• 20 November 2008
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • Diplomacy, Events in Iran, Nuclear file, Uncategorized, US-Iran War

Who are we supposed to believe?

Yesterday’s IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program caused quite a stir about when Iran might reach a so-called “breakout capacity” for nuclear weapons development.  According to William Broad and David Sanger of the New York Times:

Iran has now produced roughly enough nuclear material to make, with added purification, a single atom bomb.

The nuclear material in question, low-enriched uranium (LEU), is used for electricity generation in a nuclear power plant.  It is called low-enriched uranium because it is enriched up to only 5%, as opposed to highly-enriched uranium (HEU) or “weapons-grade uranium,”  which must reach levels above 90%.

According to the IAEA, Iran’s program has produced 630 kg of LEU to date.  By itself, this poses no real problem, but if Iran were to re-enrich its LEU stockpiles into HEU, it theoretically could produce a nuclear weapon.  Obviously, that’s bad.

But here’s where it gets interesting.  Last September, the IAEA released a similar report saying Iran had produced, at that time, a stockpile of 480 kg of LEU.  Nearly every news account went on to quote an unnamed UN official as saying:

[Iran] would need 15,000 kg (33,000) [of LEU] to convert into high-enriched uranium for fuelling an atom bomb…That would be a significant quantity, one unit of HEU, and would take on the order of two years.

So which is it?  Either Iran needs 15,000 kg of LEU to produce a bomb as the UN official claimed, or it already has enough material with its current stockpile of 630 kg.

I looked into this a little further, and here’s the answer I found: neither figure is correct.

According to David Albright, Jacqueline Shire, and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security (as well as a friend of mine at PSR who confirmed this for me), most likely Iran will need somewhere between 700 and 1700 kg of LEU to produce the 20-25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium needed for a crude fission weapon.  The conclusion that should be reached from this fact, then, is:

Whatever the actual amount of LEU [needed for a bomb], Iran is progressing toward this capability and can be expected to reach the lower limit within a few months. The upper limit can be reached within a year with two centrifuge modules operating at already achieved LEU outputs.

Thus, if you believe ISIS’s take on things (and I do), the previously-mentioned 15,000 kg benchmark was way off.  There simply isn’t any way that’s a credible figure.  And depending on which guess you like, Iran is somewhere between a few months and a year away from being able to convert its stockpile of LEU into enough HEU for a weapon.  (That is, of course, if it decides to kick out all the IAEA inspectors, re-route its stockpiles back into its centrifuges for further enrichment, modify its missiles to accommodate a nuclear warhead, and design an actual fissile explosive device–none of which it has actually done.)

But what should we all make of this? Why would someone declare in September–when the prospects for war were actually very real–that Iran is nowhere near a breakout capacity, when the truth is it was approaching the supposed threshold?

My take is this: whoever this unnamed UN official is took it upon himself to try and calm all of us down.  At the time, if Iran had been seen as nearing the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon within months of its decision to do so, that very likely could have been the nuclear straw that broke the camel’s back.  As things stand now, though, an attack is essentially off the table, and the truth (that Iran is a few months away from being a few months away from being able to make a weapon) is less damaging.

In a perfect world, the news of Iran’s growing capacity (alongside its growing stockpiles of LEU) should serve as a warning to policymakers in the West: the longer you wait to sit down and deal with Iran over its nuclear program, the more cards Iran will have in its hand once you decide to come to the negotiating table.

And though Obama has promised to eventually sit down, one has to wonder how long it will take before he actually does.  And the clock is ticking.

Posted By Patrick Disney

    One Response to “Who are we supposed to believe?”

  1. CareBearStare says:

    One other thing: being alarmed over that amount of LEU justifies alarm toward countries like Canada. Even electrical companies in the U.S. that use nuclear power might possess something approaching that amount of LEU.

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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