Space, Physics, and Math

The science behind the sanctions

Sensible response to Iran and its nuclear ambitions means understanding the science behind the sanctions.

March 29, 2012

“I watch it morning, noon and night. I take the threat very seriously” U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Mark Fox said at a recent news conference in Bahrain. He is talking about the tension between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the straits of Hormuz, through which a third of sea-shipped oil sails. A cloud of suspicion lingers. Neither side is really sure of what the other is planning as the plot thickens in the saga that is the Iranian Nuclear ambitions.

In the last three of months, the European Union has embargoed the import of Iranian oil, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran’s central bank, and a joint flotilla of U.S., French and British war ships sailed through the straights of Hormuz in an attempted show of strength and unity against the progressing Iranian nuclear program. Despite the onslaught of new sanctions and hostility from ‘the West’, Iran announced that it inserted the first ‘all Iranian’ made nuclear rod into a reactor — an act of nuclear independence.

Back in February, during an interview with The Guardian, a White House official reportedly expressed doubt in the ability of sanctions to solve what is fast becoming a modern age Cold War. But Ambassador James Dobbins, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, believes that it is too soon to give up hope on sanctions. He says that the new intensity of diplomatic action makes “it possible that [Iran] will decide to stop short of actually building and testing a [nuclear] weapon”.

Whether the sanctions work and whether Dobbins is proved right depends on information and intelligence. One critical piece to that puzzle is to understand the process of enrichment and to know what level that Iran has achieved.

The question that governments are asking themselves is: Where is the point of no return? When is it too late to attack Iran? There is no definitive answer, no clear line to draw since there is a difference between stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon and preventing it from acquiring enrichment levels so that it could theoretically build a nuclear warhead — this is called ‘latent nuclear power’.

Uranium is found in many types, U-235 is the kind that is used to make electricity and weapons, but only 0.7 percent of mined uranium ore is U-235. Most of the rest of the ore is U-238. Enrichment is the process of increasing the percentage of U-235 up to levels significant enough to use. Iran has always claimed that its nuclear program has been for peaceful purposes. According to Mark Sakitt, an expert in nuclear physics and national security at Brookhaven National Laboratory, in order to “run a power plant, the nuclear material would need to be enriched to 3 – 6 percent.”

Once sufficiently enriched, the nuclear material is placed inside a reactor, where the individual atoms are split apart — in a reaction called fission — where the energy is released. The energy heats up water and the steam moves turbines to create electricity.

Fission, however, is also the technology used to release the energy needed to create the devastating effects of a nuclear bomb. So there lies the link between the peaceful and the not-so-peaceful applications of nuclear technology. The difference is only in the level of enrichment. While a nuclear reactor in a power plant only needs about 3 – 6 percent, a nuclear weapon is more discerning and would ideally like about 90 percent enrichment.

Iran began thinking about a nuclear program under the Shah during the 1970s, before the revolution that brought about the Islamic Republic that we are dealing with today. We already know that Iran has surpassed the enrichment levels that are needed for nuclear power: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed back in January 2012 that they had begun enriching uranium to 20 percent at an underground facility in Fordow, 100 miles south of the capital Tehran. Sakitt says that Iran “claims that [the 20 percent] enrichment is to make medical isotopes”.

Few governments are not skeptical of the medical isotope argument. Dobbins doesn’t buy the notion that the Islamic Republic ever really had intentions of a ‘peaceful nuclear program’. He thinks that “their intent has always been to fully develop the nuclear fuel cycle and put them in a position where they have the option of developing a nuclear weapon.”

According to Sakitt, it would “be very easy for them to continue to 90 percent enrichment” after achieving the 20 percent threshold, since the technology used to enrich to 20 percent is already pretty sophisticated. Time is the limiting factor.

But let’s be clear, the sanction levelers are not worried about a nuclear war with Iran. “I don’t think the Iranians are going to use nuclear weapons against anyone and I don’t think any expert does,” says Dobbins. “The U.S. is concerned because it will lead to a proliferation race in the region … the more countries with nuclear weapons with mutual hostilities, the greater the chance that one of them will use them.”

Dobbins doesn’t think that we are close to the point where we need to worry about Iran having a nuclear warhead in a ready-to-use state. He estimates that if Iran made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible “they could be testing it within a couple of years.” That said, “the Israelis would be concerned about them simply having the capability of building a nuclear weapon.”

Israel is more jittery than the U.S. and other western governments because of the more immediate danger that a assertive Iran in possession of nuclear weapons or highly enriched nuclear uranium would present. Iran may interact with them in a more direct manner: “Iranians with nuclear weapons would feel themselves less vulnerable and more willing to supply more conventional weapons to Hezbollah for instance, and conduct terrorist activities against Israel.”

The clear and perhaps justified nervousness of the Israeli government has led many to speculate that Israel may decide to launch strategic attacks against Iran within the year. That, according to Dobbins, would “retard but not terminate their program.” If that were to happen it would mean that Iran would eventually obtain weapons grade material anyway and would probably be even more ticked off with Israel than it currently is.

As we have seen with previous military endeavors in the region, they are at the best of times difficult to predict. Success in terms of a military operation would depend on, among other things, top-notch intelligence. It seems doubtful that exists. We’d need to know where all the Iranian nuclear sites are, and subsequently destroy all of them. But, who knows where they all are? In theory the IAEA does — Iran is officially under inspection. Although if we cast our minds back to 2002, things become less certain.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran held a news conference in Washington DC on August 14, 2002. The announcement made allegations of two secret nuclear facilities in Iran, of which the IAEA had no prior knowledge. The claims turned out to be validated and a red-faced Iran later granted the IAEA inspection of the facilities. But the incident raises questions about whether the IAEA knows where all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are today.

When asked whether it is possible that there are more Iranian nuclear facilities about which we do not know, Dobbins said: “Yes. That’s one of the reasons the military strikes would be problematic. You can only strike what you know, and you only know what you know.”

The US. Department of Defense and the US Air Force refused to comment on methods of remote surveillance of potentially undeclared nuclear sites for “security reasons.”

Faced with the difficulties that the military option poses, it may be that the only alternative way to halt the progression of the Iranian nuclear program is via sanctions. In his research Robert A. Hart of Florida State University argues that the success of economic sanctions lies in their “signaling properties.” It is hard to imagine that the Iranian government cares about its PR image outside of its own borders. However, Dobbins hopes that if the coalition of sanction-giving countries can hold steadfast and sustain current sanctions and possibly intensify them, it will become increasingly difficult for the Iranian government to avoid dealing with the economic implications at home.

Whether the sanctions will work before the Iranians gain enrichment to 90 percent and whether the Israelis can keep their nerves at bay, is anybody’s guess.

About the Author

Benjamin Plackett

Benjamin Plackett is proud native of North Yorkshire, England and a graduate of Imperial College London with a B.Sc. honors degree in biology with a year in Europe. He loves writing about all things science, but has a particular penchant for health and also political stories. Check out his website and follow him on Twitter: @BenjPlackett


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