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Pakistan's Nuclear Timeline

| 11 Comments | 2 TrackBacks

There's a lot of discussion about nuclear weapons timelines in Iran, and I thought it'd be interesting to lay out the most-comparible timeline to nuclear capability, that of Pakistan. This can hopefully serve as a factual anchor for our future discussions.

Obviously, Iran - assuming they got full cooperation from Pakistan's experts - could move faster. The interesting question is "how much faster?" given the technical issues involved in implementing both enrichment and weapons production.

I've based the timeline below on two sources: William Langweische's article on AQ Khan in the Atlantic, and the Nuclear Weapons Archive, a very useful site founded by Gary An, a student, and now operated by Carey Sublette.

Here's Pakistan's timeline (I've bolded the date that marks where in the process Iran is generally believed to be today):

1972 - PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto starts Pakistan's nuclear weapons program
1974 - India detonates it's first nuclear weapon; AQ Khan, working in the Netherlands, meets Bhutto and begins assembling data on enrichment technology
1975 - AQ Khan moves from the Netherlands to Pakistan
1976 - AQ Khan founds Engineering Research Laboratories to build an enrichment facility
1978 - prototype and first enrichment
1981/2 - first weapons-grade uranium
1983 - 'inert test' of bomb design
1984 - production levels of 90% enriched uranium
1985/6 - weapons produced

So for Pakistan, it seems that it took 7 or 8 years to go from first enrichment to reasonably reliable - and hence usable - weapons, with few measurable waypoints along the way (I'm presuming that we are likely to have means sensitive enough to detect an inert test - which is a test of a weapon with unenriched uranium to make sure that the mechanics work).

Then the interesting questions become: "How far is Iran really down the road today?" and "How much faster than Pakistan can they get to the end?"

2 TrackBacks

Tracked: June 2, 2006 2:57 PM
Excerpt: There are many good reasons why war with Iran should be an absolute last resort, and a ghastly one at that (more here from an advocate of invasion); while I continue to believe that the Iranian regime is a serious...
Tracked: September 1, 2006 7:46 AM
Desperation time. from Reconstitution
Excerpt: Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen the BushCo administration and The War Party unleash a new PR offensive to not only retain power in Congress on November 7th, but also to push a new war in Iran. Just consider these headlines. 8/23/06 House I


How many centerfuges did Pakistan have? The more the quicker the less the slower. You got to run a substancial amount of material through the process to get enough material. The more centerfuges the closer to one cycle is needed.

With Iran, we seem to be past first enrichment, and a state that bought partially-enriched uranium and bomb designs would be accelerated through much of those phases. Then the question becomes the number of operational centirfuges, how fast centrifuges can be added (again, having some come in from elsewhere speeds things up), and how long until a cascade can be successfully set up.

The cascade comes rather before the bomb itself, but at that point the state in question has everything it needs and if it's truly determined, then regardless of agreements, verification attempts, etc. a bomb is just a matter of time. This is why the Israelis see the tripwire as a stabe cascade, not a bomb test.

Again, this is a classic inteligence problem, in that you can run models of the process done alone but you'll never see the whole iceberg as implemented and cooperation/shortcuts are possible. Estimates are still possible, but they will ALWAYS be wrong. The only question is how wrong, and what are the risk levels of being wrong in different ways.

It's because of that last bit that these decisions are always political decisions and judgments in the end, not intelligence judgments.

Good research.
Can you provide a ball-park figure for the question "How far is Iran really down the road today?"?

If there is any piece of good news that can be derived from this, it is that Pakistan, which is a country much poorer than Iran, and more prone to the spread of Wahabbi ideology, has had nuclear weapons for 20 years without something bad actually happening.

That does not mean it cannot happen, but 20 years have gone by without an incident.

Also note that Pakistan had active help from China. Iran may not be getting such help, from either China or Pakistan (ultimately, Pakistan may not by that thrilled about Iran having nuclear weapons either, as a neighboring Shia country).

#3 Chamed Ahlabi

Can you provide a ball-park figure for the question "How far is Iran really down the road today?"?

The Federation of American Scientists have designed a calculator that allows you to set the amount of centrifuges added per day, and the Separative Work Unit capacity of each centrifuge. Their guess, with the 165 original centrifuges, with 1 more being added per day, is 2.96 years for 50kg of highly enriched uranium.

Pakistan has been American influenced for decades, relying on America to help act as a counter-balance to India.

Iran has no such political-geopolitical constraints.

"If there is any piece of good news that can be derived from this, it is that Pakistan, which is a country much poorer than Iran, and more prone to the spread of Wahabbi ideology, has had nuclear weapons for 20 years without something bad actually happening."

Yes. True.

But the two situations are not completely comparable. Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons primarily as a defensive measure to maintain parity with thier rival India. Pakistan has never had any major political ambitions except survival. Yes, Pakistan's Deobandi school of Islam is as dangerous as any in the world and a major source of Islamic militanism in the world, but Pakistan's Deobandi school has never directly controlled Pakistan's government or armed forces.

By contrast, the reasoning behind Iran's pursuit of weapons is as obscure as Pakistan's is clear. At best, Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons out of a desire to obtain 'face' and 'place'. That's the best case scenario, and its not a reassuring one. The real problem is that Iran has serious imperial ambitions. The worst case scenario is that Iran finds the idea of nuclear weapons attractive for furthering its imperial ambitions. If that is the case, then its almost certain that Iran either intends to use these weapons, or else use these weapons as strategic deterance when it undertakes provocative empire building actions in the middle east.

Taken at face value, and I'm normally inclined to take people at face value on such matters, the 'obscure' reason for Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is not obscure at all. If we take them at thier word, Iran's leadership doesn't make a secret of why they want nuclear weapons. They want them so that they may destroy Israel. Iran is controlled by its radical Islamic element.

Add to that picture things like this:

Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons has been very troubling, primarily because Pakistan has been the leading source of nuclear proliferation in the past decade. But, I would agree that Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons would be just as troubling as Iran's only if Pakistan undergoes an Islamic revolution of the same sort and the same violent global outlook as the Iranian Islamic revolution.

All that said, I believe that we were within days of using nuclear weapons on Pakistan following 9/11. Had Pakistan committed itself to supporting and protecting the Taliban - Pakistan's then allies - it would have almost certainly meant nuclear war between the US and Pakistan. And, I believe that much of Pakistan's behavior in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 can be attributed to the fact that we probably explained the situation to the Pakistani government, however diplomatically the wording, in pretty much exactly those terms.

My own take is simple incomprehension at what is motivating the Iranian government. They seem utterly incapable of distinguishing between nuclear deterence and nuclear provocation. They obviously deeply want to be a nuclear power for whatever reason. But they equally obviously do not understand that being a nuclear power changes the rules of the game. Iran can be largely ignored as long as for one reason or another its threats are not credible. Once its threats become credible, the situation changes drastically.

One of the real dangers of international politics is assuming that the other actor is not and will not act rationally. All your training and understanding is geared toward helping you avoid that trap, because once you fall into that sort of thinking diplomacy becomes pointless. I know that I'm making one of the first mistakes of an amatuer analyst to suggest that the Iranian leadership may not be acting according to a formulation we would recognize as rational, but even that understanding makes it hard for me to avoid the uneasy feeling that we are not dealing with a rational actor.

Of course, we need not assume that Iran's leaders are currently envisioning some national martyrdom operation leading to the miraculous intervention of Allah in order to envision some very scary developments. It's entirely possible for an otherwise rational actor to so badly miscalculate, that in hindsight thier actions seem irrational. The people who fired on Fort Sumpter or who bombed Pearl Harbor do not in hindsight seem to be rational actors. They did not have a realistic plan for, "Where do we go from here." For that matter, the same seems to be true at this juncture for those people who orchastrated the 9/11 attacks.

There is no practical way to detect inert tests at long range. There is no neutron or gamma spike of any significance.

Hide it underground and it is invisible.

From the calculator we can see that the time line is around two years if centrifuges are added in a linear way (x per day). What if they are ramping up the rate of production of centrifuges? If they get the rate up to 20 a day it is under a year to get enough HEU. Add up the time taken to get to that rate (possibly six months to a year) and you have an estimate of a year to two - max.

Pakistan? Since 9/11 it probably has US forces guarding its nukes. Which is why Pakistan is not a problem.

Agree with M. Simon.

While it is possible to seismically detect explosions of a few hundred kilos of explosives and up, within a few hundred kilometers (see the story of when the Kursk sank), an inert test would IMHO be below a hundred kilos of conventional explosives.

And more importantly, you can't tell it fom the huge background clutter of small explosions, wether other military tests, or mining work, or construction work.

Pakistan is a special case. The military has always been the cart before the government horse, and that has worked to our good fortune of late. The army controls the government (including nukes) and the army is overwhelmingly Punjabi. This is fortunate because that is the ethnicity that was most tightly connected with the British, and hence is more secular and professional than the other tribals. In other words there is a sane group of educated professionals controlling the nuclear weapons. The comparison against Iran is noteable in this respect.

Talk is cheap and comparing Pakistan to Iran since 911 says enough to end the comparison. Pakistan has probably taken out more Al Qaeda members and leaders than the US has, all told. They have finally been forced to pick a side and at least the current adminstration couldnt be much more pro-American as an ally considering their internal problems. Iran has behaved just the opposite, their military is in the pocket of their political/religious rulers, and they have consistantly sided/aided internation terrorists and religious zealots.

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