However, Clinton is mistaken. There is no proof whatsoever that Iran is engaged in nuclear weapons production — a fact re-affirmed by the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007 and every report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moreover, Iran is guaranteed the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory.
These points were underscored by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his speech to the General Assembly on Monday, May 3. It is too bad that Ahmadinejad has such abysmally low credibility. Though his assertions were true, they were dismissed immediately by the Obama administration as “a stunt.” Here the old French proverb “if it isn’t true, it should be” is seen in reverse. Iran’s denial of a nuclear weapons program is assessed as “if it is true, it shouldn’t be.”
Consequently, the veiled accusations abound, usually in the form of a semi-rhetorical question: Is Iran a year away from making a nuclear bomb?
This is what has been whispered in Washington virtually every year since 1990. Merely asking the question seems to have made an Iranian nuclear weapons program a fact in many people’s minds, inspiring fear.
Moreover, this is a fear that threatens to spill over into violent action. Many people want to bomb Iran to stop this hypothetical program. On a frequent basis, a “parade” of Israeli officials comes to Washington to consult on Iran and presumably to renew Israel’s request for the U.S. administration’s blessing to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. The neo-conservatives, never fully out of the scene, fan the flames. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on February 11, stating, “America's central focus must be to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in the first place. Doing so requires decisive, and likely military, action now, since there is essentially no likelihood that an Obama-inspired ‘regime of sanctions’ will achieve that objective.”
So, although Bolton, other neoconservatives and military hawks in Israel and the United States can’t prove that Iran is making weapons, they can insinuate it by fantasizing that a “turning point” is imminent whereby Iran could quickly produce a weapon. Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy and senior editor of Middle East Quarterly, told Mother Jones magazine on July 10, 2008: “It certainly appears from the last [International Atomic Energy Agency] report that Iran is on track to have enough kilos [of low enriched uranium that can be enriched to weapons grade] within a year…. What most people concentrate on is when Iran would have 600 to 700 kilos of its own low enriched uranium, which is enough to make enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb…. If everything works perfectly, [it would take] two months. If everything doesn't work perfectly, a bit longer. The answer would be the space of a few months."
On May 3, the New York Times breathlessly reported, with no verification and no source whatever that “[Iran’s] supply is now thought to be more than 2,100 kilograms, or about 4,600 pounds, enough for two bombs.”
These assessments would be both ominous and convincing if they were true, but it is false and utterly misleading. Unfortunately, Clawson, Bolton and those who make similar predictions know nothing about nuclear engineering. The truth is that there is little relationship between Iran’s current state of low enriched uranium and the production of a nuclear weapon. There are many intervening steps that would take years to accomplish.
Getting from low enriched uranium (LEU) to high enriched uranium (HEU) not only requires enough quality LEU, but also perfectly tuned working machineries that Iran currently lacks. Contrary to Clawson’s assertions, Iran is far from being at that point. The quality of the LEU is also questionable. Moreover, from all indications, Iran's current setup is fragile and prone to breakage. By some reports, the Iranian equipment is almost non-usable even for low enrichment purposes.
Even if another nation were to provide good quality LEU to Iran, Iran does not currently have the required resources to enrich the LEU to HEU. And if another nation were to provide Iran with HEU, Iran does not have the capability to assemble a test bomb, let alone a threatening bomb.
Commentators like Clawson make it appear trivial to assemble a “bomb” once HEU is obtained. In practice, however, handling of such HEU and the ability to assemble a working bomb is not at all trivial. That is why the United States, Russia and other nuclear nations have atomic tests. Once testing begins, the bomb-making process could never proceed unnoticed — even if conducted underground. We should remember that North Korea’s nuclear bomb tests were unsuccessful. This may be one reason they were willing to relinquish their nuclear program.
Finally, even if Iran were to obtain a bomb, it is not clear how they could provide a delivery system for the bomb with their present level of military technology. Iran has been testing conventional missiles — and not very successfully, as was recently seen in their over-hyped “show of strength” on July 10, when missile launches failed and had to be “Photoshopped” in to the publicity pictures.
A nuclear loaded missile is a vastly different technological accomplishment from a conventional missile. An airplane might be an alternative delivery mechanism, but Iran has no aircraft capable of delivering a sophisticated nuclear weapon.
Looking carefully at Iran’s nuclear program as it stands at present, it is only reasonable to conclude that Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts have so far been very elementary — effectively just practice runs for the very lowest levels of enrichment. In theory, LEU, with the proper technological equipment and skill, could be developed into a weapon. But this is a bit like saying that theoretically carbon could be made into dynamite. In both cases, it is a long way from the raw material to the finished product. Iran’s LEU is currently of no practical use except as a means to learning the enrichment process. And it is certainly no cause whatever for a military attack.
Added to this, the U.S. military, including Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, is firmly opposed to military action against Iran. They cite the fact that such action wouldn’t deter Iran in any significant way in its nuclear program, and the retaliation by Iran to attacks would inflame the region in war for decades.
This leaves the question: Why all of the political pressure to bomb Iran? Since the answer cannot lie in Iran posing any real danger, the reason must be political. Iran is a universally effective bogeyman. No American politician has lost a vote by threatening to attack Iran. Israeli politicians also can use the “Iranian existential danger” as a smokescreen to cover their political disarray, and disagreements with the Obama administration. Successfully hyping the existence of a fearsome external enemy is extremely useful to politicians, especially when that enemy poses no danger whatever.
Dr. Behrad Nakhai is a nuclear scientist. He holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee. He is currently working as a nuclear engineer, performing nuclear safety analysis. He was formerly a research nuclear scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and has also been a faculty member at the Center for Nuclear Studies in Memphis, Tenn. and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He has just returned from Iran.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn. He is president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association and former director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other,” University of Chicago Press.