Tag Archives: nuclear
Iran: Will They…?

Iran: Will They…?

First, of course, I have no idea. Second, who is/are “they” and what is “will”? A brief review on the eve of the next round of negotiations in Moscow.

The cast:

  • Iran
  • Israel
  • The US
  • The P5+G and the IAEA

(Some) Supporting players:

  • The crowd
  • The Fourth Estate
  • The think tanks
  • The US Congress

Will they capitulate in some way, to some degree, to pressure from outside agency (especially the P5+G, or, nominally, the IAEA)? Will they rattle the saber a bit more (perhaps a Shahab missile test, or the disclosure of another secret development site a la Fordow–i.e. the site near Qom)? This would have an enormous and stifling impact on negotiators. But it would be difficult; they’ve invested a lot in these sites. In a sense, even Fordow would have been assorted decoy in this situation.What credible threat can they make regarding the Strait of Hormuz? Or, to what extent are threats all you need?

BTW, Ahmadinejad is “retiring from politics” after completion of his term.

Don’t forget about Hezbollah in Mexico (as far as retaliation goes – could they attack the US directly in some way)? To cover my bases, here’s press from “the right” and “the left”It’s a real possibility, but things would have to have gone pretty far. Then again, clearly “things going pretty far” is an unfortunate reality. There was a time, for instance, when a nuclear-armed North Korea was “intolerable”… and yet, unfortunately, here we are.

Will they strike independently? And, if they do, to what extent would such action be separable from that of the US? And, if so, what (this should go without saying, but this is not Osirak or Al Kibar)?

Ehud Barak has implied that returning to an enrichment ceiling of 3.5% migh be sufficient:

Oh, there… there’s no need for a fatwa if they stop enriching for 20%, if they start bringing it out of the country to a friendly mutually agreed state, the 20% enriched uranium, and 3.5% enriched uranium beyond a few hundred kilograms which is not enough for a single device…”


Were Israel to strike Iran, how separable would that action/the decisions that lead to it be from the US? Even if ideas of conspiracy between two countries were unfounded, it would be difficult to convince the Iranians that the case was otherwise – especially as communication channels would narrow in such a situation. And even if after the fact, how might US interests get engaged? In such a situation what degree of support from the US might be expected or forthcoming? A 2009 Brookings exercise simulated a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, and the results might be informative:

But, the U.S. team did pledge the United States to Israel’s defense, and early on undertook numerous moves in support of that promise— deploying Patriot batteries and AEGIS warships to Israel, and installing new command and control systems to “net” the U.S. and Israeli air defense teams together.

P5+G and the IAEA
(the permanent members of the UNSC–not to be facile, but incidentally, the P5 were the ones who already had nukes–and Germany): What will they demand as part of a “negotiation”? That work at Fordow be suspended? Heightened access to/scrutiny of Fordow? Well these might be practical, other options, such as a complete suspension of any enrichment, would be unrealistic.

Also incidentally, it’s “+G” because Germany was part of the E3–back when the US wouldn’t talk to them.

The Crowd
Intrade is an interesting marker of what the crowd is thinking… Here’s what they thought about and overt Israeli or US attack by December 2011.

And now, here is what the by the end of June looks like:

The Fourth Estate
I don’t have much to say here, except to highlight the unique role Jeffrey Goldberg’s articles have played through the last several years. 2010. 2012.

Then there’s the latest Foreign Affairs issue with Kenneth Waltz’s cover article, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb”.

The Think Tanks
CNAS thinks a strike would be a bad idea.
CFR on where the “red lines” are or should be now.

The US Congress 
Perhaps I’m out of gas; unfortunately I don’t feel like writing about Congress at the moment. [/pun]

How did we find out about these “secret” sites?
At no time in the last 15 years has any disclosure of the existence of Iranian enrichment facilities been their choice; in 2002 the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) “outed” the existence of the original enrichment facilities at Natanz (I use the scare quotes because, while this might constitute a public disclosure, there is little question that the intelligence community had awareness of this program). Iran disclosed the existence of the Fordow facility (this is the facility you’ll often hear of as buried deep within a mountain near the city of Qom) to the IAEA in 2009, but this was only after they become aware that elements of the Intelligence Community were already aware of it.
For more information on what Iranian enrichment to 20% would mean in practice, see this ISIS article.

Forever Overhead
Courtesy of Google Earth, ISIS has helped us follow developments at a number of Iranian facilities, thanks to satellites and overhead imagery. For example, see here
and here.

All the ISIS reports on Iran are excellent. Find them here.

More Iranian nuke porn here.

What Would a Successful Negotiation Look Like?
What would a compromise acceptable to all the active parties look like?
Again, Ehud Barak has suggested that a reduced maximum enrichment level of 3.5% might do the trick…
Sayed Mousavian (a former member of the Iranian negotiation team) also suggests something akin to a reduction in enrichment levels as well as an elimination of the more highly enriched levels:

I think that Mousavian is correct that allowing Iran some enrichment activity is a necessary condition of a deal. Once that right is established, Mousavian thinks that Iran would agree to a “zero stockpile” of uranium enriched to the potentially dangerous 20 percent level. As an interim “confidence-building measure,” Iran would export its stockpile of 20 percent uranium beyond what it needs for domestic civilian use.

I’d be hard-pressed to put it more succinctly than Stephen Walt:

From a purely strategic point of view, this situation is pretty simple. Iran is not going to give up its right to enrich uranium. Period. If the West insists on a full suspension, there won’t be a deal. It’s that simple. At the same time, the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 would like to maximize the amount of time it would take Iran to “break out” and assemble a weapon. The best way to do that is to limit Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to concentrations of less than 5 percent. If Iran insists on keeping a large supply of 20 percent enriched uranium on hand, we’ll walk too… Yet it is these two comparatively powerful and nuclear-armed nations are insisting that Iran cannot under any circumstances have its own nuclear weapons — which Iran has repeatedly said it does not seek — and Israel’s leaders are declaring that Iran must give up even the potential to acquire them. I have no trouble understanding why the P5+1 and Israel might prefer such a world, but what I don’t understand is why they think Iran will ever agree to it. I mean, I’d like to live in a world where anyone making more than a $1 million per year had to send me ten percent of their income, but it would be foolish for me to plan my life on that basis.

A Note on the NPT and the Additional Protocols
I’ve argued in the past that we shouldn’t sneeze at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) for, among other reasons, there are a few other ideas of this scale that you’d ever get that many people to sign on to (currently 189 signers – they’re used to be 190, which included North Korea, but they withdrew… However, even in this case, there are protocols under which they can/can’t withdraw). Unfortunately, the NNPT sets no limits on the degree of enrichment a party can undertake. Clearly, it’s not enough. That’s why there are the Additional Protocols. The Additional Protocols, among other things, allow for greater degree of scrutiny and snap inspections by IAEA inspectors.

The Guns of July
As some of you know, I’ve long been an advocate of the “Iran as rational actor” line. I was to some degree vindicated by the 2007 NIE:

Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.

At the moment, I’m fond of Kuperman’s formulation, “rational most–but not all–of the time”. But we’re entering serious “Guns of August” territory here.

Now I’m really out of gas. That’s the way it’ll stay for today. There are other Iran topics, but every time I list them something breaks the HTML–aforementioned “out of gas” state will keep them secret for now…

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Forever Overhead: North Korea

Forever Overhead: North Korea

What we see of North Korea we see mostly from without; what we see from within we glean from stolen glimpses or staged and supervised displays of “everyday life”. As a result, our most reliable vantage point may be from above.


“Dark DPRK”
It’s almost obligatory, but here’s our curtain-raiser. I’m most fond of the version without outlines, because if you know what you’re looking at, the absence of light (save for Pyongyang) makes a negative border of North Korea, especially in contrast to South Korea’s island of light below.

Crowdsourcing Surveillance
Curtis Melvin’s “North Korea Uncovered” project is a stunning manifestation of the “forever overhead” thesis. Melvin et al. compile information from myriad sources and label everything they can (prison camps, ostrich farms, nuclear facilities, and Kim Jong-Il’s Neverland-esque water slide)–NoKo-spotting. They’re private analysts somewhat obsessively aggregating a rather serious open-source intelligence resource. Crowdsourcing it, actually: journalists, historians, retired CIA analysts have all contributed. And they’re “just” citizens–anyone with an Internet connection could do this… but now, we can just download the Google Earth KMZ file.

Nukes From Above (Still Lifes, Fortunately)
The Institute for Science and International Security has been acquiring commercial satellite imagery and reporting on the growth of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon (the last update was yesterday). NKeconwatch has archives of past reports going back to 2008.

While we’re exploring the intersection of the Yongbyon facility and the Forever Overhead topic, a few years ago (2007, when Yongbyon was ostensibly inactive as part of the six-party talks) Satellite Imaging Corporation put together a fun 3D “flythrough” of the compound.


Speaking of supervised glimpses inside, IAEA inspections in 2008 to verify the aforementioned shutdown and accounting for all active and spent fuel (as in not being diverted) brought us this raw footage from inside Yongbyon. Note the ubiquitously-paired portraits of Il-Sung and Jong-Il in the control room.

Let’s not forget that the DPRK can exploit our dependence on overhead intelligence to telegraph its intentions (or attempt to get negotiating leverage) as far as nuclear tests; we had news reports based on satellite reconnaissance that North Korea might be preparing to test in May 2005, October 2006 (this one of course did culminate in an actual test), May 2009 (also “true”), even October 2010. Efforts to spoof aerial reconnaissance date back to WWI, but that topic awaits a future post. Of course, one doesn’t need to confine themselves to mere telegraphy, they can always just announce their intentions outright.

Also, back on the topic of judging growth at a distance, Amnesty International has made comparisons of overhead imagery to expose North Korea’s prison camps and the growth thereof.

A Note On Food Aid
Food–particularly the absence of it–is a perennial issue. The 1990s famine . North Koreans men are, on average, shorter than their South Korean counterparts. A US government team is currently in North Korea investigating claims that a new food crisis is underway and whether new requests for aid are founded. There is little doubt that North Koreans are indeed starving; the problem is that the DPRK has a history of “food deceit”, diverting international aid resources, to support its missile and nuclear programs. Food aid to North Korea should be closely monitored and contingent on rejoining–in “good faith”–talks with Le Six.

And missiles. And rockets.

AP (Digitalglobe)

Another Note on Stolen Glimpses: “Traffic Ladies”
Speaking of stolen glimpses, this is as fine an opportunity as any to mention the “traffic ladies” of Pyongyang (apparently an easy glimpse to steal, given the ubiquity of clips on YouTube–the only reason it took me more than 30 seconds to locate one to share was finding one without a lame sexist title):


Postscript: Syria/Al-Kibar
I’m out of juice, but you may remember the Osirak-reverie-inducing destruction of the putative reactor in Syria in . Alas, I’m out of steam and heading out, so for now you’ll have to settle for the company line:


Al-Kibar Before/After

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Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Drones, reactors, floods, and Usama bin Laden’s Google Earth debut–and you don’t have to work for a covert agency to see (most of) them…

The official US position on drone strikes in Pakistan is that they are “cross-border”, i.e. launched from bases in Afghanistan. However, Google Earth images obtained in 2009 by Pakistan’s The News and The London Times clearly showed Predator drones at Shamsi airfield North of Quetta. Denials were more pointed after an unwitting “outing”/mistake by Senator Feinstein when she said at a hearing (also in 2009), “As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base”. Her office attempted to walk the utterance back as well.

The aircraft are of course no longer visible on Google Earth, though new structures have since appeared. Ogleearth has a fairly enjoyable speculation and wonderment-rich post on the provenance of the images.

New America Foundation maintains a marvelous visualization/Google Maps mashup of drone strikes on Pakistani territory, with all available supplemental data on location/combatant vs. civilian casualties, etc. 2004-present.

Our study shows that the 244 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 31 in 2011, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,493 and 2,379 individuals, of whom around 1,200 to 1,908 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. Thus, the true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 20 percent. In 2010, it was more like five percent. [As of May 27, 2011]

The Nuclear Program
Newsweek recently reported on discoveries made by examining commercially-obtained imagery of the Khushab site. The images show construction (circa April 2011) of a fourth reactor for plutonium production (via reprocessing).

Not only does this represent expansion of the program itself, but also points to yet another track for the production of nuclear material. Heretofore (really, circa 10-15 years ago) the putatively prodigious output of Pakistan’s production had been based on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) created in the enrichment process stolen, mastered, refined and in addition sold (sometimes in “turnkey” fashion including not just plans and the like but access to networks of businessmen who could illicitly provide the makings of similar programs)–thanks to the strikingly James Bond-bad guy-like A.Q. Khan–to a rogue’s gallery of countries including North Korea, Iran (where the P-1 became the Ir-1), and Libya (which, fortunately, “came clean” and sent its centrifuges to Tennessee, where good use is apparently being made of them–I imagine at more than one point in the last month or so the Colonel has been wondering if his short-lived return from pariah status was worth it).

Now, Pakistan’s diversification from just HEU into plutonium isn’t news, but again, the high points here are the pace of expansion and, the ostensibly public nature of the imagery and discovery (though seriously, one has to wonder how closely they were led to acquire imagery at this particular time from this particular site, and by whom).

I’m not going to belabor the plausibility and nuances of the “nightmare scenario” of loose (or acquisition-abetted) nukes at this point, but I will link to Sanger/Broad’s NYT article about US efforts to assist Pakistan in securing their arsenal, going so far as to offer assistance in developing PALs (Permissive Action Links–basically, as close as you will get to the real-life version of what are colloquially referred to as “launch codes” in popular culture). One interesting International Law nuance here is the question of whether giving PALs (or even assisting in the development of the technology) to a NPT non-signatory is a violation of our obligations under article 1 of said treaty.

Darn it, I was looking to some more canonical source, but the Wikipedia entry on PALs is pretty good.

Courtesy of NASA we have some astonishing imagery which brings home the scope of destruction of the 2010 flooding in the districts around the Indus River. Despite being a “show, don’t tell” advocate, the stats are hard to resist.

  • Approximately 1800 killed, BUT ~20 MILLION impacted
  • 1.5M displaced
  • 1.89M homes destroyed
  • An estimated $500 million crop damage (and of course let’s remember that you needn’t be anywhere near the vicinity of the flooding to be impacted by the absence of the food derived from those crops)
  • 5.3M jobs lost or attenuated, total economic impact estimated $43B; Pakistan’s GDP dropped or will bottom out 6-9% lower (obviously, taking us well into negative growth)

One unfortunately strategic beneficiary might be the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, AKA “The Pakistani Taliban”), as they were able to provide assistance where the government couldn’t; this affords them a source of legitimacy they don’t normally pursue, more in the manner of Hizbullah in Southern Lebanon (which provides civil services there in absence–sometimes ensuring it–of the government; this is why you may sometimes hear Southern Lebanon referred to as “a state within a state”). As a result we have “inverse counterinsurgency” and a can count a strengthened TTP as one result of the floods. Also, government forces were distracted from their counter-TTP efforts by the floods.

Usama bin Laden Makes the Google Earth Scene
Some will remember a prior Contours of Catastrophe post musing about the familiarity of the outline of bin Laden’s compound. Well, the entrenchment of the shape and relevance of Google Earth continues apace–per geography.pk:

A milestone, all thanks to Bin Laden’s death perhaps that Google has “pre-announced” satellite imagery update for first time ever. This imagery update as expected includes the updated imagery for Abbottabad town of Pakistan that has gained attentions in recent days.

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The Contours of Catastrophe: Bombs and “The Bomb”

The Contours of Catastrophe: Bombs and “The Bomb”

How did we get here? How did the referent of this icon most of us have never seen, held, or operated become the iconic “bomb”?

Bombs in the Looney-verse

Until some young age, most of my “understanding” of explosives derived from Looney Tunes (a questionable reference when it comes to the operation of weapons and deadly objects, to be sure). While even the most obsolete objects and interactions therein depicted became more familiar, one remained elusive longer than the others.

Though they were also essential explosive furniture in the cartoon lexicon, most others (the stick of dynamite, the time bomb–i.e., the cluster of sticks of dynamite with a clock and curly wires attached–and the plunger detonator) had some overlap with movies and TV: miners, bandits, hostage-takers. And of course, there’s the perennial variant: a ticking box (perhaps presented to the antagonist with a bow affixed), at once both innocuous and ominous from our usually omniscient perspective.

So for this young boy they were more clearly anchored in “reality”. But the cartoon bomb with that familiar form, like a small bowling ball with the protruding plug and dangling fuse, where did that come from? I barely saw it anywhere except in the hands of Bugs Bunny.

Outside of the Looney-verse, it was more often in the arsenal of a frock coat- and top hat-clad ne’er-do-well with a curling moustache (I’m not going to belabor the morphology of the villain; he’s further down in the Contours of Catastrophe hopper), though it could sometimes fall into the hands of a hapless innocent like Buster Keaton (speaking of silent movie stars and phony bombs, there’s actually a spot-on germane Harold Lloyd story on the topic.)

Then there are a few odd variations. This one has an embedded clock:


And it even features in one of the notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons.

Consider both the pre-20th century grenade (and when I say “pre-“, I mean that one might go back as far as a millenium) and an 18th century mortar. Something like it could indeed be lit, and handled/thrown manually, or, in the case of the mortar, be dropped down a tube to be propelled in the direction of the enemy. With regard to the grenade, it’s long-since been superseded by the more familiar “pineapple” form factor, or, in the case of depictions of battle with Germans, the “stick grenade”.

This is probably a unique opportunity to mention the similarity of this device to the petard (as in “hoist by own…”):

Where, when and how did it embed itself in the collective unconscious?



Harper's Weekly, 1886

Those who’ve read the prior installment will be familiar with my assertions that the outline of the bin Laden compound, or the abortive vector of the Challenger, asserted themselves with their power and through the ubiquity of repetition, as well as the singular viewpoint. In the case of the “bomb” one source might be the accounts of the Haymarket event and subsequent trial, where images of similar bombs from the home of one of the conspirators were trotted out and printed repeatedly.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry’s assertion that Haymarket is one of the sources of the “bomb-throwing anarchist” (As well as the origin of May Day) sort of overlaps with this and the promised forthcoming “Contours…” post. Indeed, the “bomb-throwing anarchist” is a bit of a trope of its own, captured even in song:

In an anarchist’s garret, so lowly and so mean

Oh, smell the pungent odor of nitro-glycerine.

They’re busy making fuses, and filling cans with nails

And the little Slavic children set up this mournful wail.

Oh, its Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb;

The last one it was thrown by Brother Thom.

Poor Mamma’s aim is bad and the Copskys all know Dad,

So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb.

Other Explosives in the Looney-verse

Here, Foghorn Leghorn bequeaths an odd hybrid of the globular cartoon bomb and the time bomb:


The stick of dynamite is nearly ubiquitous. These are often somewhat helpfully labeled “TNT” (though they’re nitroglycerin sticks, at least the label indicates something analogous to “dangerous” to someone who can read and parse), especially in the Road Runner bits (Wile E. Coyote being an avid user of mail-order explosives), where everything seems to be labeled.

Here Bugs produces a rather unique IED in the form of poultry:


I was going to segue into the next bit by citing aerial explosives in cartoons, and the morphological similarities especially to the Little Boy bomb, but alas, I’ve run fresh out of YouTube-scouring gas.

“The Bomb”

The last Contours of Catastrophe entry referenced the Challenger disaster and the telltale shape of smoke, vapor, etc, especially when viewed and captured from a distance, which lends an archetypal sameness to the images and flatness of vantage point. In each case, the active agent (the shuttle, the bomb-dropping plane, the bomb itself) has been obliterated. The iconic image is that of a trace, a footprint, a “signature”. And the ultimate instance of this (along with the cross occupying nearly the apex) is the mushroom cloud. It’s an artifact of not only a singular destructive act but also a distinct physical process, yet when it comes to the identification and association of the image, neither seem to matter.

Look closely, and see a classic instance of the Mushroom Cloud Meme at work...

On the other end of the semiotic spectrum, and perhaps as a palate-cleanser, theres this bit from an Oppenheimer interview in 1965 (apologies for the brevity and sensational score):



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Forever Overhead: Fukushima

Forever Overhead: Fukushima

It’s a bit late (7 weeks in, and this post has been in the hopper for several), but still relevant under the “Forever Overhead” rubric if not nuclear catastrophe.

This is more specifically about the “democratizing” aspect of what can be done with publicly-available (or private data leaked to an inquisitive public) aerial imagery when the agencies nominally responsible for keeping us informed are less than forthcoming.

First, we have a series of aerial photos of the Fukushima Daiichi complex, released by cryptome.org (as part of their extensive “Eyeballing” series–like “Forever Overhead” without the musing) and annotated by the Union of Concerned Scientists and available in two posts, here and here.

Then, we have a series of “thermographs” from the Self Defense Force, assessing the temperature of the reactors and spent fuel pools. They’ve performed overflights and released images with some regularity and the reports are available here.

Japan Self Defense Force

Via “The Big Dustup” we have some much higher-resolution thermal images (from NHK TV) and some analysis of the overall damage. I also recommend a number of his other damage assessment analyses.


YouTube user “Kurtsfilmevideo” has taken a series of aerial footage clips from Fukushima (and a variety of other clips from the tsunami) and software enhanced and “de-shaked” them, affording some pretty remarkable views.



“Forever Overhead” is a series about satellite imagery, drones, aerial sensing/imagery–any overhead technology where the seen subject may be unaware of the specific instances of that seeing (a sort of vertical Panopticon). And also, the sometimes power-balancing effect of public access to these data. The topic for me is an old one, and, incidentally, the title is the same ad my favorite David Foster Wallace story.

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