Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Iran Conundrum

What is easier to make: a car, or a Molotov cocktail?

A Molotov cocktail, obviously...

Let's think about this for a second: both a car and a Molotov cocktail use gasoline for fuel, however, the car uses it for a peaceful civilian purpose, and the Molotov cocktail uses it for a weapon. The car harnesses the gasoline's energy in a controlled manner to propel it, while the Molotov cocktail uses the gasoline's energy in an uncontrolled fashion to maim, kill, and burn. And, the car requires a much higher degree of engineering skill to design and build, since it is harder to burn gasoline in a controlled fashion than to burn it in an uncontrolled fashion.

Let's consider how this relates to Iran....

What is easier to make, a nuclear reactor, or an atomic bomb?

A scary question indeed. And, when you realize the correct answer is the atomic bomb, it becomes even scarier. Both a nuclear reactor and an atomic bomb use the same type of fuel: fissile nuclear material such as enriched uranium or plutonium. However, the nuclear reactor requires much more work to design and build, since the goal for a reactor is to harness nuclear power in a safe and controlled manner. A weapon, which harnesses the same nuclear power but in an unsafe and uncontrolled manner is much easier to design. In fact, the only really hard part is producing the fissile nuclear material to make it.

A few months ago, I wrote about the technical difficulties in enriching uranium; and we should all be very thankful that it is as hard to enrich uranium as it is. It is greatly troubling, however, when a less-stable country such as Iran begins a uranium enrichment project, because it is this same process that can be used to make weapons-grade enriched uranium. And, once a country has a working nuclear reactor, a key by-product contained in nuclear waste is plutonium. So, by either diverting some enriched uranium from the enrichment program, or by reprocessing the nuclear waste from a reactor, it is possible to obtain the main ingredient for an atomic bomb. And, as I wrote previously, getting your hands on the main ingredient is the only really difficult part in making a nuclear weapon.

What is even more troubling than Iran having access to nuclear materials is the possibility that Iran might sell these materials, or even a working bomb to a terrorist group they are reputed to support, such as Hezbollah or al-Qaeda. Imagine the destabilizing effect of a terrorist nuclear weapon being detonated in Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Dubai, or Amman.

Iran's current government getting its hands on nuclear weapons is a scenario the world should strive to avoid. However, the big question is how to stop Iran from doing so. So far, the world community has been trying the diplomatic approach, but diplomacy isn't working. Sanctions won't help much - look at the effects they had in Saddam's Iraq, enriching Saddam while driving his people into poverty. The military alternative isn't pretty either, with the United States already stretched thin in Iraq, and after three years of war, the American people lack the stomach to invade another country. A Yugoslavia-style bombing campaign is a real possibility, but would Iraq erupt like a tinderbox afterward, as pro-Iranian Shia militias turn on American troops?

The Iranian nuclear situation is a real problem, and one without an easily identifiable solution. Diplomacy is, by far, the best approach, but if it fails, "Plan B" may end up being very, very ugly.