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Iran and the Bomb
by Norman Dombey

Published 19 January 2007

London Review of Books -
Vol. 29 No. 2 dated 25 January 2007

On 7 June 1981, Israeli aircraft bombed and
completely destroyed the Iraqi nuclear research
reactor Osirak. The French government, which had
sold the reactor to Iraq, protested. Bertrand
Barre, its nuclear attaché in Washington,
explained that the reactor posed no proliferation
risk and that ’it was intended to be used . . .
for testing or converting materials into
isotopes, which have specialised uses in
medicine.’ The UN Security Council strongly
condemned the attack as being ’in clear violation
of the charter of the United Nations and the
norms of international conduct’. The United
States, however, objected to the imposing of any
sanctions on Israel.

Was the Israeli attack on Osirak justified?
Saddam Hussein certainly wanted to make nuclear
weapons and in 1991 came dangerously close. But
it is unlikely that he would have had much joy
with Osirak, which relied on French technicians
and was subject to International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Osirak used highly
enriched uranium as fuel: 93 per cent uranium-235
(U-235), and 7 per cent U-238, so while the
irradiated fuel rods could have been reprocessed
to extract unused U-235, which is a fissile
material suitable for weapons, there would have
been little plutonium-239, which is obtained from
the irradiation of U-238. Israel nevertheless
claimed that Osirak was equipped to produce
’military-grade plutonium in significant
quantities’ and that they had to strike before
the reactor went into operation. Iraq considered
building a reactor to replace Osirak but settled
instead for a clandestine uranium enrichment
programme, which it didn’t declare to the IAEA.

Twenty-five years later, the focus is not on
Iraq, but on Iran, which itself unsuccessfully
bombed Osirak in September 1980. Israel and the
US now claim that Iran is on the verge of
obtaining nuclear weapons. The IAEA reported in
November last year that a second cascade of 164
centrifuges has been installed at the Iranian
uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, bringing the
total to 328. President Ahmadinejad has said that
3000 such machines are to be installed at Natanz.
Taking him at his word, it would probably take
two years to get them all running and another two
years to enrich sufficient uranium to make a
bomb. Iran has taken this course in spite of UN
Security Council Resolution 1696, passed on 31
July 2006, which demanded that Iran suspend all
enrichment-related and reprocessing activities by
31 August. This was to be verified by the IAEA,
but it reported instead that Iran had expanded
its enrichment capability.

On 23 November, the IAEA technical cooperation
committee considered a request from Iran for aid
to enhance safety provision at the heavy water
research reactor it is building at Arak, which
Iranian officials say is designed to produce
radioactive isotopes for medical use, just like
Osirak. In the face of opposition from the US and
European countries, no decision was taken. Ana
Maria Cetto, the IAEA deputy director general for
technical co-operation, told the committee that
the IAEA secretariat believed that the project
was not at odds with Resolution 1696 and that
there was no legal basis for refusing Iran’s
request since the IAEA’s statutes assert that
’the Agency shall not make assistance to members
subject to any political, economic, military or
other conditions incompatible’ with its
objectives, which are ’to meet the needs of
research on, and development and practical
application of, atomic energy for peaceful

The Arak reactor is certainly more suitable for
producing plutonium than Osirak would have been:
it can run on natural uranium fuel (0.7 per cent
U-235, 99.3 per cent U-238), so the irradiated
fuel rods would be good sources of plutonium.
Israel and India obtained plutonium for their
weapons programmes from this type of reactor.
Arak is not due to be finished until 2009 at the
earliest and it will need to run for at least one
year before its fuel rods can be withdrawn and
plutonium extracted. Nevertheless, when
constructed, the reactor is expected to be
inspected regularly by the IAEA, specifically in
order to detect any diversion of nuclear material
for potential weapon use.

So, until or unless Iran withdraws from the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the
facilities at Natanz and Arak are safeguarded by
the IAEA. Cameras are installed at Natanz (they
function continuously), and there are monthly
inspections. Similar arrangements will be made
for Arak. Any enriched uranium or plutonium made
will be under IAEA seal and will not be available
for casting into the core of a weapon. There is
no pressing nuclear threat from Iran at the
moment; nor does there appear to be a tipping
point in sight, beyond which it would be
impossible to prevent the country from acquiring

Sources close to the US and Israeli governments
nevertheless insist that Iran represents a
significant threat, which needs to be dealt with
without delay. They assert that Iran has a
clandestine programme in addition to its declared
programme, as Iraq had. Israeli intelligence
claims that Iran is close to having an implosion
capability, which it will need to make compact
weapons. Yet according to Seymour Hersh, writing
in the New Yorker in November, the CIA recently
completed an assessment of the evidence for the
existence of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons
programme. The report, which was based on
satellite and other data, concluded that there
was no evidence of a secret programme. Nor can it
be assumed that Iran could make weapons small
enough to fit into missiles without testing: the
dud North Korean test shows that even with
testing success cannot be taken for granted.

A diplomatic solution is available, but the US
and its EU allies do not want to consider it. It
is the same deal I have mentioned in these pages
before[*], whereby Iran would be allowed limited
enrichment rights (say, up to 5 per cent
enrichment), together with security guarantees
and technical help. Richard Haass, who was
director of policy planning at the State
Department until 2003, believes that ’Iran should
be offered an array of economic, political and
security incentives’, including ’a highly limited
uranium-enrichment pilot programme so long as it
accepts highly intrusive inspections’.

The US says that it will talk to Iran only if it
first suspends enrichment. Given Hizbullah’s
success in Lebanon and Shia dominance in the new
Iraq, Iran is unlikely to want to make
concessions. Last February I said that I expected
the US to attack Iranian nuclear facilities
before the end of the year.[**] That didn’t
happen, but well-informed commentators in
Washington have been predicting action in 2007 or
2008. Hersh reports that despite the
Congressional elections, Bush and Cheney are
determined to deal with Iran before this
administration ends and that ’White House hawks
led by Vice President Dick Cheney were intent on
attacking Iran with or without the approval of
the US Congress.’ John Pike of
predicts US strikes this summer, safely distant
from the presidential election next year. Bush
has already shown his disdain for the
recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which
advocated negotiations with Iran, and has ordered
a second aircraft carrier and supporting ships to
the Persian Gulf.

On 23 December, the Security Council finally
agreed its response to Iranian non-compliance
with Resolution 1696. Resolution 1737 laid the
foundations for a US strike on Iran. It welcomes
the commitment of China, France, Germany, Russia,
the UK, the US and the EU to a negotiated
solution, then proceeds to render such a solution
highly improbable by depriving Iran of its right
to any nuclear capability other than the
electricity-generating reactor at Bushehr which
Russia is building. The resolution includes
Iranian work on missiles in its list of
activities requiring sanctions even though the
IAEA has no competence in missiles.

The model used here is clearly that of Resolution
687 of 1991 following the first Gulf War, which
deprived Iraq of its right to any nuclear or
missile capability as part of the ceasefire
arrangements. Iraq had been defeated in war and
was in no condition to resist. Iran, on the
contrary, is very much not defeated: it is
determined to exercise what it sees as its
’inalienable right . . . to develop research,
production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful
purposes without discrimination’, as Article IV
of the NPT puts it. Although it is conceivable
that Iran will suspend its nuclear and missile
work while proclaiming that it has already
successfully defied the United States by
enriching uranium to 5 per cent, it is much more
likely that it will continue these activities.
The resolution, however, explicitly prohibits
continuing enrichment activities at Natanz as
well as further work on the heavy water reactor
project at Arak and at the uranium conversion
facilities at Esfahan. The missile production
facilities in Tehran and Shiraz are also singled
out. So it is likely, once there has been an
appropriate period of discussion, consultation,
interpretation and so on, with Russia and China
insisting that the resolution gives no authority
for military action, that Bush will order a
strike on these facilities and say that it was
ordered ’in support of the authority of the UN’,
thereby repeating one of the many justifications
offered for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Last
April, Hersh quoted a US air force analyst who
had studied satellite photographs of the nuclear
facilities and estimated that at least four
hundred targets would have to be hit.


* 17 October 2002.

** 23 February 2006.

Norman Dombey is Professor Emeritus of
Theoretical Physics at Sussex University.

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