Thursday, January 7, 2010

Christopher Hitchens: Mullahs indubitably fancy a mushroom cloud

WELL into a January 3 New York Times report on the US administration's increasingly worried internal discussions about Iran, there came a couple of paragraphs that warranted closer scrutiny: "[Barack] Obama's top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before resident George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.

"After reviewing new documents that have leaked out of Iran and debriefing defectors lured to the West, Mr Obama's advisers say they believe the work on weapons design is continuing on a smaller scale - the same assessment reached by Britain, France, Germany and Israel."

Leaving to one side the alarming possibility that any of Obama's people ever did believe the preposterous arguments of that National Intelligence Estimate, one must wonder what sort of scale is implied by "smaller".

That ostensibly reassuring usage might, in fact, be accurate. The new documents alluded to in the article were published in The Times of London last December, and have been extensively reviewed by numerous authorities, none of whom has chosen to challenge their authenticity. And the documents do, in point of fact, throw light on something smaller scale.

To be precise, they show the internal memoranda of the dictatorship as they bear on the crucial question of a neutron initiator. Small as this device may be, it is the technical expression used for the trigger mechanism of a workable nuclear weapon.

The critical element of the trigger is uranium deuteride or UD3. And uranium deuteride has no other purpose. To quote David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington: "Although Iran might claim that this work is for civil purposes, there is no civil application. This is a very strong indicator of weapons work."

Remember the other long-concealed enrichment site at Natanz and also the heavy-water plant at Arak. And remember, too, that this is not information that derives from possibly self-interested defectors or bickering intelligence services - even the most cautious spokesmen from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been confident enough to make public criticisms of Iran's self-evident duplicity.

The signature of the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei despotism on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as its supposed adherence to a whole thesaurus of agreements with the UN and the European Union, has long been shown to be as cynical and worthless as its claims to have held a free election.

The regime's Revolutionary Guards, now engaged in still another bloody battle with unarmed Iranian civilians, are emerging as the proprietors of the secret nuclear arsenal. The enemy is in plain view.

I encourage you to view the Iranian documents for yourselves: The Times of London subjected them to considerable expertise before publishing them and is confident of their provenance.

I quote here from an excellent summary by the newspaper's diplomatic correspondent Catherine Philp: "UD3, when used in a neutron initiator, emits a stream of neutrons that ignite the core of a bomb, either weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. The stream of neutrons is released using high explosives to compress a core of solid UD3, creating fusion."

But this in turn presents a difficulty for the surreptitious bomb-makers, because the testing of such a trigger could not be explained away as a detonation of a conventional high-explosive weapon. In other words, it would allow monitors to detect the traces of UD3. The whole interest of the newly leaked documents lies precisely in the way in which a further level of cheating is therefore so carefully discussed.

A smaller scale of test, according to the regime's scientists, could be attempted using titanium deuteride instead. By this means, a useful flow of neutrons could still be produced but without the incriminating trace elements. The apparent idea, according to one quoted expert, was "to test the match without burning it".

The chance that this is not a militaristic and messianic design intended to harden the carapace of the dictatorship and help extend its powers of regional blackmail seem ridiculously close to zero.

Iran has had numberless offers from the West to help it acquire the faculties of peaceful nuclear energy and reduce its wasteful use of oil and gas. If it would permit the most elementary transparency, it could also be enabled to purchase uranium at far less cost on the open market, as other nations do.

But the mullahs prefer to risk isolation and sanctions in order to construct off-the-record sites and to conduct deception operations that would be almost pathetically crude if they were not so self-evidently sinister. (It also disdains to hide its real intentions from its clients and surrogates: at a Hezbollah rally in Beirut last year, I was impressed to see that the brand new poster of the Party of God is a mushroom cloud; officials from the Iranian embassy were openly on the podium at this uplifting event.)

How fascinating it is to sit at home and watch while this menace is permitted to reach the point of no return.

Almost as gripping, in fact, as following the jaunty itineraries of suicide-murderers as they calmly buy their one-way tickets, in cash, on airplanes bound for our cities.

The similarity between these two passive experiences is quite riveting as well: in both instances, we lavish billions of dollars on intelligence agencies that cannot make sense of elementary forensic evidence; that coddle and excuse our enemies and treat us like criminals when we ourselves try to travel; that meanwhile leave us unprotected under open skies; and that run a full-employment bureaucracy from which it seems nobody can be, or ever has been, fired.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the online Slate magazine, where this column originally appeared. He is the Roger S. Mertz media fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, California.

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