Nuclear Disinformation (Extract)

A somewhat blustering war of words on the Iranian nuclear threat is being waged

08ahmad (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
08ahmad (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. After anonymous U.S. State Department officials leaked to the media that it seems possible that Israel would lose its patience and launch an attack on Tehran's nuclear sites, Iran responded with daily threats that it would severely punish anyone who dared to harm its atomic assets. These threats that range from blocking the Straits of Hormuz to bombarding Tel Aviv with missiles. Apart from Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, the ex-chief of staff, who is well known for his habit of putting his foot in his mouth, Israel's leadership has refrained from specific warnings or counter-threats, merely repeating the mantra that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. This dance of declarations has been going on for several weeks, with no small quantity of fabricated media accounts and hair-raising speculation providing the background, mostly on the part of the British press, which long ago lost any pretense of seriousness when it comes to covering the Middle East. So the headlines seethe with war fever, vociferous politicians blow hot air at the cameras, and cynical journalists concoct fake reports without any connection at all to the true state of affairs. Discourse on the issue of a nuclear Iran is accompanied by a pitch of anger and anxiety that blocks out any attempt to take a calm look at this so complex and so danger-fraught problem. Nevertheless, here are ten points that are worth remembering: • Iran is determined to gallop at full speed toward the stage at which it will be a hair's breadth from assembling a nuclear bomb. Even the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran abandoned its plan to make a bomb three years ago expressed no doubts about this. The Iranians are doing everything they can to forge ahead, investing vast sums in what has become the keystone of their foreign policy. It is nuclear capability that will serve as their ticket the "Big Brother" status that Iran has been striving for since the days of the Shah. It is the business card that they'll hand to the United States to win its recognition. And it is the umbrella which will protect their effort to realize their post-imperial aspirations for hegemony over the Middle East. However, as of now they have not yet decided to cross the red line and make nuclear weapons. They are preparing to seize an opportunity to do so that may crop up down the road - but for the time being they do not believe the time is ripe. They are studying the instructions for assembling the bomb and other atomic weapons, but are apparently not trying to do actually do it. • One of the reasons for this is that the Iranians are finding it very difficult, some might say increasingly difficult, to master the technology required to enrich uranium by means of its P-1 And IR-2 centrifuges. They have encountered severe snags, including breakdowns in the running of the devices, and they are sure to encounter more in the future. This is why they are lagging behind their own timetable. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad goes much further in his rhetorics than the engineers at the enrichment installation at Natanz have actually achieved - there are not 6,000 centrifuges functioning in cascades there, but only about half of that number. They therefore have less fissile material than they hoped to have, in terms of both quantity and purity. Theoretically, to produce enough for one bomb it would take them a whole year of keeping the centrifuges going 24 hours of every day without any snags or stoppages. This is still too complex a task for them. • The Iranians would prefer to use enriched uranium in their bomb, but they are also working on the alternative, plutonium, and here too they have run into grave difficulties. The heavy water reactor they are building in Arak is still far from completion and it will be a long time before it is operational. Experts say that the plutonium option - which the Israelis chose for their Dimona operation - could be more efficient for the Iranians, but at this stage it is only their back-up track. • The third track - the least dangerous one - that they are trying to follow is the light water reactor the Russians are building at the port of Bushehr, and here too there is a long history of delays and stoppages. The construction of no similar reactor has ever taken so long, and it is still unfinished. The Russians, who took over after the German concern Siemens which began construction pulled out, are clearly dragging their feet and for years they have failed to meet their commitments to the Iranians, who are furious and are delaying the transfer of payments. They are also aware that the Russians actually sold them an obsolete and accident-prone reactor, of the Chernobyl generation. Even if and when it starts working, the Iranians will have to blatantly break their promises to the Russians in order to try and produce weapons grade material there. In fact, the Russians are right when they answer their critics by saying that Bushehr represents the least of the dangers posed by Iran's nuclear program. • Even if the Iranians manage to produce enough fissile material for a bomb, there is no evidence (unless highly classified intelligence reports say otherwise) that they can make a deliverable nuke. North Korea, which is ten times more advanced than Iran in its nuclear capability, never managed to make a real bomb, and there is serious doubt whether the device that it tested was a success. From Israel's point of view, what's important is that the Iranian Air Force is equipped with obsolescent aircraft - the best being the MiG 29 and the Sukhoi 24 - and they lack the ability to carry nuclear bombs to Israel. But Iran does have several dozen Shihab 3 missiles (and a dozen launchers) with a 1,250-kilometer range, covering the whole of Israel. These missiles still have defects in their guidance systems, despite North Korean assistance, and the Iranians have never tried to test-launch them twice over the same range. Nevertheless, the Shihab 3 can be fitted with a nuclear warhead, but that is a very technological challenge that - if at all - will not be carried out speedily. This is even more true when it comes to tactical-nuclear warheads on shorter-range missiles like the Fajr, the Zilzal and the Fateh, which are in the hands of Hizballah. Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.