Jeffrey LewisLatent Deterrents in Iran and North Korea

A couple of days ago, David Sanger and Bill Broad reported that IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei is “now certain that the nuclear material his agency once monitored there has been converted into fuel for four to six nuclear bombs.”

Yet what ElBaradei actually said was “I’m sure they have reprocessed it all”—something he was able to infer from North Korea’s capacity to turn spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium (WGPu in the lingo) and the fact that you can’t leave the stuff just laying around.

That doesn’t mean the WGPu has been turned into weapons—in fact, in another story (The World; When a Virtual Bomb May Be Better Than the Real Thing), Sanger mentions that he asked ElBaradei that question: “Did they turn the rods into five or six weapons? Or just into weapons-ready fuel?”

“What’s the difference?” ElBaradei responded.

“I call them ‘latent weapons states,” ElBaradei added, “It’s a description that fits a lot of countries that have the know-how. The only key is the fissile material. If you are really smart, you don’t need to develop a weapon, you just develop a capability. And that is the best deterrence.”

Now, Sanger has a third article (The U.S. vs. a Nuclear Iran) which completes the triology.

In it, he argues that “almost unanimously, [Pentagon] planners and Pentagon analysts say there are no effective military ways to wipe out a nuclear program that has been well hidden and broadly dispersed across the country, including in crowded cities.”

Taken together these articles underscore why a treaty-based approach to nonproliferation remains an important part of the story. Many more states are capable of building nuclear weapons than actually do so; in some cases, the oversight provided by the IAEA can prove decisive in making those states choose “latent” deterrents over realized ones.

In attempting to convince statess of this, we don’t have much in the way of military options short of Iraq-style occupations of potential proliferators.

Side note: Sanger mentions “Osirak, the site of a lightning Israeli airstrike against an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 that set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions by a decade.” I’ve been wading through memoirs of Iraqi scientists, Congressional testimony and IAEA reports (waiting for one in storage at the Engineering and Physcial Sciences Library). A post on that subject is forthcoming, but let’s just say that is a careless description of the raid’s impact.