by Colman Altman
(Presented at Haifa International Conference for Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Dec. 5-6, 2013)
It would seem that Israel cannot lose in its struggle to free the Middle East (or at least part of it) from weapons of mass destruction. It has powerful allies in this struggle – U.S., France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel itself has at least 200 nuclear weapons (according to foreign sources): bombs, missiles, shells, with the means (including submarines) to deliver them to their destinations. So it is undoubtedly capable of preventing the introduction of nuclear weapons into (part of) the Middle East.
It is said that Syria obtained chemical weapons as a ‘poor man’s response’ to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Nerve gas, Sarin, was apparently used near Aleppo and Damascus, but only near Aleppo were U.N. inspectors permitted to investigate who was responsible for their usage. One of the members of the commission of inquiry, Carla del Ponte, declared (Washington Times, May 6, 2013) that there were “strong, concrete suspicions” that the rebels had used this nerve agent. In the case of the gas attack near Damascus the well-known journalist Seymour Hersh accused Obama of “cherry-picking” Intelligence reports to make it look as though Assad was responsible. In any case we have meanwhile solved this problem.
We have heard that Israeli planes would be permitted to fly over Saudi territory on their way to Iran (to prevent them from introducing nuclear weapons in the Middle East), and if Iran did not cancel its nuclear plans Saudi Arabia would obtain nuclear weapons from Pakistan – they are ready on the shelf and paid for.
2-3 years ago there was discussion on bombing the nuclear power station in Bushehr, in order to prevent Iran from extracting the plutonium from the fuel rods. But who knows better than Israel that in a nuclear reactor like Bushehr where the fuel rods are extracted and replaced once every 2 years the weapon-grade plutonium-239 has meanwhile absorbed neutrons and has been converted into plutonium-240, which makes any good bomb unusable.
In order to extract weapon-grade plutonium the reactor has to be “milked” every 3 months or less, and each time the reactor must be closed down and then restarted again – unless it’s a heavy water reactor, as in Dimona in Israel. In the Indian plutonium bomb the plutonium was extracted from both types, heavy-water and light-water reactors.
Heavy-water reactors however are widely used for power production. They have the advantage that there is no need to enrich the uranium, they use natural uranium. They produced less nuclear waste than other types, burning up more of the plutonium and other long lived radioactive isotopes, so that the problem of storage of the radioactive waste is less acute. In Canada, for example, all 22 of its reactors are heavy water reactors. There are 12 heavy water reactors in India, 5 in Romania, 4 in South Korea, 2 in China, 2 in Argentine. On November 12 Iran signed an agreement with the International Agency for Atomic Energy to permit daily inspection of the heavy-water reactor being constructed in Arak. The demand by the U.S. to stop all further construction of the reactor in Arak is arbitrary and unreasonable.
The question is sometimes posed: why does Iran need nuclear reactors? Doesn’t she have enough oil and gas? Let us consider the structure of Iran’s power industry. Here is a list of about 75 operating power stations in Iran (with additional stations under construction):
Type of operating stations number
biological waste 4
solar 2 (one of which is the 8th largest in the world)
wind farms 2
Iran sells electricity to 7 neighboring countries: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan. She produces proportionately less nuclear power than most industrialized countries and her plans to expand the nuclear power industry are legitimate. Uranium enrichment to 5% (of uranium-235) is essential for the fabrication of fuel rods for ordinary reactors, and her production of a small quantity of 20% enriched uranium to be encapsulated as fuel rods in a small reactor for the production of radioactive isotopes for medical and industrial purposes, is normal practice. Introduction of substances to be irradiated by neutrons into the reactor would normally choke the reactor unless it were made more reactive by increasing the enrichment of the uranium fuel.
Does Iran have a nuclear weapons program?
The official Iranian news agency (IRNA) reported in 2005 “The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued a Fatwa [religious decree] that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons.” This FATWA has since been reaffirmed many times.
American Intelligence sources have declared on several occasions in recent years that there is no evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The US Intelligence Council (which expresses the coordinated judgments of 16 intelligence agencies) stated categorically in 2004 and 2007 that Iran suspended all efforts towards a nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not made any decision or move to restart that program.
That may be so, but I doubt whether Iran has in fact ever had a nuclear weapons program. Remembering that the nuclear weapons built by India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel have all been plutonium rather than uranium fission bombs (for the simple reason that separating the plutonium by chemical means from the fuel rods is much simpler and cheaper than enriching uranium by means of thousands of centrifuges to the 90% concentration of uranium-235 necessary for developing a uranium bomb) it would be very surprising that Iran would have chosen this route to a nuclear capability.
The oil and pipeline wars in the Middle East
The murderous war in Afghanistan was waged in order to secure a gas pipeline from the gas fields of Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the rich markets of Pakistan and India. But the Taliban were not ‘pacified’, and no pipeline has yet been laid. Meanwhile Pakistan reached a multi-billion dollar agreement with Iran to construct a gas pipeline between the two countries – and rejected the vigorous protests of Hilary Clinton for violating the American imposed oil and gas embargo on Iran.
Libya has the largest oil reserves on the African continent. The oil is sweet (low sulfur content) and easily refined. Extraction costs are low (the oil is near to the surface) and profits high. In 2011 the UN Human Development Index (a measure that takes into account factors like standard of living, education, women’s rights etc.) in Libya was the highest in Africa. After the country was bombed into democracy by NATO in 2011, the oil wealth was divided among the foreign liberators. Libya is today racked by economic stagnation and violence, with daily battles between militias and army units.
The war in Iraq
In March 2003 Iraq was invaded under the pretext that she possessed weapons of mass destruction which endangered the whole world. An American-led coalition then “democratized” Iraq, and the oil-rich Kurdish north became autonomous and granted concessions to the American Exxon-Mobil and Chevron to develop new oil fields. The next problem was how to market this oil. The obvious way was to lay a pipeline to the south through Iraq to the Persian Gulf and onto the tankers. The trouble was that the Iraqi government refused to permit the construction of such a pipeline, claiming that the oil belonged to the central government in Bagdad. To the west lay Iran, and to the north Turkey. But Turkey was busy bombing the Kurds in Iraq and such a route was problematic. The best alternative appeared to be from Iraqi Kurdistan through the adjacent Kurdish territory in northern Syria and then to the Mediterranean. All it required was the consent of Bashar al-Assad.
Iran, Qatar, Syria
The richest and biggest gas fields in the world (covering almost ten thousand square kilometers) were discovered in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Qatar. Part belonged to Qatar, part to Iran. Again, how can this gas be marketed? Now gas can be liquefied and transported on tankers, but this is expensive and reduces profits. For Qatar the ideal market was Europe, and a gas pipeline was planned from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria to Turkey and then to Europe. Then came the bombshell:
The Wall Street Journal, July 2011, reported that an agreement had been signed to lay a gas pipeline from Iran, through Iraq, through Syria to Latakia on the Mediterranean. That was the end of the American and Qatari dreams of piping gas to Europe via Syria. Jihadists began to arrive in Syria with funds from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to overthrow Assad’s regime. Qatar, the well-known champion of democracy and human rights, requested the UN Security Council to intervene in Syria to put an end to the human rights abuses of the Assad. But the most important measure to block Iranian gas from reaching the European market was the American initiated embargo on Iranian gas and oil (to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, of course). I have little doubt that the final outcome of the Geneva agreement with Iran will be a continuation of the oil and gas embargo even if Rohani stands on his head and sings the American anthem.
The nuclear option
…and in the midst of this Middle Eastern powder-keg, as we mentioned before, Israel sits (according to foreign sources) on an arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons: bombs, missiles, shells, with the means (including submarines) to deliver them to their destinations. This is enough to wipe out all the cities in the region, and by doing so to create a world-wide “nuclear winter”. This threat has evoked a “poor man’s response” in the form of nerve-gas munitions (Egypt, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others) and could eventually provoke some of them to acquire nuclear weapons. If this should happen the situation would become very unstable and dangerous, with a clear first-strike advantage. The possession of a nuclear deterrent leads the Israeli leaders to believe that any provocation against neighboring countries is permissible because “we have the bomb”.
What can we do about it?
It is our duty to convince the Israeli public and government that the only alternative to Israel’s dangerous nuclear brinkmanship is to abandon the concept that security can only be achieved by means of nuclear and other sophisticated weapons and to abandon her dreams of a Greater Israel;
…and the US government and public must be made to realize that support of Israel’s nuclear weapons program is not in the interests of Israel nor of the US, and that supporting the rapacious policies of the big oil companies will lead the US to political and economic disaster.
The author is a retired professor of nuclear/plasma physics at Haifa University.