A Precisely Targeted Solution to the Iranian Problem

Infiltration and Sabotage Could Negate the Need for Bombing

Many approaches are being considered and currently under way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or having the capacity to do so. Crippling economic sanctions, computer viruses used to damage centrifuge equipment, and assassinations of senior Iranian scientists have all been tried. As a last resort both the US and Israel are considering a wide scale bombing campaign to target every potential facility in Iran involved in the enrichment of uranium or manufacture of bomb and missile components for a nuclear capability.

Is there a simpler and easier way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? If a small amount of plutonium dust were to be smuggled into key facilities and released into the ventilation system it would accomplish two things fairly quickly. It would kill nearly everyone in the complex. Secondly, it would create an international sensation if and when news got out. Where is Ethan Hunt and his team when you need them?

One unique aspect of any nuclear weapons program that makes it particularly vulnerable is the absolute requirement for fissionable material. This includes either a fairly large amount of enriched uranium or a small amount of plutonium. About 24 pounds of plutonium, a softball sized sphere of the metal four inches in diameter, is the minimum “critical mass” necessary for a bomb. This is enough to make a weapon with a yield in the range of at least 20 kilotons, similar to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in WWII.

Both radioactive materials are fairly easy to detect by sensors and both have significant health hazards upon exposure. While enriched uranium’s health risks can be fairly easily dealt with, plutonium presents greater challenges. Like the deadly chemical dioxin, a tiny amount of inhaled plutonium (about 1/10th the size of a US nickel coin) will kill you fairly quickly from acute pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs).

Any secret weapons program adds to the vulnerability in the potential development of nuclear weapons in Iran because of how they must hide their activity. Since the country would (apparently) be running such a program covertly in regard to the outside world, most activity must be conducted underground where overhead spy satellites and high flying aircraft cannot monitor its progress. Building facilities underground requires an extensive ventilation system for the staff that in all likelihood operates by recycling underground air. This would tend to spread particles suspended in the air around better than any ventilation system open to the outside world.

An “accidental” release of plutonium in such facilities would implicate Iran as actually being in possession of bomb grade material and in the process of assembling weapons. (There’s no other reason to possess plutonium. Power reactors only create very minute amounts as a byproduct, unless they are ”breeder” reactors deliberately designed to generate plutonium).

Even though this revelation to the world wouldn’t actually be a true account of events in such a scenario, the “accident” would likely bring international condemnation down on the country and sanctions would increase to an unbearable level. Former allies such as China might join the UN Security Council in condemning Iran, which would lead to it making an abrupt change of direction in policy to survive as a nation. International inspections might then be fully allowed, and its nuclear program dismantled.

Such a crisis might also result in the collapse of the Iranian government from within, allowing a more moderate regime to take its place. As far as we know at present however, Iran possesses no plutonium whatsoever (and what we don’t know can’t hurt us, right?) Of course that could change if the situation deteriorates, making putting the blame on them for an “accidental release” more plausible in the years to come.

How hard would it be to smuggle such material into highly guarded facilities? It wouldn’t be easy, but it also wouldn’t necessarily have to involve western intelligence agents or Israelis on site. There is an extensive dissident movement in Iran that the Israelis have been in contact with for years, and its possible that those seeking the overthrow of the government could more easily penetrate the security of such industrial complexes.

How much plutonium would be necessary to get the job done? It would be far less material than is necessary to assemble a single nuclear device. About half a gram of plutonium that is inhaled (one of the most lethal methods of exposure) is necessary to kill a human being. That’s an equivalent lethal dose for about 900 people with one pound of plutonium dust.

Exposure to a lower level of 20 milligrams each would lead to death several months later, with one pound providing such a long term lethal dose for over 22,000 people. Exposing the clandestine staff of nuclear weapons assemblers to a dose of plutonium that wasn’t immediately lethal might actually be a much better plan of action. This would allow the saboteurs to escape, and the “accident’s” effects to only be fully felt about two months later. Such delays and gradual die-offs of the scientists would make the event look more like a real accident and make it harder to trace back to a point of origin.

The material would also have to be dispersed carefully in an area where scientists regularly gathered and where exposure could be maximized. Radiation monitors that had been set up in the past by limited IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspections would also have to detect the contamination in some respect, but these are not insurmountable challenges. Such a plan poses many risks and could easily fail, but from an engineering standpoint it could be done.

Of course the drawbacks to such a plan are profound as well. If the west were ever implicated in such an attack, there would be widespread global outrage against countries that were involved, which could include the US, UK and Israel among others. Azerbaijan might even receive political backlash for it if agents were smuggled in from staging areas there using its former Soviet air bases (recently modernized by the US). Search and rescue aircraft or extraction operations for dissidents and spies flying out of Iran might be captured or shot down. Such a revelation of outside manipulation could create a global crisis where power blocs began to face off against each other, first politically, then economically… The long term turmoil generated could be unlike anything the world has seen to date.

Yet other options to solving the Iranian problem also pose significant risks. Waiting for sanctions to take effect may be foolish. Many countries have shown an ability to live under crippling sanctions for decades without surrendering to international pressure, such as North   Korea. Israel knows this and its one reason they push for a military solution. Bombing also has a significant drawback in that, if the Iranians weren’t actually pursuing a nuclear weapons capability beforehand, you can be sure they would pull out all stops to do so afterwards.

There are many paths to resolve the crisis, and patiently waiting for sanctions to be effective may be the least effective of them. All others are far more dangerous however in the short term. Allowing Iran to actually obtain nuclear weapons may actually be anti-climactic and not the doomsday scenario we fear. They may become another pariah state like North Korea. Or it could go the other way. Saudi Arabia has stated that if Iran were to go nuclear, they would have their own bombs the very next day (obtained from Pakistan).

Think tanks in the US have long feared such scenarios playing out with Iran, and come up with war games to try to prepare for them. One that was created by RAND corporation for the U.S. Air Force many years ago (with the date altered here), involved the following chain of events which could still take place today:

“The year is 2015. Iran, in a bid to cut Persian Gulf oil production, calls for an emergency meeting of OPEC oil ministers. When the meeting breaks up in disarray, US Intelligence detects three Iranian divisions moving into positions to threaten Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and four additional divisions in Iran assembling on heavy transporters. US and allied forces rush to the region. Oil prices go through the roof as an intense battle breaks out in the Gulf, and a US Navy frigate is sunk, live on CNN. While the White House considers its options, Iran launches a missile. Twelve minutes later a 100 kiloton nuclear blast occurs high over the Iranian desert. With this new demonstration of its nuclear capability, Iran demands an end to all hostilities and a summit to end the Gulf crisis.”

Could such events really happen? Cuts to OPEC production would raise the price of oil, which could provide a critical influx of cash to a sanction-strapped Iranian economy… It appears that western powers are on a collision course with Iran in one form or another and that there is no easy, clean solution to the problem. Every weapon that human beings have ever invented has been used, and this pattern tends to be mirrored by states that feel constantly threatened by foreign powers as well. The Israelis have been warning that Iran is just six months away from having the bomb since at least 2003 and they are starting to sound like the boy who cried wolf. The problem however with the boy who cried wolf is that he was eventually right, and when he was right, no one came to his aid.