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Iran’s Less-is-More Nuclear Policy

NEW YORK – The recent United States National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which reports that Iran once had a “nuclear weapons program” but suspended it in 2003, means that there will probably be no American attack on Iran during the Bush administration. How could America’s president explain to the world why he was bombing nuclear weapon facilities that his own intelligence services have said do not exist?

So, in all likelihood, the world has been spared a policy that would be as futile as it would be destructive. Indeed, the one act most likely to guarantee that Iran obtains nuclear weapons would be to attack it. (Nine years after Israel’s bombing raid on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, Saddam Hussein was nevertheless within a year of having an atomic bomb.)

Yet the NIE arrived at its result by a strange route. Every technically competent person knows that the paths to civilian nuclear power and to nuclear weapons are the same, except for a few last, comparatively simple steps. The hard part is obtaining the fissionable materials – plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Once that’s done, any nation – or even a sophisticated terrorist group – can do the rest.

Nuclear power requires low-enriched uranium as fuel. Enrich it further, in the same facilities, and you have bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). The remaining step – slamming two pieces of HEU together to create a critical mass and an explosion – is easy: the blueprints can be downloaded from the Internet. Indeed, the “secret” of the hydrogen bomb was published in 1979 in an article by Howard Morland in The Progressive magazine, sparking a failed legal suit by the US government to suppress it.