Free bombs for Iran: a half-baked proposal

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At this point it seems fairly likely that Iran is going to have nuclear weapons some time in the next 5-10 years. The advantages of being a nuclear state in terms of prestige and deterrence are simply undeniable, and unless the US is willing to go to war--or at least tacitly support the Israelis doing so--there's not much we can do to stop it. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that we can't arrange for Iran to have nuclear weapons on terms more favorable to us.

There are two major ways that Iran could use nuclear weapons:

  1. Directly attack us our our allies (either pre-emptively or as a response).
  2. Sell/give/loan them to terrorists who would attack us covertly.

To a great degree, the direct approach is foreclosed by our own nuclear deterrent. Yes, yes, I know that Ahmadinejad is waiting for the 12th Imam, but one would still expect the prospect of a full-scale retaliatory strike on Tehran to provide some deterrent effect. More likely he'll use nukes the way the DPRK is now, as a lever with which to extract concessions from the West. So, the real concern with Iran (as with the DPRK, incidentally) is that they'll sell/give/loan them to terrorists. If someone uses a boat to smuggle a nuke into Baltimore harbor, it's not clear who we're going to retaliate against. I imagine the US has some technology for characterizing the origin of nuclear weapons, but it's probably not perfect, especially with plutonium-based weapons, which can be made essentially chemically pure. You can't go around mounting a retaliatory strike against every nuclear power with weak command and control systems.

So, my half-baked idea is to sell (well, give) Iran nuclear weapons of our own construction that are specifically tagged it means that we have one less source of nuclear attack to worry about. It's to Iran's benefit because they don't have to worry about misplaced retaliation. Also, they get nukes more or less now without having to spend a lot of money on infrastructure. And they still have a perfectly usable deterrent--it's just not usable for a covert first strike. Students of economics will recognize this approach as a form of credible commitment.

There are some obvious practical problems here, but I know how to overcome at least some of them. For instance, the Iranians can prove to themselves that some of the weapons work via the usual cut-and-choose technique (pointed out by Kevin Dick). We'd obviously have to ensure that the Iranians didn't take our weapons and remove the tagging, but it shouldn't be that hard to make it very expensive to separate the tag from the fissile material, e.g., by using uranium bombs with a specific isotope ratio, plus an advanced design (to minimize the amount of fissile material) with specific fallout characteristics. The weapons could also be periodically inspected for integrity.

11 Comments

one would still expect the prospect of a full-scale retaliatory strike on Tehran to provide some deterrent effect


Boy, that's a doozy of an assumption. How many cities do you want to bet on it?

Even if the bombs were rendered inoperable without the requisite tagged fuel, there would still probably be plenty of previously unrevealed knowledge within their designs there for the Iranians to copy and reuse, if ever they wanted to clone the weapons. In addition (and perhaps more dangerously), as we would not only have to send bombs but also personnel to show them how to handle, maintain and use the damn things, which would give them access to previously unshared tacit knowledge and experience. In short, all the things they have had to learn the hard way would now be handed to them on a plate.

Hovav: My first premise is that unless we're willing to take very extreme measures to stop Iran getting nukes, we'll be making that bet anyway, but without the compensation that we'll be able to detect Iranian strikes from other strikes.

Chris: It's true that there's some information embedded in advanced bomb design (though a lot of it has been published already) but the really hard part about building a nuke is getting the fissile material in the first place, something which isn't that much enhanced by access to a working weapon (though that information might let you use your fissile material a bit more efficiently). Anyway, my thought was to provide enough weapons that it would not be worth the cost of building an enrichment production line.

What would prevent Iran from looking the other way during the complex transfer process and suddenly reporting that one or two of the warheads had been stolen?

Re: bomb origin identification. My understanding is that the best way of doing this is to determine not the chemical makeup of the bomb ingredients, but rather analyze the relative ratios of isotopes present. This analysis will basically tell you which processing plant the plutonium (or uranium) originated in.

Terence,

I agree this is a problem. My thought was that the US would send unarmed inspectors to keep tags on the weapons, but who couldn't interfere with them being used.

Craig:
That's my understanding as well, and it was bad writing on my part that implied otherwise. What I was trying to say is that Uranium isotopes are difficult to separate so you get an isotope mix as you say (though if you use the old-style Lawrence mass spectrometer separation you would probably get almost pure U-235). However, my impression was that you could use breader reactors to get a mix of principally Pu-239 and Uranium, which can be chemically separated to yield mostly pure Pu-239, and at least a ratio that doesn't depend on the original Uranium ore isotope ratio or Uranium processing plant, thus making tracing much harder.

Let's make the argument a bit more abstract:

Iran has embarked on a project which will allow it to do a variety of things, some of which the US doesn't want it to be able to do, and some of which the US really, really doesn't want it to be able to do. (Let's call them "bad things" and "awful things".) This project will most likely (although not certainly) succeed. Eric's solution: help Iran in a very special way that only helps it do the bad things, not the awful things.

There are two cases:

1) Iran only ever wanted to do bad things. In that case, the US has helped it do those things.

2) Iran wanted to do both bad things and awful things. In that case, the US helped it to do the bad things, and because it wanted to do the awful things, it goes ahead with the project and gets to do the awful things as well.

3) Iran only ever wanted to do awful things. In that case, Iran simply ignores what the US did, and goes ahead with its project.

In cases 1 and 2, Iran gets concrete help from the US, and the US gets no benefit. In case 3, neither side gets any benefit.

What's wrong with this picture?

....Apart from the "two cases" typo, I mean....

What's wrong with the picture is that you're overloading the word "want". Say that being able to do bad things is of value B and that being able to do awful things of of value A. Now, a nuclear research program is an extremely expensive thing to run, so it's plausible, indeed likely, that the cost to run it exceeds A but not A + B. In that case, by giving Iran the ability to do A, we have made the marginal cost of doing B un-economical.

This doesn't mean that this isn't a bad idea, of course, but the particular argument that you're making that it's Pareto-dominated doesn't seem to me to hold up.

It'd be nice if even accountable, democratic governments acted with that kind of careful cost-consciousness with respect to weapons procurement. Are you telling me that the Iranian government, with a fanatical theocratic guiding philosophy, a well-developed infrastructure for suppressing internal dissent, a steady oil revenue stream and a nuclear weapons project well underway, would can the latter just because some of its objectives might already have been achieved?

You guys are overthinking this.

Such an offer could only be used to gauge the true intent of Iran's program. On the very narrow chance that they would accept, it wouldn't make sense to give them anything but fake weapons. Give a child a gun and the first thing he's going to want to do with it is shoot it. Walking around with it on his hip comes later.

But the most likely outcome would be Iran's refusal to accept such an offer, betraying their intent to use the weapons offensively, and thus justifying a preemptive strike.

But that's a pretty roundabout way of getting there, considering we can already infer intended use from Ahmadinejad's very public advocacy of wiping Israel off the map.

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