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Uranium Enrichment And Manufacturing A War With Iran

April 8, 2012

At the heart of the crisis brewing around Iran is the contentious issue of nuclear weapons.

The odd fact is Iran does not have nuclear weapons. Not one, not two. Nothing. Zip. None are even in development or hidden somewhere. Lo and behold, Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) back in the day.

At the most, Iran probably considered a WMD program at some point in the 1990s (or later). Maybe it never did. The most advanced weapons research undertaken by the regime to date is in the field of missiles, an effort that has produced impressive results.

Iran not pursuing nuclear weapons seems strange considering the geopolitical drama it has inspired. But the reality is far more nuanced…and ominous.

It’s Simply Not There

In February this year, The New York Times published a story by James Rizen and Mark Mazetti that ran against the grain of popular perception regarding Iran’s nukes. Titled ‘US Agencies See No Move By Iran To Build A Bomb’ it cited various officials in the intelligence community and their admission of a nonexistent threat. Here’s a snippet:

In Senate testimony on Jan. 31, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, stated explicitly that American officials believe that Iran is preserving its options for a nuclear weapon, but said there was no evidence that it had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon. David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director, concurred with that view at the same hearing. Other senior United States officials, including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made similar statements in recent television appearances.

The real Iran threat, however, exists in the minds of two factions eager to go ahead with preemptive strikes: Israel’s Likud party and the current administration in the United States. The latter’s mindset is remarkable because whether its neoconservatives or liberal imperialists (to use fancy academic nomenclature) who are seated in Washington, both have an ironbound belief that Iran’s growth as a regional giant must be curbed.

Discerning motivations is simpler from the Israeli perspective, since they judge matters on a scale of existential threats—Iran’s potential to deploy nukes is existentially threatening enough and justifies a war. Yet for the US, possibly attacking Iran is not only anchored by ties to Israel, but by an ideological predisposition among the elite. It’s a predisposition that allows for using force to claim strategic resources (oil!) in the name of empire.* Rearranging the world because exceptional America has what it takes to do so.

The problem is Iran has a longstanding civil (meaning non-military) nuclear program that dates back to 1967 (it went NPT the following year), when the US sold them a nuclear reactor. By the 1970s the Shah’s regime was pursuing nuclear energy only for it to be halted by the revolution.

Fast forward to the present. Despite being a theocracy, Iran’s leadership is bent on creating a modern nation-state with a sound economy, viable institutions, and a robust energy sector not reliant on ample fossil fuels. This includes nuclear power with the Bushehr plant (completed with Russian help) and the Tehran Research Reactor attesting to this goal. On March 29,Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his confidence in Iran’s civilian nuclear plans after a visit to the country regarding Syria.

The tricky part is, for Iran to expand its nuclear capabilities it needs lots of enriched uranium. This is what worries Israel, the US, the United Nations, and the IAEA, the last of whom are doing a magnificent job keeping tab on Iran’s activities on this front.

The sum of their efforts to date are focused on stopping and dissuading Iran from developing a uranium enrichment capacity suitable for nuclear weapons. Sanctions are an accepted means of leverage, the infamous Stuxnet virus that halted centrifuges two years ago sends a clearer message. The constant threat of preemptive strikes is another tactic.

The Scary Part

For the layman, understanding uranium enrichment is hard on the brain. Here’s a good pointer though: it takes uranium enriched to at least 85% or higher to reach the weapons grade threshold suitable for a bomb.

Iran’s uranium enrichment, spread out as it is across various sites that are either underground or bunkered for protection, only enrich uranium to 20%. In other words, a totally safe level ideal for peaceful applications.

At the worst, Iran’s leadership should be faulted for acting tough. Sometimes senior officials claim they are not far from producing a bomb, other times they admit the awful truth that Iran has no plans to develop a nuclear weapon. Like what Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam said.

So if Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon and does not even want one, what is the whole point of the tension embroiling the various actors? Those US carriers in the Persian Gulf? Israeli preparations for long-range air strikes? Military build up in the Gulf?

Take it from the worldview of a paranoiac, the type who thinks shadowy forces are scheming to fulfill grandiose missions. According to the paranoiac: A war with Iran is a great way to get rid of a rival power in the making and re-balance the Middle East. Don’t forget to mention forcefully co-opting a major energy producer who can weaken the petrodollar.

It must be understood that Iran being targeted for a capability it does not possess (irony of ironies, attacking it might push them to acquire a nuke) is not a case of an innocent country falling prey to rapacious invaders. Iran is far from innocent and has an ugly reputation for waging proxy wars almost everywhere in the Middle East.

In times like these, Iran should be glad it can count on two super-friends. China wants a secure source of oil and gas and Russia hates a swaggering unilateral US war machine, so they work miracles at the UN Security Council on behalf of their errant ally.

To summarize: Iran has no nukes. Uranium enrichment is the real bone of contention, since it might lead to a weapon. There is a concrete possibility of war but it is being delayed. If the shit does hit the fan, expect it to happen without expecting any particular date. It just will, sometime.

* Note [March 24, 2013]: While it seems convenient to frame the US’ efforts against Iran as a resource grab and a way to maintain the region’s Israel-Saudi-centric balance of power, the former assertion loses merit when the current shale gas boom in the American heartland is brought into the picture. At the moment, America is exploiting a new found source of natural gas that could guarantee its energy independence in the near future.

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