Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Does Iran already have nuclear weapons?

If Iran had already built a nuclear weapon, would it admit the fact?

Britain and France both managed to build a bomb with economies and manufacturing infrastructure shattered by World War II. Iran has seventy million people, a vastly larger economy and access to the past fifty years of technology. If the political leadership had given the order to build a bomb in response to the Bush 'Axis of Evil' speech in 2002, they could easily have completed it by now.

Having a bomb is one thing, admitting that you have it, quite another. India and Pakistan were both believed to have built bombs in the mid to late 1980s. Pakistan acquired enough fissile material to build a bomb in 1987 but did not perform tests until 1998. Immediately afterward, India performed its own nuclear tests and the India-Pakistan conflict became a nuclear standoff.

Iran would undoubtedly face serious consequences if it was to conduct a nuclear test of its own in violation of an international treaty. Israel would become a declared nuclear power, Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey would start their own nuclear programs. Neither China nor Russia could be guaranteed to block US attempts to impose sanctions.

So if Iran did have a nuclear weapon it almost certainly would not announce the fact. Which is a problem for an aspiring demagogue with regional superpower aspirations such as President Ahmedinejad since not revealing the existence of a nuclear weapon means the entire point of having it is lost.

An equally plausible scenario is that Iran has begun but not completed its nuclear project. For decades India and Pakistan were described as being 'a screw turn away' from having a bomb. The Ayatollah Kohmeini, is reported to have halted Iran's first nuclear program (a joint project with Israel), describing nuclear weapons as the weapons of the devil. According to a 2007 US intelligence estimate, Iran halted an active weapons program in 2003 and has not restarted it since.

The two most likely situations are that Iran has already built an undeclared bomb, or that the nuclear program was suspended just short of having completed a bomb. In either case, the optimum stratagem for Ahemedinejad to employ to become a declared nuclear power is to provoke an attack by Israel or the US and use it as a pretext for withdrawal from the non-proliferation and test ban treaties.

As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, bombing is not going to stop or even slow any Iranian weapons program. Iran is a vast country and neither the US nor Israel has much of an idea of the location of any nuclear facilities. And even if the locations of the sites were known, an attack would hardly come as a surprise. Any Iranian nuclear facilities will be built deep, deep underground. This has not been lost on the Israeli and US nationalist-militarist factions who have been discussing the possible use of nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike to prevent another country obtaining nuclear weapons.

The Israeli attack on the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981 was almost certainly a phyric victory. According to Iraqi scientists interviewed on CNN crossfire, the Iraqi nuclear weapons program expanded from 400 people and a budget of $400 million to 7000 people and a budget of $10 billion. Who would have imagined any other result?

Ahmedinejad and the neo-cons baying for a 'pre-emptive' attack on Iran are all militarists. They believe in the violence as a first resort, they have a tendency to overestimate their own strength and to dismiss their opponents as cowards. The only difference is that the Iranian militarists appear to be quite smart: in the aftermath of 9/11 they have finessed a fairly weak military position to emerge as the regional superpower. The US neo-cons and their Israeli allies have achieved the exact opposite: they have reduced the US from unchallenged supremacy as the one remaining superpower to parity with Russia and China.

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