Those Bad, Bad Iranians (and North Koreans)
Jude Wanniski
November 12, 2003


Memo To: Howard Dean
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: You Need a Science Advisor

I'm sure you are reading in the papers these last few days that the bad, bad Iranians have been caught red-handed with a nuclear-weapons program. Because I see no sign of a science advisor in your campaign, I thought I would share mine with you. Dr. Gordon Prather, who was the army's chief scientist in the Reagan years, has been following the Iranian story as it has unfolded and believes the press corps has been getting it all messed up because they really don't know how to assess the accuracy of what they are getting from their authoritative sources. These are the same kinds of errors that were made by the press and the intelligence agencies in the months leading up to the war with Iraq.

The fact is Dr. Prather, who writes a weekly column for, is the only nuclear physicist with actual experience in nuclear weapons design in the news media, in the entire world as far as I know. Practically every day I look over his shoulder reading press accounts of transgressions by the Axis of Evil and listen to him laugh at what is being reported. Before the Bush administration took office in 2001, I spent half an hour alone with Vice President Cheney in his transition office, urging him to get Dr. Prather out of semi-retirement and use him to separate the wheat from the chaff on issues involving weapons of mass destruction. The warhawks around Mr. Cheney made sure that did not happen, as they did not want the Veep confused by the facts they were, and still are, feeding him in his daily briefings.

You may not have seen the Economist this week, but it makes my point in its report about how the Iranians have been getting close to pay dirt on making a nuke, sneaking around the Non-Proliferation Treaty they signed. Says the Economist: "Though Iran is playing down the significance of its experiments, arguing that they only produced tiny quantities of fissile materials, they show that the country has mastered some of the most important stages in nuclear bomb-making."

Dr. Prather says, "This is true only in the sense that it is absolutely necessary to have large quantities of fissile material -- U-235 or Pu-239 -- to make nukes."

Says the Economist: Thus if it ever pulled out of the NPT, Iran could quickly have such weapons ready.

Dr. Prather says, "Nonsense. Knowing how to produce and machine U-235 metal is one thing; but it takes at least 120 pounds of it to make even one gun-type nuke [Hiroshima]. If Iran intended to produce a few Hiroshima nukes, it would have to first finish constructing a facility capable of producing tons of low-enriched Uranium [LEU] per year, gain several years of operating experience with it, THEN withdraw from the NPT, modify the LEU facility to produce HEU, and use tons of LEU as feedstock to produce hundreds of pounds of HEU. The Economist calls that 'quickly'?"

The U.K. Independent today reported "Inspectors Catch Iran Developing Technology to Produce a Nuclear Bomb." Pretty scary, Dr. Dean. The story is based on the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): "The IAEA report says Iran's nuclear programme consists of "a practically complete front-end of a nuclear fuel cycle", including uranium conversion and enrichment. It criticizes Iran for failing to volunteer information about its nuclear material, its processing and use, as well as its nuclear- related facilities, "in a number of instances over an extended period of time"...

Dr. Prather read the story and scratched his head: "If the quotes in this highly inflammatory column are correct, then the IAEA report principally criticizes Iran for failing to 'volunteer' enough information. That is what I suspected was the case. It's not that they have been caught 'violating' the NPT. Rather, although not required to do so, Iran had voluntarily invited the IAEA to come in and look anywhere they wanted to look. Mostly what Iran now stands accused of is not 'volunteering' enough about their 'nuclear fuel cycle' -- which need have nothing to do with acquiring nukes -- to satisfy Mohammed El Baradei.

Dr. Prather notes that "the NPT 'violations' apparently all relate to the failure of the Iranians to 'declare' the acquisition in 1991 from China of 2 metric tons of natural uranium, as well as subsequent fooling around with same. For example, they converted small portions of that 2 metric tons into uranium-hexaflouride and into metal; that constitutes fooling around with material that ought to have been declared, and was, therefore, required to be declared, too."

As Undersecretary of State John Bolton has led the charge in denouncing Iran for violating the NPT. Dr. Prather notes: "Bolton to the contrary, as I understand the NPT, the R&D 'dabbling' the Iranians did -- but did not report -- on gas centrifuge and laser isotopic enrichment is not -- in and of itself -- a violation of the NPT." The treaty only requires that laboratory experiments be reported which might be used for dual-use projects only be reported when they are about to go into a pilot production. The record indicates the Iranians abandoned these projects long before they got to that stage.

In today's New York Times, David Sanger and William Broad, have the following report under the headline: "Surprise Word on Nuclear Gains by North Korea and Iran":

WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 Two intelligence reports issued in recent days find that North Korea and Iran have made advances on a variety of technologies necessary to build nuclear weapons that surprised many nuclear experts and Western intelligence officials.

Overall, the reports support the consensus view that North Korea is far ahead of Iran in the production of actual weapons and poses the most urgent proliferation problems for the Bush administration.

Yet Iran's program turns out to have been even broader and deeper than American intelligence agencies suspected. A 30-page confidential report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency and sent to 20 governments on Monday describes a program that reached back at least 18 years and involved extremely complex technologies, including an exotic program to use lasers to enrich uranium.

In recent weeks, President Bush has declared that his administration is making great progress in its diplomatic effort to disarm both countries, putting together coalitions of neighboring countries to pressure the two surviving governments of what he famously called the "Axis of Evil."

But the essence of the Central Intelligence Agency report about North Korea is that that country is speeding up its weapons production. And Iran's decision to allow the international agency into facilities that were previously closed to inspectors may, diplomats said, blunt Mr. Bush's effort to seek some kind of sanctions in the United Nations, leaving Iran with an advanced nuclear infrastructure that could be restarted at a moment's notice.

Taken together, the reports show that Iran and North Korea have each dabbled in separating plutonium one path to a bomb and have each set up centrifuges to enrich uranium. The difference, as the C.I.A. told Congress, is that North Korea has fully mastered the complexities of detonating a bomb, perhaps with the help of some of its nuclear suppliers like Pakistan. There is no evidence that Iran has made that much headway.

"The Iranians did a lot better at this than Saddam Hussein did," one administration official said. "But not as well as Kim Jong Il," he added, referring to the North Korean leader.

The international agency's report is full of examples showing that Iran fooled the global nuclear watchdog for years. It refers to "limited and reactive" cooperation with inspectors and "changing and contradictory" stories. Despite that history of deception, though, the international agency insisted that there is no evidence of a current weapons project in Iran. That conclusion left many experts agape.

"It's dumbfounding that the I.A.E.A., after saying that Iran for 18 years had a secret effort to enrich uranium and separate plutonium, would turn around and say there was no evidence of a nuclear weapons program," said Thomas B. Cochran, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, a private group that tracks nuclear arms. "If that's not evidence, I don't know what is."

A federal intelligence official echoed that assessment, saying, "It's obvious that this is not an atoms for peace program."

But the international agency's report, while detailed, found no actual weapons of the kind that North Korea boasts about...

* * * * *

Dr. Prather wonders why the Times puts such credence in the views of the National Resources Defense Council, which is a longtime foe of nuclear power, the Atoms for Peace program, and the very presence of the IAEA. What seems to be going on is a coalition of right-wing opponents of the NPT, which gives signatory nations rights to build nuclear power plants under IAEA supervision, and left-wing environmental opponents of nuclear power.

Says Prather, "In my opinion, Sanger & Broad still don't understand the 'intelligence' on plutonium-uranium situation in North Korea, the DPRK. They have talked to the wrong people and haven't talked to the right people. There may be 'intelligence' but there is no evidence that DPRK has developed and tested a high-explosive implosion system. There may be 'intelligence' but there is no evidence that DPRK is developing a centrifuge uranium enrichment capability. The IAEA mission re: Atoms for Peace precedes the NPT. The quid pro quo for Iran et al to agree to the NPT was to participate in Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program."

Dr. Prather says he "has no doubt that many NPT signatories push the envelope, to take maximum advantage of what they're entitled to, with the idea of eventually being in position to 'break out', to make nukes. In the case of Iran, ever since the fall of the Shah, the US has prevented anyone -- France, Russia, Germany -- from supplying Atoms for Peace technology and equipment to Iran. No wonder Iran attempted to acquire such things 'discretely'. "

In the Washington Times Monday, Dr. Prather spotted the lead editorial that raised alarms about Russia insisting that it will go ahead and help Iran finish construction of its power plant at Bushehr. The editorial said Iran could simply operate the light-water reactor for 12-15 months, drop out of the NPT, and make nukes.

Dr. Prather wrote the editor, Tony Blankley, "Iran cannot operate its Russian-built LWR for just a year and then shut it down and remove all the fuel. Neither the Russians nor the IAEA would allow them to do that. Never Ever. The Bushehr fuel will always belong to the Russians and will always be Safeguarded by the IAEA. The Mullahs would have to openly defy -- nay, eject -- the IAEA and the Russians from Bushehr. The Mullahs may be crazy, but they're not that crazy. Here's what the Russians and IAEA will allow at Bushehr. After startup the reactor will be run for 18 months to two years, at which time the reactor will be shut down, and a third of the fuel removed and replaced. After the second 18-24 month period, a second third will be removed and replaced. After that -- from then on -- all fuel will have been in the LWR for 5-6 years and the plutonium produced thereby is not suitable for making nukes. The opponents of Bushehr know that; that's why they specify shutting down the reactor one year after startup. But even a year that 'spent' fuel will be hotter than a $2 pistol. Spent fuel will be stored onsite in a 'swimming pool' for several years before the Mullahs can even think about chemically separating out the plutonium."

You see what I mean, Dr. Dean. Even if you do not want to rely on Dr. Prather to help you cut through the various agendas being pursued in these scientific/political debates, you should have someone who is able to cover all the bases. Only with such work can you expect to get reliable intelligence on whether to drop bombs on the usual suspects, or see if the concerns raised can be handled diplomatically. President Bush has no such person.