Nuclear Panic: The US Role in Iran’s Nuclear Program

February 25th, 2006 - by admin

Jonathan Power / International Herald Tribune – 2006-02-25 10:49:15

LONDON (February 22, 2006) — Lost somewhere in the mists of history is the knowledge that it was the pro-American Shah of Iran who initiated Iran’s quest to build a nuclear bomb. And it was the anti-American revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini that initially suspended work on the bomb.

Fanning the panic of proliferation has been a mainstay of the Bush administration, supported in the wings by the British government and more recently France’s president, Jacques Chirac. It is a high stakes game that can slide too easily into the call for regime change, as it did with Iraq.

Yet current would-be proliferators are arguably not as set on proliferating, nor even as advanced in their capabilities, as their antagonists suggest. Meanwhile, unyielding critical rhetoric combined with a lack of incentives to back down seems to only make the likes of North Korea and Iran more determined than ever.

Today’s game also overlooks the success of previous tactics. South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine and Kazakhstan and, most recently, Libya were persuaded to give up nuclear weapons programs because the right incentives were put before them.

In fact Libya’s nuclear program had gone on for many more years than has either Iran’s or North Korea’s. Despite a great deal of assistance from Pakistan’s rogue nuclear weapons’ entrepreneur, A.Q. Khan, Libya appeared seriously slowed, if not stalled, by apparently insurmountable difficulties.

Iran may well be trying to build nuclear weapons but doesn’t give the impression of being in a tearing hurry. Its heavy-water moderated research reactor will not be online until 2014. Those who have suggested an earlier timetable ignore the slow progress made on completing the Bushehr reactor, a light-water nuclear power reactor initially ordered from Germany in 1975.

As for North Korea, an evaluation by Alexander Montgomery, in the current issue of the quarterly journal International Security, argues that North Korea is likely to possess much less plutonium than is commonly claimed. Making a close analysis of the capacity factor of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and factoring in the number of shutdowns it has experienced as a result of mechanical problems, together with the fact that 700 broken fuel rods were placed in dry storage, it is unlikely that North Korea has more than enough plutonium for three bombs, not enough to sell or use in a test and still maintain a sufficient deterrent.

Moreover, North Korea only embarked on its effort to develop a uranium enrichment plant late in 2000. Perhaps North Korea all along has only thought of its nuclear weapons program as a useful bargaining chip.

The Bush administration’s tendency to overstate the dangers of these countries’ nuclear arms progress compares starkly with the peculiar insouciance of the Clinton administration.

Strobe Talbot, a former deputy secretary of state, confesses in his recent book the administration’s total surprise when India held its first nuclear weapons test, even though articles in The Statesman, an Indian daily, had warned it was coming a couple of months before.

Clinton’s only major accomplishment in the field was paced by the freelance diplomatic activity of former President Jimmy Carter. Clinton agreed to a deal forged by Carter and Kim Il Sung that ended North Korea’s nuclear bomb development in return for the building of two conventional nuclear power stations and a lifting of the American trade embargo. Clinton never seemed to realize this was his most stupendous foreign policy success and allowed the Republican majority in Congress to get away with sabotaging full implementation of the deal.

But the Clinton administration did lay the foundations for its successor to raise Cain about the possibility of a nuclear-armed rogue country building nuclear-tipped missiles sophisticated enough to reach the American heartland. The missile shield is a preposterous and expensive solution to a problem that need never exist.

Some opponents of the missile shield have said that an attack is more likely to come from a terrorist group armed with a stolen or primitively manufactured nuclear weapon smuggled in on a boat. But a new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies makes clear that Russian nuclear weapons have remained safely secured even during the early years of turbulence; there is no evidence of a nuclear back market. Demand has not responded to the minor supply. It is highly improbable that any terrorist group could become a do-it-yourself nuclear power; and so-called dirty bombs would cause only a small number of casualties.

Joe Public is being led by the nose on nuclear nonproliferation policy, which has become nothing more than a political game.

(Jonathan Power writes on foreign affairs.)

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