Nuclear proliferation and Iran

Nuclear reactor built by Russians in Iran
Satellite view of Iranian nuclear reactor

So Iran seems to be trying very hard to make a nuclear bomb and you would wonder why they would go to so much effort and expense. Could it be because they have an ongoing doctrinal conflict with the state of Israel? Have they noticed how much nuclear weapon possession changed the attitude of the USA towards North Korea and Pakistan? Or is it to create a Shiite advantage over the hated Sunni house of Saud? Or maybe some combination of the above. One thing is for sure, it will put weapons of unbelievable power into the hands of highly unstable nutters who already are massive state sponsors of terrorism.

The mechanics of making a nuclear bomb are pretty simple and are in the public domain. Rogue Pakistani scientists distributed detailed designs to less respectable states around the world, which makes the job even easier. The big problem is the huge industrial process required to make the ingredients, which are usually spun off a civil nuclear programme.

Making your bucket of sunshine is only half the problem, they also require a delivery system. They can be made down to backpack size, but that takes a fairly sophisticated and developed military nuclear industry. Missiles, for full sized warheads, are more difficult than you might think to get to work and to get to go to the right place. But the North Koreans have been very kind about distributing their rocket technology to the world’s bad boys. Easiest of all is to stick a nuclear bomb in a civilian cargo ship and then detonate it when it reaches a port of choice.

So how is the proliferation coming along? We know that the USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea all have nukes. Taiwan almost certainly can be added to the list. South Africa gave theirs up when apartheid fell. Iraq gave up efforts when Saddam came under massive external pressure. Libya had a programme that nobody knew about that they came clean about and gave up. Syria are trying but under the watchful eye of Israel their facilities tend to get bombed. Myanmar and Egypt also have or had programmes underway.  And of course Iran are trying flat out to get there. That is 17 countries.

If it was the Swiss or the Canadians who had these things then you wouldn’t worry. But North Korea is a paranoid hereditary dictatorship with a massive personality cult that is highly unstable and currently undergoing a leadership transition of uncertain outcome. In Pakistan the government does not run the country and very many thousands are being indoctrinated into mindless radical Islam, it is probably the state containing the biggest number of Muslim nutters. But Iran are even more worrying, they are a dogmatic theocracy with a political elite that is unstable in several ways. They frequently and easily resort to violence and they consistently meddle in the affairs of other countries by way of terrorism and exported revolution.

So it is hardly surprising that many countries are doing their uttermost to prevent Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions, whilst Russia, to be contrarian, has helped them on their way, building a nuclear reactor for them at Bushehr (the construction site was attacked by warplanes 6 times during the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s) . Much of the prevention effort involves above board methods such as trade embargoes of key materials and technologies. But these are traditionally got round by clandestine night time meetings of fishing boats in the middle of the Persian Gulf. So someone is resorting to more direct tactics, some subtle and some less so.

To enrich uranium for bomb use requires huge centrifuges that spin out the isotopes into layers. This is a slow and painstaking industrial process requiring very many centrifuges if meaningful quantities of fissile material are to be made. So Iran has lots and lots of them, all computer controlled. But, somehow, the computer caught a virus and put the centrifuges into over-speed, damaging them all. Presumably whoever did this little trick is also doing lots of other things to sabotage the programme.

On a less subtle level there is the health and life expectancy of Iranian nuclear scientists. They seem to have nasty, terminal accidents with some frequency, usually involving bullets delivered by someone on the back of a motorcycle. Obviously if you remove the knowledge and brains behind the nuclear programme you cause it problems.

The interesting thing here is working out who is doing it. Is it Saudi Arabia, desperate to see the balance of power between Sunni and Shia maintained in their favour? Is it Israel, who have said many belligerent things about the Iranian nuclear programme and who would probably be first target of choice for the Iranians? Or is it the Americans, the world’s policemen, with their mighty CIA working to stop a bad situation from getting incalculably worse? Of course it could also be any combination of the above, Saudi hate Iran far, far more than they hate Israel.

Of course what the world, and most Iranians, want is a return to a secular democracy at peace with its neighbours. Maybe the Arab Spring will eventually find its way there and then we can all breathe a big sigh of relief.

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