With negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program entering the 11th hour, Rob Goldston displayed a map of Tel Aviv with circles representing the consequences of a bomb strike: 126,000 deaths and 252,000 other casualties.
But even without using a bomb, said Goldston, a credible Iranian nuclear program would deter an attack on Iran, thus increasing its freedom of action with conventional weapons.
Goldston, acting director of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs’ Program on Science and Global Security and former director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, spoke June 3 at The Jewish Center in Princeton, where he is a member.
Goldston said that for fear of being “flattened” in response to its use of a nuclear weapon, Iran would only bomb Israel in desperate conditions of perceived self-defense. It would certainly not give away nuclear bombs, for example, to Hizbullah, he said.
But a credible Iranian bomb would also dispel the threat of an Israeli nuclear response to Iran; Israel would not trade all of Iran for 250,000 casualties in Tel Aviv.
A credible Iranian bomb would also trigger nuclear proliferation among Iran’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia.
A particularly worrisome path to an Iranian bomb, Goldston said, is the potential for “sneakout,” in which Iran would rapidly produce weapons-grade uranium or plutonium in a small, hidden enrichment facility.
“To mitigate the risk of sneakout,” Goldston said, the International Atomic Energy Agency “needs rapid ‘anywhere, anytime, anyone’ access to gain confidence in the story being told to them.”
Goldston noted, however, that the “anyone” access may be very hard to get. Indeed, we may have to live without it. The Iranians, he said, are “pretty resistant to letting the IAEA talk to scientists,” who have been the targets of assassins in recent years.
A critical factor in the negotiations is how quickly Iran could make a bomb if at some point it expels IAEA inspectors. The West’s goal, Goldston said, should be to extend the “breakout time” it would take for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single weapon.
Goldston explained that this requires thousands of centrifuges arranged in “cascades” and spinning very fast, each of which slightly increases the concentration of U-235, the desired isotope, at the top of a centrifuge.
If Iran has on hand U-235 enriched to 4 percent or 20 percent, it will have a big head start on quick production of a weapon.
“You can make enough uranium for a bomb every two weeks if you turn a power plant to bomb building,” said Goldston. In the long run, the agreement should allow for real-time monitoring of all enrichment plants.
Currently Iran has two known uranium-enrichment sites, Natanz and Fordow, the latter deep underground.
Goldston also noted that because Iran will insist on continuing research and development, they should not be allowed to produce more advanced centrifuges. The Fordow fuel enrichment plant should not be allowed to enrich uranium at all.
A good deal will be tough to negotiate, he said, but failure to make any deal will likely return Iran to racing toward so much enriched uranium that, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned in 2012, they cannot be turned around.