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They lied about Iraq’s WMDs; they’re lying about Iran’s

Luciana Bohne / Online Journal | October 10 2006

“We have to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq.” Mohamed ElBaradei, for the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA, 2003.

Iraq possesses “30,000 warheads, 500 tons of chemical weapons, 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulin toxin, 1 million pounds of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve gas, tons of yellowcake uranium from Niger.” from White House web page, 2002-03.

In the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, 30 September, the US Senate approved a bill authorizing sanctions that target foreign countries continuing (completely legal) nuclear cooperation with Iran. The bill stipulates “not to bring into force an agreement for cooperation with the government of any country that is assisting the nuclear program of Iran or transferring advanced conventional weapons or missiles.” Unmentioned in the bill, the intended targets are Russia and China. The previous day, the bill was approved by the House of Representatives.

Together with the suspension of “habeas corpus,” this congressional endorsement of Bush’s preparations for war against Iran should make it perfectly clear to November voters that the US Congress is an illiberal and warmongering institution in partnership with the policies of the Bush White House, whether the Republicans or the Democrats are in power.

Lawmakers did add a caveat to the bill, warning that nothing in this bill should be “construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran.” However, the president can ignore the caveat because he has been granted the right to waive provisions of the bill if he finds that US “national security” interests require it.

Furthermore, the bill comes in the midst of ongoing diplomatic talks over Iranian uranium enrichment for civilian use between Iran and the European Union, which the new US sanctions clearly aim at sabotaging.

Let us be clear about one thing: there is no evidence that Iran is anywhere near enriching uranium to weapons-grade capacity at the rate and quantity required to produce nuclear bombs that could effectively threaten the US or any of its allies in the area within a decade. Nor is there any evidence that Iran is capable of manufacturing plutonium bombs on the quick. Washington is simply keen to start yet another war for “regime change” based on lies intended to terrorize the US public into compliance.

Nuclear reactors, uranium enrichment, and the bomb

Enriching uranium to 3.6 percent is needed to make “pellets” to fuel nuclear reactors that generate electricity. This level of uranium enrichment is recognized to be for civilian use. The troubling kind of uranium enrichment involves intensively raising the enrichment level to over 90 percent -- or enriching Uranium-235 to weapons-grade capacity.

Pakistan is said to own up to 50 nuclear bombs. These are devices obtained by enriching Uranium-235 by 90 percent . Pakistan is said by scientific experts to be the only country in the world using highly enriched uranium to produce fission bombs. They have done so as a matter of preference, because A. Q. Khan, the "father" of the Pakistani nuclear-weapons program, learned how to produce weapons-grade uranium while employed at URENCO, the highly-enriched-uranium-production plant in Europe. He mastered the technique of enriching uranium through a "cascade" of centrifuges (explained below).

As you probably know, the aim of enrichment is to increase the proportion of fissile Uranium-235 atoms within uranium in order to increase uranium's energy-release potential as a result of nuclear fission -- the process by which certain atoms of uranium are split to cause a chain reaction. What becomes enriched uranium-235 is mined as ore, pounded and converted into "yellow cake," prepared for enrichment by dissolving "yellow cake" in nitric acid. Then, it is subjected to a series of chemical processes that convert it into a gas, uranium hexafluoride. This highly corrosive gas is then processed at conversion plants, using pipes and pumps constructed from aluminum and nickel alloys. The gas-centrifuge method of enriching U-235 requires that uranium hexafluoride gas be spun in a cylindrical chamber at high speed, which causes the slightly denser U-238 to split from the lighter U-235. Extracted from the bottom of the chamber where it gravitates, U-238 becomes depleted uranium, a heavy, radioactive (said to be "slightly" radioactive by the military) metal, capable of piercing tank armor and other munitions. Clustering at the center of the chamber, U-235 is collected and fed into another centrifuge, in a process repeated many times and known as "cascade." A U-235 atomic bomb requires 20 kilograms of enriched uranium, and has an explosive power of 50 kilotons. As previously mentioned, Pakistan has 50 of these in its unregulated, unsupervised nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been accumulated in secret, without inspections or regulations because Pakistan has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT, 1972). Iran, of course, is a signatory of the NPT -- an international courtesy that the US is apparently eager to use against Iran’s interests.

Now, even if we assume that Tehran is seeking to build a uranium bomb, it would need a cascade of 1,500 to 1,800 centrifuges, processing uranium round-the-clock to produce the 20 kilos of enriched U-235 needed to build a primitive uranium bomb (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jul/August issue). At its uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, Iran already has an operational cascade of 164 centrifuges and plans to build another one. However, the latest UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report reveals that at Natanz plans were behind schedule and a second 164-machine cascade was not up and running in August 2006.

The nuclear reactor at Natanz, therefore, is clearly under-equipped to produce the volume and potency of enriched uranium needed to build even one crude nuclear bomb in the near future.

This obvious fact, however, did not stop the House Intelligence Committee (HIC) from issuing a congressional report on 23 August 2006, ominously entitled “Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat: An Intelligence Challenge for the United States.” Seething with outrage and professional fury, the IAEA characterized the report as "erroneous, misleading, and unsubstantiated information."

The IAEA letter singled out the HIC’s characterization of the enrichment facility at Natanz, which is subject to IAEA inspections, including camera monitoring, as particularly mendacious. The IAEA letter pointed to a sub-section in the HIC report, entitled “Evidence for an Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program.” A photograph of Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz was captioned, “Iran is currently enriching to weapons grade using a 164-machine centrifuge cascade.” The IAEA pointed out that the claim was false. The small cascade at the Natanz enrichment plant had been enriching uranium to the level of 3.6 percent as required by Iran’s stated goal for producing nuclear fuel. As the IAEA caustically remarked, this hardly qualifies as “weapons grade.”

Heavy-water reactors and the plutonium bomb

Israel secretly obtained its nuclear arsenal via a different route from the one mapped out by uranium enrichment. It has gone the heavy-water-reactor route and thus has taken the plutonium option. (Like Pakistan, Israel is not subject to inspections or regulations, not being a signatory of the NPT.)
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A small amount of plutonium (about 1 percent) can be obtained via the U-235 enrichment process that produces fuel "pellets" (enriched to 3.6 percent ) for nuclear-energy reactors. Called "reprocessing," this routine involves stripping away the metallic outer casings of used fuel rods in nuclear reactors before dissolving them in hot nitric acid. What one gets from this reprocessing of nuclear waste is some more, if highly radioactive, waste (about 3 percent ), uranium (96 percent ), and plutonium (1 percent ). This amount of plutonium obtained from a reactor's nuclear waste, however, is a negligible and legitimate by-product, which poses no weaponizing threat according to the scientific community and the IAEA.

To make plutonium bombs, there is a more productive route: the heavy-water-reactor route. Heavy-water reactors derive their name from the use of so-called "heavy water," which contains deuterium. Heavy water is a modified form of hydrogen with more neutrons in its nucleus, which makes it not only literally "heavier" but also potentially more energetic or explosively "fissile." Heavy-water reactors offer the advantage that they can use unrefined natural uranium as fuel (and Iran has that uranium to mine). In addition, a plutonium nuclear weapon is smaller in size and weight than its uranium equivalent. The amount of plutonium required to make a nuclear weapon is only 3.5 to 4 kilograms. Its explosive capacity is 20 kilotons.

Iran’s planned heavy-water reactor at Arak is a small reactor, designed to replace another, outdated reactor, on its last leg. The Iranians say that the Arak reactor is used to produce radioisotopes for medicine and industry, which may be accurate. But even if they were lying about its civilian use, the heavy-water reactor, if used to produce plutonium for weapons, could produce at most enough for a couple of weapons per year, under the best conditions -- and that might be sometime after 2009, the year the plant becomes operational.

Nuclear double standards

Now contrast the alarmist hysteria over Iran’s modest, underdeveloped, fully regulated and legal nuclear program -- a decade away from any production of very crude nuclear weapons -- to the nonchalance with which Washington greets the frenetic nuclear activities in Pakistan. No pre-dawn vote in Congress to threaten with sanctions anyone at all! Well, to be perfectly honest, the US congress feigned to be “shocked” when White House spokesman, Tony, Snow, said the Bush administration had known all along that Pakistan had plans to build a large, plutonium-production plant at Khushab’s nuclear site in the Punjab.

Under construction since 2000 and possibly several years from completion, the heavy-water reactor at Khushab will be capable of producing approximately 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year -- or enough for 50 bombs per year. Spotted by independent analysts in commercial-satellite photos, Pakistan’s heavy-water reactor caused not a ripple of concern to the White House. “We discourage military use of the facility,” Snow unconvincingly declared. “Discourage”? We’re talking about over 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium in addition to the 10 kilograms (or two bombs per year) of plutonium per year the small reactor at Khushab already produces!

And the Bush gang targets Iran? Which has no heavy-water reactor and won’t until at least 2009? Whose uranium enrichment has been operated by small cascade-machines to perfectly legal levels? Whose Busher’s reactor is a light-water reactor capable of yielding only negligible amounts of plutonium? Whom the IAEA monitors and supervises with scrupulous zeal?

Clearly, Washington hasn’t the least concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Indeed, any country in the oil-rich region or its environs that is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons is living in a fool’s paradise. Washington will crush militant nationalism whatever its nature and wherever it raises its independent head, calling it “terrorist” -- unless it is armed with nuclear weapons. Call it the “blowback” correlative of Bush’s “nuclear posture review,” or the law of inevitable nuclear proliferation, seeking to insure mutual assured destruction -- MAD -- but on a multi-polar global level.

But even in the MADness of infinite confrontation, you would expect the US Congress to question the motives of the White House in pressing for sanctions legislation against Iran for its modest nuclear program while Pakistan, unsupervised and unregulated, goes berserk with an aggressive program that plans to add 50 plutonium bombs per year to the 50 uranium bombs it already has! But that would be the congress of a functioning democracy which this farcical nation no longer has -- and hardly has had in matters of foreign policy since the advent of Truman’s National Security State at the outset of that other bogus war, the cold one.

This country -- its executive, legislative, and judicial bodies -- is so steeped in bloody lies and malign hypocrisy that it hardly turns a hair at the prospect of attacking yet another nation, whose people may justifiably and historically resent the US but whose only wish is to keep its wolfishness out of their national doors and be left in peace to solve their own problems and manage their resources as they best see fit.

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