October 13, 2015
‘The Iran Agenda’
Posted on Dec 3, 2007
By Reese Erlich
Is Nuclear Power Islamic?
Shortly after coming to power, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini scrapped the shah’s nuclear power programs as un-Islamic. In fact, he called nuclear power “the work of the devil.”21
Not coincidentally, the United States and Europeans had completely halted their devil’s work in Iran. Germany had stopped construction on the Bushehr nuclear reactor. The United States, Germany, and France had cut off supplies of equipment and nuclear material. All three governments had refused to refund any money already paid, despite cancellation of the nuclear contracts. So while Koranic scholars might disagree on whether nuclear power was consistent with Islam, as a practical matter, Iran wasn’t getting any.
Starting in 1980, Iran fought a bloody war with Iraq. Each side feared the other might develop nuclear weapons. Iraq repeatedly bombed Iran’s unfinished nuclear facilities, further setting back any possibility of completing them.
By the end of the war in 1988, Iran was in the midst of a population explosion. Iran’s population grew from 39.2 million in 1980 to 68.7 million in 2006. Iran’s energy planners could see that demand would far outstrip supply. Continuing to extract oil and natural gas at the projected levels wouldn’t be enough to guarantee a steady supply of electricity.22 An analysis by a National Academy of Sciences scientist predicted Iran could run out of oil to export by 2015.23
So nuclear power was back on the table. In 1989 Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani signed a ten-point agreement with the USSR to provide nuclear materials and related equipment. The Soviets were to finish the Bushehr reactor started by the Germans in the 1970s. In 1990 Iran signed a ten-year nuclear cooperation agreement with China.
The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis
By Reese W. Erlich
Polipoint Press, 192 pages
Although it was kept secret at the time, Iran also bought parts and technology from A. Q. Khan, Pakistan’s so-called father of the atomic bomb, who also had nuclear dealings with Libya and North Korea. Iran built a secret nuclear facility in the central Iranian city of Natanz. Later, after three years of inspections, the IAEA also determined that Iran had used lasers to purify uranium starting in 1991 and had researched a rare element called polonium-210, which could be used in a nuclear bomb trigger.24
The Iranians argued that they had engaged in the secret activity to prevent the United States from stopping their plans for nuclear power development and that they had no intention of developing nuclear weapons.
Discussing the issue of secrecy, Sahimi told me, “Let’s say Iran had announced back in 1985 that ‘Hey guys, we want to make a uranium enrichment facility.’ What do you think would have happened? Would the U.S. and [European Union] have rushed to help Iran? No, they would have done everything in their power to deny Iran’s rights.”25
In 2003 Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa, an official religious ruling, that declared Islam forbids the building or stockpiling of nuclear weapons.26 Before dismissing such a ruling as propaganda, it’s worth noting that similar religious reasoning stopped Iran from using chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, despite Saddam Hussein’s numerous chemical assaults against Iranian troops and civilians.
Enriching Uranium—a Tough Rock to Crack
The United States asserts that Iran’s desire to enrich uranium demonstrates its desire to develop nuclear weapons. So what is enrichment anyway?
Raw uranium must go through a process to raise the concentration of the isotope U-235 in order to either produce fuel for a nuclear reactor or make a nuclear bomb. Despite twenty years of off-and-on attempts, Iran has yet to perfect the process on any industrial scale.
Iran does have a limited amount of domestic uranium. First, the ore would have to be milled and subjected to an acid bath to leech out the uranium. The resulting yellowish ore is called yellow cake. Then it’s combined with fluorine to produce uranium hexafluoride, or UF6.
Then the process gets really hairy. The uranium hexafluoride must pass through a series of hundreds of spinning centrifuges. Imagine a bunch of pipes and whirling motors passing the liquid through cascading cylinders like a water filtration system.27
The cascades can produce 5 percent enriched U-235 for use in nuclear power plants. Iran would have to make 93 percent enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb but can do so using the same technical process. By the summer of 2007, Iran had installed 1300 centrifuges. But it needs an estimated 3000 centrifuges running flawlessly for a year to make one nuclear bomb.
And getting those centrifuge cascades to work properly is a big technical challenge, according to experts. The centrifuges “spin 60,000 rounds per minute,” said Sahimi. “They generate a lot of vibrations, which must be controlled. The centrifuges can’t be contaminated because they are easily corroded. Once the centrifuges start working, it’s not wise to shut them down and start them again. This damages them. There are all sorts of technical problems.”
In August 2006 the IAEA reported that Iran had to slow down its enrichment activities, perhaps due to technical difficulties with the centrifuges.28 ElBaradei said in October 2006, that even with all of Iran’s centrifuges running, it would take years to enrich enough uranium to make a single Bomb.29
Iran Is Just Five to Ten Years from Making a Bomb, Really
Every few years U.S. intelligence officials estimate Iran is just years from making a Bomb. In 1995, a “senior U.S. official” estimated Iran was five years from making the Bomb.30 A 2005 National Intelligence Estimate, representing a consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, predicted Iran could have the Bomb somewhere around 2015.31 In early 2006 Israeli intelligence, on the other hand, argued that Iran is much closer to having a Bomb, perhaps one to three years away. In citing such estimates, the U.S. media don’t provide any corroboration nor explain why the Israeli assessment differs so widely from the CIA’s and IAEA’s. Indeed, Israel keeps postponing its estimates of when Iran will have the Bomb. At the end of 2006, Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, claimed Iran could have a Bomb by 2009 or 2010.32
Israel’s estimates are clearly influenced by its political and military goals. Using President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements attacking Israel and questioning the existence of the Holocaust, Israel proclaims Iran an immediate military threat. In reality, Ahmadinejad poses no offensive nuclear threat to Israel.33 Iran would be insane to launch a first strike against the militarily far superior Israel, let alone a nuclear strike with an arsenal of one or two bombs. Such an action would give the United States and Israel a political excuse to wreck havoc on Iran and gain lots of international support.
But Israel does have a vested interest in creating anxiety around a possible Iranian Bomb. While Iran has no ability to wipe Israel off the map, it does support the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese political party and guerrilla group Hizbollah. Iran gives them political, financial, and military backing. Israel doesn’t want to suffer another defeat like its 2006 war against Hizbollah. So rather than give up occupied territory and agree to establishing a Palestinian state, Israeli leaders blame outsiders. Israel seeks to weaken or, preferably, overthrow Iran’s government.
Israeli officials, along with U.S. hawks, argue that Iran will soon reach “a point of no return,” in which it will have both the theoretical knowledge and the practical ability to create weapons-grade plutonium. After that point, the hawks argue, Iran must be confronted militarily. The advantage of this argument, of course, is that it’s all hypothetical. The Iranians cross this point of no return at whatever time the hawks allege. Who can prove otherwise?
In the spring of 2006, Bush seemed to echo those sentiments, justifying a military attack by setting the bar impossibly high for Iran. “The world is united and concerned about [Iranians’] desire to have not only a nuclear weapon, but the capacity to make a nuclear weapon or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon” (emphasis added), Bush said in an April 2006 press conference.34 No one can possibly prove what knowledge scientists might have in their brains. But according to Bush’s logic, Iran is a dangerous enemy so long as its scientists might, at some time in the future, think about building a Bomb.
On July 31, 2006, the United States rounded up European powers, and got China and Russia to acquiesce, to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1696. The resolution demanded that Iran stop “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.”35 (Reprocessing involves removing highly radioactive plutonium from nuclear waste products, a procedure that can lead to production of bomb-grade fuel.) A month later, in a report not released to the public, IAEA Director ElBaradei indicated that Iran was not reprocessing uranium.
ElBaradei criticized Iran, however, for continued attempts at uranium enrichment. “Iran has not addressed the long outstanding verification issues or provided the necessary transparency to remove uncertainties associated with some of its activities,” wrote ElBaradei.36
An IAEA official told the New York Times, “the qualitative and quantitative development of Iran’s enrichment program continues to be fairly limited.”37
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