Dancing in the Nuclear Dark

   < < Go Back

by Bret Stephens,

from The Wall Street Journal,

How will we know when Iran sprints toward a bomb?

Where do federal government reports go once they’ve been published and (lightly) chewed over by second-tier officials, congressional staffers and think-tank wonks? I picture them being packed into crates and stored in some vast warehouse, like the Ark of the Covenant in the last scene of “Indiana Jones.”

Every now and again, however, some of these reports are worth rescuing from premature burial.

So it is with the “Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies,” the soporific title given to a report published last month by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board. The report is long on phrases like “adaptable holistic methodologies” and “institutionalized interagency planning processes.” But at its heart it makes three timely and terrifying claims.

First, we are entering a second nuclear age.

Second, the history of nuclear proliferation is no guide to the future.

Third, our ability to detect nuclear breakout—the point at which a regime decides to go for a bomb—is not good.

On the first point, consider: Last year Japan and Turkey signed a nuclear cooperation deal, which at Turkish insistence included “a provision allowing Turkey to enrich uranium and extract plutonium, a potential material for nuclear weapons,” according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Japan, for its part, hopes to open a $21 billion reprocessing center at Rokkasho later this year, which will be”capable of producing nine tons of weapons-usable plutonium annually . . . enough to build as many as 2,000 bombs,” according to a report in this newspaper. The Saudis are openly warning the administration that they will get a bomb if Iran’s nuclear programs aren’t stopped. Seoul is pressing Washington to allow it to build uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities, a request Washington is resisting.

Think of that: The administration is prepared to consent to an Iranian “right to enrich” but will not extend the same privilege to South Korea, an ally of more than 60 years. It isn’t fun being friends with America these days.

On the second point, here’s the board’s discomfiting takeaway: “The pathways to proliferation are expanding. Networks of cooperation among countries that would otherwise have little reason to do so, such as the A.Q. Khan network or the Syria-North Korea and Iran-North Korea collaborations, cannot be considered isolated events. Moreover, the growth in nuclear power world-wide offers more opportunity for ‘leakage’ and/or hiding small programs.”

And that may not be the worst of it. At least A.Q. Khan was working for a Pakistani government over which the U.S. could exercise leverage. But what leverage does Washington have over “Office 99,” which handles Pyongyang’s proliferation networks? What leverage would we have with Tehran should one of its nuclear scientists go rogue?

Finally, there is the matter of nuclear detection. In his 2012 debate with Paul Ryan, Joe Biden insisted that the Iranians “are a good way away” from a bomb and that “we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon.”

The report junks that claim. “The observables are limited, typically ambiguous, and part of a high-clutter environment of unrelated activities,” it notes. “At low levels associated with small or nascent [nuclear] programs, key observables are easily masked.”

Bottom line: We are dancing in the nuclear dark.

Iran could surprise the world with a nuclear test at least as easily as India did in 1998, when the intelligence community gave the Clinton administration zero warning that New Delhi was about to set off a bomb—and a South Asian arms race. That failure is especially notable given that India, unlike Iran, is an open society.

Yet even that’s not the essence of the problem. “You can’t correct for bad policy with excellent intelligence,” says Henry Sokolski of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

“The actual or threatened acquisition of nuclear weapons by more actors, for a range of different reasons, is emerging in numbers not seen since the first two decades of the Cold War,” the board warns. “Many of these actors are hostile to the U.S. and its allies, and they do not appear to be bound by established norms nor deterred by traditional means.”

More From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):