Britain was the third nuclear power. British scientists had gotten in on the ground floor and played instrumental roles with the Manhattan Project, but the British didn’t simply walk away with a bomb for their efforts. It wasn’t until 1953 that Britain became a full-fledged member of the atomic club–blowing up parts of the Australian desert for their tests–just as the United States and Soviet Union were on the cusp of the thermonuclear revolution and its exponentially more powerful hydrogen bombs.
Numbers for the earlier years are known with some confidence thanks to declassified documents. The numbers for later decades are harder to pin down thanks to thick layers of government secrecy. The estimates used here are by nuclear experts Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen.
With nuclear weapons, of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story. There’s a whole host of reasons that some nuclear weapons are more effective than others, including the explosive power of the warhead, the range and accuracy of the method of delivery, and how easy it is for an enemy to destroy nuclear weapons before they can even be fired, dropped, or detonated.
The British independent deterrent force has, in the course of its lifetime, consisted of several different types and generations of nuclear weapons (nine, as it happens). Some were home grown. Some were modified versions of US warheads. And some were unmodified US warheads.
Early on, they were mostly bombs to be dropped by Royal Air Force or Royal Navy bombers. After the cancellation of the <span class="glossaryLink " data-tooltip="
An air-to-surface nuclear missile being jointly developed by the United States and the United Kingdom. It was designed to extend the life of Britain V-bomber force. In December 1962, at the Nassau Conference, JFK told British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that the United States was canceling its involvement in the project, a move that set off a controversy in US-UK relations and caused political problems for Macmillan back home.”>Skybolt project in late 1962 and its replacement with Polaris submarine-launched missile system, the British nuclear force shifted from entirely airborne to a mix of airborne and seaborne. As of 1999, it is entirely seaborne, consisting of the TRIDENT II submarine-launched <span class="glossaryLink " data-tooltip="
intercontinental ballistic missile”>ICBM system.
But the British nuclear stockpile wasn’t the only stockpile available to British military forces through much of the Cold War. Thanks to the unusually close ties forged in the so-called Special Relationship, there was an unusual arrangement whereby the United States held a sizable stockpile of warheads in custody for the British, who operated the delivery systems. Some of those warheads were in the UK, but most were with British forces in Germany. Not all of them were missile warheads; many of them were for short-range tactical, battlefield rockets, demolition munitions, and gravity bombs. This stockpile was available to British forces from 1958 to 1991, when the arrangement was ended as the United States drew down drastically its nuclear forces based outside the United States.
Iranian security official at Bushehr nuclear plant. Photo: REUTERS
Not long ago, the West’s position on the Iranian nuclear program was a “no risk” policy. It demanded that Iran stop enriching uranium, ship its existing uranium stocks overseas, close its Arak plutonium facility, close its long-secret underground Fordow facility, come clean on all past violations and end its detonation and missile programs that could be used for nuclear weapons.
The problem was that Iran would not budge. Also, China, Russia and other countries whose economic support was enough to keep Iran afloat would not back this approach, and no country was ready to go to war to end the program before it became a greater risk.
In lieu of such a clean solution and with Iran driving forward to what most consider “breakout” capability, meaning the point at which it could immediately enrich existing uranium to weapons-grade, sanctions backed even by China and Russia were put together. This eventually brought Iran into the current negotiations.
A six-month interim deal in principle was reached in November 2013, with the six months starting in January 2014. When the interim period expired on July 20, the sides extended the negotiations for an additional four months. This was less than the six-months the interim deal allowed, though the US has notably refused to rule out further extensions.
For the interim deal, the world powers moved far from the “no risk” policy to one of “managed risk,” where the biggest issue was breakout time and centrifuges. In the new policy, Iran’s breakout time was pushed from a currently estimated two months to six months or one year – enough time to try both diplomatic and military solutions should Tehran try to turn the corner, and more time to detect violations.
On the ground, extending breakout time means, very simply, fewer centrifuges, the rotating cylinders whose force can lead to the enrichment of uranium. Iran has 9,000 first-generation centrifuges that are operational and at least 10,000 more that have been installed but are non-operational. It also has 1,000 second-generation centrifuges that have been installed but are as yet non-operational.
The toughest position the world powers might take could be to limit Iran to 2,000-4,000 first-generation centrifuges. This clearly would be a massive reduction in existing centrifuges, something Iran has refused to do on principle, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even blustering recently that the country would need as many as 130,000 centrifuges to cover its future civilian nuclear needs.
The envisioned 130,000 centrifuges, and keeping even the existing centrifuges, is a non-starter.
It would bring about increased sanctions even from some Obama administration officials who could be desperate for a deal. Yet freezing the number operational first-generation centrifuges at the current 9,000 or, in another proposed variation, allowing the current level of production with second-generation centrifuges, would be viewed by Iran as a big concession and might be accepted by the US and a sufficient number of other world powers.
Iran has shown a willingness to dilute or convert its existing stock of uranium such that there are scenarios in which many centrifuges could be maintained along with a 6-12-month breakout time, which is why the world powers might accept it. However, many are wary that such a continued level of uranium production would sabotage International Atomic Energy Agency efforts to keep an eye on the program while also being unrealistic as to expecting Iran to regularly dilute, convert or ship out newly enriched uranium.
In the uranium enrichment discussion, closing down Fordow – which Israel wants, something that would ensure there are no major facilities too far underground for it to hit – is off the table, though it appears Iran might be willing to reduce the facility’s enrichment capabilities.
Regarding a less-immediate but no-less-threatening Iranian path to the bomb through the production of plutonium, the West’s position has been that Iran needs to close its Arak facility or at least replace the heavy water and current large reactor core there with light water and a smaller core. The bottom line is that such a change would negate or substantially reduce Arak as a threat.
Iran has instead suggested voluntarily reducing plutonium production and the existing reactor’s power.
While these changes reduce plutonium production to a fraction of the current value, the bottom-line problem here, according to many, is that both of these voluntarily changes are reversible in a way that might not delay breakout time very much.
Look for Iran to haggle hard over this issue but offer a “historic” compromise late in the game, accepting the world powers’ position in exchange for maintaining more centrifuges. This could be a clever negotiating move since the uranium path to the bomb is far more developed than the plutonium path and could be hard for the West to refuse.
The strictest Western position would prefer a 20-year period of major restrictions and intrusive inspections, taking the issue to a completely different period and removing incentives to cheat, with the inspections expiring soon anyway.
Iran has suggested three to seven years, with seven appearing to correspond with the expiration in 2021 of a mammoth nuclear technology deal it signed with Russia.
Such a deadline would give Moscow a strong incentive not to confront Iran over any arising misdeeds so as to get a new deal.
This issue is much more symbolic in some ways, but it does dictate when the next “trouble” round is likely to arise, near the end of three years, 20 years or somewhere in between. Look for the sides to reach a compromise closer to Iran’s seven years because if the rest of the deal is considered viable, it will be hard for Western leaders to walk away from a seven-to-10-year deal, especially one that will not expire on the watches of current leaders.
The questions concerning coming completely (as opposed to partially) clean, Iran’s detonation program and its missile program are not being completely ignored, but they have already been mostly on the sidelines. This means the West is again likely to settle for less if the overall deal is viewed as viable.
Ultimately, the West, most notably the US – which made sure it could execute the deal under a more friendly Congress in November and before a likely less-friendly Congress takes over in January 2015 – is likely to push for a deal if it can get one that is not embarrassingly shallow and has some historic Iranian concessions. Whether that means it will partially bend to Iran on centrifuge numbers or whether Tehran will be forced to agree to a deal that more seriously blocks its path to the bomb will be answered in the coming months.
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Two senior Iranian officials told an Arabic-language television channel Monday that Tehran has supplied missile technology to Hamas for its fight against Israel.
Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari warned in an interview with the Arabic channel of Iran’s state Al-Alam television that Palestinian resistance to Israeli aggression is “endless and growing.”
Iran is prepared to support the Palestinian resistance with weapons and technology transfers, Jafari said, and makes no distinction between Shiite and Sunni factions of the embattled populations under Israeli blockade.
Mohsen Rezaei, another former guard commander who is now a senior advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Tehran had already provided Hamas with missile-building technology being used in fighting against Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip.
“Palestinian resistance missiles are the blessings of Iran’s transfer of technology,” Rezaei was quoted as telling the broadcaster.
More than 3,000 rockets have been launched by Hamas in recent weeks from the blockaded seaside Palestinian enclave, spurring an Israeli air offensive July 8 and a ground operation nine days later aimed at ridding Gaza of its tunnels and missile-firing sites.
“The Americans in recent days approved about $300 million to strengthen (Israel’s) Iron Dome,” Rezaei said he pointed out to the president.
Al-Alam said 1,822 Palestinians, mostly civilians, had been killed in the four weeks of fighting. Israel has reported that more than 60 of its soldiers have been killed in the fierce clashes, as well as three civilians.
Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani last week called the disproportionate force being targeted on Palestinian residential areas “a war crime.” He said Tehran had no hesitation in its coming to the aid of Hamas and other militant groups fighting Israel.
The comments by Jafari and Rezaei followed an appeal last week by Khamenei for Muslims worldwide to help Palestinians defend themselves from the Israeli attacks.
Iran doesn’t recognize Israel as a state and openly supports the militias, including Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, fighting to drive Israelis from territory the Palestinians claim for the state they have declared in the West Bank and Gaza.