Muslim Weapons of Mass Destruction
by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis
As America struggles with its debt-ravaged economy and surging unemployment, Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons program have again become an issue of major contention.
In recent weeks, Obama administration officials and the media issued a blizzard of contradictory claims over Iran’s alleged nuclear threat, leaving one wondering who is really charge of US foreign policy?
This awkward question was underlined during British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s state visit to Washington. Britain is supposed to be America’s most important ally and partner in their "special relationship."
Brown’s reception was dismal and Obama’s obvious lack of interest in Britain’s leader quite embarrassing. The British media slammed America’s cold reception as an "insult," and claimed Brown had been treated like the leader of a "minor African state." White House aides excused the huge diplomatic faux pas by claiming President Obama was worn out from dealing with the financial and economic crisis. I’m sure he is worn out, but this still does not bode well for the conduct of US foreign policy.
Much of the uproar over Iran’s so-far nonexistent nuclear weapons must be seen as part of efforts by neocons to thwart President Obama’s proposed opening to Tehran, and to keep up the pressure for an American attack on Iran.
Israel’s American supporters and Israel’s government insist Iran has secret nuclear weapons program that the West has not yet detected. We heard the same claims from the same source about Iraq before 2003. Israel certainly knows about covert nuclear programs, having run one of the world’s largest and most productive ones.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lived up to her growing reputation for Mideast hawkishness by naming prominent Israel supporter Dennis Ross as her Special Advisor on Iran and the Gulf. This appointment suggests she may be more interested in building future domestic political support than securing balanced advice and evenhanded action on the Mideast.
At least Ross is considered something of a moderate in the Israeli spectrum, having long been regarded as the Labor Party’s "man in Washington." During the Bush years, Israel’s centrist Laborites in Washington were replaced by partisans of the right-wing Likud Party, who quickly came to dominate administration Mideast policy.
In recent weeks, official Washington has been locked in confusion over Iran.
The new CIA director, Leon Panetta, said in an interview, "there is no question, they (Iran) are seeking that (nuclear weapons) capability."
Pentagon chief Adm. Mike Mullen claimed Iran had "enough fissile material to build a bomb." Fox News trumpeted that Iran already had 50 nuclear weapons.
While the American Rome burns, here we go again with renewed hysteria over MWMD’s — Muslim Weapons of Mass Destruction. The war drums are again beating over Iran.
The czar of all 16 US intelligence agencies, Adm. Dennis Blair, stated Iran could have enough enriched uranium for one atomic weapon by 2010—2015. But he reaffirmed the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate that Iran does not have nuclear weapons and is not pursuing them. Defense Secretary Robert Gates backed up Blair. So did the UN nuclear agency.
Some of the confusion over Iran comes from misunderstanding nuclear enrichment, domestic politics, and recycled lurid scare stories from the days of Saddam Hussein and his "drones of death."
Iran is producing low-grade uranium-235 (LEU), enriched to only 2.5%, to generate electricity. Tehran has this absolute right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). Its centrifuge enrichment process at Nantaz is under 24-hour international inspection. Iran’s soon-to-open nuclear plant at Bushehr cannot produce nuclear weapons fuel. All of its spent fuel, which is under international safeguards, will be returned to supplier Russia.
Today, some 15 nations produce low-grade enriched uranium 235 (LEU-235), including Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France, and Japan. While visiting Japan’s defense ministry in Tokyo, I saw plans for an atomic weapon. Experts believe Japan could produce a nuclear warhead in within three months, if it so decided.
I also believe — though cannot prove — that Switzerland may have produced a few nuclear warheads in the early 1960’s and keeps them in one of its secret mountain forts as a sort of doomsday device.
Israel, India and Pakistan are all covert nuclear weapons powers and have refused to submit to international inspection. North Korea abrogated it.
Interestingly, rather than the much pilloried Iran, is is the original nuclear powers, the United States, USSR/Russia/Britain, France and China, who are all in violation of the nuclear arms treaty. The NNPT called for all nuclear powers to rapidly eliminate their nuclear forces. President Dwight Eisenhower championed this position. Far from eliminating their nuclear forces, all of the nuclear powers have expanded and modernized them.
UN inspectors report Iran has produced 1,010 kg of 2—3% enriched uranium (LEU). Iran insists it is for energy generation. Theoretically that is enough for one atomic bomb.
But to make a nuclear weapon, U-235 must be enriched to over 90% in an elaborate, costly process. Iran is not doing so, say UN inspectors, though they have raised certain technical questions about Iran’s nuclear process. Some believe Iran may go up to "breakout position," that is, having the components to assemble a weapon on fairly short notice.
Highly enriched U-235 or plutonium must then be milled and shaped into a perfect ball or cylinder. Any surface imperfections will prevent achieving critical mass. Next, high explosive lenses must surround the core, and detonate at precisely the same millisecond. In the gun system, two cores must collide at very high speed. In some cases, a stream of neutrons are pumped into the device as it explodes.
This process is highly complex. Nuclear weapons cannot be deemed reliable unless they are tested. North Korea recently detonated a device that fizzled. Iran has never built or tested a nuclear weapon. Israel and South Africa jointly tested a nuclear weapon in 1979.
Even if Iran had the capability to fashion a complex nuclear weapon, it would be useless without delivery. Iran’s sole medium-range delivery system is its unreliable, inaccurate 1,500-km-ranged Shahab-3. Miniaturizing and hardening nuclear warheads capable of flying atop a Shahab missile is another complex technological challenge.
It is inconceivable that Iran or anyone else would launch a single nuclear weapon. What if it didn’t go off? Imagine the embarrassment and the retaliation. Iran would need at least ten warheads and a reliable delivery system to be a credible nuclear power.
Israel, the primary target for any Iranian nuclear strike, has an indestructible triad of air, missile and sea-launched nuclear weapons pointed at Iran. An Israeli submarine with nuclear cruise missiles is on station off Iran’s coast.
Iran would be wiped off the map by even a few of Israel’s estimated 200 plus nuclear weapons. Iran is no likelier to use a nuke against its Gulf neighbors. The explosion would blanket Iran with radioactive dust and sand.
Finally, while Washington keeps invoking the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, India has quietly developed a large nuclear arsenal and will soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to North America.
If Obama and his senior advisors are too bagged out to give a decent state dinner for Gordon Brown, how are they going to handle Tehran’s wily, ultra-difficult ayatollahs? Iran has cursed every US administration since Jimmy Carter.
Let’s hope President Obama has the good sense to make good on his promises to normalize relations with Iran. Kicking sand into Iran’s face at a time when the new president is expanding the war in Afghanistan and battling economic doom is a very bad idea.
Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada. He is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.