Here We Go Again With the Iranian Nuclear Scare
By Eric S. Margolis
March 09, 2009 "Khaleej Times" -- - While the United States was fighting for its economic life, 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?
Much of the uproar over Iran’s so-far non-existent nuclear weapons must be seen as part of efforts by the Israeli lobby to block President Barack Obama’s proposed opening to Teheran, and to keep pressing the US to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Israel’s supporters and most Israeli military experts insist Iran has secret weapons programmes. Israel knows about covert nuclear programs, having run one of the world’s largest and most productive.
The hawkish Hillary Clinton’s naming of veteran Israel supporter Dennis Ross as her special adviser on Iran and the Gulf suggest she is more interested in building future domestic political support than securing balanced advice.
Meanwhile, confusion over Iran grew sharply. New CIA director, Leon Panetta, said ‘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 claimed 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. Wars 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. Defence Secretary William Gates backed up Blair. So does the UN nuclear agency. Some of the confusion over Iran comes from misunderstanding nuclear enrichment, and lurid scare stories.
Iran is producing low-grade uranium-235 (LEU), enriched to only 2.5 per cent, to generate electricity. Teheran has this absolute right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its centrifuge enrichment process at Natanz is under 24-hour international inspection. Iran’s soon to open nuclear plant at Bushehr cannot produce nuclear weapons fuel. Its spent fuel will be returned to Russia.
Today, some 15 nations produce LEU U-235, including Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France, and Japan. Israel, India and Pakistan, all covert nuclear weapons powers, refused to sign the non-proliferation treaty. North Korea abrogated it. UN inspectors report Iran has produced 1,010 kg of 2-3 per cent enriched uranium for energy generation, insists Iran. Theoretically that is enough for one atomic bomb.
But to make a nuclear weapon, U-235 must be enriched to over 90 per cent in an elaborate, costly process. Iran is not doing so, say UN inspectors.
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 200 nuclear weapons. Iran is no likelier to use a nuke against its Gulf neighbours. The explosion would blanket Iran with radioactive dust and sand.
Washington would do better to stop worrying about Iran and focus on its economic meltdown.
Eric S Margolis is a veteran US journalist who has reported from the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan for several years