Posted by: sean | January 23, 2007

More on Iran and the bomb

The London Review of Books has another article by Norman Dombey, Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at Sussex University, on Iran and the bomb. He looks at historical precedents, especially when Israel bombed the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981 while looking a little into the nuts and bolts of Iran’s nuclear programs:

The Arak reactor is certainly more suitable for producing plutonium than Osirak would have been: it can run on natural uranium fuel (0.7 per cent U-235, 99.3 per cent U-238), so the irradiated fuel rods would be good sources of plutonium. Israel and India obtained plutonium for their weapons programmes from this type of reactor. Arak is not due to be finished until 2009 at the earliest and it will need to run for at least one year before its fuel rods can be withdrawn and plutonium extracted. Nevertheless, when constructed, the reactor is expected to be inspected regularly by the IAEA, specifically in order to detect any diversion of nuclear material for potential weapon use.

So, until or unless Iran withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the facilities at Natanz and Arak are safeguarded by the IAEA. Cameras are installed at Natanz (they function continuously), and there are monthly inspections. Similar arrangements will be made for Arak. Any enriched uranium or plutonium made will be under IAEA seal and will not be available for casting into the core of a weapon. There is no pressing nuclear threat from Iran at the moment; nor does there appear to be a tipping point in sight, beyond which it would be impossible to prevent the country from acquiring weapons.

Sources close to the US and Israeli governments nevertheless insist that Iran represents a significant threat, which needs to be dealt with without delay. They assert that Iran has a clandestine programme in addition to its declared programme, as Iraq had. Israeli intelligence claims that Iran is close to having an implosion capability, which it will need to make compact weapons. Yet according to Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker in November, the CIA recently completed an assessment of the evidence for the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons programme. The report, which was based on satellite and other data, concluded that there was no evidence of a secret programme. Nor can it be assumed that Iran could make weapons small enough to fit into missiles without testing: the dud North Korean test shows that even with testing success cannot be taken for granted.

A diplomatic solution is available, but the US and its EU allies do not want to consider it. It is the same deal I have mentioned in these pages before, whereby Iran would be allowed limited enrichment rights (say, up to 5 per cent enrichment), together with security guarantees and technical help. Richard Haass, who was director of policy planning at the State Department until 2003, believes that ‘Iran should be offered an array of economic, political and security incentives’, including ‘a highly limited uranium-enrichment pilot programme so long as it accepts highly intrusive inspections’.

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