Enrichment is accelerating, the warhead is taking shape, a nuclear trigger is deep in development, and the Shahab-3 missile has Israel in range and can detonate in an airburst 600 meters above ground — just like the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki
By Edwin Black
Since the last century, Iran has been methodically pursuing the in-house capability of developing a missile-delivered nuclear bomb. The regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now closer than ever — probably in the latter stages of perfecting an atomic bomb with a multipoint detonation mechanism, compact enough to insert into a Shahab-3 missile nosecone.
For years, the Obama administration, Western governments, the United Nations, and the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) have been fully aware of the specific details of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program, down to the blueprints and names of the engineers. Whether or not Iran will complete the last leg of its decades-long journey toward a deliverable atomic bomb is still unknown. The difference in viewing the cannon is whether you are staring down the muzzle or observing it through a telescope from a perch 6,000 miles away. Israel is peering into the muzzle, hence its assessment is different than Washington’s.
Protracted multilateral negotiations, crippling international sanctions, and even elaborate programs of sabotage have delayed but not derailed the nearly autarkic program. Now the world teeters at the brink of a regional war with profound global ramifications because the threat may have been ignored too long.
Here are the four determining factors, the dynamics of which will govern whether Israel launches a preemptive attack against Tehran’s massive nuclear infrastructure.
Four technological achievements are key to completing Tehran’s nuclear weapon: 1) accretion of enough nuclear materials, highly enriched to 90 percent, to make the bomb; 2) machining that highly-enriched material into metal for a spheroid warhead so it can fit into a missile nosecone for detonation; 3) a trigger mechanism to initiate the atomic explosion at the precise moment of missile reentry; and, of course, 4) a reliable rocket delivery system to carry such a weapon.
Pakistan helped Iran start
In many ways, one of the key precursors to Iran’s nuclear push was India’s May 1974 nuclear bomb test, code-named “Smiling Buddha.” Twenty years in the making, New Delhi claimed its 1974 underground explosion was a “peaceful test.” But rival Pakistan saw it as a clear threat. Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto quickly declared that his country would fight back against “nuclear blackmail.” The sleepy Pakistani nuclear program roared into action.
A pivotal decision was to call upon Abdul Qadeer Khan, often referred to as “AQ Khan,” revered as the father of Pakistan’s atomic weaponry. Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist and nuclear engineer, had worked in the nuclear programs of Holland and other Western countries. He was brought home to fast-track the building of Pakistan’s bomb. Quickly, Khan set up uranium-enrichment labs and ballistic-missile operations, mainly in and around the city of Kahuta, in the Rawalpindi district of Pakistan. In 1998, after India’s second nuclear test, Pakistan was ready. Within weeks, Pakistan followed suit, demonstrating it, too, possessed nuclear weapons and could deploy them rapidly.
As Pakistan barged into the nuclear age, Khan spearheaded the proliferation of the technology into other countries. In a 2009 TV interview, Khan admitted that working with Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, his country developed a mutual working relationship with North Korea. After India’s detonation, Pakistan realized it needed missiles. Long the world’s biggest missile and rocket power, North Korea was the logical partner. Khan admitted in his TV interview, “We needed to have long-range missiles to reach the far-flung cities of India and to ensure our deterrence. I discussed the issue with Benazir Bhutto as well. She said … we could cooperate with North Korea.”