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Laptop computer evidence of nuke program - is it conclusive?

11/14/2005

Dramatic claims for an Iranian Nuclear program were presented in the November 13 issue of the New York Times. In an article entitled "Relying on Computer, US Seeks to Prove Iran's Nuclear Aims" by William J. Broad and David E. Sanger asserted that the US had presented documentary evidence that Iran is developing nuclear warheads for its missiles. ISIS President David Albright is skeptical about the article, but he was quoted earlier as saying the documents are indicative of a nuclear weapons development program.

The Times article stated:


In mid-July, senior American intelligence officials called the leaders of the international atomic inspection agency to the top of a skyscraper overlooking the Danube in Vienna and unveiled the contents of what they said was a stolen Iranian laptop computer.

The Americans flashed on a screen and spread over a conference table selections from more than a thousand pages of Iranian computer simulations and accounts of experiments, saying they showed a long effort to design a nuclear warhead, according to a half-dozen European and American participants in the meeting.

The documents, the Americans acknowledged from the start, do not prove that Iran has an atomic bomb. They presented them as the strongest evidence yet that, despite Iran's insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful, the country is trying to develop a compact warhead to fit atop its Shahab missile, which can reach Israel and other countries in the Middle East.

...
The computer contained studies for crucial features of a nuclear warhead, said European and American officials who had examined the material, including a telltale sphere of detonators to trigger an atomic explosion. The documents specified a blast roughly 2,000 feet above a target - considered a prime
altitude for a nuclear detonation.


ISIS President David Albright takes issue with the article in a response to be published at their Web site:


The November 13, 2005 New York Times article "Relying on Computer, US Seeks to Prove Iran's Nuclear Aims" has a deep and misleading flaw.

William J. Broad and David E. Sanger repeatedly characterize the contents of computer files as containing information about a nuclear warhead design when the information actually describes a reentry vehicle for a missile. This distinction is not minor, and Broad should understand the difference
between the two objects, particularly when the information does not contain any words such as nuclear or nuclear warhead. The "black box" carried by the re-entry vehicle may appear to be a nuclear warhead, but the documents do not state what the warhead is. In addition, much of what
Broad and Sanger report has been reported elsewhere, including the important information about "a sphere of detonators meant to ignite conventional explosives"(see Agence France Press article by Michael Adler on October 9, 2005). These earlier and more accurate articles did not confuse a nuclear warhead with a reentry vehicle.

By replacing warhead with re-entry vehicle throughout the article, the reasons for a healthy skepticism would also become more understandable. For example, a key question becomes much more clear, namely whether this work was initiated by an Iranian missile team on its own, or whether this
work was ordered by Iran's political leadership as part of a concerted nuclear weapons effort? Another important question that is sidestepped by the misleading use of warhead in the article is whether Iran can build the relatively small nuclear warhead able to fit into the triconic re-entry vehicle apparent in photos of a 2004 flight test. Based on publicly available photos of the 2004 test launch, the nuclear warhead would require a diameter of about 600 millimeters. Achieving such a diameter would be challenging for Iran. For example, the diameter of the warhead in the design provided to Libya (and perhaps to Iran) by A.Q. Khan was about 900 millimeters. A legitimate question is whether Iran could
successfully build such a small nuclear warhead without outside help.

Sincerely

David Albright
President of the Institute for Science and International Security


One should not get the impression from the above that Albright totally discounts the evidence. The AFP article by Michael Adler that Albright cites quotes Abright as supporting the evidence as indicative of nuclear weapons development:


A Western diplomat said: "People are being careful because they have been burnt in the past," referring to faulty weapons intelligence about Iraq that was used to justify the US-led invasion of that country in March 2003.

But Washington-based non-proliferation expert David Albright, a physicist and former UN weapons inspector, said: "From my own knowledge of the documents, it appears to be a first effort to develop a credible re-entry vehicle for a nuclear weapon."

Indeed, we should be careful, having been burnt in the past, but the fog seems to get thicker and thicker.

Albright has apparently pointed out a serious flaw in the New York Times account. However, Albright's letter does not explain the detonator sphere. Moreover, though the Shihab 3 missile tested by Iran may be too small to support a relatively primitive warhead, the Shihab 4 that is reportedly under development is larger. Shihab 4 is estimated to have a range of 2,200-2,896 km and is supposedly based on the Russian SS-4 IRBM. The newspaper As- Sharq al Awsat apparently reported in 2004 that Iran has resumed development of this missile, which had been suspended. The Iranian government has denied that they are developing the Shihab 4.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 1 Comment

I find the noise surrounding Iran's alleged development of nuclear weapons quite peculiar, and have an irresistable urge to shout out "So what!".
If Iran does obtain nuclear weapons, what will it do with them? It can hardly use them offensively, unless it has a bizarre desire to commit national suicide. Surely if Iran, with its proclaimed desire to wipe out Israel, did fire off one of these weapons, the Israeli retaliatory response would be devastating for Iran and the region. Iran might try to threaten Russia, but to what end?
Having lived through the Cold War in what would have been one of the prime target areas, I have to say that nuclear weapons are a bit like super-fast cars. They look good, and you can boast about owning one, and maybe the neighbours will be impressed. But you can never use it, except on a race track or other test environment. The insurance is prohibitive, and you're so frightened that it'll be scratched that you rarely even take it out of the garage - never mind actually drive anywhere in it.
If Iran is developing it's nuclear arsenal, then we can all look forward to Iran remaining relatively economically weak as its limited national resources are squandered on this useless plaything. In the mean time we should get on with our own lives, and work towards peace between Israel and Palestine.
If I were a feminist, I would explain Iran's desire to obtain nuclear weapons as being indicative of their patriarchal culture and fundamental collective sense of insecurity and inadequacy common in men, and the diminutive nature of their male genitalia.
I'm not encouraging us to say nothing to the Iranians about build nuclear weapons, I'm just asking that we put it into perspective. And before anyone says that the Iranians are especially dangerous, take a few moments thinking about the international leaders who have had the their fingers on the button over the years. One or two were pretty scary, but we're still here.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 11/15/2005 09:15 PM CST


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