Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 February 2013

Breaking the Nuclear Taboo: Another Risk of Iran Going Nuclear

Why Did Bibi Look Worried?
Evidence of Israel’s Arsenal
The Fatal Attraction of Small Nukes
Small Nukes’ Terrible Logic


In a previous post, I analyzed how the problem of Iran’s feared nuclear-weapons program resembles three-dimensional chess. The geopolitical ramifications alone are immensely complex. Unless sanctions can motivate Iran to reconsider, no simple solution seems apparent, let alone self-evident. (War is never a simple solution, although it may seem so before it starts.)

But I recently stumbled upon evidence of a new fourth dimension. The types of weapons that Iran may be developing, and that Israel already may have developed, might break the taboo on nuclear war that has kept the peace among major powers since 1945. In other words, Iran and Israel, acting out their enmity, might make the unthinkable thinkable for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age.

I hasten to add that this essay is no more than informed speculation. I am an ex-physicist with (as readers of this blog know) no reason or proclivity to avoid staring straight at unvarnished truth. But I am also an outsider, with no more access to secret intelligence that one can get from reading the news and surfing the Web. So readers—especially those with access to more current and more accurate intelligence—must judge for themselves the logic of this analysis and the likelihood of it being correct.

Why Did Bibi Look Worried?

I begin where I myself started. In recent pictures, especially those with our President, Bibi Netanyahu looked genuinely worried. Why, I asked myself, should he be?

If Israel has a small nuclear arsenal, as everyone assumes, then doesn’t it have the power to annihilate Iran in retaliation for any conventional, let alone nuclear, attack? A former director of Mossad, Israel’s CIA, recently described Iran’s leaders as cold and calculating and amenable to deterrence.

That seems right. While wily and duplicitous, Iran’s rulers hardly seem prone to committing national suicide like the late bin Laden’s dupes.

Deterrence works. It worked for 44 years with the Soviet menace—something far more dangerous and fearsome than anything Iran could become, even given this whole century. Surely Bibi is smart enough to understand that.

So logic compels the conclusion that Bibi fears something more subtle than Iran going berserk and nuking Israel shortly after its first successful nuclear-weapons test. What might that be?

Evidence of Israel’s Arsenal

At first, I thought of something else unthinkable. What if Israel really has no nukes and is just bluffing, like Saddam Hussein?

But something called the “Vela Incident” quickly dispelled my doubts. In September 1979, an American spy satellite—designed for the specific purpose of detecting atmospheric nuclear tests—recorded what seemed like a small nuclear explosion under partial cloud cover off the coast of Antarctica.

The news leaked about a month later. Our government quickly convened an expert panel. Just as quickly, the panel announced that a nuclear blast was not proven and probably not real. The satellite’s electronic report, it wrote, was more likely the erroneous result of a micrometeorite strike on a single sensor.

Evidence for that theory was ambiguous. The panel concluded that only a single sensor had reported the unique dual-flash signature of a nuclear explosion. But there was evidence that two sensors had made near-simultaneous reports, albeit with different strength—a result consistent with the satellite’s age and condition. Although still operational, it had been working long past its conservative design life, just as our Mars rovers are doing today. The secondary summary of the report that I read (and link here) did not explain how a micrometeorite strike could mimic the dual-flash optical signature of a nuclear explosion.

Leaked opinions of scientists involved, but outside the panel, appeared to undermine the panel’s conclusion. More important, there was corroborating evidence, including reports of short-lived isotopes appearing later in Australia, in the thyroid glands of sheep. The panel dismissed this evidence rather airily, without close analysis, let alone convincing refutation.

Most important of all, all nation-states involved had every motivation to deny that anything unusual had happened.

Suspicion quickly focused on a joint project between Israel and South Africa, perhaps a contribution of Israel’s technical expertise in exchange for uranium. At the time, both nations had ample reason to seek nuclear weapons. South Africa’s white minority government was still in the throes of Apartheid, facing a huge majority of angry and increasingly militant black people. Nelson Mandela was still in prison. Israel had successfully prosecuted two major wars in the preceding twelve years, both started by sneak attacks from its neighbors. It was justifiably afraid that a third major attack might be more successful unless it gained a decisive advantage in weaponry.

Our own government had strong political motivation to deny the reality of any nuclear test by either country. At the height of the Cold War, we wanted to convince the world that our nuclear nonproliferation regime was effective and seamless, in order to avoid sparking a more general arms race. Both Israel and South Africa had equal motivation for secrecy; neither wanted to stir up its enemies or set global public opinion against it.

South Africa’s subsequent abandonment of Apartheid, plus its later complete abrogation of nuclear weapons development, reduced its motivation for secrecy. Our tacit acceptance of India’s and Pakistan’s violation of the nuclear nonproliferation regime reduced ours. But at that time—at the height of Cold War paranoia and before much visible progress in nuclear disarmament—everyone was looking much farther north, toward the US, the USSR, China, Britain and France. Even today, the universal desire to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East gives rational actors ample motivation to maintain the secret.

So based on this circumstantial evidence of a test involving Israel, plus ample evidence of motivation for secrecy, I conclude that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is real, not a bluff.

The Fatal Attraction of Small Nukes

In any event, something in the apparently objective online report of the Vela Incident caught my physicist’s eye. The unique dual-flash signature that the Vela satellite had detected apparently came from a low-yield nuclear explosion, of about three kilotons. In comparison, the bomb that fell on Hiroshima was estimated to have had a sixteen kiloton yield, and it was small by Cold-War standards.

Low yield is important for two reasons. First, the lower the yield, the greater the probability of a successful test escaping detection, or at least identification of its nuclear origin. Below five kilotons, unambiguous identification of underground nuclear explosions by seismic means becomes iffy, at least with the technology available then. Other means of identification, such as surface subsidence or the escape of radioactive material, are avoidable with due care.

The Vela satellite’s optical detection technology was vulnerable to weather interference. What apparently had made detection possible in 1979 was a fortuitous parting of the clouds. But for that fortuity, the Vela nuclear explosion (if such it was) might never have been noticed. The Vela satellite had a very broad focus but was not designed or intended to find tests in Antarctica. No one was looking there.

It is therefore quite possible that the nuclear event, if real, marked the culmination of a series of tests, which stopped or went underground (literally) after public reports of the incident surfaced a month later. And there were means at that time, surely known by Israeli scientists, to hide underground nuclear tests of similarly low yield, let alone even lower yield.

Second, Israel’s strategic position, gave (and still gives) low-yield weapons considerable value. Israel is a tiny country, packed with crowded cities and towns, with empty desert in between. So are its neighbors. If you’re going to “go nuclear” in that environment, you don’t want 50-megaton behemoths that will annihilate the whole neighborhood, including large parts (or all) of your own country.

You don’t want such doomsday nukes for three reasons. First, it would be impossible to test any such big nuke without irrefutable detection. Second, the geopolitics of annihilating an enemy are not particularly favorable. Not only would Israel’s doing so incite rest of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. It would also turn global public opinion sharply against it, much more quickly and decisively than its land-annexation policies are doing today. Descendants of victims of the Holocaust would be ill advised to author a holocaust of their own.

Finally, military strategy taught the advantages of small nukes, especially in Israel’s neighborhood. No one else in the immediate neighborhood had any nukes, nor (at that time) any immediate prospects for developing them. So there was no need for a nuclear deterrent. Israel was undoubtedly looking for a way to counter the vast numbers of its enemies, i.e., an “outside-the-box” way to augment its conventional military superiority.

So every strategic objective—avoiding detection, defending Israel without producing tidal waves of geopolitical revulsion, providing credible deterrence, making actual use possible, and beefing up conventional forces—motivated having small, non-doomsday nukes.

The report that I read, apparently by an outside observer like me, speculated that Israel may have developed a neutron bomb. [search for “neutron”] Cold-War cognoscenti will remember what that is: a low-yield nuclear weapon that produces lots of instantaneous deadly radiation but little radioactive fallout and has a relatively small blast radius.

When our government proposed developing such a weapon during the Vietnam War, there was widespread public revulsion. Domestic opponents decried neutron bombs as the ultimate inhuman technology, designed to kill people but leave buildings and machinery alone. If it actually developed neutron bombs (which I think likely), our government apparently never seriously considered using them, in Vietnam or elsewhere. As a matter of geopolitical strategy, it kept the nuclear taboo.

Yet three things are apparent. First, if you live in a tiny country like Israel, surrounded by enemies, you want to be able to defend yourself against invading armies without creating awful waves of destruction and consequent global political pushback. You also want to avoid producing radioactive fallout that might end up on your own territory, killing or sickening your own defensive forces or your civilian population. For those purposes, neutron bombs might be attractive.

Second, if you want to destroy uranium-enrichment centrifuges buried deep in stone caverns, low-yield nukes might be the tool of choice. You don’t want to take out a whole city, just the target that creates the threat of a nuclear-armed enemy. And you might have to bust through a lot of rock. Low-yield nukes might be effective in that application.

Third, despite repeated public denials, it is highly likely that both the US and Russia (if not China) have small arsenals of these weapons and plans for building more quickly. Yet for reasons of sheer enlightened self-interest, none of these countries is likely admit their existence, let alone to use them, under any foreseeable circumstances. The nuclear taboo makes us all safer.

Small Nukes’ Terrible Logic

But Iran has as much reason to break the taboo as Israel, and to do so with small nukes. The first time it detectably tests a nuclear device, all Hell will likely rain down on it. So its first priority is to build a device whose blast is too small to detect or identify unambiguously.

The Hiroshima bomb, at a mere sixteen kilotons, was enough to destroy an entire medium-sized city. A bomb one quarter that size, four kilotons, would be a powerful weapon of terror against civilian populations, as well as a powerful weapon of deterrence, if not self-defense. So would bombs a tenth or twentieth that size, especially if available in numbers.

The problem of test detection is key. A later-published review of seismic-detection technology suggests a lower limit of 5 kilotons for reliable and unambiguous remote seismic identification of underground nuclear explosions. Smaller nukes might be detected, but classifying them unambiguously as nukes, rather than as chemical explosions or earthquakes, might be difficult.

There has undoubtedly been progress in seismic detection since that time, including such things as electronically focused seismic arrays. But in the event of a successful nuclear test by Iran, Israel would have two problems. In order to justify even a conventional strike on Iran, let alone a nuclear one, its scientists would have not only to convince Israel’s own intelligence services, but the rest of the world, including some part of the Islamic world. That might be a tall order. (A good analogy might be our revealing, in 1962 and before the United Nations, our satellite photos of medium-range ballistic missiles being assembled in Cuba. You don’t want such evidence to be ambiguous or easily contradicted.)

Insofar as planning actual use is concerned, Iran has much the same physical constraints as Israel. It lives in a crowded neighborhood, in which doomsday devices are not practical weapons and may be too terrible even for credible deterrence. So it has every incentive to go small, too.

In fact, Iran has every incentive to refine as much fissionable material as possible, build a small device in secret, test it underground using every means to avoid seismic identification, and then build more devices secretly, using the tested design. There is evidence that, for small nukes, avoiding seismic detection (or reliable identification as a nuke) may be as simple as excavating a large cavity around the device under test.


Although driven by the logic of their mutual enmity and paranoia, Iran’s and Israel’s development of small nukes could have unfortunate consequences for our human species. Since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, our global public has thought of nuclear weapons as doomsday devices, never to be used except for deterrence.

The resulting nuclear taboo has been enormously beneficial to our species. As I pointed out in two previous essays (1 and 2), the taboo and nuclear deterrence have kept the peace among major powers for over 67 years.

In contrast, consider the three-quarters of a century leading up to and including World War II. During that period, there were five or six major wars between or among major powers, depending on how you count. Each was more bloody and horrible than the last, and each chewed up more civilians in an ever-escalating tide of “total war.” The nuclear age, the nuclear taboo, and our Pax Atomica turned all that off as if flicking some celestial switch.

That may not seem so to a nation like ours, now reeling from (and winding down) two decade-long, needless wars. But our two recent wars were neither with or in major powers. Our now-waning wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing like the “total war” between or among major powers. They were not even like our own civil war, if extrapolated to modern technology. Our foes were not major powers, let alone our equals.

Suppose now that political leaders and their generals begin to see nukes as just more powerful conventional weapons. Suppose two nations, such as Iran and Israel, actually use them in combat, and neither comes out more than partly devastated. Suppose a jaded humanity begins to accept nukes’ awesome power, greater-than-usual destruction, and the putrid sores and lingering deaths from radiation sickness as just more unfortunate “collateral damage” from war. Suppose, in short, that the nuclear taboo fails.

What then? What might happen then between India and Pakistan? on the Korean Peninsula? in the multiply fractured Middle East, where the Iran-Israel and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are not the only religiously motivated disputes? Would a Sunni-Shiite nuclear conflict be next? Would the worldwide progress in rational government that we’ve seen during our Pax Atomica vanish in a bloody, radioactive new age of empire and war?

One would hope that, after the horrors of the twentieth century, our species has outgrown that dark side. But who wants to take the chance by severely testing our collective maturity and restraint?

That is why, I suspect, every nation that has small nukes, probably including our own, keeps their existence and contingency plans for their use as the deepest and darkest of secrets.

I stress again that these thoughts are just informed speculation. But, if they have merit, the consequences of allowing Israel’s and Iran’s unfettered self-regarding strategies even to approach their logical conclusion are horrendous. Our hopefully dawning twenty-first century might be even darker than the last.

This is why every nation has a vital national interest in halting the strategic logic of Iran’s and Israel’s mutual enmity. The “red line” is not just for Bibi or for Israel. It’s a red line for all humanity. Crossing the line of the nuclear taboo might usher in a whole new era of human depravity.

Big doomsday nukes have kept the nuclear genie in the bottle for two-thirds of a century. Let’s not let it out now, let alone in a conflict in which religion plays far more of a role than it ought to at this stage of our species’ development. The example of flawed mortals claiming to represent God—and actually possessing godlike destructive power—might become our species’ self-administered coup de grace.

Footnote. This man’s views are both expert and unusual enough to quote at some length. His name is Efraim Halevy, and he’s a former director of Israel’s Mossad, its highly respected intelligence agency, analogous to our CIA or Russia’s FSB. Here are three direct quotes of his, from a recent interview with Margaret Warner on PBS [link to both video and transcript]:
“I believe there is no existential threat to Israel of any kind. Israel is indestructible, in my view. We have offensive capabilities. We have defensive capabilities.”

* * *

“By saying that [something] is an existential threat, you’re almost inviting your enemy to try it out.”

* * *

“The [Iranians] are not demonic, and they are not messianic. They are very, very cool calculators when it comes to their direct interests. When you have the shotgun right next to your temples, sometimes, clarity emerges.”


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