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Selling Warheads

This morning, the Washington Post and the New York Times disclosed that members of the Tinner family, who were part of the notorious A. Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring, possessed advanced warhead designs.  The concern is that the Tinners may have marketed the plans to the ring’s customers, including North Korea and Iran.  The ring is known to have sold blueprints for a 1960s-era Chinese device to Libya.

Did any other country buy warhead technology?  “These advanced nuclear weapons designs may have long ago been sold off to some of the most treacherous regimes in the world,” wrote nuclear expert David Albright, in a draft report summarized in this morning’s papers.  At this point, investigators do not know if the Tinners actually sold the plans to any party.  Yet we do know that the advanced warhead, which is of Pakistani origin, is a type that can be mated to Iran’s Shahab missile, which is derived from a North Korean model.

If Iran stopped its efforts to build a nuclear weapon in 2003, as the American intelligence community believes, it may be because the country had all the plans it needed for the weapon itself.  The information released today, therefore, reveals that the Iranians could be close to acquiring every bit of technology needed to build a sophisticated nuclear device.  We know they possess both plans to shape uranium metal for warheads and fit warheads to missiles.  Today’s revelations show they could have bought the plans for the nuclear device itself.  All they need, in all probability, is the fissile material, which they are at this moment enriching at their facility in Natanz.

Should we engage, contain, or attack Iran?  The debate rages, but now we know that we will need an answer in months, not years.


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