Monday, September 03, 2007

Iran: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb--Part 1

By 5th Estate

August 29th 2007:

Speaking to an American Legion crowd, President Bush accused Iran of being an international sponsor of terror, providing material and know-how to Iraqis in the use of “murderous” EFPs ( Explosively Formed Penetrator---or Projectile) against US personnel in Iraq, adding:

"And Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons
threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaustwe will confront this danger before it is too late." (emphasis added)
October 10 2002:
Speaking at the Cincinnati Museum Center President Bush accused Iraq of aiding the 9-11 attacks and added for good measure that
“[Iraq] is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism, and practices terror against its own people. Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” (emphasis added)
Now just because Bush was selling a pack of lies and hysteria back then it doesn't automatically follow that he's selling a pack of lies and hysteria now (bear with me on this). Unlike Saddam Hussein, Iran does have an active nuclear development program that is advancing. Iran also has a bellicose President. On the other hand, we have a more bellicose President (still!) with a desperate need to distract the US from all his failures by using the tactic that worked for him in the past; fear-mongering.

Interestingly enough though, Bush isn't conjuring a new threat out of desperate expediency. Iran has always been as much a target of the neocons and conservatives as Iraq.

Back in March 2003 the IAEA was busy inspecting the nascent Iranian nuclear program:
“On a visit last month to Tehran, International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed El Baradei announced he had discovered that Iran was constructing a facility to enrich uranium — a key component of advanced nuclear weapons — near Natanz”, reported TIME.
Note that this was at the same time that the IAEA had been reporting the interesting absence of an equivalent Iraqi program--which Bush et al ignored.

But TIME also reported this:
“…diplomatic sources tell TIME the plant is much further along than
previously revealed
. The sources say work on the plant is "extremely advanced" and involves "hundreds" of gas centrifuges ready to produce
enriched uranium
and "the parts for a thousand others ready to
be assembled."
(emphasis added)
Got that? The IAEA was reporting that the Iranians were constructing a 'facility' to enrich uranium, whilst unnamed “diplomatic sources” claimed that the work was “extremely advanced” and that the Iranians already had hundreds of production-ready centrifuges , with a thousand more ready for assembly--and by implication, immediately usable. (You need a functioning facility to operate the centrifuges).

Taking the “diplomatic sources” word on the state of the Iranian’s nuclear program back then, one might imagine that by now, 4-1/2 years later, Iran would have many thousands of centrifuges in full production, right?

Well not until February 2006 could the Iranians demonstrate a 164-centrifuge cascade —rather less than the “hundreds” that “diplomatic sources” claimed were “ready” to produce enriched uranium almost 3 years earlier.

(Oh those silly unnamed sources, why do they always get it wrong--yet keep their jobs anyway?)

So what's the situation now? According to the September 02 edition of the New York Times:

"A report released Thursday by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna said that there were nearly 2,000 centrifuges running in the bunker-like facility in Natanz, with about 650 centrifuges being tested or under construction."
Ahmadinejad’s claim last Sunday of having 3,000 centrifuges already is therefore somewhat exaggerated and he failed to mention that they weren’t all operational yet.

Still the plan is for 3,000 centrifuges to be functioning by the end of this year. And although this suggests those “diplomatic sources” that TIME so readily quoted weren’t very accurate in their assessment 4-1/2 years ago, perhaps they can be forgiven and perhaps now the alarm can be justifiably raised, as Bush is doing?

After all, though it took the Iranians 3 years to create a 164-centrifuge cascade, it has taken only 1-1/2 years to increase that to a 2,000-centrifuge cascade, expected to reach 3.000 by the end of the year—so they are obviously making significant progress.

(NYTimes)--“The [IAEA] report also raised questions about the expertise of the Iranian enrichment program, noting that the product was “well below the expected quantity for a facility of this design.” (emphasis added)
So in another uncanny repeat, the IAEA reports soberly whilst the US freaks out.

Now are the Iranians just trying to fool the IAEA by keeping the dial on 2 instead of cranking it up to 11 (as it were)? Maybe…it’s impossible to tell from this limited information. Ignoring the track-record, could the US be correct in its warnings this time around? Are the Iranian's so close to having nuclear weapons that the "danger has to be confronted before it is too late"? How many centrifuges do the Iranians need before they get to launch a "nuclear holocaust"?
“Some 54,000 centrifuges would be required to produce enough nuclear fuel for a reactor.” says the AP ( and FOX News seems okay with that).
It has taken the Iranians 1-1/2 years to have a functioning cascade of 2,000, and they want to build another 1,000 centrifuges in the next 4 months (getting them active may be another issue). So if they build centrifuges at a rate of 3,000 a year, it will take them about 16-1/2 years to reach the 54,000 needed to run a nuclear power plant. That doesn't sound like much of a "threat" does it? So let's say they ramp it up and do it in 10 years. That's for a power plant, not for a nuclear arsenal.

Now India, for example, acquired a research reactor from Canada and heavy-water from the US in the early 60's. It's first plutonium test was in 1974. It took them until the late 1990's to develop warheads. It is believed they now have 30-35 nuclear warheads and enough weapons grade plutonium for 50-90. So basically it took them 30 years to become a nuclear power.

Now one might argue that these days the technology is easier, the principles and processes more well known and thus Iran might be able to accomplish the same goal in half the time--15 years. But despite the activities of A. Q. Kahn, the requisite expertise can't be easily bought "off the shelf"--if that were the case the nuclear club would be a lot bigger. And Iran isn't actually awash with cash, despite the current high oil prices-- the rulers there have to consider more mundane domestic spending too.

So I'd argue at this point that the Iranians are at least 5 years away from just getting a power plant, 10 years from testing a device, 20 years from starting a functioning arsenal--assuming no outside interference (of which there will be plenty).

Sure it's still something to worry about, but there are other ways to affect the situation then engaging in an immediate three-day 1,200-target "air strike"--which would actually be an act of war, based on the predictions of a neocon-powered Magic 8-Ball, shaken repeatedly until the desired response emerges .

An examination of the fears and follies surrounding this issue will be the subject of a second post—which hopefully I’ll be able to complete before the bomb drops.

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