The not-so-real ayatollah

David Albright’s credentials called into question

This blog has on several occasions called out David Albright’s high-profile reports on nuclear proliferation as being not alright. That they use facts to insinuate pre-determined conclusions, that they don’t have much by way of real analysis and that the timing of their release raises serious questions as to Mr Albright’s (and his principals’) real intentions. [See links to related posts below]

Now Mr Albright’s credentials have been questioned by Scott Ritter, a member of the international nuclear expert community, in a damning article on Truthdig (via Arms Control Wonk). Mr Albright, it turns out, is not much of a Non Proliferation Ayatollah at all

…David Albright has a track record of making half-baked analyses derived from questionable sources seem mainstream. He breathes false legitimacy into these factually challenged stories by cloaking himself in a résumé which is disingenuous in the extreme. Eventually, one must begin to question the motives of Albright and ISIS. No self-respecting think tank would allow itself to be used in such an egregious manner. The fact that ISIS is a creation of Albright himself, and as such operates as a mirror image of its founder and president, only underscores the concerns raised when an individual lacking in any demonstrable foundation of expertise has installed himself into the mainstream media in a manner that corrupts the public discourse and debate by propagating factually incorrect, illogical and misleading information.

David Albright has a history of being used by those who seek to gain media attention for their respective claims. In addition to the Hamza and Obeidi fiascos, Albright and his organization, ISIS, have served as the conduit for other agencies gaining publicity about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor, and most recently the alleged Swiss computer containing sensitive nuclear design information. On each occasion, Albright is fed sensitive information from a third party, and then packages it in a manner that is consumable by the media. The media, engrossed with Albright’s misleading résumé (“former U.N. weapons inspector,” “Doctor,” “physicist” and “nuclear expert”), give Albright a full hearing, during which time the particulars the third-party source wanted made public are broadcast or printed for all the world to see. More often than not, it turns out that the core of the story pushed by Albright is, in fact, wrong. [Truthdig]

Mr Ritter points out that far from being a UN weapons inspector, he was “an outsider with questions”, “an informed tourist”, a “bag-boy” and a “dilettante”. He goes on to say:

It is not a sin to merely be informed, or to possess a specialty. But informed specialists are a dime a dozen. There is a reason mainstream media do not turn to bloggers when seeking out expert opinion. And yet, when they turn to “Dr. Albright, former U.N. weapons inspector,” they are getting little more than a well-funded, well-connected blogger.

Related Posts: Albright’s attempts cast doubts on India’s record on non-proliferation; and coming up with ‘revelations’ about Pakistan’s activities at convenient times.

Dear Mr Advani

Great powers don’t worry about their rights

You say that you will support a nuclear deal that gives India the right to conduct a nuclear test. Perhaps it may even be able to negotiate such a deal one day.

But getting hung up about the “right to test” is a vestige of the strategic weakness of India’s past. Whether or not India has the right to test is not as relevant as India being able to get away with testing. That’s the story of Pokhran-I and Pokhran-II, by the way, and that will be the story of Pokhran-III if and when it does occur. You know this all too well.

So you should ensure that India will be able to get away with it. A strategic partnership with the United States—which you support—is a good way to ensure this.

If the nuclear deal falls apart, the BJP can’t be forgiven for its role in its unmaking. Your supporters will cite electoral compulsions as the reason for your stand. Perhaps this will help you win the coming election. What is really baffling is that you should think that it is necessary to let the deal fail in order to do so. Not least when the UPA government has no real achievement to speak of.

Related Post: A good deal, but very bad politics

Putting an uppity Centrifugist in his place

He was involved in nuclear proliferation, apparently

You will be forgiven for yawning. David Albright is going to release a report—he’s already leaked it to the media, ensuring that the report makes a splash—that points out that A Q Khan might have sold advanced nuclear warhead designs, in addition to those old Chinese designs that go wrapped in Islamabad tailor’s shopping bags. Now it would have been exciting if Dr Albright actually had evidence of someone actually having bought the new design, because it is not news to most people that North Korean Nodongs and Iranian Shahab-IIIs can be modified to carry the advanced warhead. But Dr Albright does not have such evidence.

Dr Albright’s report is based on digital blueprints found on the Tinners’ computers in Switzerland in 2006. It is being suggested that it was the hard copies of these blueprints that the Swiss government destroyed recently, allegedly at the behest of the United States (specifically, the CIA). The Swiss government destroyed 30,000 pages of evidence—lest it fall into the wrong hands—but, as it turns out, after the horse had bolted: there are other copies of the blueprint. But of course.

Other than explaining the Swiss government’s action, why release such a report now, two years after the blueprints came to light? Well, it should put the squeeze back on Pakistan, which has not only rehabilitated Dr Khan, but whose ruling politicians are even toying with the idea of making him president. Dr Khan recanted his 2004 televised confession recently. He also availed the opportunity to insure himself by stating that he did everything with authorisation, thereby blowing the canard that his was a rogue operation. Dr Albright’s report should dampen the Pakistani government’s enthusiasm to lionise Dr Khan all over again.

There is also the Iranian angle. But it is difficult to see how these revelations will help in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme.

All said, Dr Albright’s report adds to the edifice of cynicism that surrounds how the United States has handled the business of Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation, right from the very start. If it looked the other way when Pakistan was buying and selling materials in the black market, it is now using that knowledge for coercive diplomacy.

Update: The Arms Control Wonk has a technical analysis; Albright’s paper is now out

When will Iran have its Bomb?

Watch out for the Big Bad Row

The IAEA submitted its latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme to its board of governors on 26th May. (via V Anantha Nageswaran). The report points out that Iran has been operating its assembly of 3000 IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant with greater efficiency and is in the process of adding another similar assembly. It is experimenting with advanced centrifuge designs (modified Pakistani P2 designs, replacing maraging steel rotors with carbon fibre composite ones), although these remain employed in the pilot stage.

The IAEA report finds Iran guilty of both procedural violations (reporting installations post facto, rather than in advance) as well as for not providing satisfactory accounts of alleged weapons development activities (preparing an underground shafts for testing, testing detonators and warhead designs, and modifying the Shahab-3 ballistic missile to carry a nuclear warhead). [See Arms Control Wonk‘s post]

So what does this tell us about the all important question: when will Iran have a bomb ready?

Assuming that Iran does not have other secret nuclear plants well hidden from the public eye, the reasonable assumption is that Iran will use the Natanz facilities to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) that will go into its bomb. According to Jeffrey Lewis’ handy calculator, Iran will need between 156 to 293 days to produce enough HEU for a bomb. If it gets the second assembly of 3000 centrifuges operating, that period will be halved, to about 78-147 days. As Dr Lewis’s calculations show, the time to produce sufficient HEU gets shorter if more centrifuges become operational, or their efficiency improves.

In addition to having sufficient quantities of HEU, Iran must also have a functioning weapons design—again thanks to Pakistan and A Q Khan, that should not be too difficult.

But Iran’s centrifuges are not yet producing HEU. The IAEA is keeping watch over the nuclear material and the centrifuge cascades in the Natanz facility. It is likely to know if and when the Iranian authorities decide to go into the bomb mode. A possible indicator of this happening is when Iran and the IAEA have the Big Bad Row. Depending on how many centrifuges Iran has working then, we can estimate the time it will take to produce and assemble a bomb. That could be anywhere between 78 days (if the second assembly is operational) to 293 days (if only the existing one is operational). If you are looking for a ready reckoner: you can assume that Iran has the bomb three months from the Big Bad Row.

(Some Europeans are going to look silly when that happens. So will the some Americans. But other events—both ugly ones and not-at-all-ugly ones—might well spare them from the embarrassment. )

My op-ed in Mint : Ten years after Pokhran-II

The payoffs are clear, unambiguous and long-term

In an op-ed to mark the tenth anniversary of India’s second round of nuclear tests, I argue that they made India a far more credible international actor. And that while India is reconciled to the ownership of nuclear weapons but remains unclear what they are for. I also point out that the conventional military balance remains as important despite nuclear deterrence being in place; and that our political leadership needs an altogether different level of skill to translate the nuclear advantage into foreign policy outcomes.

Excerpts:

“Real strength lies in restraint,” Sonia Gandhi said ten days after India conducted its second series of nuclear tests on May 11th and May 13th 1998, “not in the display of shakti.” She could not have been more wrong.

At the time of Mrs Gandhi’s speech, India had spent a decade fighting a proxy war against a Pakistan that China had brazenly armed – with American connivance – with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. India’s protestations that it is a victim of both cross-border terrorism and illegal nuclear and missile proliferation got nowhere. The nuclear powers had perverted the entire edifice of nuclear disarmament by legitimising their own nuclear arsenals in perpetuity. They were coercing India to constrain and give up its nuclear weapons programme. It was abundantly clear that India’s display of restraint was being exploited as a sign of weakness.

Pokhran-II changed that. Because it demonstrated to the world that India was ready to incur costs in the defence of its national interests. [Mint]

Thanks to Kedar Wagle, Anand Sampath & V Anantha Nageswaran for providing inputs and comments

Pragati May 2008: Towards liberal nationalism

Issue 14 - Apr 2008

Issue Contents

PERSPECTIVE

Liberals, culture and nationalism Ravikiran S Rao
An opportunity exists for a new politics

Changing the broken wheel Raj Cherubal
The secular-right must champion economic freedom

Towards “that heaven of freedom” Gautam Bastian
A free nation of free citizens

Out of court Rohit Pradhan, Shashi Shekhar & Mukul Asher
Carry on the battle, but respect the court’s verdict

FILTER

India as a rising great power; climate change and national security; India-Iran relations; to the brink; and trade across the Line of Control

IN DEPTH

The new currency of power Nitin Pai & Aruna Urs
A discussion on strategic affairs with K Subrahmanyam

ROUNDUP

Use the Tibet card Zorawar Daulet Singh
To settle the India-China dispute

Consensus must endure Dinesh Wagle
Maoists have the upper hand in the construction of the republic

Bottom-up dynamics Sushant K Singh
What attracts Africa to India and how it can be strengthened

Pressed by inflation Gulzar Natarajan
Easing supply bottlenecks is the right way to go

BOOKS

Memories of 1971 Amardeep Singh
A review of Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age

Read excerpts | Download

BJP and the nuclear deal

Still blind to the political advantage

The BJP’s position on the US-India civilian nuclear agreement can be described in three words: “Oh, come on!”

Having painted itself into the anti-deal corner, the BJP finds itself incapable to climb out of the hole despite the many lifelines it has been thrown. First L K Advani appeared to signal that the party might find a way of supporting the government on the deal. Then came Brajesh Mishra’s remarks and the subtle manner in which Jaswant Singh distanced the party from them. What is unfortunate is that the BJP leadership appears to be content taking the apparently less risky way out, rather than distinguish itself through a bold move in the national interest.

It appears to be blind to the political advantage it can acquire by going to the electorate as the party that first set the stage for and then saved the deal. It appears to have underestimated the political advantage of demonstrating that it is not on the same side as the anti-national Communists.

Arundhati Ghose hopes that “it should not be beyond the abilities of our politicians too to find a political solution out of the present logjam.” The BJP leadership appears blind to the political advantage of proving her right.

Right said Bidwai

What is bad for Bidwai is good for India: the rule always applies

Praful Bidwai offers honest, rational arguments against the India-US nuclear deal.

Many of the deal’s opponents are also mistaken in arguing that it’ll reduce/cap India’s nuclear arsenal/fissile material production. India will only subject 14 of its 22 operating/planned power reactors to inspections. The rest can annually yield 200kg of plutonium—enough for 40 bombs, in addition to the existing 100-150, and way beyond the professed “minimum deterrent”.

India can also stockpile unlimited amounts of weapons-grade material in its military-nuclear and other unsafeguarded facilities, including the “Dhruva” and prototype fast-breeder reactors. Besides, India can dedicate scarce domestic uranium exclusively to weapons. Again, India can live with the Hyde Act’s constraints. They’re a small price to pay if you want your weapons normalized and expanded, while resuming global nuclear commerce.

The honest, rational, argument against the deal is that it legitimizes nuclear weapons (India’s and the US’), weakens the global non-proliferation norm, unfairly favours India because it’s Washington’s friend, consolidates an unhealthy, unequal India-US relationship, and promotes the wrong kind of energy.

The deal will admit India into the global nuclear club—on the side of those who run a system that India long condemned as atomic apartheid. Once it joins the club, India will bid goodbye to its commitment, reiterated in the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme, to fight for global nuclear disarmament. You don’t join an exclusive club, and then demand its dissolution! The deal will detract from a principled commitment to a peaceful, equitable world order free of the scourge of nuclear weapons. [Mint]

Those who feel that a deal that favours India—fairly or otherwise—is good for India should therefore rally in support of the deal. The time-tested dictum that India’s national interest is the opposite of what Mr Bidwai advocates holds true.

Mr Bidwai is not the only anti-nuclear activist arriving at the conclusion that the deal allows India to hone its nuclear deterrent and expand nuclear power. Here’s M V Ramana in IEEE Spectrum:

What’s more, the agreement is likely to increase—not decrease—India’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons and material. By importing uranium, India will be able to channel its native supply toward military purposes.

There is also the possibility that those nuclear reactors not subject to IAEA inspection will be converted to military ends. Any power reactor not under safeguards can be used to make weapons-grade plutonium by limiting the time the fuel is irradiated. This prevents the build-up of higher isotopes of plutonium, which are undesirable in a weapon. When a typical heavy-water reactor is operated normally, fuel remains inside the reactor seven times as long as when it is producing weapons-grade plutonium. Heavy-water reactors are particularly suited to making bomb-grade material, because new fuel is continuously added (and old fuel continuously removed); this type of reactor could produce the same amount of electricity every year but would use seven times as much fuel to do so. In theory, a 220-MW heavy-water reactor, run at 60 to 80 percent capacity, could produce 150 to 200 kg per year of weapons-grade plutonium. [IEEE Spectrum]

Elements of the BJP who continue to reflexively oppose the India-US nuclear deal need to explain the public why they are on the same side as the likes of Mr Bidwai.

(Mr Bidwai’s piece, by the way, contains many of the usual canards. He’s entitled to them)

Offence is the best defence

But who says Americans can’t learn about nuclear security from the Pakistanis?

The Pakistani Army’s Brigadier Atta M. Iqhman and Colonel Bom Zhalot are not the ones to take questions from uppity Western journalists lying down. In the Bulletin Online, Hugh Gusterson reports that they were concerned about the custodial security of nuclear weapons. America’s.

“The United States needs to develop new protocols for storing and loading nuclear weapons, and it needs to do a better job of recruiting and training the personnel who handle them,” Iqhman said.

Iqhman added the Pakistani government would be willing to offer technical advice and assistance to the United States on improving its nuclear weapons handling procedures. Speaking anonymously because of the issue’s sensitivity, senior Pentagon officials said it is Washington’s role to give, not receive, advice on nuclear weapons safety and surety issues.

(Col Zhalot said), “We also worry that the U.S. commander-in-chief has confessed to having been an alcoholic. Here in Pakistan, alcohol is ‘haram,’ so this isn’t a problem for us. Studies have also found that one-fifth of U.S. military personnel are heavy drinkers. How many of those have responsibility for nuclear weapons?”[Bulletin Online]

The good reader (“BOK”) who drew attention to this suggested that it is good material for the Sunday Levity series. That it is.

But isn’t it rather rich of those anonymous Pentagon officials to declare that their role is only to give advice. Scary.

Don’t worry, be happy (and alert)

Fears of nuclear terrorism are overblown?

Citing a presentation by John Mueller, a Ohio professor, Steve Chapman contends that the “worst” won’t happen.

Far from being plausible, (argued John Mueller), “the likelihood that a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small.” (See Mueller’s paper)

Mueller recalls that after the Irish Republican Army failed in an attempt to blow up British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it said, “We only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” Al Qaeda, he says, faces a very different challenge: For it to carry out a nuclear attack, everything has to go right. For us to escape, only one thing has to go wrong. That has heartening implications. If Osama bin Laden embarks on the project, he has only a minuscule chance of seeing it bear fruit. Given the formidable odds, he probably won’t bother. None of this means we should stop trying to minimize the risk by securing nuclear stockpiles, monitoring terrorist communications and improving port screening. But it offers good reason to think that in this war, it appears, the worst eventuality is one that will never happen. [Chicago Tribune]

Dr Mueller’s paper is entertainting but he and Mr Chapman are dangerously close to fallacy. That’s because while the likelihood itself may be low, the risk itself is not. The worst can still happen. And hence we must worry. How much? Now that’s a subjective and different countries would assess it differently.

Similarly, Bin Laden would not be deterred from pursuing the project merely because the chances of success are low. For a start he doesn’t even have to deliver or detonate one in the United States. He might calculate that he can go a long way merely by having one. It is dangerous to fall into the trap of believing that states (or terrorists) seek nuclear weapons only to use them. Dr Mueller’s analysis is academically expansive, but doesn’t consider the specifics of the contemporary problem: nuclear collusion between a faction of the Pakistani state and a faction of the jihadi establishment.

And then again, there is a risk—albeit with low likelihood—that al-Qaeda would try to get one across into the United States or another country.

Both overstating and understating the risks is wrong. Understating is arguably more dangerous.