Monday, April 09, 2007

Iran's Nuke Program and the Chicken-Little Hawks

Another day, another gaseous announcement from Iran's president - and another round of "the sky is falling" from anti-Iran hawks who won't let the facts get in the way of a good dose of scaremongering.

The AP reports
Iran announced Monday that it has begun enriching uranium with 3,000 centrifuges, defiantly expanding a nuclear program that has drawn U.N. sanctions and condemnation from the West.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a ceremony at the enrichment facility at Natanz that Iran was now capable of enriching nuclear fuel "on an industrial scale."

Asked if Iran has begun injecting uranium gas into 3,000 centrifuges for enrichment, top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani replied, "Yes." He did not elaborate, but it was the first confirmation that Iran had installed the larger set of centrifuges after months of saying it intends to do so. Until now, Iran was only known to have 328 centrifuges operating.
The BBC reports pretty much the same thing but injects a note of caution.
He did not say how many centrifuges - the machines that spin uranium gas in order to enrich it to levels needed for fuel - were now operational at Natanz. Iran announced in February that it had set up two cascades of 164 centrifuges each at Natanz. It said it planned to have 3,000 centrifuges by the end of last month. Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator with the West, said at Natanz on Monday that Iran had begun injecting gas into many of the centrifuges, without specifying the number.
However, the AP's report also quotes a sceptic:
Michael Levi, a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, was skeptical of the Iranian claims. He said by his calculations, the capabilities Iran has just announced would provide 10 percent of the material needed to run its plant.

"To me, that's not industrial scale," Levi said. "An industrial-scale facility is a facility that can support your industry."

On the other hand, "from a political perspective, it's more important to have them in place than to have them run properly," he explained since the announcement stirs up support and patriotism at home, and the international community has almost no way to verify how well the program is working.

"Iran looks to be moving its nuclear program along on a political schedule rather than a technical schedule," Levi said.

Levi marveled that Iran has the power to cause such a stir with an announcement. He noted that most of the time, world leaders complain they can't trust Iran, "except when they say something really scary, we take them at their word."
Yet none of this scepticism, so usually forefront when the hawks evaluate Iranian claims to be peaceful and un-machieavellian, was in evidence today in their opinions. Taking their lead from the Bush administration who said that they ""don't believe Iran's assurances that their (nuclear) program is peaceful in nature," and that "Iran continues to defy the international community", the rightwing pundits were out in force.

Michael van der Galien (who would be very rightwing in his home country but is a moderate in US terms in much the same way as I am seen as very Left in the US but pretty centrist back in the UK), says "As I have always said, if necessary the West should be prepared to use force. Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon". And it is pretty obvious that he thinks the time has come to use force.

Hot Air says that
the vaunted international community is letting one of the most pernicious regimes on the face of the earth obtain nuclear weapons. Everyone knows what’s going on. No one is willing to do much about it. We stand villified for stopping Saddam Hussein, and would be villified all the more if we act any time soon to stop Mahmoud. When he gets the nuke and blows up a city somewhere, we’ll be villified for not stopping him. That’s how the international community works.
Sister Toldjah agrees and adds:
it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the left (and the mediots) who have already accused the President of deliberately overstating the case against Iran “just like he did Iraq”, would prefer the UN ‘handle’ foreign policy matters of grave concern to the US: because, like the UN, the left would rather just look like sound tough (sic) than actually be tough.
While The Corner, as ever, looks for a political advantage while banging the war drum.
On balance, I think the Iran issue will help the Republicans during the campaign. My concern is that by the time a new president comes in, of whatever party, it will be too late to stop Iran.
Even Andrew Sullivan, who you would think would be once burned twice shy, gets on the bandwagon. But the scaremongering prize goes to Gina Cobb for the OTT headline "Guess who's Getting Ready To Nuke America?"

The Right, collectively, needs to take a Valium and remember that it isn't the size of your cascade that counts, it is what you do with it. If Levi's words above don't help calm you, then try The Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis - a real expert - just three days ago. Lewis points out that "they have to work to be scary".
Iran still cannot operate its current cascades on a continuous basis. Instead, the IAEA reports that Iran continues to feed UF6 “intermittently” into single, 10-, 24- and 164 machine cascades.

David and Jackie Shire recently did a really cool calculation based on Iran’s UF6 consumption to show that the centrifuges are only operating about 20 percent of the time (say 5 hours a day).
Lewis then repeats those calculations - go look, they're fun - and concludes that Iran's centrifuges are either working too hard - and crashing regularly - or hardly working, perhaps for diplomatic reasons or perhaps because they have a vimited supply of feedstock gas. Either way, the 20% efficiency rating stands.

So a 20% efficiency rating on an unknown number of centrifuges actually in operation but likely nowhere near the 3,000 installed. Which means you can multiply any worst-case estimate for Iranian nukes by at least five. That's the scientific basis for the Chicken Little scaremongering. The real basis is that the hawks want war with Iran and don't much care about facts getting in the way.

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