Ten years ago Gregory Cochran sent an email to a concerned friend explaining that Iraq was getting steadily farther away from having nuclear weapons:
Look, back in 1990, they surprised people with their calutrons. No normal country would have made such an effort, because calutrons — mass spectrometers — are an incredibly inefficient way of making a nuclear weapon. We know just how inefficient they are, because E. O Lawrence conned the government into blowing about a quarter of the Manhattan Project budget on a similar effort. Concentrating enough U-235 for one small fission bomb cost hundreds of millions of 1944 dollars. Probably the Japanese could have constructed new cities for less money than this approach took to blow them up. By far the cheaper way is to enrich the uranium just enough to run a reactor and then breed plutonium. The Iraqis wanted U-235, probably because it is much easier to make a device with U-235 than with plutonium. You don’t have to use implosion and you don’t even have to test a gun-type bomb — we didn’t test the Hiroshima bomb. I would guess that they realized their limitations — they’re not exactly overflowing with good physicists and engineers — and chose an approach that they could actually have made work. Implosion is not so easy to make work. India only got their implosion bomb to work on the seventh try, back in 1974, and they have a hell of a lot more technical talent than Iraq.
Anyhow, Iraq doesn’t have the money to do it anymore. The total money going into his government is what, a fifth of what it used to be? (Jeez, quite a bit less than that, when you look carefully) Big non-private organizations tend to gradually slide towards zero output when the money merely stays the same: cut and they fire the worker bees and keep a few Powerpoint specialists. There is no reason to think that Arabs are immune to that kind of logic of bureaucracy. On the contrary. Not only are they not making any nuclear progress, they’re probably making regress.
At best, if we hadn’t interrupted them back in the Gulf War, they would have eventually had a couple. I doubt if it they even would have been an effective deterrent. It’s hard to make classic deterrence work when you have one or two bombs and the other guy has thousands, when he can hit you and you can’t hit him.