In the past week, Iranian military and nuclear developments may be pointing towards a nuclear military future for that country – or maybe not. And that’s the problem – neither governments nor experts around the world can agree exactly what’s happening. And uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear intentions is exactly what the Middle East doesn’t need.
Last weekend the world had a glimpse of what may be the most recent piece in this puzzle when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the country’s newest weapon, the so-called “ambassador of death”, Iran’s first domestically built unmanned bomber aircraft.
Iranian state television said the drone craft can carry four cruise missiles and has a range of about 1,000km. The missiles extend its range that much further, all the way to, say, Tel Aviv or Haifa and beyond. And keeping everyone’s attention on its military capabilities, a few days earlier Iran test-fired a new liquid-fuel surface-to-surface missile, the Qiam-1, equipped with advanced guidance systems.
At the unveiling of the drone plane, Ahmadinejad said, “The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship.” Breathe easy again. Ahmadinejad added that this drone craft will “keep the enemy paralyzed in its bases” and Iran’s military hardware development efforts will keep on going “until the enemies of humanity lose hope of ever attacking the Iranian nation”.
The origins of Iran’s self-sufficiency programme began during its 1980-88 war with Iraq. At that time, the US first imposed its arms embargo on Iran that impelled Iran to begin its own development programme, and the country now produces tanks, armoured personnel carriers, missiles and even a fighter plane.
The launch of its latest aircraft virtually coincided with the delivery of fuel rods, to Iran’s first fully fledged nuclear reactor at Bushehr, built with Russian help. This fuelling process comes while there are continuing concerns in the West about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, even though Iran insists it only wants to generate electricity with the Bushehr reactor. The possibility of marrying a drone aircraft with cruise missiles and nuclear weapons clearly keeps analysts and governments awake at night.
Construction of the reactor actually dates back to 1974 when Iran was still ruled by the shah. Iran contracted Siemens to build the reactor, but the German company withdrew after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. The project had a further setback when Iraqi bombers damaged the partially finished reactor during the Iran-Iraq war.
Then, 15 years ago, Iran signed a contract with the Russians to complete the Bushehr plant, but the Russian construction company kept dragging its feet in finishing the job. The Russians said technical reasons caused these delays, but some analysts argue that the Russians were actually using the project to push Iran to lower its defiance of UN concerns about uranium enrichment. Uranium enrichment concentrates the radioactive uranium isotope into reactor-grade fuel and, if it is concentrated further, into weapons-grade material. And that’s the sum of all fears in the West and in other places such as Israel.
And so, just as Iran was demonstrating its brand-new new drone bomber, it also began loading its brand-spanking-new reactor with uranium fuel, allowing Iranian officials to trumpet this as a triumph over Western pressure to box in its nuclear ambitions. International Atomic Energy Agency monitors were on-hand to watch the process as the fuel rods went from storage to the reactor “pool”. They will be able to monitor the ongoing use of the fuel. This is a crucial point as spent fuel contains plutonium that can also be used to create atomic weapons. Once the 80 tons of uranium fuel have been loaded in the reactor core, the facility will be able to generate 1,000 megawatts of power for the national grid. There is a rationale for a nuclear energy regime in Iran because the country lacks the oil-refining capacity needed to meet domestic demand, and so must purchase refined fuel on international markets, even though it has some of the world’s largest petroleum reserves.
Obviously mindful of international concern about this transfer of nuclear material, the Russians have also pledged there will be international supervision of the reactor and its fuel to preclude any diversion into making nuclear weapons. And Iran’s agreement to permit this kind of monitoring represents an unusual compromise. For their part, Western nations have cautiously accepted this deal – with the provisions that Iran will keep spent nuclear fuel from being channelled to military uses – because their key objective has been to prevent Iran creating fissile materials that could be diverted into making nuclear weapons.
Photo: A general view of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. Iran began fuelling its first nuclear power plant on Saturday, a potent symbol of its growing regional sway and rejection of international sanctions designed to prevent it building a nuclear bomb. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi
One reason for Russia’s actions may actually be commercial. While this particular deal may not be profitable, many others elsewhere in the world can be. And Russia clearly has an interest in showing it will not abrogate a contract under pressure from the US.
However, this tacit agreement over the new reactor is somewhat different from previous showdowns over putative Iranian uranium enrichment and may just foreshadow proposals to ease the continuing impasse with Iran over other nuclear materials. The US had encouraged Russia to delay the reactor to add sinew to sanctions already imposed on Iran because of its refusal to cease enrichment of uranium, but the US now appears to be making the best of the resulting agreement. A state department spokesman called the oversight at Bushehr a model for further monitoring and that it had been part of a UN plan offered Iran a year ago. However, Iran rejected that plan that had called on it to halt uranium enrichment and get its supplies of reactor-ready material from abroad.
The Bushehr agreement may seem to be a positive step, but now back on the negative side, Western nations continue to say they are worried Iranian enrichment labs could be redirected to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran earlier rang alarm bells in the West when it announced plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment sites inside protected mountain strongholds and had said construction would begin despite UN sanctions.
Ahmadinejad has insisted Iran will reject any calls for it to halt uranium enrichment, although talks about the larger questions could start in September. And foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki added that its proposal was “to urge the full annihilation of all types of nuclear weapons, as an ultimate goal for the human society”.
And for a peaceful reactor, there are those troubling defence systems around the Bushehr reactor. Given the realities of the region, the facility is heavily guarded and they’ve already run some actual tests with Iranian drone craft to check out the site’s defences. Ahmadinejad has said that, if anyone does plan to attack the reactor, Iranian reaction would be overwhelming. As he said, “The scope of Iran’s reaction will include the entire Earth. We also tell you – the West – that all options are on the table.”
For their part, Israeli officials say they are not particularly worried about the fuel being loaded into Bushehr. However, their “problem is with the other facilities that they have, where they enrich uranium,” said Uzi Landau, Israel’s minister of national infrastructure.
At least for a while, the Obama administration appears to have persuaded Israel it would take roughly a year, and perhaps longer, for Iran to complete what one senior official called a “dash” for a nuclear weapon. That appears to have tempered the immediate prospect of Israel pre-emptively striking against Iran’s nuclear facilities within that period, something Israeli officials, in thinly veiled threats, have previously suggested might happen.
Israeli and American officials have been debating for several years whether or not Iran is on a course toward the bomb and, if it is, how long it would take to produce one. For both, the key question has been how long it would take Tehran to refine its existing stocks of low-level, enriched uranium into weapons-grade material. Israeli intelligence officials had argued that Iran could do this in months, while American intelligence agencies have come to believe the timeline is longer. For one thing, Iran would be forced to build nuclear bombs from a limited supply of nuclear material, currently enough for two weapons, analysts say. Secondly, making this effort would mean kicking out international weapons inspectors, thereby eliminating any ambiguity about Iran’s nuclear plans.
But US officials concede there are potential unknowns in their assessments. Chief among them is whether Iran has hidden another enrichment centre somewhere in the tunnels it has dug throughout the country. Uh-oh, we’re back to the negative side of that ledger again.
Last September, Iran admitted it had been building such a hidden facility buried in a mountain near the city of Qum, an admission that came just days before Western nations revealed its existence.
But even as American and Israeli officials agree that the time when Iran is likely to have a nuclear weapon is now further into the future, this does not mean that Israel has abandoned the idea of a possible military strike. This is because American officials say Israel has been particularly concerned that, over time, Iran could disperse its nuclear materials to secret locations around the country, making it less likely that an Israeli military strike would significantly cripple the programme.
Now, does that make it more or less likely somebody may decide to end the ambiguity about Iran’s nuclear development? Perhaps it depends on how much of a gambler you are. One thing does appear certain: The prospect of an all-out war with Iran is a fantasy scenario no more.
By J Brooks Spector
Main photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech during the unveiling ceremony of a long-range drone, the Karrar, in Tehran August 22, 2010. Iran unveiled the prototype of a long-range unmanned bomber on Sunday, the latest in a stream of announcements of new Iranian-made military hardware as tension mounts over its nuclear programme. REUTERS/Vahidreza Alaii.
Key sites of Iran’s nuclear programme:
BUSHEHR: Iran’s first energy producing nuclear reactor. The Russian-built facility is expected to begin producing power in two months. Has pushed Russia to stop its help on the Bushehr plant, fearing spent fuel could be used to develop a weapon. American opposition eased when Iran agreed in 2005 to return all nuclear material to Russia to ensure it can’t be reprocessed. Bushehr operations are not listed in UN or other sanctions.
PLANNED: Iran says it has plans for one energy producing reactor – smaller than Bushehr – in Darkhovin in Khuzestan province. There is no clear timetable for this plant. Officials say others could be built in the coming decades.
Two small reactors are mainly involved in agricultural studies; a larger research reactor is now under construction in western Iran.
NATANZ: Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility and centrepiece of the nuclear dispute with the West. Iran says it seeks to produce lower-enriched fuel for research and power reactors, but the US and others worry Iran could eventually push toward weapons-grade material.
The facility is 260km southeast of Tehran, is largely underground and is surrounded by anti-aircraft batteries. Enrichment began in 2006.
FORDO: Another uranium enrichment facility identified by Western intelligence agencies only in September 2009. The labs, near Qum, are under construction inside former ammunition depots carved into a mountainside and heavily protected by the Revolutionary Guard. UN nuclear inspectors toured the previously secret site in October 2009.
ISFAHAN: Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility, which reprocesses uranium concentrate known as yellowcake into a gas that is fed into centrifuges for enrichment at Natanz.
SAGHAND: Iran’s main uranium mine in the central province of Yazd is the country’s main source of uranium ore.