By now, readers will have seen this strange little diagram foisted upon the reading public by AP’s George Jahn.
The significant issues are whether the document is genuine, a question I will return to at the end of this post, and if it is, what it means.
As I have written elsewhere, I believe there is very strong evidence that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program through 2003. I believe that program has, more or less, been in suspension in the meantime. (Iran has continued civil activities which would create an option to build a bomb that Iran could, at a later date, exercise.)
Whether this document is real or not, I would very much expect there to be a number of documents containing calculations relating to the design of nuclear weapons. The release of this document demonstrates an interesting policy problem relating to how Iran might come clean about its nuclear weapons activities as part of any agreement regarding its nuclear activities.
Much of my policy commentary about Iran emphasizes the need to emplacing a verifiable “gap” between Iran’s option to build nuclear weapons and decision to exercise that option. In practice, this means that a sustainable solution would emphasize intrusive access by the IAEA over arbitrary restrictions on the number or capability of Iran’s centrifuges.
A sustainable solution must also provide for Iran to come clean about past weaponization work, a problem that is considerably more difficult to solve than might appear upon first examination. Iranian leaders must surely worry that any disclosure of a past program to deceive the IAEA will be seized upon to undermine any diplomatic settlement, especially given the relatively vocal group of people for whom nonproliferation is merely one of many arguments for regime change. (Recall the quote attributed to Paul Wolfowitz in Vanity Fair about Iraq’s WMD programs being “the one reason everyone could agree on” for attacking Iraq.)
Much of Iran’s early diplomacy during the nuclear standoff arguably reflects this concern. Iran eliminated facilities like the Physics Research Center at Lavizan, but also sought to prevent the IAEA from being able to understand the scope of the program, scraping clean Lavizan and denying access to Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. One interpretation is that Iran was seeking to come into compliance without deepening its predicament. (This is, I think, an implicit theme of Mousavian’s memoir.) This may seem duplicitous, but recall that we are dealing with a bureaucracy. Even in the case of Libya, in which there was a high-level strategic decision to abandon WMD programs, the disarmament was never complete. Jofi Joseph wrote a wonderful article a few years ago on the myth of the strategic decision, arguing that this is a process that involves coordinating various actors over time. Despite what Condi Rice said, we only think we know what disarmament looks like.
The challenge, as Pierre Goldschmidt and others have argued, is to craft an agreement that provides Iran immunity for past weaponization work. One of the more thoughtful observers of such issues on Twitter, Shashank Joshi, wondered why something so evident should be so hard. I found it difficult to compress my answer to 120 characters, but two issues spring to mind.
The first issue is making an offer credible. One of my friends once pointed out, only half-joking, that the trouble with a deal with Iran is that it leaves the Islamic Republic in place. There remains a segment of the US political discourse that objects to the regime in Tehran. For these people, the nuclear issue is a useful hammer with which to bang on the Ayatollahs, as it were. A verifiable solution to the nuclear problem takes away that hammer, while leaving unaddressed other concerns — some of which are quite legitimate. There are various accounts of Tehran’s support for overseas terrorist action, including links to the bombing of Khobar Towers and continuing support for Hezbollah. There is also the bizarre, alleged plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. The Iranians deny involvement, of course, but the point is that the US and Iran have a larger plate of things to deal with than just nuclear issues. (And, no doubt, Iran has its own list of particulars, starting with those motorcycle bombs and support for the MEK.) Nuclear weapons are not the reason that Washington and Tehran don’t get along, they are merely an enormously dangerous complication. We have to imagine an agreement that can sustain what are likely to be very serious Iranian disclosures about past weapons work with what will seem like limited accountability and in this rather poisonous context. That will require some bravery on the part of the Obama Administration — a commodity frequently in short supply among politicians and civil servants.
Then there is the challenge of convincing the Iranians. They are aware of the foregoing, starting with the motorbike bombs. The narrative they have constructed about the IAEA is one of cooperation that has not resolved their problems, but mere resulted in moving goalposts. (The Iranians exaggerate, but the claim is not baseless. I supported the very unpopular IAEA workplan for Iran largely because I thought it was important to show daylight at the end of the tunnel. The issue of the weaponization annex arose largely after Iran agreed to more safeguards.) Iran, too, has made missteps. Regardless, the Iranians have convinced themselves that cooperation with the IAEA should be largely tactical, because further concessions will open new fronts of pressure. Copping to a serious effort to break out of the NPT would require an act of political bravery on the part of Iran that I am not sure I can recommend.
So, there is the problem: Iranian officials are more likely than not convinced that coming clean about past activities will worsen, not resolve, the current standoff. What’s worse, I am not sure they are wrong about this. I understand the intellectual value of amnesty or immunity, but I am not sure I can envision the mechanics by which that process would unfold.
Which leaves us locked in the current standoff, marked by a fundamental lack of faith. Too many Obama Administration officials, as I have argued previously, believe that negotiations with Iran are futile. They have crossed the line into a kind of cynicism in which the goal is to “win” each encounter, deepening Iran’s isolation to play for time and set a precedent for the next case. Iranian officials, on the other hand, have convinced themselves that the United States and other Western powers are using nonproliferation as a pretext to undermine them. They, too, are seeking to engage tactically, hoping to blunt the damage from each encounter.
It’s not a very encouraging situation, which is I suppose why I haven’t written much about it.
Crowd-sourcing the AP document
Well, I have to say I am skeptical of this diagram released by AP. As I have said, I think there are such documents. I am just not convinced this is one of them. Among other things, I don’t think it “looks like” real diagrams relating to nuclear weapons effects except in the most general way.
Then there are the numbers — 50 kT is too large, as David Albright has noted, while 2 million kilotons is, well, insane. The back story that has emerged to explain the errors in the document is sufficiently convoluted that I won’t bother to explain it.
I still haven’t seen the whole document, but I wanted to offer another possibility. The title for the chart does not seem unambiguously nuclear to me — something one might expect if the author “intentionally simplified the diagram to make it comprehensible to Iranian government officials to whom they were presenting it.” The title is, apparently: Changes in output and in energy released as a function of time through power pulse.
One possibility, which I suppose is unlikely based on the description of the unreleased document, is that it is possible the kT is something else — possibly a measure of energy at the molecular scale. In such a case, k may be Boltzmann’s constant while T is -time- temperature. The unit is the product of the two — k times T. Now, as it turns out, this is not a sort of physics with which I am well-acquainted. So I am offering that observation in the hope that someone who works in the right field might be enticed to offer a commentary.