May 25, 2013
The End of Obama’s Vision of a Nuke-Free World
Posted on Feb 16, 2010
By Scott Ritter
As any student of foreign and national security policy well knows, the devil is in the details. Back in April 2009, in a speech delivered in Prague, the Czech Republic, President Barack Obama articulated his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Since that time, however, the Obama administration has offered very little of substance to push this vision forward. When one looks past the grand statements of the president for policy implementation that supports the rhetoric, one is left empty-handed. No movement on ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). No extension of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia (START). No freeze on the development of a new generation of American nuclear weapons. Without progress in these areas, any prospects of a new approach to global nuclear nonproliferation emerging from the May 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference are virtually zero.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of failed nonproliferation policy on the part of the Obama administration is the fact that there has been no progress on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, and in particular the ongoing controversy surrounding a proposed uranium exchange. The deal would have Iran swap a significant portion of its existing stock of 3.5 percent enriched uranium (the level needed to fuel Iran’s planned nuclear power reactors, as opposed to uranium enriched to 90 percent, which is needed for nuclear weapons) in exchange for nuclear fuel rods containing uranium enriched to 19.5 percent (the level needed to operate a U.S.-built research reactor in Tehran that produced nuclear isotopes for medical purposes). Iran is running out of fuel for this reactor, and needs a new source of fuel or else it will be forced to shut it down. As a signatory member of the NPT, Iran should have the right to acquire this fuel on the open market, subject of course to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, but the United States and Europe have held any such sale hostage to Iran’s agreeing to suspend its indigenous uranium enrichment program, which is the source of the 3.5 percent enriched uranium currently in Iran.
The crux of the U.S. and European concerns rests not with Iran’s possession of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, but rather that the enrichment technique employed by Iran to produce this low-enriched uranium could be used, with some significant modifications, to manufacture high-enriched uranium (90 percent) usable in a nuclear weapon. This reality, and the fears of a nuclear-armed Iran it produces, trumps the fact that the IAEA today is in a position to certify that it can account for the totality of Iran’s inventory of nuclear material, and that any diversion of nuclear material would be detected by the IAEA almost immediately. Furthermore, beyond its capacity to enrich uranium, there is no real evidence that Iran has engaged in a nuclear weapons program.
But the fear and hype that emanate from American and European policymakers, strongly influenced by the zero-tolerance policy of Israel when it comes to Iran and anything nuclear, peaceful or otherwise, have created an environment where common sense goes out the window and anything becomes possible. Take, for instance, Iran’s current stock of 3.5 percent enriched uranium. The IAEA certifies that Iran is in possession of approximately 1,800 kilograms of this material. Policy wonks and those in the intelligence community given to hypotheticals have postulated scenarios that have Iran using this stock of 3.5 percent enriched uranium as the feedstock for a breakout enrichment effort that, if left to its own devices, could produce enough high-enriched uranium (90 percent) for a single nuclear bomb. This breakout capability would require Iran to reconfigure thousands of the centrifuges it uses for low-level enrichment for use in the stepped-up process of follow-on enrichment. Ironically, one of the next steps required in such a scenario would be for Iran to reconfigure its centrifuges to enrich uranium up to 20 percent—roughly the level Iran needs for the nuclear fuel required to operate the Tehran research reactor.
Fears about a potential covert Iranian enrichment breakout capability reached feverish proportions when, in September 2009, Iran revealed the existence of (and U.S. intelligence proclaimed the discovery of) a prospective small underground centrifuge enrichment facility near the city of Qom. The fact that this facility was under construction, and consisted as of September 2009 of little more than a reinforced hole in the ground without any equipment installed, did nothing to allay the fears of those who saw an Iranian nuclear bomb behind every bush, or under every rock. Suddenly Iran was on the verge of having a nuclear bomb, and something had to be done to prevent this from happening.
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