independent think-tank in Britain, the International
Institute for Strategic Studies, has published a report
on Iraq's nuclear capabilities. The report, which
the Prime Minister's office termed "highly significant,"
was produced without access to the files of Britain's
intelligence services. It made headlines in many Western
papers. The BBC's Internet site made it top story.
essence of the report is the sensational-sounding
claim that Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon within
months if it were to find a supply of fissile material.
The report also says that Iraq has "probably"
managed to conceal stocks of chemical and biological
weapons and a small number of missiles.
Prime Minister's office, in comments that were remarkably
well coordinated with the report's release, added
that its own dossier on Iraq, which as always in these
matters cannot be revealed without compromising intelligence
sources, "paints a picture of a highly unstable
readers will observe that this is essentially a non
sequitur to a technical report's subject, but a non
sequitur that manages nicely to associate the words
"unstable" and "nuclear" and "Iraq."
At this point, one's antennas for detecting propaganda
should be twitching furiously.
that Tony Blair, in a big show of bravado against
his critics months ago, promised to produce a dossier
that would leave no doubt why invading Iraq was justified.
He has failed even to attempt keeping that promise.
Perhaps his government's comments cut and pasted to
this private technical report, itself a cut-and-paste
job of widely understood concepts and iffy assertions,
containing no intelligence whatsoever, are to be understood
as fulfilling the promise?
for good measure, Downing Street added to its comments
on the report, "This is clearly a very serious
piece of work."
is it, in fact, a serious piece of work? Does it tell
any reasonably well-informed person anything he or
she did not know already? Let's analyze some key points.
most important assertion of the report is that, given
the fissile material, Iraq could make a nuclear bomb
in months. This is both true and utterly misleading.
fact is even Botswanaland might cobble together a
crude nuclear bomb of the "dirty" variety,
given the fissile material. In fact, the key assertion
of the report says virtually nothing unique to Iraq.
modern nuclear weapon is a very sophisticated industrial
product. It contains a precision-milled hollow sphere
of fissile material, either plutonium or a form of
highly enriched uranium. So long as the material remains
in that shape, it cannot produce a nuclear explosion.
total mass of the little sphere equals what scientists
call the critical mass (different in the case of each
fissile material) - that is, the amount needed for
the kind of chain reaction we call a nuclear explosion.
An elaborate mechanism is needed to change the shape
of the sphere at just the required moment to produce
the hollow sphere is in effect a second sphere, an
armature of conventional explosives and high-tech
switches designed to explode so as to crush the hollow
ball it surrounds into a precisely defined lump. That
lump then instantly generates a nuclear explosion.
non-advanced countries are remotely capable of: 1)
producing the fissile material; 2) milling the fissile
material into a precision hollow sphere; 3) producing
the special conventional explosives for the armature;
4) building the necessary precise configuration of
these conventional explosives; 5) producing the high-tech
detonation switches; 6) assembling all these into
a precise and stable package; 7) plus many other aspects
including safety and appropriate detonation devices.
the fissile material itself is the crucial part, the
sine non qua. Given that, it is possible to produce
a primitive, much-simpler, "dirty" bomb.
is done by dividing the critical mass of material
into two lumps, neither of which can produce an explosive
chain reaction, and mounting them on a device designed
to hurl the lumps together at the appropriate moment.
This simpler technique is inefficient and produces
a lot of radioactive debris - hence, the name "dirty"
- and a less than optimal blast.
kind of bomb still requires efforts considerably beyond
the scope of a Gyro Gearloose tinkering in the basement,
but it is far more possible to build for a determined
country of modest means than a sophisticated weapon,
although the country still must possess an adequate
quantity of plutonium or highly enriched uranium.
that is precisely why there are stringent international
controls. Unlike other control regimes, those concerned
with the movement of fissile materials are given force
by the constant scrutiny of the world's major intelligence
services. Nothing has changed in this regard. The
world closely watches all such material. And, indeed,
as the report states, Iraq possesses none.
Desert Storm, intelligence services had undoubtedly
become aware that Iraq had a fairly sophisticated
project underway to build nuclear weapons. The destruction
of that capability was largely what Desert Storm was
about; all the stuff about oil was truly a side issue
except to the extent that additional oil revenues
could speed or expand the project. Saddam was almost
certainly lured into invading Kuwait so that he could
be slapped down and deprived of this capacity. He
was foolish enough to take the bait, and that is exactly
what happened, he was deprived of the capacity. As
an additional benefit to the most concerned party
in the region, Israel, a substantial part of his army
surprised the world back in the early days of the
weapons-inspection regime was not that Iraq was trying
to build a bomb, but how far along it had come to
producing its own fissile materials. There are several
costly and difficult methods for doing this, and Iraq
apparently had constructed facilities for more than
one of them.
these were totally destroyed, and it would be impossible
for Iraq to reconstitute them without spending billions
on a vast construction project that would be plainly
visible to spy satellites. The days of being able
to carry out a Manhattan Project in secret are gone
for the report's business about chemical and biological
agents, that part is idle speculation. But even if
it were accurate, these agents are pretty close to
useless as "weapons of mass destruction,"
despite the Bush administration's constant efforts
to obfuscate this fact. Indeed, the materials are
pretty close to useless without sophisticated dispersal
systems, systems which Iraq never had and still does
the missiles? Perhaps a dozen SCUDs secreted away,
with a strong emphasis on the perhaps. We all saw
how totally ineffective SCUDs are as weapons of war
during Desert Storm. They did no militarily-significant
damage anywhere during that conflict. Like the V-2s
of World War II , you would need thousands before
regarding them as serious weapons. You don't start
a major war over the possession of something like
course, it only takes one nuclear warhead. And here
we return to what is genuinely important: whether
Iraq has fissile materials. But even this report,
flimsy piece of propaganda that it so clearly is,
does not claim that.
has anyone ever asked, even if Saddam had nuclear
weapons, how he could use them? Nuclear weapons are
both a form of power and a trap for any state possessing
them. The use of even one, inaccurately delivered
by a SCUD, would invite instant retaliation from any
likely target. Has Saddam ever demonstrated an inclination
to suicide? Quite the opposite, he has always used
immense resources to secure his person against harm.
do we ever consider why Iraq might want nuclear weapons?
They do live cheek-by-jowl with a country armed to
the teeth with almost every threatening weapon possible.
A country that is effectively a garrison state, spending
one of the highest percentages of GDP on weapons of
any country in the world.
country developing sophisticated cruise missiles,
ones that can be launched from submarines; a country
that has put a satellite in orbit, demonstrating its
capacity to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles.
country we know has a nuclear arsenal comparable in
some respects to those of traditional European powers
like France or Britain; a country that refuses to
join the international nuclear-inspection regime.
country that has previously invaded Iraqi territory
to destroy a costly reactor, along with secretly assassinating
some top scientists doing work for Iraq.
country which ignores long-standing UN resolutions.
A country which has occupied the homes of several
million Arabs for a third of a century. And most importantly,
a country which does not appear to be under any effective
checks or safeguards by its chief benefactor the United
States, itself a country mired in the internal affairs
of every state in the Middle East.
anyone feel insecurity under such circumstances?
these facts not demonstrate the immense obligation
the United States has in the Middle East? An obligation
it should be attending to rather than planning to
vaguely threatening countries like Iran and North
Chuckman encourages your comments: jchuckman@YellowTimes.org
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