Monday, March 05, 2007

Military strikes could speed Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, warns new report

Military strikes, instead of setting back Iran’s nuclear program, could actually speed up their production of a nuclear weapon, according to a new report written by one of the UK’s leading nuclear scientists published on 5 March 2007.

The report shows that following an armed attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran could change the nature of its program to assemble a small number of devices relatively quickly.

The report is written by Dr. Frank Barnaby, who worked as a weapons scientist at the headquarters of the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (Aldermaston) during the development of Britain’s own nuclear weapons, and is published by Oxford Research Group, one of the UK’s leading global security think tanks.

“If Iran is moving towards a nuclear weapons capacity it is doing so relatively slowly, most estimates put it at least five years away.

However attacking Iran - far from setting back their progress towards a bomb - would almost certainly lead to a fast-track program to develop a small number of nuclear devices as quickly as possible. It would be a bit like deciding to build a car from spare parts instead of building the entire car factory. Put simply, military attacks could speed Iran’s progress to a nuclear bomb,” said the report’s author Dr Barnaby.

According to the report, previous estimates that air strikes could set back Iran’s nuclear program by 2-3-years are based on the false premise that Iran would restart its existing large-scale program on similar lines.

The report argues that it is much more likely that, following an attack, all resources would be focused on the manufacture of one or two crude nuclear devices. This realignment of Iran’s nuclear program towards a so-called ‘crash program’ could lead to a nuclear-armed Iran within one or two years.

The report’s conclusions are backed by Dr. Hans Blix, the former head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In a foreword to the report, he says:

“Armed attacks on Iran would very likely lead to the result they were meant to avoid – the building of nuclear weapons within a few years.”

The report sets out three routes through which a ‘crash program’ could develop following attacks:

Taking plutonium from an unguarded Bushehr reactor – Under current agreements the Russians will control all fuel and spent fuel from the reactor at Bushehr. However following military strikes the Russians would be likely to leave the country providing Iran with full access to salvage plutonium from the spent fuel assemblies. In a specially built chemical facility this could be done within a few weeks. Even if the plant were destroyed in military attacks, enough material could still be retrieved to construct a nuclear weapon.

Black market – Following an attack Iran could turn to the black market to acquire weapons useable plutonium or uranium. The quantities involved (the size of an orange) would be relatively easy to smuggle. The political costs of being detected would decrease following military action and the motivation for using any means necessary to build a nuclear weapon is likely to increase.

Clandestine facilities - the US have stated that their intelligence on Iran is poor and it is thus feasible that Iran has already set up clandestine facilities housing centrifuges that could escape an attack. Whereas Iran is currently relying on its own scientists, as part of a crash program Iran could seek external support, to overcome any technical difficulties.

Following an attack the potential speed of recovery would be accelerated further by Iran’s likely withdrawal from the non- proliferation treaty - which would enable it to proceed without further inspections – and by bolstered domestic support for nuclear production.

Commenting on the launch of the report, Dr. John Sloboda, Executive Director of Oxford Research Group, said:

“This report doesn’t get into the rights and wrongs of military strikes on Iran - it asks whether they will achieve their objectives of destroying or setting back Iran’s nuclear program. The conclusions should be food for thought for even the most hawkish: military strikes against Iran will simply not work. Indeed they could even bring a nuclear-armed Iran closer.”

Dr. Blix added:

“In the case of Iraq, the armed action launched aimed to eliminate weapons of mass destruction – that did not exist. It led to tragedy and regional turmoil. In the case of Iran armed action would be aimed at intentions – that may or may not exist. However, the same result – tragedy and regional turmoil – would inevitably follow.”

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