Nuclear Blindness

Brian Jones on Iran, the West and the Bomb

It is time for the West to develop a new policy on nuclear proliferation. The highly partisan Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, which allowed only the US, Russia, Britain, France and China to retain nuclear weapons, has been gradually eroded, as Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and, briefly, apartheid South Africa, have unofficially joined the club. Now Iran, too, may be trying to develop the bomb, and has threatened to withdraw from the treaty, as North Korea did in 2003.

Iran’s determination to acquire the capability to enrich uranium and process spent reactor fuel in order to obtain plutonium is beyond doubt. This would enable it to produce fissile material suitable for nuclear weapons, and the step from there to building some sort of explosive device would be relatively small. On the other hand, the American intelligence assessment that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons appears to be based on circumstantial evidence – on the principle that Iran’s nuclear activity must be covert for a reason – rather than on any firm information about Iranian government decisions. We can allow the strong possibility of an intention to develop a bomb, but it is by no means a certainty.

Some previous uncertainties have been resolved by the direct access that the IAEA has had to various nuclear facilities in Iran, by Iranian admissions in response to discoveries by inspectors, as well as by unsolicited declarations. However, in the light of Saddam Hussein’s statements about WMD, it would be unwise to take Iranian claims at face value, even when they appear to be incriminating. The claim that they are capable of uranium enrichment could be an exaggeration, designed to pre-empt the pre-emptive attack that Seymour Hersh has recently suggested the US is planning for. The ultracentrifuge cascades that are used for enrichment are complex structures, containing some very delicate mechanisms. They have the potential to self-destruct. It might take a cascade of 1000 centrifuges operating continuously for a year to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single weapon.

On the other hand, Iran’s claim could be designed to divert attention from an attempt to develop other methods of producing fissile material, such as laser enrichment of uranium, in which it has shown an interest, or plutonium extraction, on which it has made at least a start. Or its purpose could be to conceal greater progress than they have acknowledged, to encourage a false belief in the West that sufficient time remains for a relatively relaxed approach to negotiations. Traces of more highly enriched uranium have been discovered in Iran, although the IAEA has not been able to disprove the Iranian explanation that they originated from contaminated imported equipment.

Two years ago, Washington’s challenge to Tehran was being expressed in stronger terms than it is now. At that time, Britain was keen to encourage the more moderate faction in Iran, led by the then president, Mohammad Khatami. Together with Germany and France, the Blair government tried to persuade Tehran to demonstrate to the IAEA that it was in compliance with the NPT. President Bush, however, bluntly warned Iran either to reform or face the consequences. He said the US was investigating links between Iran and al-Qaida, with the implication that a third invasion might follow those of Afghanistan and Iraq. If that is less likely now, it’s because we have seen the limits of America’s military capacity.

The European attempt at moderation ground to a halt when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded Khatami after the elections of June 2005. Khatami’s defeat suggested that it had been a mistake to allow the nuclear argument to take precedence over the effort to bolster Khatami in his struggle with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, because it had placed too much pressure on him at a difficult time. Iran has vivid memories of the suffering caused by Iraq’s chemical weapons: the use of nerve agents on the battlefield in 1988 was a significant factor in bringing about the ceasefire which ended the war that had begun in 1980. The West is blamed in Iran for having helped Saddam to acquire these weapons. What might have happened to Iran if Iraq had produced the nuclear weapons that were almost in its grasp in 1991?

It was a mixed blessing for the Islamic Republic when the bomb was snatched away from Saddam in the aftermath of his invasion of Kuwait, since it also meant that ‘the Great Satan’s’ foothold in the region was extended and consolidated. But Iranian suspicions about Iraq’s WMD remained, and intensified when the UN weapons inspectors left the country in 1998. Under such circumstances, no Iranian leader could disregard the question of national security and rule out the acquisition of WMD. Iran is surrounded by countries that are not its natural allies, and which either have or are seeking such weapons. Yet those who would wish Iran to renounce its independent nuclear ambitions are not prepared to give reliable security guarantees in exchange, in a region where there is likely to be much competition for scarce energy resources. The only offer of substantial help with nuclear fuel has come from Russia, which has offered to supply Iran with enriched uranium and take back the spent reactor fuel, bringing Iran a step closer to producing weapons. However, Russia has yet to establish a reputation as a reliable supplier of energy.

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