Interview: Iran’s nuclear ambitions

Former weapons inspector believes Iran is hiding more nuclear facilities.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, says Iran will not give up its “nuclear rights”  [EPA]

Professor Wyn Bowen, a former weapons inspector in Iraq who works at the King’s College London department of war studies, tells Al Jazeera that Iran is likely to be concealing more nuclear facilities and explains the ‘cat and mouse’ game involved in uncovering them.

Al Jazeera: At what point does a country’s nuclear energy programme become a weapons programme?

Wyn Bowen:

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The problem is that the technology is dual-use in nature, so you can be developing a civil power capability for many years, but most of the technology that goes into that -enriching uranium, putting in reactors or even potentially reprocessing plutonium –  is relevant to developing material that can then be stuck into nuclear weapons.

So Iran is claiming that its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes only, but its actions have demonstrated that perhaps we have got things to worry about because it has done a lot of stuff clandestinely.

What aspects of Iran’s behaviour are causing the most concern in the West?

In terms of producing the fissile material, which is the key bottom note for production, things like small facilities that haven’t been declared to the IAEA in Vienna is a big flag usually.

And Iran has, on several occasions over the past 10, 20 years or so, not declared certain facilities that are doing very sensitive activities, particularly uranium enrichment.

The discovery announced last week, that they found a small facility [near the city of Qom], that only has a limited number of centrifuges to go in it doesn’t make economic sense for producing nuclear fuel for a power plant, but it does make a lot of sense if you are trying to conceal it.

So it is the size of the facility and whether or not you’ve conducted a deception campaign.

Iran’s nuclear programme is being questioned, but several Arab countries, including the oil-rich Gulf states, have launched civilian nuclear programmes in recent years. In what ways are these programmes different from Iran’s – could these countries convert their nuclear-power programmes into weapons programmes if they decide to do so?

If you look at Arab countries that have nuclear power programmes, they are all very, very far back down the track. So in terms of whether they become a concern at some point we wouldn’t be able to judge that for some time.

Most of these countries are basically signing up to not acquire enrichment capabilities. So they are signing up to having nuclear power plants but basically buying the nuclear fuel from abroad, so that in their countries they won’t have the ability to  enrich uranium, and they won’t have the capability to reprocess plutonium out of the fuel. 

So by giving up those sensitive aspects that addresses a massive part of the problem.

When the IAEA sends inspectors into a country, what are they looking for?

IAEA inspectors tend to go to facilities that have been declared to the IAEA by the country in question.

“With the Iran case it’s been demonstrated that you can’t just accept at face value what they’re saying”

Professor Wyn Bowen

The things that they are mostly bothered about is accounting for nuclear material, to make sure that none of it has been siphoned off, that you can account for where it is in the system.

They are basically at one level playing a bit of a detective game, which for most countries is straight forward … but with Iran, because they haven’t been declaring things … it’s much more of a cat-and-mouse game.

It’s not just inspectors going in there. At the IAEA in Vienna they have a big analytical capability where they look at open source information and scientific and technical literature to try to get a bigger picture of what they are doing.

To what extent are they hampered by the government of the country they are sent to inspect?

There have been huge problems with safeguards in the past where inspectors have been too focused at what they have been shown [by the government]. With the Iran case it has been demonstrated that you cannot just accept at face value what they are saying.

Iraq is the classic example of the 1980s. It had a civil programme where they brought the inspectors, they saw it, they were happy with it, they went away. But they had a whole bunch of parallel facilities where they were doing all sorts of secret work on uranium enrichment.

Do you think Iran has more undeclared nuclear facilities?

Definitely. At what scale, I don’t know. But any clandestine weapons programme will have usually various concealed facilities.

“Deterrents is key with nuclear weapons. Iran … doesn’t want to be invaded, what they want is the ability to deter external intervention”

Professor Wyn Bowen

And what a lot of countries have learnt from the Iraq experience, is that you need redundancy in the programme.

So that, if you have a site that is rumbled, and you have to shut it down, you still have other facilities that you can continue running or you can set up to run and replace that facility. So if they are after a weapons programme, it would be crazy for them not to have done that sort of planning.

In the end, I think if Iran wants to get a nuclear weapons capability, it will get it. Even if military force is used against Iran, that is the only thing that could significantly stunt the programme.

The US and other Western powers made much of Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear weapons in the years leading up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and there were repeated warnings and inspections; do you see any similarities with the nuclear standoff with Iran?

The unintended consequences of using military force against Iran are pretty terrible, and very well understood.

But I always think the funny thing is that actually the true extent of the Iranian nuclear programme was coming out in the run up to the Iraq war.

For whatever reason, they went to Iraq on politically manipulated intelligence, whereas next door in Iran they had a pretty good intelligence case to demonstrate they had a capability that completely eclipses what the Iraqis had.

During the Cold War, nuclear weapons were developed as a ‘deterrence’; do they serve a different purpose in today’s world of asymmetric warfare?

No, nuclear weapons are fundamentally, because of their massive destructive effect, not usable military weapons. They are sort of political weapons. You develop them because you want to have a big political stick which says ‘you can’t threaten us’.

“If Iran announced it had a nuclear capability, Israel would be forced to play its cards as well”

Professor Wyn Bowen

Deterrents are key with nuclear weapons. Iran … doesn’t want to be invaded, what they want is the ability to deter external intervention.

It is quite useful sometimes to think of nuclear weapons as weapons of the weak. Iran is probably more bothered about American conventional military might than it is about the US’s nuclear arsenal. Because it is much more credible that it would use conventional military might than it would to ever use nuclear weapons against them.

If you think about the 1950s, the United States took a decision to rely on nuclear weapons in the face of a massive conventional Soviet capability and in eastern and central Europe, which it could not compete with economically, so it took the decision to rely on nuclear weapons because they are cheap.

What kind of scenarios could we see if Iran does develop nuclear weapons?

The problem with Iran developing nuclear weapons may be that it becomes a bit more confident.

It wants to be a regional hegemony and I guess that is one concern  – that Iran may be more proactive in pushing its agenda in the region.

Or it could make them more confident as a regime and make them not have to worry too much about sponsoring Hezbollah, Hamas etc.

There is the domino effect too – the effect on Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be pretty significant in terms of pressure on them to go nuclear.

If Iran announced it had a nuclear capability, Israel would be forced to play its cards as well, as it has always denied having them. So the dynamics can get really fascinating.

Source: Al Jazeera

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