Thursday, February 02, 2006

Stay Calm

The US government continues to rachet up the tension at home over the Iranian nuclear issue. Or at least they've been trying to. My understanding is that the general feeling in the US is one of disinterest. Many are still pre-occuppied with that other effort to rid the world of WMD and have no desire for another confrontation in a faraway land.

Help, help, it's a wolf. Help, hel...argh, get it off me, please, someone, help, help help, hel.. .

Yes, quite. Anyway, I'm slowly getting up to speed on this whole issue and it seems likely that the Iranians are, at the very least, going some way towards initiating a weapons programme. For one thing, they're building a heavy water reactor at Arak which could be used to produce weapons grade plutonium. It will be several years before this reactor becomes operational (the UK government believes it will be in 2014). The Iranians have completed a facility to manufacture heavy water in Arak but you can't build a bomb with water, heavy or not. This type of reactor doesn't produce much electricity. It's an experimental reactor for medical research, say the Iranians. This is possible. Possibly. It not something we need to worry about for the moment though.

The Iranian's are also going out of their way to develop uranium enrichment technologies which could be used to make weapons grade materials. There's nothing in the NPT to stop them doing that but they could just as easily, or perhaps more easily buy suitably enriched non-weapons grade uranium from the Russians to fuel their reactors. That would stop everyone in the West freaking out but they're not keen. Perhaps they just want to be self sufficient (echos of Tony Blair's energy policy) or perhaps they want the ability to make bombs.

It's troubling, no doubt about it. Be aware though that most experts think it would take years even if they've already decided to build nuclear weapons. The IAEA says they have not started enriching uranium yet. It takes a long time to make enough weapons grade material to build a bomb through enrichment unless you have an enormous number of centrifuges. There's no evidence that Iran does. And the reactor they are building at Bushehr won't produce the goods when it goes online either.

So, the recent actions of the Iranian government are worrying. But the sense of imminent crisis is misplaced.

I've read a few mentions recently of the fact that ElBaradei had said Iran were only six months away from building a nuclear bomb but that turned out to be er, wrong. (I love that post. Look, the guy at the UN said it so it must be true. Oh, he didn't. Well, you can never trust the guy from the UN.) He actually said it would take at least two years and a few months.

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