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.

The vague notion of a multilateral system for the ‘safe enrichment for nuclear energy’ that Blair unveiled in his Georgetown University speech on 26 May may mark a belated acknowledgment of the validity of Iran’s concerns about the security of its future energy supplies, but it would need to be developed quickly to make any contribution to resolving the current problem. Blair suggested that ‘an international bank of uranium’, overseen by the IAEA, could ensure a reliable fuel supply ‘without the need for everyone to own their own fuel cycle’. Such an arrangement would be more likely to attract those currently striving for an independent capability if it removed the need for anyone to own their own fuel cycle; but it is difficult to imagine any of the eight or nine countries that currently possess nuclear weapons agreeing to that.

The Iranian people seem to believe that their country needs nuclear weapons as well as nuclear power, and are likely to celebrate in the streets when they arrive, just as the citizens of India and Pakistan did in 1998. It is unfortunate that, partly as a consequence of relentless Western pressure over the nuclear issue, Khatami was ousted in 2005. But Ahmadinejad won an election fully as democratic as any recently held in the region. The new fundamentalist president seems to be more in touch with the popular mood, although many Iranians, including perhaps the Supreme Leader, are concerned about his behaviour. It’s not clear whether Ahmadinejad’s outbursts against Israel and the West result simply from inexperience, or are designed to bolster his popular support. It is possible that his devotion to Imam Mahdi, whose second coming is expected to be heralded by an apocalypse, imbues the president with a disregard for what could be the consequences of his rash threats.

Understanding exactly what is happening in Iran is complicated by the fact that military and political power is divided between the Supreme Leader and the elected president in a way that is not entirely clear. Responsibility for defence and security lies somewhere between the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Defence. It’s unclear too what role is played by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The tension between the clerical leadership and Khatami exacerbated the division between the two camps and, when he was president, there may even have been two separate bomb projects. That would have been an inefficient deployment of scarce and expensive resources, but it would have improved the chances that one or other programme might escape detection and destruction. What has happened since the election of Ahmadinejad is no clearer, but the president’s links with the IRGC introduce a new element.

If Iran did produce an explosive nuclear device it would probably be large, heavy, awkward to transport, and hard to deliver as a weapon. Acquiring a nuclear weapon does not necessarily provide a country with a military capability that is immediately useful at all levels, especially against a more experienced nuclear power. It is still a significant challenge to build a device that is small, light and efficient enough to fit on a ballistic missile, and even more difficult to make one that could fit in a suitcase. If Iran ever gains the expertise and materials to achieve this, it is very unlikely to jeopardise its achievement by using the bomb in any but the most extreme circumstances. Actual use of a relatively primitive weapon would instantly result in a disproportionately powerful American response.

There are, in any case, encouraging signs about the general direction of Tehran’s nuclear plans. Most of its nuclear infrastructure is large, visible and therefore vulnerable. Its decision to protect the important centrifuge enrichment facility at Natanz by building it underground does not necessarily imply that Iran wants to work on its nuclear weapons there, but rather its recognition of the US and UK’s inclination, demonstrated all too clearly in Iraq, to take military action on the basis of a suspicion that falls well short of certainty. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s French-built nuclear reactor at Osirak, near Baghdad, shortly before it was completed, claiming that it could have eventually contributed to Saddam Hussein’s quest for a weapon. Iran, which had itself bombed Osirak, with less success, in 1980, will be sensitive to such risks to its own nuclear facilities, whatever their ultimate purpose. If weapons are involved in its plans, it seems that Iran wants to be able to produce and maintain a significant stockpile. It also has a ballistic-missile capability, and periodically tests improved models with a better range. But whatever its ultimate capability, it will be of a kind that can itself be deterred.

Bush and Blair like to allude to the danger of nuclear terrorists being supplied by Iran, but there is little risk of that, because Iran would fear that it would automatically be held responsible and suffer disproportionate retaliation. Since the failure of the European diplomatic initiative, Blair has seemed inclined to align this country once again with the US, whatever course Bush decides to adopt. Bush has tried to dispel the idea of an imminent military strike by saying that the process at the UN has a long way to go and, most recently, by agreeing in principle to take part in talks with Iran and the EU, the sticking point being whether uranium enrichment will have to be suspended before they take place. However, his disenchantment with international arms control agreements has not been a secret for several years now. In the nuclear sphere the US was prepared to sacrifice the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty for the sake of developing a missile defence capability. Republican politicians in particular believe that the threat of unilateral offensive action is a necessary part of reducing the risk to America from foreign threats. They have been slow to recognise the limits of the immunity that superior wealth and military power can provide. The lessons from Vietnam, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq have not been fully grasped. But if Bush’s hesitation is genuine, it is ironic that the war in Iraq has probably scuppered any chance of reaching a meaningful agreement on Iran in the Security Council.

Why? Because the most significant of the many casualties of the Iraq war may yet prove to be the international control of WMD. By conflating nuclear weapons with chemical and biological ones, embroidering intelligence assessments, ignoring the UN inspectors’ appeals for more time, and making WMD the central and ultimately flawed reason for invading Iraq, Bush and Blair have undermined the main instruments of arms control: the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention and even the NPT itself. The effectiveness of such international treaties and conventions balances precariously on the belief (and fear) that intelligence would detect and weapons inspectors confirm any significant attempt to cheat. The real situation in Iraq was found to be very different from that claimed by intelligence advisers before the war, when weapons inspectors were perceived to be unable to establish the true facts within a reasonable timescale.

Even if the thought of Iran being armed with nuclear weapons is uncomfortable, it is far from being the only or even the most serious problem. The stability of President Musharraf’s regime in Pakistan is not assured. Long before Iran comes anywhere close to achieving its presumed goal, an Islamic government in Pakistan could inherit a small but significant stockpile of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, and a mature infrastructure for making more and better weapons. North Korea may already possess weapons in some form, and has a well-developed ballistic-missile capability. The more relaxed approach of the US to those problems may signal a pragmatic acceptance of the inevitability of nuclear proliferation. If so, Bush’s preoccupation with Iran may have as much to do with the region’s significance to America’s strategic economic interests – and the US wish to ensure its own continued political, military and economic freedom of action – as it does with a threat from the weapons themselves.

In Britain, it is difficult to shake off the notion that Blair’s wish to remain in step with Washington will be the most important factor in any decisions on the issue, just as it was with Iraq. This would mean that the weapons issue will be used to disguise an objective that cannot be acknowledged for reasons of diplomatic sensitivity: to keep America ‘on board’. A decision to play politics with WMD in this way suggests a loss of hope in the future of international arms control agreements. This may be an acknowledgment of the inevitable, but it should not be adopted without rigorous parliamentary and public examination.

We urgently need the relationship between the government’s position on Iran and its overall strategy on potential future nuclear threats to be spelled out, especially since decisions need to be taken soon regarding the renewal of Britain’s own nuclear deterrent. The problem of nuclear weapons and WMD in general gets discussed in such a confusing and piecemeal way that it is difficult to see whether the government has a coherent policy. We need a better sense of what Blair’s ‘big picture’ looks like.

First, the government should make clear whether it believes that, if nuclear weapons are involved, other WMD pale into insignificance. The emphasis on nuclear weapons in statements on Iran reinforces the impression that it would have preferred to make the case against Iraq in similar terms. Since the intelligence could not be stretched quite that far, however, a ‘threat’ from ‘real’ stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons was relentlessly promoted and then reinforced with reference to ‘mushroom clouds’ and ‘45-minute’ warnings.

Most politicians and political commentators suffer from a form of nuclear blindness. They believe that biological and chemical weapons can be treated merely as smaller or less effective versions of nukes. They don’t appreciate that each weapon can be used in a different way. They haven’t grasped how much the security environment has changed since the end of the Cold War, or under the impact of globalisation and interdependence. The London suicide bombers provided an illustration of that change. Chemical weapons have limited potential beyond the battlefield. Biological weapons, however, by virtue of their greater potency, low cost, ease of production, small size, ease of transport and difficulty of detection, are more of a challenge. They may not bring about the same level of physical destruction as 9/11 or a nuclear weapon, but they could well cause more casualties than either. Attitudes to the problem of proliferation must take full account of the related but distinct problem of the proliferation of biological weapons. What we should now be asking is whether Iran might currently pose a biological weapons threat.

In November 2004, the then director of the CIA, Porter Goss, reported to Congress that Iran continued to ‘vigorously pursue programmes to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons’. Earlier US assessments had concluded that it already held stocks of biological agents and weapons. The last official British statement on this was made in 2002, when the Ministry of Defence told the House of Commons Defence Committee that Iran was capable of producing biological weapons. The Butler Report on UK intelligence about WMD, published in July 2004, told us nothing about Iran’s biological warfare capabilities. They didn’t feature in Goss’s speech on ‘Global Intelligence Challenges 2005, and John Negroponte didn’t refer to them in his statement to the US Senate earlier this year. Unfortunately, the absence of recent evidence, if that is the explanation for the US and British silence on the matter, can’t be taken as evidence of the absence of a capability.

At the end of 2004, a forward-looking report by the US National Intelligence Council reckoned that terrorists were likely to try to use biological agents: ‘Bioterrorism appears particularly suited to the smaller, better-informed groups. Indeed, the bioterrorist’s laboratory could well be the size of a household kitchen, and the weapon built there could be smaller than a toaster.’ Final production of a weapon by a skilled cell of operatives could take place in the country of intended use, avoiding the need to transport significant and possibly identifiable elements through international border controls. British authorities are clearly conscious of this potential threat because they have intervened when there has been suspicion of related activities, such as the alleged attempt to produce ricin in a Wood Green flat shortly before the invasion of Iraq and, more recently, the raid on a house in Forest Gate at the beginning of this month. So far, there has been no confirmation of any such activity in Britain.

Many would argue that a substantial and successful biological attack would be beyond the scope of terrorists, citing the limited success of the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001. Those incidents demonstrated, however, that a lethal biological agent of a quality suitable for a weapon was within the reach of an individual, though in that instance one whose objective seems not to have been to cause random mass casualties. Very small quantities of anthrax spores were posted in envelopes or packages, apparently in two batches. The first batch seems to have targeted media organisations in New York City and Florida. The second batch was sent to the offices of two senators in Washington. Even this limited attack was only partially successful: the initial batch used poor quality agent that did not easily form an aerosol and caused less serious infections on contact with the skin. This alerted the authorities, preparing them for subsequent attacks when an agent that more readily formed an aerosol was used. In the end, 22 people contracted anthrax and five died, apparently having inhaled spores.

Al-Qaida continues to threaten major attacks against the West and its determination to acquire biological weapons was confirmed by the discovery of a dedicated laboratory near Kandahar in Afghanistan. There is also evidence that it has recruited suitably qualified scientists. Iran is classified by both the US and the UK as one of the world’s foremost sponsors of terrorism, which suggests that both the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security know very well how to support and conduct covert operations. If Iran was reluctant, as it might well be, to hand over a biological weapon to terrorists, it could still carry out a (deniable) terrorist-style operation using its own operatives. There is said to be no shortage of IRGC volunteers for suicide missions. A series of biological attacks in enclosed, densely occupied public spaces could produce casualties in the tens of thousands.

It will always be difficult to control nuclear proliferation without provoking a different threat that may be just as deadly but easier to develop and harder to deter. Military interventions, even if they succeed in setting back nuclear programmes, are unlikely to destroy them completely and may only strengthen hostile regimes. Or a regime may fall, leading to a breakdown of civil order, as has happened in Iraq. In either case, the likelihood of an unconventional response to perceived aggression using methods associated with terrorists will increase. We appear to be faced with an uncomfortable choice between promoting a world of strong, stable nation-states, some of which will be antipathetic to Western political and cultural values, or living in a more chaotic global society.

In 2004, the British and American governments claimed that their action in Iraq had created a situation in which proliferation could be controlled. I argued then that strong, stable states that could be deterred from using their weapons might well be preferable to failing states with WMD capabilities and the potential to harbour terrorists. I was greeted with a deafening silence, but I still believe this suggestion warrants serious consideration. Before supporting precipitate action to halt Iran’s nuclear programme, Britain should consider whether that would undermine the chances of establishing a stable global framework, in which more states would possess nuclear weapons, but in which rogue states and terrorists would find it hard to survive, let alone to develop WMD.

9 June 2006