(Trinty Test, Almagordo, July 1945. This one actually did change the world.)
There's been more of the on-again, off-again rumblings about whether or not Israel or the US or the rest of us should attack Iran if the new sanctions fail to stop Iran producing a nuclear weapons this week Weekly Standard ,The Atlantic, and Foreign Policy proffer a range of views.
President Obama has described an Iranian nuclear weapon as "unacceptable".
To no-one's surprise, Israeli PM Netanyahu has made clear that he'd be happy to attack Iranian nuclear targets to ensure that Israel remains the only nuclear weapons state in the Middle East.
But what actual difference would a nuclear Iran make? If it achieved it, what evidence is there that Iran would attack anyone?
I should make quite clear up front that I am not in favour of nuclear proliferation by any State; quite the reverse, I applaud Obama's declared intent of working towards nuclear zero - including all of the verification challenges that go with that.
Before we begin, a definitional point: being able to conduct a nuclear test is not the same as producing an operational nuclear weapon. The initial American thermonuclear test (Ivy Mike, 1952, the darkly hilarious contemporary classified film is here) was a 62t experiment, built over several months.
And so it was with India's "Peaceful Nuclear Explosion" of 1974 (also known as "Smiling Buddha") - a 1400kg device which India could not at the time deliver to target (except in a shipping container). Therefore, even if Iran were to stage a nuclear test, this is not definitive proof that it has a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.
So, what difference would a nuclear armed Iran make?
Let's assume that Iran wishes to acquire nuclear weapons, and despite sanctions succeeds in perfecting a bomb design small enough to fit onto a domestically produced ballistic missile. Let's also assume that it manages to deploy enough - say 25 operational warheads - in hardened shelters sufficient to survive a conventional attack.
Not being an intelligence analyst, I am left as an historian to point out that this level of development was not achieved by the USA until the early-1960s with the deployment on Minuteman I ICBMs; and the US in the 1950s had considerably more weapons technology expertise than is apparent in Iran's domestic military programmes public displayed today.
And to make this doomsday tomorrow, let's assume that the Iranians can do all of this by the end of 2011.
Well, not much until the Iranians decide to:
(i) engage in nuclear blackmail,
(ii) attack another state (e.g. Israel) or
(iii) dish them out to non-state actors (e.g, Hezbollah).
But why would President Ahmadinejad - or any other Iranian leader - want to do something as suicidally stupid as any of these options?
If the Islamic Republic is determined to do anything, it is determined to survive. And regime survival is incompatible with a nuclear counter-strike if Iran attacks someone else. But having a bomb is sensible if it means that other people don't attack you.
In other words, good ol' Cold War deterrence.
"Ah", I hear you cry - "but the Iranians are nuts! They're fanatics and have a global domination ideology".
Hmm. Didn't we say the same (& worse!) about the Soviet Union? Godless Communism and all of that?
The point for me is that though a nuclear armed Iran is unwelcome because any proliferation is unwelcome, and Iran's acquisition of a viable nuclear capability could bounce Saudi Arabia into have a Sunni/Arab bomb to deter a Persian/Shiite bomb, there is no rational reason for Iran to attack anyone with nuclear weapons. To do so would only be to invite massive retaliation.
Moreover, military action to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon is likely to shore up the (unpopular) Iranian regime, is unlikely to have UN Security Council sanction, and would therefore be manifestly illegal, and there is no guarantee of success. In short, even if military action is a "cure" (which to me seems very unlikely), it is likely to be worse than the "disease" of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
If the Iranians want a deliverable nuclear capability, they will at some point get it. By all means make this as difficult and expensive as possible, but rely on deterrence to keep the peace.
And remember, the only thing that bullies like less than losing is being ignored - how have nuclear weapons helped Kim Jong Il's North Korea? (Other than landing him a leading role in Team America, of course.... "so ronrey... so ronrey...")
I'll be back with more on the UK's SDSR in the next few days.
Update: Interesting piece from RUSI - airstrikes won't work and invading Iran is a seriously bad idea, people: