A Qom bomb? No, but a seismic shock from Iran

deproliferatorTHE DEPROLIFERATOR — President Obama’s appearance at the United Nations this week was intended as a show with a sideshow. First, he became the first U.S. president to chair an “extraordinary” session of the Security Council, with the nations represented not by diplomats but by actual heads of state, not diplomats. The council approved President Obama’s resolution legalizing military action against states daring to weaponize their nuclear power program.

The sideshow, at which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton represented the United States in a conference “complementary” — as opposed to extraordinary — to the Security Council session, produced a general recommitment to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

But the main show, as we all know, succumbed to nuclear fission and split in two. In fact, the whole week became a three-ring circus when Iran was tipped off that U.S. intelligence was aware that it had been building a uranium enrichment plant in Qom. Iran then admitted as much in a perfunctory note to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

On Thursday David Sanger of the New York Times had written that President Obama moved “to tighten the noose around Iran, North Korea and other nations that have exploited gaping loopholes in the patchwork of global nuclear regulations.” After Iran’s revelation, that got a whole lot easier.

The administration is using the opportunity to bring Russia and a more skeptical China to commit to “crippling” sanctions if Iran doesn’t cease its uranium enrichment. Still, Laura Rozen reports for Politico, according to George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment, despite what seems like a smoking gun, the administration originally hadn’t sought to disclose its Qom evidence yet. Then why did Iran admit to the plant before it was accused?

“Because the Iranians are trying to get in front and create an argument that they didn’t do anything wrong,” [said Perkovich]. “So to try to block that, Obama had to get [it] out. We would have been better off not announcing and keeping it as leverage. . . in a future deal.”

Bottom line: How much closer is Iran to developing nuclear weapons? Patrick Barry, writing for Democracy Arsenal, cautions that the time period during which the United States knew about the Qom installation. . .

. . . coincides with the development and release of the the [U.S. 2007 National Intelligence Estimate] on Iran’s nuclear program. . . which found that the Iranians were not actively seeking a nuclear weapon. [While] it’s troubling that this facility was kept secret, its existence does not actually prove that Iran is moving past the break-out capability they are suspected to be pursuing. From the public’s perspective, Iran is no closer to a nuclear weapon now than they were before this intelligence was released. [Emphasis added.]

But outside the spotlight, what’s going on in the second ring is, if not as dramatic, at least as important. As Ms. Clinton said in her remarks to the CTBT meeting, “The [CTBT] is an integral part of our non-proliferation and arms control agenda, and we will work. . . to ratify the treaty [which] will permit the United States and others to challenge states engaged in suspicious testing activities.” But how will you know if they’re testing? “More than eighty percent of the. . . International Monitoring System [has] already been installed.”

In a recent Arms Control Today article, CTBT preparatory commission head Tibor Toth explains how monitoring, in its four variations, works. Hydroacoustic monitoring checks for sound waves from underwater explosions, infrasound monitoring measures low frequency waves created by atmospheric nuclear explosions, and radionuclide monitoring detects radioactive particles or gas from a nuclear explosion.

Seismic monitoring, which you’re familiar with from earthquakes, “is usually the first to detect underground nuclear explosions. [For example] a total of 61 seismic stations registered. … the nuclear test announced by the [North Korea] on May 25.”

But, Global Security Newswire reports (sorry, lost the link) that Kaegan McGrath, a senior researcher for the James Martin Center for NonproliferationStudies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies warns that the administration must approach ratification for the CTBT with caution or it could “harden positions” against the treaty. “The United States,” he said, cannot even “promise its own ratification; all it can do is revive the CTBT in the U.S. and then only through a concerted effort on the Obama administration’s part.”

Why, you may wonder, has the United States, which has signed the CTBT, been resistant to ratifying it when 150 states have not only signed but ratified it?

“In fact, there may have been another, unstated reason for the apprehension about adopting the CTBT,” writes Christopher Ford, former United States Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation — Russia. Apparently, it has been “conducting secret low-yield tests as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing warhead development program and overall modernization. … [China, too, is] ‘possibly’ engaging in low-yield testing.”

Apparently? Possibly? What about all that state-of-the-art monitoring? After all, Toth writes that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences reported that “underground nuclear explosions can be reliably detected. . . down to a yield of 0.1 kilotons (100 tons) in hard rock.”

In fact, the United States may be projecting what’s required to detect a U.S. nuclear explosion onto what’s required to detect nuclear explosions by other countries. Ford writes:

. . . it is worth remembering that the United States may well end up facing more long-term reliability problems with its nuclear arsenal than many current weapons possessors [because of our] finely tuned warhead designs. [Whereas other nuclear-weapons countries] may not have felt any need for such elegant and temperamental designs.

In other words, a CTBT might nor protect us or other states against countries whose simpler weapons don’t need to be tested — as we didn’t with the simple design we used on the Hiroshima bomb. Moreover, writes Ford, “Renegade Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist A. Q. Khan. . . provided pre-tested Chinese designs to Libya.” He concludes:

Since testing is not a prerequisite for weapons development, we should not assume that even the most verifiable CTBT regime would simply stop the development of nuclear weapons. [It might only] push competition toward design approaches that do not require testing. … [A] key to evaluating the real merits of a test ban regime would be to ask whose weapons development plans it would most inhibit.”

Another conclusion we might draw is that complete disarmament will put an end to not only nuclear weapons but to all the elaborate, costly, and erratic apparatus trailing in their wake. Imagine a world in which verification and monitoring weren’t central to our security, but instead just cursory routines. In the interim, let’s not permit the Iran blame game to divert our eye from the disarmament prize.

First posted at the Faster Times.

1 reply »

  1. Thanks for keeping us up on this, Russ. I find it darkly humorous that the US continues to tell other nations not to do this or that but will not ratify the CTBT.

    I’m not for any nation possessing nuclear weapons, but i still fail to see how Iran producing them would be the horrible result that my political leadership claims.