Iran, US and the drumbeats of war
Abstract: Iran’s claim that it has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle does not mean it is near assembling an atomic bomb, but this has not prevented scaremongers in the US from sounding the drumbeats of war. For a U.S. administration besieged by growing public scepticism about the war in Iraq, a renewed military adventure may well be an escape route. It could as well be a fatal error. .
April 20, 2006
It is not known if Mahmud Ahmedinejad, the president of Iran, reads the western media. Nor is it clear that investigative reporters in the US ever speak to him. Yet, working independently, the Iranian president and Seymour Hersh – a journalist with established credentials in bringing to light the seamy underside of US military and intelligence operations – have managed to engineer a coincidence that could well have been scripted by the great dramatist in the sky. But if the intent was to stage a climactic battle between good and evil, there is just too much ambiguity surrounding the protagonists. Both US President George Bush and his Iranian counterpart, believe they have a call from heaven to do what is right. But only one has international law on his side. The other is floundering in a sea of domestic political adversities, while seeking to foist a new standard of law on the world.
On April 10, the New Yorker, that venerable magazine that has for decades been a celebration of the languid elegance of unhurried prose, posted on its website an article with a rather urgent tone.[i] Though Seymour Hersh has occasionally misdirected his reportorial ardour, his article on the operational planning for a military strike against Iran, was just too compelling to ignore – much like his work on the scandal of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Matters had gone well beyond the stage of contingency planning to minute operational details, Hersh reported. The US military, he continued, had quite possibly launched both land and air-based reconnaissance missions in Iranian territory. The options discussed and approved at the highest level of the Bush administration included the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. With many of the facilities involved in Iran’s contentious nuclear programme located underground and protected by heavy concrete fortifications, there seemed no alternative to the use of these weapons of the apocalypse.
Hersh’s reportage provoked spasms of anxiety in strategic circles worldwide But the one person who seemed almost serenely unconcerned was Ahmedinejad. Barely two days after the Hersh article was put up for a global audience, the Iranian president announced, with appropriate fanfare, that the country’s dedicated scientists had established complete mastery over the nuclear fuel cycle. Speaking in a nationally televised speech, Ahmedinejad offered the friendly advice that the west should resign itself to the legitimate rights Iran enjoyed as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran was in a position to independently fuel its nuclear power reactors, he said, but it would ensure full compliance with NPT obligations and pay appropriate deference to the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
For an Indian audience inured to regular displays of nuclear nationalism, the tone of the Iranian president’s remarks must have sounded familiar. India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has proclaimed its complete mastery over the fuel cycles involving four different nuclear materials – natural uranium, enriched uranium, plutonium and thorium. In terms of the obeisance paid to dedicated scientific research and self-reliance, the Iranian president has been well within this paradigm. But being undoubtedly a man of some modesty, he has claimed mastery over only one nuclear fuel and deviated further from the Indian model in vowing compliance with the NPT and the authority of the IAEA.
Soon after Ahmedinejad’s announcement, Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy chairman of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) came out with the finer details of the Iranian nuclear programme. The achievement in scientific scale experiments had used 164 gas centrifuges for enriching natural uranium, in which the vital fissile isotope is present to the extent of a mere 0.7 per cent, up to the level of 3.5 percent This is roughly the required enrichment level of the fissile isotope for a light water reactor like the one that Iran is importing from Russia. The experiments were in accordance with the notification that Iran had issued to the IAEA late in March. That apart, Iran had also concurrently announced that it intended to put into operation a 3,000 machine cascade for enrichment purposes by the last quarter of 2006.
Saeedi explained that the Iranian authority ultimately planned to utilise the experience gained with the 164-machine cascade to scale up production to an industrial facility utilising 54,000 centrifuges. Working at levels of operational efficiency established in the laboratory experiment, the industrial facility would be able to produce adequate fuel for a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power reactor. The time horizon that Iran would require to build up this inventory, though, was not specified.
Scaremongers from the US lost little time in stoking the mood of public paranoia, which has been a fruitful venture since the September 11, 2001 attacks. With 54,000 centrifuges, Iran would be able to produce enough fuel for a nuclear bomb within 16 days, said Stephen Rademaker, US assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation. When questioned about the alternative circumstance of 3,000 centrifuges -- now part of the official correspondence between Iran and the IAEA – the US official demonstrated his facility with numbers by revising the time-scale for an Iranian nuclear bomb to debut on the world stage, to 261 days. For obvious reasons, it was the 16-day scenario that gained greater traction in the US press.
Rademaker did not, of course, choose to look at certain more fundamental questions. Iran’s laboratory scale results with uranium enrichment are themselves rather tenuously established. Iran faces serious challenges in ironing out these problems and it is yet to contend with the enormous complications involved in going from the laboratory to the industrial scale. Apart from the fact that the material used in constructing centrifuges is rare and closely guarded, Iran is, by all expert assessments, yet to acquire the precision in machine building and process control required to enrich uranium on an industrial scale. If a reasonable time scale for acquiring these – and all other competences – were to be factored in, then Iran might be 10 years away from assembling a solitary nuclear explosive device.
India’s DAE would be able to render some clarity to the public debate, if it were, like its Iranian counterpart, to operate in an environment of transparency. In the context of India’s recent nuclear deal with the US, non-proliferation advocacy groups in the west have begun to cast a rather sceptical eye on the country’s record of compliance with global norms. This has resulted in a renewed focus on a little known facet of the DAE’s activities. After successful tests with a 100 centrifuge cascade in its facility at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, the DAE has been engaged in constructing an industrial scale enrichment facility at Rattehalli near Mysore. Though commenced in the mid-1980s, the facility was publicly acknowledged by DAE officials only in 1992. In 1997, the DAE confirmed that the purpose of the Rattehalli plant was to produce uranium enriched to the 40 to 45 percent level, for a nuclear submarine project that has been underway since the 1970s. It denied that the unit was engaged in producing uranium enriched to the higher levels needed for a compact explosive device.
In March this year, the Institute for Science and International Security, a US research and advocacy group, published a paper that frontally questioned India’s supposedly impeccable record in non-proliferation. Aside from highlighting the questionable procurement processes used by the Rattehalli facility, through a number of front organisations, the study also called into question the inflated claims of self-reliance that the DAE has consistently made. These apart, the most significant finding of the paper was that the Rattehalli facility, after serious technical difficulties in the construction stages, had established a uranium enrichment capacity in the range of 5,000 separative work units (SWU) per year.[ii]
The SWU is a term of art that eludes the comprehension of most laypersons. But just by way of comparison, it is estimated that a facility with a capacity of 100,000 SWU would be just about adequate to fuel a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power reactor for a year. M.V. Ramana, a physicist and analyst of the Indian nuclear programme, has sought to piece together a coherent picture of the scope and the achievements of the Indian uranium enrichment program. Using all the material available in the public domain, he has proposed that the best estimate of India’s uranium enrichment capacity, as of 2004, would be around 4,800 SWU per year. However, there are a number of uncertainties surrounding this estimate and if all possible scenarios were to be constructed – including the possible use of highly enriched uranium as a “trigger” for the nuclear fusion device that India tested in May 1998 – then the enrichment capacity could be anywhere between 3,900 and 10,000 SWU per year.[iii] At the lower bound of this range, India could produce around 20 kg of uranium enriched to the weapons grade every year, just enough for a Hiroshima-scale nuclear weapon. The relative modesty of this achievement after a two-decades long effort, should offer an accurate perspective on how close the Iranian programme is to a weapon.
Iran and IAEA
What is indubitable though, is that if Iran were to embark upon the path of uranium enrichment for weapons purposes, it would be swiftly found out and put under appropriate sanctions. For all the disinformation that surrounds the issue, Iran is still obliged to submit to a regime of safeguards administered by the IAEA. A few days after Ahmedinejad’s announcement, in fact, the IAEA director-general Mohammad El Baradei, was in Teheran for talks with the Iranian government on “confidence-building measures”. At his last public appearance before leaving, El Baradei urged Iran to suspend uranium enrichment work as required by the UN security council. But he also observed that IAEA inspectors were, even as he spoke, continuing their verification activities in Iran.
With an objective, institutionalised process underway to verify whether Iran is 16 days or 10 years away from a nuclear bomb, it may seem rather odd that the US and its European allies should work themselves up into a frenzy over the supposed threat from that quarter. On March 29, the UN security council, after hours of futile debate on a possible resolution demanding that Iran comply with the demands of the west, finally settled upon the uneasy compromise of a “presidential statement” demanding that Iran establish the “full and sustained” suspension of enrichment-related activities, including those being carried out on an experimental basis. With a month being specified as the time available for compliance, the US is not far from its objective, of holding Iran in violation of the demands of the international community.
Expectedly, Ahmedinejad’s announcement was followed within hours, by the active advocacy of military action by the same group of right-wing zealots that set the agenda for Iraq. Though a diplomatic settlement was always preferable, military action against Iran had become almost inevitable, said a commentator in Rupert Murdoch’s The Weekly Standard. In fact, without the buttressing of a credible military threat, a diplomatic initiative would have little chance of success. Though the US could go it alone, it would be preferable to recruit a number of potential allies to the cause, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, Britain, France, and Germany. And the purpose of military strikes would be “first and foremost, to destroy or severely damage Iran's nuclear development and production facilities and put them out of commission for at least five years”. That apart, the US should aim to “destroy the Iranian air defence system, significantly damage its air force, naval forces, and Shahab-3 offensive missile forces”. The air campaign would target more than “1,500 aim points” across Iran, and among the weapons it would use would be the “new 28,000-pound bunker busters, 5,000-pound bunker penetrators, 2,000-pound bunker busters, 1,000-pound general purpose bombs, and 500-pound GP bombs”.[iv]
Whether the US will embark upon this broad-ranging and potentially catastrophic military campaign, depends upon a range of factors. It is now looking increasingly unlikely that the UN security council will fall in line behind the US demand for comprehensive economic sanctions on Iran. Russia for one, has strongly hinted that it is unwilling to go that far without positive proof of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. This represents a radical rewriting of the rules in relation to those that the US used in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. To avoid war in 2003, Iraq was required to prove an absence, or alternately, to disprove a presence. A basic familiarity with logic would show that this is an impossible task in every sense, compared to the other procedure of proving a presence, or disproving an absence. Proving an absence requires the examination of a virtual infinity of possibilities and situations. The proof of a presence though, is accomplished with just one instance.
The Lies on Iraq
Iraq could never prove the absence of a weapons of mass destruction programme despite 12 years of inspections and enervating sanctions, because the US managed at every turn, to infiltrate the process of reporting to the U.N., convincing the disarmament teams – and in the final instance, coercing them – into falling in line. It failed conspicuously in March 2003, when El Baradei certified Iraq’s nuclear disarmament complete and dismissed the US effort to prove a presence – Iraq’s alleged effort to buy uranium from Niger and its import of aluminium tubes for an enrichment programme – as clumsy forgeries or crass misrepresentations.
That chapter in the march to war against Iraq has now come back to haunt the US administration. Recent disclosures in the US media indicate that President George Bush was, as early as October 2002, in possession of intelligence findings about the dubious provenance of the allegation that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. Yet he went ahead and used this as a plank on which to construct the case for war in his state of the union address in January 2003.
Other efforts to prove the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have also been discredited. On May 29, 2003, Bush declared that a number of mobile units found in Iraq were proven conclusively to be biological weapons laboratories. It is now evident that he had been informed two days prior to this announcement, that the mobile units in question were in fact, nothing more threatening than surveillance balloon launchers to support artillery units in battlefield situations.
Evidence is mounting that the war in Iraq, which has now entered the annals of military history as a disaster beyond imagination, was launched on a foundation of lies. The top echelons of the US military are known to be restive and no fewer than six retired generals from different wings of the US armed forces have recently called for the resignation of US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as the debate over who lost Iraq becomes more rancorous. Some have indeed, gone so far as to say that they reflect the sentiments of senior officers still on active duty. If there is anything more dangerous for a putative democracy than civilian authority being challenged by the uniformed military, that can only be an executive that remains unfettered by any norms of accountability and believes it can deploy force in the pursuit of murky and unstated agendas in distant corners of the world But that ominously, is the situation that the US finds itself in today. And it just may be a conundrum that the Bush administration may try to shoot its way out of.
[i] Seymour Hersh, “The Iran Plans”, The New Yorker, April 17, 2006, posted on the web, April 8, 2006, and available at this writing at: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060417fa_fact.
[ii] David Albright and Susan Basu, “India’s Gas Centrifuge Program: Stopping Illicit Procurement and the Leakage of Technical Centrifuge Know-how”, The Institute for Science and International Security, Washington DC, March 10, 2006; available at: http://www.isis-online.org/publications/southasia/indianprocurement.pdf.
[iii] M.V. Ramana, “India’s Uranium Enrichment Program”, INESAP Information Bulletin, Number 25, December 2004, pp 71-4. Also available is a rather more technical analysis by the same author, “An Estimate of India’s Uranium Enrichment Capacity”, Science and Global Security, Number 12, 2004, pp 115-24
[iv] Thomas McInerney, “Target Iran”, The Weekly Standard, Volume 11, Issue 30, April 24, 2006; posted on the web early April and available at, http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/012/101dorxa.asp.