The recent United States National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which reports that Iran once had a “nuclear weapons program but suspended it in 2003, means that there will probably be no American attack on Iran during the Bush administration. How could America’s president explain to the world why he was bombing nuclear weapon facilities that his own intelligence services have said do not exist?
So, in all likelihood, the world has been spared a policy that would be as futile as it would be destructive. Indeed, the one act most likely to guarantee that Iran obtains nuclear weapons would be to attack it. (Nine years after Israel’s bombing raid on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, Saddam Hussein was nevertheless within a year of having an atomic bomb.)
Yet the NIE arrived at its result by a strange route. Every technically competent person knows that the paths to civilian nuclear power and to nuclear weapons are the same, except for a few last, comparatively simple steps. The hard part is obtaining the fissionable materials – plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Once that’s done, any nation – or even a sophisticated terrorist group – can do the rest.
Nuclear power requires low-enriched uranium as fuel. Enrich it further, in the same facilities, and you have bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). The remaining step – slamming two pieces of HEU together to create a critical mass and an explosion – is easy: the blueprints can be downloaded from the Internet. Indeed, the “secret of the hydrogen bomb was published in 1979 in an article by Howard Morland in The Progressive magazine, sparking a failed legal suit by the US government to suppress it.
The hard work of building facilities for enriching uranium is precisely what the Iranians are now already doing, if not yet in sufficient quantity to make a bomb, which might take them five or ten more years to acquire. But, once they acquire sufficient capacity, only the easy steps will remain.
Yet it is work on the easy steps, allegedly attempted and then canceled, that the NIE called Iran’s “nuclear weapon program. In light of the technical realities, it would have been more accurate to designate the difficult and openly acknowledged enrichment activity as the nuclear weapons program, for this is what can supply the guts of an atomic bomb. Ironically, Iran’s suspension of the easy steps creates the impression that its weapon program has been stopped, while the most important activity continues in plain sight.
Of course, this does not mean that once Iran has adequate enrichment facilities, it will make a bomb. But it is capacity, not intention, that counts. Iran could easily do what Japan does – hold enrichment facilities in readiness to make a bomb without actually doing so. Or, like India in 1974, it might wait a long time, then dash to the finish line and conduct an atomic test.
How has this confusion arisen? One answer lies in the provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which forbids nuclear weapons to most of its signatories but guarantees them the right to build technology for nuclear power, including uranium enrichment. Thus, the treaty unfortunately permits any signatory to acquire the most important facilities needed for making atomic bombs.
So, when the Bush administration wanted to oppose Iran’s program, merely pointing to the bare fact of enrichment wasn’t enough. It had to point to other acts, including concealment efforts, which violate the NPT, and argue that these infractions were so serious that Iran’s enrichment right must be taken away.
The US was thus led to a series of over-statements. In December 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney said, “There is every reason to believe that they are seriously pursuing nuclear weapons. President Bush now argues that all along it has been the above-board enrichment of uranium, not some other, secret program, that carries Iran ever closer to having nuclear weapons. But he makes that legitimate point in vain: having rested its case on misjudgments, the administration now finds itself discredited by its own intelligence estimate.
We are left in a situation that layers paradox upon paradox. A disastrous possible policy – military attack on Iran – has been headed off by a misguided, misinterpreted intelligence report. One question is why Bush and Cheney set themselves up for this embarrassment. Bush has said that he learned of the NIE’s conclusion only a week before it came out – a statement that either is false or reveals a level of incompetence beyond anything suspected so far.
None of that matters now. The Bush administration’s habits of falsehood have undone its aggressive proclivities, leaving a gaping vacuum. The doctrine according to which great powers, many of them nuclear-armed, try to stop lesser powers from acquiring nuclear weapons by force and threats of force – a fiasco in Iraq, nuclear-armed North Korea, and now Iran – has reached a dead end. But, report or no report, the danger that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons is real, and may even have increased. What’s missing is a policy to address it.
Jonathan Schell, a visiting lecturer at Yale University, is the author of The Fate of the Earth and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)