Tucked away in a little New York Times story today on page A3 from the United Nations is a mention that Secretary of State Colin Powell “withheld judgment on news reports from Jerusalem quoting Israeli officials as saying they reserved the right to attack Iranian nuclear weapons sites. ‘I am not aware of any plans to attack Iran,’ Mr. Powell said. "‘Every nation has all options available to it.’” In case you didn’t notice, there was also a story yesterday out of Jerusalem that Israel is going to acquire 500 “bunker buster” bombs from the United States. The only purpose for such bombs in Israeli hands would be to destroy underground uranium enrichment facilities, of the kind Iran has been building in conjunction with the Bushehr nuclear power plant that has been in the works for 30 years. Because the Russians are building the Bushehr plant for the Iranians, having taken over the work from previous contractors who stopped because of pressure from the United States, it is assumed Israel would not bomb the power plant, which would likely kill considerable numbers of Russian engineers. When Israel bombed Iraq’s French-built Osiraq plant in 1981, the workers killed were Iraqis.
The announcement of the Israeli deal with the U.S. for bunker busters seemed clearly meant as a provocation to Tehran, which is resisting U.S. led demands that it close down the underground facility and not ever think of starting it up. In case you missed it, look back at the preceding paragraph in the Times and you will find reporter Steven Weisman casually mentioning “Iranian nuclear weapons sites,” as if they existed. In an earlier report this week, Weisman reported that most experts agreed Iran was “on the verge” of developing a nuclear weapon. This is false. Iran is nowhere near development of a nuke, and continues to insist it has no weapons program. But Bush administration neo-con appointees – chiefly John Bolton at State -- continue to make that representation to the news media any chance they get. Similar errors are made repeatedly by the Associated Press correspondent in Vienna, George Jahn, who covers the deliberations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and dutifully follows Bolton’s lead. If you believe Iran has done something wrong and is cooking up some nukes, it is because the national news media is unwittingly propagating these central falsehoods.
In case you did not notice, coincident with the reports of Israeli musings about an attack on Iran with U.S. supplied bunker busters came a significant sell off on Wall Street and a jump in the price of oil, to $48 bbl. Can you imagine where the price of oil would go if Israel did bomb Iran? One would hope that instead of saying Israel “has all options available to it,” Powell, or even President Bush, would say clearly and distinctly that an Israeli bombing of Iran is not an option and that there has been a mistake in the Pentagon’s negotiations with Israel on the sales of bunker bombs. The absolute fact is that Iran now permits the IAEA to go anywhere it wishes to check out rumors of a weapons program. Mohammed El Baradei, the IAEA’s executive director, knows from his inspections -- for which Iran foots the bill – that Iran has not only lived up to its responsibilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty but has gone the extra mile. That is, while it has not yet signed the added protocol that permits the IAEA to conduct perpetual, intrusive spots inspections, it has for the last year been allowing those inspections as if the protocol were actually signed.
All that is at issue here is Iran’s right under the terms of the NPT to enrich uranium to a low point (LEU) where it can be feedstock for the power plant. The Russians are going to provide the LEU to feed the Bushehr plant, but Iran intends to build seven more power plants and would, with its underground facility, be able to reprocess spent fuel into fresh feedstock. The contention of the Bush neo-cons is that Iran could at some future point drop out of the NPT, with 90 days notice, and then use its underground facility to turn LEU into highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and with it, make a nuke. Once the inspectors would be kicked out, it would take Iran about one year to produce a deliverable nuclear weapon, says Dr. Gordon Prather, a nuclear physicist who was the army’s chief scientist in the Reagan years. In other words, if Iran at some point in the future decided its national security required it to have nukes, Prather says it would be 15 months before it could have one in hand. It is hardly “on the verge” of having one now and of course does not have a “weapons program” despite what you read in the papers.
The rationale for forcing Iran to voluntarily give up its NPT rights to develop a complete nuclear cycle for its power plants is the same one Israel used in 1981 when it destroyed Osiraq, outside Baghdad. Israel, and its neo-con supporters who were in the Pentagon back then, knew Iraq could not develop a nuke out of Osiraq, given the IAEA inspections and constraints. But they reasoned Osiraq would give Iraqi scientists the experience to deal with the nuclear process and then develop a clandestine program on the side that would succeed. When Osiraq was destroyed, Saddam did then embark on a clandestine program, one he abandoned when it failed. Still, the discovery of the effort by the IAEA in 1992 led to the tightening of the restrictions and the new protocol to the Safeguards Agreement, one Prather says should assure Israel and the U.S. that Iran will not be able to develop a nuke as long as inspectors are permitted the free run of the country. And if Iran does break from the NPT, Israel would have 15 months to decide whether or not it wants to risk WWIII by bombing Iranian facilities. If it bombs now, there is a good possibility Iran would strike back and that its Air Force and Chinese exocet-type anti-ship missiles would be directed at the U.S. fleet in the Gulf.
What are the chances Israel will proceed anyway, once they take delivery of the bunker busters, supposedly after the November 2 elections here? Dr. Prather posits that if Bush wins re-election, Israel will be satisfied to have him and his team around for another four years. If Kerry wins, the time to hit Iran would be between the election and the inauguration, he theorizes. Once Kerry is officially commander in chief, he could bring sufficient pressure to bear on Israel to hold its horses and permit diplomacy to work.
In any case, it is something to take seriously, even though Colin Powell assures us he knows of no such plans afoot. We expect to see the issue discussed and hopefully debated between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry before the elections, and it will of course be helpful if the news media gets its facts straight.