If Nuclear Price is Right, Iran Might Sell Out Syria

After recently proclaiming his country’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle and membership in the nuclear club, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad declares that his country will push on until it masters the industrial nuclear fuel cycle. During a birthday celebration for The Prophet, he also proudly proclaimed that having achieved the uranium enrichment cycle, Iran’s enemies can not prevent it from continuing on the road it has chosen.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani RealVideo, Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council RealVideo, said that after successfully producing uranium-enriched fuel, his country had opened a new uranium enrichment facility WindowsVideo. The facility now contains 164 centrifuges, and is intended to enable it to achieve industrial-levels of production.

The uranium enrichment program, which Tehran claims has been a success, allows not only the production of fuel for civilian nuclear plants, but also the production of bomb-grade fissile material. The uranium that Iran uses is extracted from its own soil. It is a solid grey mineral, which occurs in nature mixed with other minerals. Two uranium isotopes [same number of protons, different number of neutrons], U-238 and U-235, are naturally radioactive. Because U-235 is fissile [easy to split apart], it is the only isotope used to fuel reactors and make bombs. U-235 is not of use in its natural state, as it is less than 0.7% pure. For civilian use, it must be enriched from 0.7% to 4% or 5% purity, and for military purposes, to over 90% purity.

On April 9th, the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, proclaimed that the nation had been able to enrich uranium to a purity of 3.5%.

In the first stage of the process, raw uranium known as yellow cake is converted into a gas (uranium hexafluoride UF6) which is processed in centrifuges to produce enriched uranium. Iran announced that it has produced 110 tons of this UF6 hexafluoride gas. The uranium is enriched, or purified, inside centrifuges, which hold tubes of UF-6 which are rotated at high speeds. During the process, heavy U-238 is thrown to the edge of the tubes, while the lighter U-235 remains near the center. This gas in the center is then processed in a second centrifuge, where the process is repeated until the gas has passed through each of the connected centrifuges. So the level of enrichment depends on the number of centrifuges, their efficiency, and the length of time that the U-235 is processed. Facilities that pursue this type of enrichment generally use thousands of centrifuges [remember, Iran is now said to have 164].

According to the U.S. Institute for Science and International Security RealVideo, to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for at least one atomic bomb, a centrifuge plant with at least 1500 centrifuges is required. Aghazadeh said that his country intends to have a facility with 3000 centrifuges up and running by the end of the year.

The nations which produce nuclear centrifuge plants are Japan, Brazil, China, Germany, Iran, Holland, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and Britain. Western experts suspect that Iran is developing a secret program based on B-2 centrifuges, which were originally given by Pakistani scientist AQ Khan, for use at the Natanz Nuclear facility in central Iran.

I was compelled to engage the issue of nuclear physics for the sake of preparing the reader with some necessary terms.

What the Iranians are after is far more than merely producing uranium for bombs or civilian power stations. Iran’s recent military maneuvers, seeking a way to meet with American officials over the situation in Iraq and its muscle flexing in the Persian Gulf, show that Tehran is sending a powerful message to anyone who thinks it an easy target. And the message is that Iran will not be defeated in a matter of days, such as in Iraq, and whoever doesn’t understand this fact is very far from the truth.

After having enriched uranium, perhaps for civilian use and perhaps for the military, Iran has several cards to play in it game against the Americans and Europeans. Protecting its national security and nuclear programs are at the forefront of the game for Tehran, so it is playing these cards to weaken the cohesion between the U.S. and Europe, and even the Chinese, in order to fulfill its nuclear and military ambitions.

Iran has even proceeded to offer compromises, like agreeing to start talks with the Americas concerning Iraq. This is how it looks on the outside, but what is motivating this strategy on the inside is less clear. It is unlikely that Iran would contemplate talks with the U.S. which are limited to Iraq.

In the face of European pressure, Ali Larijani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator, pointed out that if these countries gang up on Tehran, Iran might use its regional influence [influence over Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iraq]. He has said that bringing the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to the Security Council would not be helpful, and would mean that diplomacy was at an end. Such a decision would threaten Iran’s security, which Larijani says would prompt Iran’s Parliament to ask the government end its cooperation with the IAEA, and to stop abiding by protocols on surprise inspections.

Iran’s regional leverage is the strongest asset Iran has in the negotiations to take place over the coming days. To ensure continued progress on her nuclear program and especially her military designs in the Persian Gulf, the most important of these assets are Iran’s influence over Lebanon’s Hezbollah Party, the Palestinian movement Hamas, her Shiite allies in Iraq, and Iran’s most dangerous wild card, Syria.

The global crisis with Syria is coming to climax. U.N. investigator Serge Bramaertz is due to release his final report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri [Syria is the chief suspect], and U.N. Special Envoy Terri Rod-Larsen is due to issue a report of Syrian compliance with U.N. Resolution 1559, [in regard to Syria’s pullout from Lebanon].

On a military, economic and nuclear level, Iran is in a strong position. In addition to the support of the Iranian population, the Mullahs are beginning to throw their weight around regionally, by sending out threatening messages to their opponents on the Security Council, the E.U., and to anyone else who sees their nuclear program as a monster that will terrorize them.

Iran’s first step will be to support the Hamas financially, to help it withstand the economic blockade imposed by Israel, Europe and the United States. Iran and Syria are trying to help the Hamas government as much as possible. They are providing unlimited financial assistance to prevent it from falling into the economic abyss, an eventuality sought by those who oppose it. In return, The Hamas government will serve as Iran’s biggest regional ally and comrade-in-arms in the event that Iran and Israel decide to solve their differences in a military fashion.

The second most effective leverage Iran has is Lebanon’s Hezbollah Party. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is Iran’s best hope of preventing the birth of a Lebanese government that opposes Iranian or Syrian policy. It will be a coup for Iran if it manages to preserve Hezbollah as a military force [prevent it from being disarmed], even as Lebanon, Syria, and Israel agree on finalizing their borders. Hezbollah’s military potential will be a major asset if Iran is subject to Israeli attack. Iran’s military response would come quickly through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

The third most effective card Iran has to play is the fact that the international community suspects Iran of being the instigator of the crisis in Iraq, including the ongoing sectarian violence and the difficulty in forming a new government in Baghdad, chiefly due to the Shiite coalition that is closely allied with Iran. All evidence points to at least to partial Iranian interference.

But by far Iran’s most important card is Syria, which is strongly supported by Iran. In the event that Iran begins to bargain with the international community, it would likely abandon its support for Syria for a pass on its nuclear program. If the Syrian government lost the support of its most powerful and important strategic ally in the region at a time when it lacks any kind of Arab support and faces tremendous domestic and external threats, it could be a death blow to Damascus.

Iran is a nation that has embarked on an era of wheeling and dealing, in an effort to protect its security and its legal claim to a nuclear program. It has managed to send strong messages to nations which are planning to attack or invade it. Iran is a force to be reckoned with, and will not be easy prey, especially if it uses its regional assets to serve its military, nuclear, economic and even technological ambitions to their greatest effect.

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