Jim Walsh

<- back to Jim Walsh's bio

Research Notes and Musings:

Would an Iranian breakout decision be detected in advance?
August, 2012

[I recently had a conversation with my colleague Owen Cote about the subject of detecting clandestine nuclear weapons programs, a topic to which he has devoted considerable attention.  Below are some general thoughts on the topic, spurred by this discussion.]

There are two paths and only two paths for Iran to indigenously produce fissile material for a weapon.  The first is that they use existing facilities, perhaps the most likely option insofar as they do not have boundless supplies of centrifuge parts and have focused their program and R&D at declared sites.  Using existing safeguarded sites in service of a bomb program (i.e., the production of HEU) would require that they bar the IAEA from inspection, thus providing the outside world with reason to suspect that a bomb decision had been made.

That leaves the option of building clandestine, parallel facilities.  Could they do so without detection?  There is strong evidence that first, the answer is “no” and second, that this is the wrong question.  The right question, by contrast, is whether Iran believes, with high confidence, it can build clandestine facilities without being caught.  These are very different questions, but let’s begin with US detection capabilities.

For the cases about which there is evidence, at no point since the advent of satellite technology has the US not known of a facility that was to produce fissile material (for whatever reason, weapons and non-weapons) before it began operation.  This was famously true in the South African and Pakistani cases.  But it was also true in case of Fordow and even Natanz (a point I will return to).

(One could make the case that the US was behind on the post-Osiraq attack Iraqi program, but we were not looking for a program and there is much debate about far along they actually were before the program was ended by the first Gulf War.)

Moreover, since these early cases, there has been a profound change in US capabilities. The science of satellite surveillance has grown by leaps and bounds in the computer era.  We can continuously monitor large swathes of territory and the data produced no longer requires initial human assessment.  Computers are able to follow and flag changes in terrain for reassessment by intel personnel.  At no point in history has this capability been greater.  So just to be clear, in the past –without these advances—the US has had an excellent record of detecting facilities for the production of fissile material, and those capabilities have grown exponentially in recent years.

Second, American signals and electronic intelligence have also grown more capable in ways that are hard to understate.  One official has said that, metaphorically, that “we are reading [Iran’s] mail.” 

Third, and critically, we are focused on Iran.  And it is not just us.  Iran is the most watched country in the world.  Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Britain and others have Iran as the subject of intensive surveillance.  Russia and IAEA officially have personnel on the ground at nuclear facilities.  When the US intel community has come up short in the past, it has been most often when they were not looking (and looking elsewhere) rather than being focused on a target and getting it wrong.

Fourth, the evidence to date in statements by the intel community supports this conclusion.  In public testimony and reports, the DNI has, over time, ascribed higher confidence levels to findings regarding Iran, even on issues regarding intention, not physical capability.  Moreover, following the invasion of Iraq, the intel community has introduced several reforms to reduce the chances of inaccurate assessments.

Fifth, and finally, the “can we detect?” question is logically the wrong question.  The real question is whether Iran believes it can build facilities and not be detected.  If I am a criminal, and law enforcement has a 90% chance of catching me, that 10% is irrelevant.  I cannot afford the risk of getting caught at those levels.  Instead, I need at least a 51% chance that I will not be detected or it makes no sense to try.  Now apply this to the Iranian case.  Iran has twice built facilities and has twice been caught, leading directly to the UNSC resolutions and sanctions.  (They, of course, offer a different interpretation of their IAEA safeguards obligations.)  If I am sitting in Tehran and hope to but a secret facility, do I feel confident that I have a high likelihood of getting away with it?  That is the question, and the answer is no.

(Of course, one can imagine circumstances where a country would be risk acceptant with regard to detection, for example, if they thought they were on the verge of being attacked or other situations of extremis.  These circumstances entail a variety of other conditions where the “can we detect?” issue really is not salient, because the scenario is driven by other concerns.)

In summary, the historical evidence clearly indicates that the US has excellent capabilities for detection.  Those capabilities have grown dramatically and are focused, along with many others, on any action within Iran.  We have greater confidence today that before in our ability to assess Iranian actions, and the Iranians have little reason to believe they could get away with something.

Activities: May-July, 2010

June was hot but July set historic record temperatures, and so it was in Venice, Italy where Dr. Walsh attended the 10th annual Millennium conference of the International Studies Association.  He chaired and commented on papers presented at a panel on  "Current Challenges in Transatlantic Security Relations," which focused on NATO’s experience in the war in Afghanistan.  He also presented his paper,  "The Evolution of the Global Nuclear Regime: Effects of International Cooperation on Domestic Behavior" for a panel on nuclear weapons and nonproliferation.  Dr. Walsh’s paper suggests that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) had surprising, multiple, and profound effects on the domestic bureaucratic politics of countries that might have otherwise pursued nuclear weapons. In short, the NPT had a profound effect on the nuclear age but not for the reasons that are commonly discussed.  He also appeared on Fox (2), CNN (2), and was quoted in media outlets in Finland, Brazil, and Iran (2).

The month of June brought unseasonably warm temperatures and a continued focus on both Iran and North Korea.  Dr. Walsh had a series of meetings with high-level US policymakers on the issue of Iran as well as meetings with officials from Iran and from North Korea.  He gave lectures for a visiting delegation from Britan and a talk for the always astute members of the Newton Lifelong Learning Program in Newton, Massachusetts.  He facilitated a role-play exercise on Iran for the Truman Project and continued his work as a member of the steering committee of the Fissile Material Security Working Group -- an assembly of academics and experts working on the issue of nuclear terrorism.  He gave several interviews on Fox (5) and appeared in Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, the Huffington Post, CCTV in China, German and Finnish news outlets, and gave interviews for assorted Iranian media (4).

In May, Dr. Walsh participated in a 2-day, closed door meeting with officials from North Korea, China, Japan, and the United States.  Each delegation was comprised of four members.  It is the only such meeting to have taken place since the Cheonan ship incident.  He also participated in a one day meeting with six prominent Iran experts that was hosted by a major foundation.  Best of all, Dr. Walsh attended the annual MIT Security Studies Program (SSP) end of the academic year dinner, which involved good food, bad jokes, and creative powerpoint presentations.  Dr. Walsh gave two interviews for NPR (Morning Edition and the World), two for KPCC (NPR affiliate in southern California), five interviews for Fox, three for CNN, and was quoted in articles by the Christian Science Monitor (2) and the Boston Herald.  He also gave interviews for Australia Broadcast Corporation TV, RTTV in Russia, an Italian newspaper, and Iranian media (3).

Activities: March-April, 2010

March ended with the announcement of the New Start Treaty, and April continued apace with the Nuclear Posture Review, the Washington Fissile Material Security Summit, The Tehran Nuclear Conference, and final preparations for May’s NPT Review Conference in New York. Dr. Walsh facilitated part of the international meeting of experts, government officials, and non-governmental organizations that preceded the Obama summit. For a webcast of the conference, go here. His paper, "Nuclear Disarmament: Principles, Problems, and Progress," was delivered for him at the Tehran Nuclear conference, while he remained grounded under a cloud of volcanic ash. He presented the lecture “Iran, the Bomb, and What I Learned from Four Dinners with Ahmedinejad” at George Washington University, and gave a lunchtime briefing on Iran for an audience of Senate staff members. Dr. Walsh appeared on Fox (6), CNN (3), MSNBC, NPR, the BBC, and media outlets in Canada, Australia, and Iran.  He particularly enjoyed seeing friends at the SSP alumni reception in Washington.

In March, Dr. Walsh gave the talk "Iran, Nuclear Weapons and US Foreign/Military Policy" at George Washington University for an audience of students from the US military. He gave interviews to Fox News, the Associated Press, NPR, and Iran’s Press TV on topics ranging from the nuclear posture review to the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program. He also attended a dinner with British Foreign Minister David Miliband at the Kennedy Library.

Activities: January-February, 2010

In February, Dr. Walsh presented his paper “Re-conceptualizing Security Assurances: An Exploration Using the Case of Iran,” at the International Studies Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans.  He also served as discussant for the panel, “Chasing the Chasm: Documenting the Policy-Practice Divide.”   At Dartmouth, he delivered the inaugural lecture of a four-part series on nuclear weapons sponsored by the Dickey Center. The lecture, “Getting the Bomb: Nuclear Myths, Puzzles and Policy Challenges,” can be viewed online.  Dr. Walsh also made a number of media appearances on the subject of Iran.  He appeared on Fox (7 times), as well as for CNN, MSNBC, Voice of America, and CPSAN.  You can see his debate with Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA that aired on Iran’s Press TV here

In January, Jim Walsh prepared the summary document for the American delegation to a meeting between the American and Russia National Academies of Science (see “December” below): “Report to the National Academy of Sciences on the Roundtable on Problems of Middle East Conflict Resolution.”  He also delivered the lecture “Nuclear Proliferation and the NPT,” for the MIT IAP Course, “Nuclear Weapons: Physics, History, and Abolition” (with Professors Aron Bernstein and David Kaiser), and provided a briefing to members of the Massachusetts Legislature and their staffs on Iran.  He also made four media appearances, including one on Fox and one on Press TV (Iran).

Activities: August-December, 2009

In December, Thomas Pickering, William Luers, and Jim Walsh published the article, “Iran and the Problem of Tactical Myopia,” in Arms Control Today.  He also gave a presentation, “Fundamental Objectives of Iranian Policy in the Greater Middle East,” for the Roundtable on Problems of the Middle East Conflict Resolution, sponsored Russian Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Sciences and held in Moscow.  Dr. Walsh made 12 media appearances in December, including CNN, Fox, and Time magazine.

In November, Dr. Walsh spoke on “Iran’s Nuclear Program,” for the conference, “Iran after the 2009 Elections, at University of Maryland College Park.  He also gave a talk for MIT’s SSP Strategic Force Working Group entitled “Nuclear Decision Making: Conceptualizations and Conundra.”   At a Council for Foreign Relations “Workshop on Limited Fuel Cycle Options,” he delivered a presentation for the panel, “What Options Exist for Limiting Enrichment.” Dr. Walsh appeared or was cited in 12 media stories, including appearances on Fox (6), CNN (3), Press TV (Iran), the Christian Science Monitor, and FP (Foreign Policy online).

In October, Jim Walsh gave a talk on North Korea for MIT Amnesty International and was a featured speaker with Thomas Pickering for a media dinner attended by journalists from the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and Newsweek, among others.  Dr. Walsh also made 16 media appearances, including Fox (3), MSNBC, Time magazine, the BBC, CBC, KPCC (NPR- Southern California), Al Jazeera TV, and Press TV (Iran).

In September, Dr. Walsh was in New York for the opening meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and attended a dinner for scholars hosted by the President of Iran.  As a member of the Steering Committee for the Fissile Material Working Group, he met with representatives from the White House, State Department, and other Executive agencies on the topic of fissile material security. Walsh’s piece, “Sanctions Can’t Be the Centerpiece,” appeared in the New York Times online “Room for Debate”.  He also made 36 media appearances including Fox (7), CNN (8), MSNBC, NPR (3), KPCC (NPR- Southern California), Economist online, Atlantic online, CBC, Washington Times (4), Radio Australia, Canada AM (2), and Press TV (Iran).

In August, Jim Walsh presented a paper on “Iran, Nuclear Weapons, and Security Assurances,” for the “Workshop on Security Assurances and Nonproliferation,” sponsored by the Naval Postgraduate School.  He also delivered a lecture entitled “Iran and WMD” at George Washington University.  During August, he made numerous media appearances, including Fox (2), CNN (3), NPR, KPCC (NPR Southern California), the Christian Science Monitor, AL Jazeera, Press TV (Iran), and the CBC.  In addition, he was quoted in several Associated Press stories on former president Bill Clinton’s trip to North Korea.  These stories appeared in approximately 18,000 newspapers and news websites.