This is the closest that the U.S. has been to a war with Iran in decades, and yet most Americans are either clueless or they don’t seem to believe that it could actually happen. And I certainly don’t think that President Trump wants a war, but he is surrounded by war hawks that have been pushing an extremely aggressive “get tough” policy with Iran. The Trump administration just canceled the waivers that were allowing other nations to continue purchasing Iranian oil, and the goal of that move is to reduce Iranian exports to zero. But oil exports are 40 percent of the Iranian economy, and the Iranians understand that this move could absolutely cripple their economy. The Iranians have threatened to close the straight of Hormuz in retaliation, and that would almost certainly provoke a U.S. military response. In addition, it is being reported that on Wednesday the Iranians will announce that they are taking steps to restart their nuclear program…
The Nuclear Information Project provides the public with reliable information about the status and trends of the nuclear weapons arsenals of the world’s nuclear-armed countries.
The project, which according to the Washington Post is “one of the most widely sourced agencies for nuclear warhead counts,” uses open sources such as official documents, testimonies, previously undisclosed information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, as well as independent analysis of commercial satellite imagery as the basis for developing the best available unclassified estimates of the status and trends of nuclear weapons worldwide.
The project also conducts analysis of the role of nuclear weapons and provides recommendations for responsibly reducing the numbers and role of nuclear weapons.
The research is mainly published on the FAS Strategic Security Blog, in the Nuclear Notebook in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the World Nuclear Forces overview in the SIPRI Yearbook, as well as in magazines. As a primary source for reliable information on nuclear weapons, the project is a frequent advisor to governments, parliamentarians, the news media, institutes, and non-governmental organizations.
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Defining the Threats
Seizing an Intact Nuclear Weapon
Experts typically classify nuclear and radiological terrorism into four threat categories. First, a non-state actor such as a terrorist or criminal or a group of terrorists or criminals could acquire a nuclear weapon from an arsenal of a nuclear-armed state. The acquisition could occur through theft because the weapon was unsecured or through a gift because a custodian wants the non-state actor to have the weapon, or one or more officials of that state wants to transfer one or more weapons to the non-state actor. Conceivably, the non-state actor could blackmail nuclear custodians by making credible threats to the custodians themselves or their loved ones.
Making an Improvised Nuclear Device
The second nuclear threat is that a non-state actor could acquire sufficient fissile material such as highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium to build an improvised nuclear device (IND). An IND could have as much explosive yield as the bombs that destroyed the cores of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear security experts agree that HEU poses the greatest danger because of the relative ease of using it to make a “gun-type” IND, similar to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In contrast, plutonium could only be used in the more technically challenging “implosion-type” bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.
These two nuclear terrorism threats are low probability events in that they are unlikely to occur due to the relatively high security for nuclear weapons and most fissile material, but they are very high consequence because of the massive destruction that would occur if a non-state actor could detonate one or more nuclear weapons or INDs on one or more cities.
What a war with Iran could look like
Dispersing Radioactive Materials and Attacking Nuclear Facilities
The first radiological threat is the so-called dirty bomb in which radioactive material is dispersed by use of conventional explosives or perhaps other means. Experts often use the term radiological dispersal device (RDD) to refer to the “dirty bomb.” The second radiological threat is possible attack or sabotage of a nuclear facility such as a nuclear power plant or nuclear waste storage.
The radiological terrorism threats are more likely to occur due to the relatively larger number of commercially used radioactive materials and hundreds of nuclear facilities worldwide, but the consequences are much lower than nuclear terrorism because there would not be nuclear explosions but instead dispersal of radioactive materials that emit ionizing radiation.
Thus, nuclear terrorism would involve weapons of mass destruction while radiological terrorism would involve weapons of mass disruption.
Detecting and Stopping Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism
Soon after the founding of FAS in 1945, there were concerns that a non-state actor could acquire nuclear or other radioactive materials to use in a crime or an act of terrorism. It is difficult to protect against these threats because of the relative ease in shielding fissile material useful for making nuclear weapons and the widespread availability of radioactive substances for commercial purposes. In the late 1940s, for instance, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, testified to a congressional committee that the only way to reliably detect nuclear material or nuclear weapons being smuggled into the country would be to open every container with a screwdriver. This remark became the basis of the famous classified “screwdriver report” commissioned by the Atomic Energy Commission. Because of the thousands of miles of borders and the millions of people and containers annually crossing these borders, the United States cannot rely on detection methods to stop non-state actors or even states from smuggling in nuclear weapons or the fissile material to make these weapons.
Highly radioactive commercial sources have a better chance of being detected because their radiation signature would be harder to shield. But detection alone is not an effective prevention technique.
Defense-in-Depth Nuclear Security and Risk Reduction
Nuclear and radiological security experts at FAS and other organizations agree that an effective defensive strategy relies on “defense-in-depth,” or multiple layers of protection and response.
Each layer of defense is imperfect but as more layers are added, the overall defense system becomes more effective. Complementing defense-in-depth is a risk reduction concept that emphasizes both reduction of the probability and consequences of nuclear and radiological terrorism. Risk is a function of the probability of something happening such as a terrorist group acquiring nuclear material and the consequences if an event occurs such as a terrorist group detonating a nuclear explosive.
Reducing Probability of the Events from Occurring
Methods to reduce probability include securing nuclear and other highly radioactive materials, eliminating as much as possible these materials by developing and deploying alternative technologies, leveraging intelligence and law enforcement information to interdict non-state actors before they can use nuclear or radiological weapons, improving security at and around nuclear power plants and other potentially vulnerable nuclear facilities, and deploying radiation detection equipment at ports and border crossings as well as around high profile targets such as New York City. Another method is to reduce the motivations of terrorists to engage in nuclear or radiological acts. This latter method is arguably harder to perform that the others because as terrorism expert Dr. Jerrold Post has said, “We know more of the interior of the atom than we do of the interior of the mind of the terrorist.”
Mitigating the Consequences if the Events Occur
Methods to reduce consequences include equipping and training first responders such as police, fire, and hazardous material response forces, developing and deploying more effective methods to clean up radioactive materials and decontaminate buildings, creating better crisis management strategies for all levels of government (local, state, and federal), developing better means for crisis management leaders to coordinate with first responders, decontamination crews, and medical personnel, and communicating with the public about measures that they need to take in the event of an act of nuclear or radiological terrorism.
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Biological, Chemical, & Other Non-Nuclear Threats
Biological, chemical and other non-nuclear threats, such as cyber and drone attacks, constitute a class of weapons that may not cause as much mass physical destruction as nuclear weapons can, but can result in significant mass effects on, and/or mass disruptions to, a targeted populace. Weapons experts still debate whether these non-nuclear weapons can truly be considered weapons of mass destruction; however, certain types of biological weapons, such as weaponized smallpox or anthrax, could in principle harm millions of people depending on the scenario and the extent of the population’s exposure to the biological weapons. Chemical weapons under almost all circumstances would not result in massive harm to millions of people. Nonetheless, from a cost perspective, chemical weapons and even biological weapons are considerably less expensive than nuclear weapons. Still, chemical and biological weapons could have similar deterrent effects as nuclear weapons. Thus, from the viewpoint of many nation-states, chemical and biological weapons are so-called poor man’s nuclear weapons.
The Challenges of Reducing and Detecting These Threats
Addressing these threats is difficult because the weapons can be manufactured in ways that use civilian technology and materials. Furthermore, manufacturing them does not typically require large observable infrastructures to be established, thus making it hard to detect their production. While chemical and biological weapons are banned internationally via the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention with the vast majority of nations as adherents, the world has witnessed that certain states, for example, Syria still have chemical weapons as well as suspected biological weapons. As of late 2013 through early 2014, the Syrian government has promised to dismantle its chemical weapons program.
FAS has had a long history in bringing leading chemical and biological experts to analyze these threats, educate policymakers and the public, and make recommendations to reduce the risks. For instance, FAS in recent years has created the Virtual Biosecurity Center (VBC) to provide a platform for education. FAS has also convened legal, scientific, and political experts in workshops such as a January 2014 workshop on bio-forensics to examine state-level options for response to biological threats or attacks. FAS seeks to further this work in chemical weapons assessments, as well. In particular, FAS has had expert analysis during the early phases of the chemical weapons crisis in Syria.
Other Non-Nuclear Threats
Weapons technologies other than nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons will most likely increasingly pose challenges for international security. For example, the increasing use of drones for both surveillance and armed attacks by the United States and a growing number of additional countries might lead to global and regional arms races in drone use or might result in asymmetric means of targeted opponents striking back. In addition, cyber-attacks as demonstrated by the use of Stuxnet to destroy and disable about 1,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran have raised concern about counter-cyber-attacks against the United States and its allies. Also in this threat area, we at FAS will investigate the use of prompt global strike advanced conventional weapons to achieve strategic purposes or to target terrorists and other non-state actors. FAS is expanding its network of experts to assess these and other non-nuclear threats can are present or could emerge in the future.
Of course a potential war with Iran is not even on the radar for most Americans these days. Most of us are preoccupied with other things, but if the missiles start flying this will instantly become the top news story on the entire planet.
Wars never start in a vacuum. In every major war throughout history, there has always been a series of steps that has ultimately resulted in the outbreak of war.
Without a doubt, the U.S. and Iran are moving toward war. That doesn’t mean that one will happen, and we better hope that it doesn’t, because it would have all sorts of apocalyptic consequences.
So let us hope that cooler heads prevail.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any “cooler heads” among Iranian leadership, and Trump has surrounded himself with war hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.
In the end, Trump himself will make the final call on any conflict with Iran, and let us hope that he makes the right one.
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