Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: To Bomb or Not to Bomb?
In case you do not read Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, you may not know that Israel has contingency plans to bomb several spots in Iran where they suspect nuclear stuff is going on. Remember that's what Israel did in 1981 when it blew up the soon-to-open nuclear power plant at Osiraq, outside Baghdad. The idea back then was that Iraq might just use its know-how at the power plant to figure out how to make a nuke. They couldn't have used the power plant to actually make a nuke because the International Atomic Energy Agency would be inspecting Osiraq to account for every last miligram of fissile material. Still, Israel bombed.
Why is there such a fuss about the nuclear power plants in Iran? It's because the IAEA a few weeks back issued a report saying Iran had been doing nuclear stuff that it had not "declared," under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Bush administration immediately demanded that the IAEA take the matter to the United Nations Security Council and ask for a Resolution seeking punishment. Confusion then reigned in the press corps when IAEA Chief Mohammed ElBaradei pooh-poohed the U.S. demand, and so did the French, the Germans, the Russians and even the British. ElBaradei said while Iran did not live up to its "obligations" under the NPT by not declaring the little it had done, enriching uranium, etc., there was no evidence it had a nuclear weapons program, and thus no evidence it had "violated" the NPT. Without a "violation," there's no need to go to the UNSC.
As I last week wrote in a memo on the topic, the London Economist checked with the wrong experts and decided that even if Iran didn't have a "program" right now, it could next month or next year check out of the NPT, as North Korea did last year, and "quickly" produce a nuke. I asked Dr. Gordon Prather if that was right and he said: "Knowing how to produce and machine U-235 metal is one thing; but it takes at least 120 pounds of it to make even one gun-type nuke [Hiroshima]. If Iran intended to produce a few Hiroshima nukes, it would have to first finish constructing a facility capable of producing tons of low-enriched Uranium [LEU] per year, gain several years of operating experience with it, THEN withdraw from the NPT, modify the LEU facility to produce HEU, and use tons of LEU as feedstock to produce hundreds of pounds of HEU. The Economist calls that 'quickly'"?
The Tehran government even went so far this week as to tell the IAEA that it would sign the new protocol permitting the IAEA to inspect any suspected site in Iran (presumably those in Israel's crosshairs), but only if ElBaradei not report any violations to the UNSC, which of course he says there were not. Even without signing the new protocol, Iran will permit site inspections now, as it has been doing, but for perpetual snap inspections, it would have sign the new protocol. The warhawks in the Bush administration are furious with ElBaradei and with the IAEA, because they keep getting in the way of their plans for pre-emptive wars. As a result of this week's action at the IAEA, Dr. Prather went to even greater lengths to explain what has been going on here. The facts probably won't matter, as they did not last March vis a vis Iraq, but what the heck. If you know a newspaper reporter or a member of Congress, please forward them the explanation that follows.
"Mother, May I?"
By Gordon Prather
Do children still play Mother, May I? A game to teach children to obey "Mother"?
Suppose "Mother" says "Sally, take three baby steps." Now, the unwary might think that Sally has been authorized to take three baby steps. But no! Before Sally can take three baby steps, she has to say, "Mother, may I?"
What has a children's game got to do with the vicious infighting whose outcome could result in World War III that went on this week in Vienna at a meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency?
Well, Article III, Section 1 of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons says:
Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes to accept safeguards for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfillment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.
Procedures for the safeguards required by this Article shall be followed with respect to source or special fissionable material whether it is being produced, processed or used in any principal nuclear facility or is outside any such facility.
But Article IV, Section 1 says:
Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.
So, as an NPT signatory, Iran has an "inalienable right" to acquire or produce indigenously all kinds of peaceful nuclear stuff.
But there's a catch.
The authors of the NPT realized that no one can make a nuke unless they have substantial quantities of "special fissionable material." The two "special fissionable materials" used in virtually all nukes are (a) weapons-grade uranium (at least 90 percent U-235 isotope) and (b) weapons-grade plutonium (at least 90 percent Pu-239 isotope).
There are hundreds of reactors operating peacefully on (a) natural uranium, (b) "low-enriched" uranium (3-5 percent U-235) and (c) "highly enriched" uranium (greater than 30 percent U-235). Even though operated peacefully, all uranium-fueled reactors produce some plutonium but not "weapons-grade" plutonium, unless the reactor is designed or specifically operated to do that.
Hence, the primary NPT mechanism for preventing nuke proliferation is for the IAEA to control essentially all uranium, the "source" material for producing weapons-grade material and all plutonium and the processing thereof.
Therefore, all uranium and special fissionable material, the processing thereof and the facilities wherein the processing occurs have to be "declared" and made subject to an IAEA Safeguards Agreement.
Any failure to subject such materials and activities and facilities to the Safeguards Agreement is a breach of an NPT signatory's obligations.
However, such breaches are not necessarily violations of the NPT.
For example, it would not have been a breach of Iran's Safeguards Agreement to not "declare" their development of gas-centrifuges for isotope enrichment. It certainly would not have been an NPT violation. After all, gas-centrifuges are not exclusively used for enriching uranium. But once Iran began to enrich uranium in them, they were obligated to declare the activity and make it and the facility subject to their Safeguards Agreement.
Iran has admitted that they acquired several tons of natural uranium many years ago, but did not declare it to the IAEA as they were obligated to do. It is not clear why they didn't, since it was their "inalienable right" to acquire that material.
Nor did they declare their conversion of some of it to uranium hexafluoride. It is not clear why they didn't, since they would have had a right to do that once the uranium had been declared.
Iran has now admitted, and the IAEA has verified, several dozen acquisitions and activities over a 20-year period that should have been declared, but weren't.
The question before the IAEA Board of Governors is: "Did any Iranian breach of their Safeguards Agreement obligations constitute a 'diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices'?"
IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has told the board he can find no evidence that any of them were.
So, Undersecretary of State John Bolton can judge ElBaradei's report "simply too impossible to believe" and Israeli intelligence can claim that Iran's nuclear program poses "a threat to the existence of Israel."
But, the evidence so far is that -- in asserting its "inalienable rights" -- Iran has neglected to say, "Mother, may I?"
Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.
To view this item online, visit