"How did it come to pass that an opposition's measure of a president's foreign policy was all or nothing, success or "failure"? The answer is that the political absolutism now normal in Washington arrived at the moment--Nov. 7, 2000--that our politics subordinated even a war against terror to seizing the office of the presidency." - Daniel Henninger - WSJ 11/18/05
"the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." - George Orwell

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Change Tack on Nuclear Iran

An article at Realite EU, reprinted from The Financial Times (8/16/07) points to some of the basics of what Iran is and is not doing. Sadly, it all becomes possible due to time; time that time and again is given to Iran for its weapons grade enrichment of uranium.

Hey, it's only for peace, with peaceful intentions...won't you give us time to prove this? Need more time? Peter Zimmerman, Realite EU:

"Iran has stalled and teased and played the European Union three of Britain, France and Germany as an expert fisherman might handle the big one. For more than 18 years Iran violated its safeguards agreement with the Inter-national Atomic Energy Agency, in effect violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty, by conducting clandestine enrichment research and experiments without declaring them to inspectors.

Then Iran began the process of learning to enrich uranium in earnest and on an industrial scale. All the while it held out the prospect that it might suspend its activities if only the right concessions were made. Iran needed time to advance its nuclear weapons programme and, by buying into intermin¬able negotiations, we gave it.

We are still giving Iran time. Late in June Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief negotiator, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director-general, agreed to work out a “plan of action” within two months on resolving IAEA questions about Tehran’s contested atomic programme. A team of IAEA inspectors has just returned from a mission to see Iran’s heavy water reactor construction site.

This may sound like more of an advance than it is, as Iran’s safeguards agreement mandates such inspections. At the same time Iran is claiming an “inalienable right” to enjoy the benefits of nuclear technology under the terms of the NPT, because its programmes were exclusively for “peaceful purposes”. It does not, in fact, enjoy that right because it is engaged in a programme which violates critical parts of its safeguards agreement and which appears to be intended to make nuclear weapons. Nuclear safeguards are not a menu from which a nation can choose which parts it will follow and which it will not.

Ordinary uranium contains 0.7 per cent of the only isotope that matters, U-235, the one that fuels nuclear bombs. Most of the remaining 99.3 per cent is U-238, which is not usable on its own in atomic weapons. The process of “enrichment” is really one of concentration, in which the U-238 is progressively filtered out using centrifuges. When the concentration of U-235 reaches 90 per cent or more, the mater¬ial is often termed “weapons grade”, and very efficient bombs and warheads can be made.

Many thousands of centrifuges are needed to process industrial quantities to highly enriched uranium. The west and the IAEA thought this was a target that would take Iran a long time to hit. But we now know that the Iran¬ians have 10 centrifuge cascades, totalling 1,640 machines. However, Iran claims to have assembled at least 3,000 centrifuges, enough to make another nine or 10 cascades. As the centrifuges now operating are configured, Iran is making 4 per cent U-235, suit¬able for use in a power reactor: 3,000 centrifuges will produce U-235 for one bomb each year.

It is now obvious that Iran skilfully played for time until they reached a rather high level of technical mastery of the enrichment process. This is the price paid by the west and the Russians and Chinese for their reluctance to apply meaningful sanctions to Iran two and even three years ago.

Even if Iran abandons its plans to build more than the current 3,000 centrifuges, another problem remains. Part of any negotiation will have to be an iron-clad guarantee that supplies of fuel for Iranian nuclear power reactors will be available, no matter what political winds blow. In practice that will almost certainly mean that Iran will be allowed to hold at least a year’s spare fresh fuel as a buffer. The danger here is that reactor fuel, enriched to 4 per cent U-235, is already more than halfway to bomb grade because enrichment becomes easier as concentration of U-235 increases. If Iran decides to throw out international inspectors and abandon the NPT, the capabilities of its “pilot plant” will be more than doubled if it taps into its stock of reactor fuel.

American hawks and neocons are reputedly putting pressure on the Bush administration to talk tougher and to plan military strikes. While the military option must remain on the horizon, it would be an error to make the threat explicit right now. The advances in Iran’s nuclear programme mean that vigorous diplomacy backed by credible sanctions must aim at removing the completed centrifuges. This will buy some time, and sometimes delay is equivalent to denial, especially if it allows time for the Islamic Republic to abandon its nuclear programme and its hostility to its neighbours."

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