Do they have it or don’t they? This is the question that many are asking with regard to Iran’s alleged secret plans to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Those who oppose the present Iranian regime for a variety of reasons claim that the Islamic Republic either already has the bomb or will soon make one. Always prepared to believe the worst about a controversial regime, they are reluctant to consider Tehran’s protestations to the contrary. Others who sympathise with the Islamic Republic-again for ideological reasons- however claim that Iran is taken to task not because it wants the bomb but because it is challenging the United States’ plans for reshaping the Middle East.
As a result of this Alphonse-Gaston dialogue is that the average interested citizen finds himself at a loss as to what all the fuss is about. Should he be worried about the emergence of a new nuclear power in an unstable region? Should he be scared to death by claims that the mullahs may give their bomb to their “volunteers for martyrdom” to plant in the middle of major foreign capitals? Alternatively, should he rise in defence of Tehran’s radical regime that one might see as a victim of big power bullying?
In her slim but densely argued new book Therese Delpeche does not directly pose any of these questions. However, she ends up by answering all of them with a factual, almost clinical, narrative of now the Islamic Republic has elbowed its way into the closed club of nuclear powers.
Delpeche’s book came just a week before the Islamic Republic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proudly announced that thanks to the “Hidden Imam” Iranian scientist had already enriched a small quantity of uranium. However, the book was already built on the assumption that Iran had either enriched uranium long ago or would do so soon.
Those familiar with the world of nuclear power energy and weapons are familiar with Ms Delpeche’s long and distinguished career as one of France’s most respected experts in this domain. She has served as advisor on nuclear affairs to three French presidents and has been associated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for years.
Ms Delpeche shows conclusively that once a country has acquired a certain level of scientific knowledge and technological prowess to create a nuclear energy industry it is just one step away from being also able to build atomic weapons. The reason is that nuclear technology cannot be cut not two halves-one peaceful, the other military- with a firewall between them. To produce nuclear energy one has to either process plutonium or enrich uranium up to a certain point for use as fuel. The same processes, taken some steps higher, would produce the fissile material needed for atomic warheads.
If one is t believe President Ahmadinejad Iran has just enriched uranium to just under four per cent of what is needed for making a bomb. Enrichment to a higher degree, however, is only a matter of using a larger number of centrifuges at a more intensive rate. In other words the Islamic Republic is, theoretically at least, capable of manufacturing nuclear warheads within a matter of months if not weeks.
That, of course, does not men that it has already done or would soon do so. One theory is that the Islamic Republic has adopted the strategy developed under the late Shah. That strategy aimed at providing Iran with what is known as a nuclear “surge capacity” which means having the scientific, technological and industrial means needed for making a nuclear bomb without actually making one. Such a situation creates insurmountable hurdles for anyone wishing to inspect a country’s nuclear programme in order to prevent the building of weapons. The inspector may go everywhere, see everything, and talk to everyone and still be unable to decide whether or not the country in question is building a bomb or has built one. A bomb that is not here today for the inspector to see could be manufactured within days of his departure.
Ms Delpeche shows that the much praised Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) of which Iran was one of the very fist signatories in 1970, has not only been ineffective but , on occasion, as been sued as a cover for clandestine nuclear programmes. Membership of the treaty allows a nation a free hand in acquiring the scientific, technical and industrial wherewithal needed for a nuclear programme without anyone checking what is really going on. Because membership of the NPT is voluntary, it is assumed that those who sign do not want to cheat. Building a nuclear bomb is legal. Thus, those who wish to build one have no need to join the NPT and then make their bomb on the sly.
Ms Delpeche shows that this is precisely what the Islamic Republic has done. Instead of withdrawing from the NPT and doing whatever it likes it decided to honour the Shah’s signature of the treaty but to violate it in practice.
Contrary to Ahmadinejad’s claims, the current crisis is not about any attempt at preventing Iran from having a nuclear energy programme. Nor is there a legal basis for preventing Iran from building an atomic bomb. The quarrel is about the Islamic Republic wanting to remain in the NPT but continue violating its terms as it has done for the past 20 years.
Nevertheless, why should the Islamic Republic suffer so much humiliation and hang on to its membership of the NPT? The answer is that by being a member it can buy any technology or equipment it needs without securing a specific licence from the authorities of the exporting country in every case. Membership of the NPT also enables the Islamic Republic to receive information on the latest developments in nuclear science and technology and to secure attendance for its scientists at international conferences dealing with all aspects o nuclear knowledge.
The Islamic Republic ants to have its bread buttered on both sides: it wants to be in the NPT but not obey its rules.
Ms Delpeche shows that the very nature of the NPT and the way the entire non-proliferation issue is handled enables Tehran to play the game according to its own rules. In other words, the mullahs cannot be blamed to take advantage of a situation that is so easy to exploit, Their model is North Korea which was also a signatory to NPT but decided to suspend its membership after it had built its fist nuclear weapons.
The message of the book is pessimistic. It warns that unless a new and stricter regime to stop proliferation is devised and put into place the world will be heading for a nuclear arms race on a global scale.
All those who dismiss the stand-off over Tehran’s alleged nuclear ambitions as a sideshow would do well to read this book. It would send some chill down their spines.