Week of October 18, 2021

Is Iran Close to Possessing a Nuclear Weapon?

 

After years of hearing that Iran is “months” from building a nuclear device, it was a surprise to hear the Mossad’s former director Yossi Cohen saying this week that an Iranian atomic weapon was still far away.

“I think Iran, to this day, is not even close to acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Cohen said at a Jerusalem Post Conference.  “This is due to long standing efforts by some forces in the world,” he said in an oblique reference to Israel’s covert actions in Iran.

“They should not sleep quietly in Iran.”

Cohen also implied further actions against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure when he said, “We have to develop capabilities to allow us to be absolutely independent.  Doing what Israel has done twice before;” referring to the bombing of the nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria.

Cohen also said that there is greater opposition to Iran’s nuclear program than in the past.

There was some question about the timing of these statements just as the US and Iran hope to continue further talks on renewing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  Cohen said of the JCPOA that “it isn’t comprehensive; it has to be comprehensive.”

The deal must be “completely refurbished – not only in one different subject, but completely.”

In an aside, Cohen stated that the Abraham Accords normalization and peace agreements were “one of the greatest accomplishments.”

 

Is an Iranian Nuclear Bomb Currently Practical?

There remain questions about the Iranian nuclear program.  Did Cohen imply that Iran is truly far away from developing a bomb soon, or does it mean that they are far away from developing a bomb capable of being deployed and of defeating Israel’s air defense system?

Meantime, the Institute for Science and International Security stated in a report issued this week, and reported by the New York Times, that Iran could produce the fuel for a single bomb in “as short as one month.

Consequently, Cohen seems to be implying that Iran is far from developing a practical nuclear device that can be fitted to some sort of missile capable of penetrating Israel’s vaunted air defense system.

In other words, Iran may have enough uranium 235 for a bomb in as little as a month, but they would have no way to deliver it.

One reason to believe that there are still technological issues to solve is the recent assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was the head of Iran’s nuclear program.  He was not a nuclear scientist.  Rather it appears that his area of specialty was miniaturizing the nuclear warhead and making it rugged so the warhead could survive its reentry into the atmosphere.

Although it is easy for analysts to say that a nation is close to building a nuclear weapon, there are many problems associated with the project.  America’s first nuclear bombs were extremely large and heavy.  The first bomb used on Hiroshima weighed 9,700 pounds (4,400 kilograms) and was 10 feet long.  It had to be carried in America’s largest bomber and it was essential for America to have total air superiority over Japan for the mission to succeed.

It is believed by many experts; Iran will not be able to achieve air superiority over Israel.  That leaves ballistic missiles.  However, ICBMs are extremely complex to design and build.

The first practical American ICBM was the Titan II, which could be launched from hardened underground silos.  However, they didn’t go into service until 1962; 17 years after the US had developed and used the atomic bomb.  Although the warhead had a similar mass to the first bomb dropped over Hiroshima, it had a much larger yield – 8 megatons versus only 13 kilotons.

During the years between 1945 (the first atomic bomb) and 1962 (fielding of the Titan II ICBM), American scientists had to solve numerous problems like accurate missile guidance, practical propellants, reliability, ablative material for reentry, nosecone configuration, and the ability to launch a missile within minutes.

The warhead had to undergo considerable miniaturization to fit into the Titan missile.  There was also the problem of making the bomb rugged enough to withstand the acceleration of the missile, the temperature variations of outer space and reentry, and lateral forces on the warhead.

But there is more than 17 years of research on ICBMs that Iran must copy.  Nuclear weapons, ICBMs, and air defenses have changed dramatically over the last 60 years.  Many American and Israeli military analysts are of the opinion that while an Iranian missile may be able to penetrate the first American anti-missile system, the Nike Zeus (built in 1961), it would be easily defeated by the multi layered Israeli missile defense system,

This may explain Cohen’s statement that Iran isn’t close to building a nuclear weapon.  Given Iran’s limited stockpile of Uranium 235 and its inability to penetrate Israeli airspace either with an aircraft or missile, it would be a waste to build a nuclear weapon that has no practical utility. Although Iran repeatedly denied that is seeking to develop nuclear weapons and insist on its right to develop a peaceful nuclear program.

To develop a missile that can be practical to employ against the US or Israel, Iran has moved towards development of a hypersonic missile.  However, hypersonic technology has its own problems.  A nuclear device must be more rugged to withstand the Mach 12 speeds of the Iranian Haj Qasem.  And, since physics mandates that weight must be dramatically reduced to reach these high speeds, more miniaturization is required.

At this point Iran doesn’t appear to be able to field a nuclear tipped hypersonic missile.  The publicly available pictures of the Iranian hypersonic missile do not show a glide vehicle that is used to provide effective maneuvering at hypersonic speeds.  Such a glide vehicle could be incased in the missile shroud, but it would be probably too small for an Iranian developed nuclear weapon.

It also appears from video of its launch that it relies on obsolete North Korean fuels and engine design.  The bright missile flames and black soot at launch, indicates a hydrocarbon (gasoline or kerosene) based fuel.  This is a typical liquid fuel for the Scud B and indicates that Iran is using older North Korean missile technology.

Given the size of the missiles and the fuel, there isn’t any way that this missile has the range to reach Israel.  That means that Iran will keep focusing on hypersonic technology and designing a nuclear device that may be fielded with the missile.  However, they are not likely to build such a nuclear bomb, unless they see the probability that such a missile could reach Israel and penetrate its missile defense systems.

Israelis and opponents to reinstating the JCPOA negotiated under Obama, are advocating that the problem is not the Iranian stockpile of Uranium 235, but hypersonic missile technology and technologies that would let Iran mate a nuclear device to a hypersonic missile.

This mirrors Cohen’s statement that the deal must be “completely refurbished – not only in one different subject, but completely.”

The chance of a viable deal with Iran is growing fainter by the day.  US Secretary of State Blinken on Wednesday noted “time is running short.”  He was meeting jointly with the Israeli and Emirates foreign ministers.

At the follow up press conference, Blinken stated, “We are getting close to a point at which returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not in and of itself recapture the benefits of the JCPOA and that’s because Iran has been using this time to advance its nuclear program in a variety of ways.”

Given the events of the week, it seems unlikely that Iran will produce a strategically practical nuclear device soon.  That, in turn gives the US time to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.

Of course, Cohen’s statement that the deal must be “completely refurbished – not only in one different subject, but completely,” implies that the US must focus on limiting the technologies to make an Iranian nuclear weapon practical.

In other words, the next round of talks between Iran and the US will have some difficult issues to iron out before any accord is signed.