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BAGHDAD’S THINK-TANK BOMB

John Chuckman

An 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.

The 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.

The 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 regime.”

Astute 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.

Recall 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?

Just for good measure, Downing Street added to its comments on the report, “This is clearly a very serious piece of work.”

But 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.

The 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.

The fact is even Botswana 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.

A 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.

The 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 an explosion.

Surrounding 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.

Few 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.

But 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.

This 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.

This 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. Only providing it possess an adequate quantity of plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

But 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.

Before 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 truly being 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 was destroyed.

What 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.

However, 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, forever.

As 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, period, without sophisticated dispersal systems, systems which Iraq never had and still does not have.

And 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 these.

Of 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.

Moreover, 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.

And do we ever consider why Iraq might want nuclear weapons? They do live nearly cheek-by-jowl with a country armed to the teeth with almost every threatening weapon it is possible to have. A country that is effectively a garrison state, spending one of the highest percentages of GDP on weapons of any country in the world. A country that is now developing sophisticated cruise missiles, ones that can launched from submarines. A country that has put a satellite in orbit, demonstrating its capacity to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles. A country which we know has a nuclear arsenal comparable in some respects to those of traditional European powers like France or Britain. A country which refuses to join the international nuclear-inspection regime. A country which has previously invaded Iraqi territory to destroy a costly reactor. A country which has secretly assassinated some top scientists doing work for Iraq. A 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.

Wouldn’t anyone feel insecurity under such circumstances?

Do 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 invade Iraq? Or vaguely threatening countries like Iran and North Korea?

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