Time after time we have heard statements from Israeli officials, spokesmen of the Israel lobby in the U.S., and Israel’s supporters in Congress that Iran “must” never obtain nuclear weapons. On March 3, 2008, all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus nine of the ten non-permanent members approved a new round of sanctions against Iran. Chalk up the final vote of 14-0 with one abstention (the Muslim nation of Indonesia) as another victory at the U.N. for the Israel-U.S. partnership.
The spectacle of the five “permanents” in the antiquated Security Council hierarchy — all of whom refuse to eliminate their own nuclear weapons — adopting a double standard with respect to Iran does not, of course, raise more than a peep in the mainstream media of the U.S. Iran, a nation of proud people in a neighborhood of proud peoples, sees only absurdity in the discrimination against it when the nearby nations of India, Pakistan, and Israel have all developed their own nuclear weapons without the U.S. stopping them. Israel’s nuclear weapons program particularly sticks in the Iranian craw, because Iranians know that Israel, an enemy but a far smaller country, acquired nuclear weapons over 40 years ago, considerably earlier than either India or Pakistan. Most Iranians also know that Israel accomplished this only with public and/or private aid from the U.S. It’s all seen as just one more example of the U.S. favoring Israel and picking on Iran.
The issue of the moment is not even actual production of nuclear weapons by Iran, but the “enrichment” of natural uranium so that it contains a higher percentage of one particular uranium isotope, U-235, than is found in nature when the ore called “uranium” is first mined. Such enrichment provides the single most-difficult-to-obtain product used in most nuclear weapons. (In the natural state, the raw ore contains other uranium isotopes as well, and usually has by volume less than one percent U-235. When concentrated to around three percent U-235, the product is widely used in common forms of nuclear power reactors. When concentrated to much higher levels — 90 percent is the figure often cited — the product becomes the “weapons-grade” material used in nuclear weapons. The equipment used in this “enrichment” process is not only complicated to build, manage and maintain; it also requires large amounts of electric power to operate. But all of this is within the capabilities of numerous nations and, probably increasingly, some subnational groups as well.)
Iran now possesses, has tested, and is using all the equipment required, and it has the necessary electric power, to produce enriched uranium. It claims it has already reached an enrichment level of around four percent U-235 in early tests. It also claims that it does not want nuclear weapons and will use the enriched uranium only to produce larger amounts of electric power for the nation in a series of nuclear power plants. But if one chooses to believe that Iran really wants nuclear weapons, another element comes into the equation: the ease with which an enrichment operation can be converted to produce weapons-grade uranium. Various Western experts commonly believe that if a nation or group is capable of going from less than one percent to a three or four percent enrichment level, then the technical difficulties of moving from three or four to 90 percent enrichment are not at all major.
The actual design and manufacture of the explosive device, and then of a deliverable weapon, would not be a simple task, but neither would it be terribly difficult. Precise estimates of the time the entire process might take are generally useless. There are too many variables. All such estimates depend heavily on the types of delivery systems available, the degree of targeting accuracy demanded, and the redundancy, or lack, of safety features assumed necessary to prevent unauthorized or accidental use. But for Iran, a simple guess of three or four years probably would be in the ball park.
While the U.S. and other nations demand that Iran cease all production of enriched uranium, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that came into effect in 1970 does not prevent anyone from enriching uranium for peaceful purposes. Iran, as already noted, claims that is all it is presently doing, and there is no hard evidence to the contrary. The U.S., however, and most other signatories of the treaty who already possess nuclear weapons have made no serious efforts to work toward global nuclear and general disarmament as called for in the NPT. The treaty, of course, has no timetable or deadlines in it. But the fact that the major powers who signed the treaty have not even begun multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament in 38 years gives Iran a good excuse, if it needs one, to abrogate its participation in the treaty. Some day Iran may do just that. The fact that Israel, India, and Pakistan, who have refused to sign the treaty from the start, have now become known nuclear powers, gives leaders in Teheran yet another excuse to get out of the NPT if it wishes.
While some U.S. empire builders talk about the need to change the global system, the world today is still composed of legally independent states where nationalism is the dominant force underlying relationships among states. In such a world, it is logical to assume that Iranian leaders either already secretly want nuclear weapons or will soon come to want them. They will not indefinitely accept that the smaller state of Israel has any greater right to nuclear weapons than they have. Nor will they even accept that the much larger U.S. has a greater right to such weapons. Short of being forced abjectly to surrender to the U.S.-Israeli partnership, no Iranian government leaders could accept such views.
The possibility of negotiating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East (including Israel), or even, conceivably, a nuclear-free world, is often suggested as the only true final solution to the Middle East’s or the entire globe’s nuclear dilemma. And the people who make such suggestions can often cite polls or surveys showing that a majority of people everywhere support these ideas. The tragedy is that at the moment there is simply not enough trust among the governments of the globe, or even within one region thereof. Take the United States alone, or the U.S.-Israel partnership. It is inconceivable that the present government of either partner would be able even to begin negotiations on eliminating its nuclear weapons, no matter what the possible benefits might be. The same would apply to China, Russia, Britain, France, India, and Pakistan to greater or lesser degrees.
Even in this time of distrust, however, the U.N. should set up a permanent conference of ambassador-level experts on Disarmament and Global Crises. Once it is up and running, spokespeople for this conference should direct public attention on a daily basis to the relationship between arms spending and the three major crises facing the globe — the energy, climate, and water crises that will make it increasingly necessary for the peoples of the world to work together in overcoming the crises and drastically cutting back the outrageous and wasteful military expenditures of too many nations. The immediate task of the conferenceshould be to define areas of agreement and disagreement on disarmament and on the other three issues in different regions of the world. The chairperson should be a very senior U.N. official, and the unusual feature of the conference — its permanence — should receive great emphasis on every public occasion.
It is likely that before long new and unforeseen developments will occur in one or more of the three crises that will intensify thinking among at least some people about the wastefulness of present military spending. Costly new difficulties in any of the three areas might even lead in fairly short order to a rolling snowball of global opposition and disgust over new nuclear spending. No one can foresee how great will be the changes in daily life caused by the three crises but we should, as best we can, work to make the changes add to rather than detract from harmony among the world’s peoples. We should all specifically try to use these crises to encourage everyone to think first as citizens of the world, only second as citizens of a particular nation or region.
But none of this deals with the present — or with the remaining months of Bush’s presidency. Since the present group of Republicans and copycat Democrats in Congress refuses to impeach Bush and Cheney, the danger of a war against Iran instigated by the U.S. and Israel remains real. The overextended state of U.S. ground forces, and Bush’s probable willingness to treat at least small nuclear weapons as ordinary weapons, mean that a war would possibly not be a ground war at all, but would begin with large air attacks and early use of nuclear weapons. While the longer term results of using nuclear weapons would be utterly disastrous, both for the world and for the U.S., the immediate results might be seen as a quick and cheap victory for the U.S. If the apparent military victory occurred before the November 2008 U.S. election, it would probably guarantee a Republican electoral victory. Given Bush’s interest in his own place in history, such a scenario could easily appeal to his gambling instincts.
Noise, and lots of it, seems to be the only weapon we have to make it less likely that such a scenario actually happens. Let’s make that noise, do it globally, and do it every day. Pound out the message through every medium we can access, including music and literature, that ordinary people around the world DO NOT WANT THE U.S. AND ISRAEL TO KILL A SINGLE PERSON IN IRAN, regardless of the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence officer and as director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis.
Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 35 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.
They can both be reached at email@example.com.