Eric S. Margolis March 11, 2009
Special for the Huffington Post
NEW YORK - Iran has haunted every U.S. administration since the days of President Jimmy Carter. While running for president, Barack Obama proposed opening talks with Tehran and trying to end the long Cold War between the United States and Iran.
Obama's sensible idea was greeted with the deepest dismay by ardent supporters of Israel and Rambo Republicans who want to see the US go to war with Iran, a nation of 70 million, and destroy its nuclear infrastructure.
Now, as the United States fights for its economic life, the Iran question and its alleged nuclear weapons program have again become an issue of major contention. Officials in the Obama administration and the media issued a blizzard of contradictory claims over Iran's alleged nuclear threat, leaving us wondering: who is really charge of U.S. foreign policy?
This awkward question was underlined during a visit to Washington by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Britain is supposed to be America's most important ally and partner in their 'special relationship.'
Brown's reception was dismal and Obama's obvious lack of interest in Britain's leader was quite embarrassing. The British media slammed America's cold reception as an 'insult,' and claimed that Brown had been treated like the leader of a 'minor African state.' White House aides excused the huge diplomatic faux pas by claiming President Obama was worn out from dealing with the financial and economic crisis. I'm sure he is worn out, but this still does not bode well for the conduct of US foreign policy.
Much of the uproar over Iran's so-far non-existent nuclear weapons must be seen as part of efforts by neoconservatives to thwart President Obama's proposition to open Tehran and to keep up the pressure for an American attack on Iran.
Israel's government and its American supporters insist Iran has secret nuclear weapons program that the West has not yet detected. We heard the same claims about Iraq before 2003. Israel certainly knows about covert nuclear programs, having run one of the world's largest and most productive ones.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lived up to her growing reputation for Mideast hawkishness when she named prominent Israel supporter Dennis Ross as her Special Advisor on Iran and the Gulf. This questionable appointment suggests that she may be more interested in building future domestic political support than securing balanced advice on the Mideast.
At least Ross is considered something of a moderate on the Israeli spectrum, having long been regarded as the Labor Party's 'man in Washington.' During the Bush years, Israel's centrist Laborites were replaced by partisans of the right-wing Likud Party, who quickly came to dominate administration Mideast policy.
In recent weeks, official Washington has been locked in confusion over Iran.
The new Central Intelligence Agency director, Leon Panetta, said in a recent interview, 'there is no question, they [Iran] are seeking [nuclear weapons] capability.'
Pentagon chief Adm. Mike Mullen claimed that Iran has 'enough fissile material to build a bomb.' Fox News claimed Iran already has 50 nuclear weapons.
While the American Rome burns, here we go again with renewed hysteria over MWMD's - Muslim Weapons of Mass Destruction. The war drums are again beating over Iran.
The czar of all 16 US intelligence agencies, Adm. Dennis Blair, stated Iran could have enough enriched uranium for one atomic weapon by 2010-2015. He reaffirmed the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate that Iran does not have nuclear weapons and is not pursuing them. Defense Secretary Robert Gates backed up Blair. So did the United Nations nuclear agency.
Some of the confusion over Iran comes from misunderstanding nuclear enrichment, from domestic politics, and from recycled lurid scare stories from the days of Saddam Hussein.
Iran is producing low-grade enriched uranium-235 (LEU), enriched to only 2.5%, to generate electricity. Tehran has this absolute right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). Its centrifuge enrichment process at Nantaz is under 24-hour international inspection. The soon-to-open nuclear plant at Bushehr cannot produce nuclear weapons fuel. All of its spent fuel, which is under international safeguards, will be returned to supplier Russia.
Today, some 15 nations produce low-grade enriched uranium 235 (LEU-235), including Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France, and Japan. I visited the Japanese Defense Ministry in Tokyo, and I saw plans for an atomic weapon. Experts believe Japan could produce a nuclear warhead in within three months, if it so decided.
I also believe - though cannot prove - that Switzerland may have produced a few nuclear warheads in the early 1960s and currently keeps them in one of its secret mountain forts as a sort of doomsday device.
Israel, India, and Pakistan are all covert nuclear weapons powers and have refused to submit to international inspection. North Korea abrogated it.
Interestingly, rather than the much pilloried Iran, it is the original nuclear powers who are all in violation of the nuclear arms treaty. These countries are: the United States, USSR/Russia, Britain, France and China. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty called for all nuclear powers to rapidly eliminate their nuclear forces. President Dwight Eisenhower championed this position. Far from eliminating their nuclear forces, all of the nuclear powers have expanded and modernized them.
UN inspectors report that Iran has produced 1,010 kg of 2-3% enriched uranium. Iran insists it is for energy generation. Theoretically that is enough for one atomic bomb. But to make a nuclear weapon, uranium-235 must be enriched to over 90% in an elaborate, costly process. Iran is not doing so, say UN inspectors, though they have raised certain technical questions about Iran's nuclear process. Some believe Iran may go up to 'breakout position' - that is, having the components to assemble a weapon on fairly short notice.
Highly enriched uranium-235 or plutonium must then be milled and shaped into a perfect ball or cylinder. Any surface imperfections will prevent achieving critical mass. Next, high explosive lenses must surround the core, and detonate at precisely the same millisecond. In the gun system, two cores must collide at very high speed. In some cases, a stream of neutrons is pumped into the device as it explodes.
This process is highly complex. Nuclear weapons cannot be deemed reliable unless they are tested. North Korea recently detonated a device that fizzled. Iran has never built or tested a nuclear weapon. Israel and South Africa jointly tested a nuclear weapon in 1979.
Even if Iran had the capability to fashion a complex nuclear weapon, it would be useless without delivery. Iran's sole medium-range delivery system is an unreliable, inaccurate 1,500 km ranged Shahab-3. Miniaturizing and hardening nuclear warheads capable of flying atop a Shahab missile is another complex technological challenge.
It is inconceivable that Iran or anyone else would launch a single nuclear weapon. What if it didn't go off? Imagine the embarrassment and the retaliation. Iran would need at least ten warheads and a reliable delivery system to be a credible nuclear power.
Israel, the primary target for any Iranian nuclear strike, has an indestructible triad of air, missile and sea-launched nuclear weapons pointed at Iran. An Israeli submarine with nuclear cruise missiles is on station off Iran's coast.
Iran would be wiped off the map by even a few of Israel's estimated 200 plus nuclear weapons. Iran is no likelier to use a nuke against its Gulf neighbors. The explosion would blanket Iran with radioactive dust and sand.
Finally, while Washington keeps invoking the specter of a nuclear armed Iran, India has quietly developed a large nuclear arsenal and will soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to North America.
Compared to America's titanic economic and financial mess, whatever goes on in Tehran is of pipsqueak magnitude. The real danger to America comes from its Wall Street fraudsters, not from Tehran.