save time in building the nuclear weapon, compared to building the conceptually more difficult implosion-type design. However, we assess that gun-type nuclear weapons are an unlikely choice for Iran and in any case will not save it a significant amount of time in fielding a nuclear device for an underground test aimed at establishing a nuclear weapon status or a deliverable nuclear weapon able to fit on a ballistic missile.
The biggest weakness of choosing a gun-type design is that Iran would need double the amount of weapon-grade uranium compared to that needed for an implosion-type design, increasing the time to breakout and accumulating sufficient weapon-grade uranium for one weapon from at least 2-4 months to at least 4-8 months.
But who needs facts when you sit on the editorial board of one of the most widely read newspapers in the world, right? Apparently from all the way up there, it’s easy to ignore telling recent history and the tragic consequences of a war that the US waged on false pretenses.