Attack at Al Kibar, Syria, Prelude to Attack at Arak, Iran?

(10 am – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Since about five minutes after Israel sent its warplanes to attack a site near Al Kibar, Syria, became known eight months ago, the speculation has been that Israel took out a nuclear reactor. Although the immediate public response from Washington officials was that the target wasn’t a nuke, we now know that those officials thought they knew better and had for months. The question now is whether this attack last September was a prelude to an attack on a nuclear reactor in Arak, Iran.

Six weeks after the attack, the Institute for Science and International Security provided some details and photos, a “confirmation” that the Syrians had been building a reactor near Al Kibar. Moreover, ISIS seemed to agree with U.S. officials who, in early October had said that satellite photos indicated the Syrian site bore the “signature” of a small reactor. ISIS made clear that this structurally resembled a site in Yongbon, North Korea, where plutonium has been extracted for that country’s nuclear weapons.  In December, Clayton Keir explored Syria’s nuclear capabilities for GlobalSecurity.org.

Hence, senior officials of the Cheney-Bush Administration, assisted with visual aids, didn’t provide any real surprises during Thursday’s  all-day briefing of Congress. No doubt it was nuke, they said. North Korea built or helped build it. And, yes, the White House had held extensive discussions with Israel prior to the September 6 attack. About whether the Syrians were actually pursuing the building of a plutonium Bomb the senior officials were less willing to be certain. That’s because there were some crucial missing pieces, including a chemical reprocessing facility capable of separating plutonium.

President Bashar Assad denied Syria had been building a reactor at the site. An unused and unguarded military site, he claimed. Take that as you will. It’s a denial not likely to be as persuasive as the allegedly insider photos Israel provided to the CIA last summer. These apparently convinced agency analysts that a Syrian nuke was being built by the North Koreans. An expected denial, too, since, if Syria was building a reactor without informing the International Atomic Energy Agency, it would violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which it is signatory.

What didn’t come up in the congressional hearings Thursday was mention of Arak, Iran. Unlike in Syria’s case, there is zero question that a heavy water-moderated nuclear reactor is being built at Arak, some 120 miles southwest of Tehran. Iran openly admits it and allowed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit it in 2003 and for five hours in in July 2007. What is being constructed there is 40-megawatt reactor that could (if someone wanted to and built the required additional facilities) be used to provide enough plutonium for two or three nuclear Bombs each year. As Al Kibar was a target for Israel’s long-standing Begin Doctrine – based as it is on “anticipatory self-defense” to keep certain nations from obtaining nuclear weapons or the infrastructure to build them – Arak may well be the next target. That could touch off an Iranian retaliation which, in turn, might generate an active U.S. military response. May. Could. Might.

You’d need all your fingers and toes to count the number of times over the past five years that the possibility of an “imminent” attack on Iran has stirred a panic among progressives and beyond. Sometimes, fears that the foreign policy ultrahawks would finally get their way have been based on seemingly solid evidence provided via presumably well-connected insiders. Sometimes the fears have arisen from the weakest of unfounded, unsourced rumors entangled in ludicrous theories concocted by unreliable so-called investigators with their own obscure agendas. But it’s hard even for the most jaded person not to be unnerved a little bit every time a new story about attacking Iran surfaces.

That country is, after all, one of the two remaining spokes of Mister Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” and the hard-core neoconservatives behind the Cheney-Bush administration’s overt version of U.S. imperialism have made no secret of their desire to see the place bombed and leashed.

Lethal and Malign

These days it’s not just the neoconservatives who are talking about knuckling Iran under using a military option. As reported just a few hours ago by Ann Scott Tyson in the Washington Post, the Joint Chiefs Chairman Says U.S. Preparing Military Options Against Iran for its “increasingly lethal and malign influence” in Iraq. How much of this is meant as bluff, for nervous consumption of the power elite in Tehran, and how much it represents a possible ratcheting up of what so many have feared for so long, is anybody’s guess. But the Joint Chiefs’ plans, together with the recently stepped-up rhetoric from an administration with less than nine months left in office, seems ominous. Add in bellicose campaign-trail commentary by one of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, whatever her actual intent, and it raises the neck hairs of the calmest international observer.

Israel knows about plutonium-making reactors. Half a century ago, in 1958, construction commenced on the 26-megawatt, French-designed, heavy water-moderated Dimona reactor in Israel’s Negev Desert. The plutonium from that reactor (reprocessed underground at the site) was the foundation of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, a subject about which the Israeli government remains strategically ambiguous but which may now include 200 or more warheads. Subsequently, in 1962, at Bhabha, the Indians built Cirus, a 40-megawatt, heavy water-moderated reactor whose plutonium formed the core of India’s first nuclear test in 1974 (although India didn’t officially become a nuclear nation for another quarter-century).  

In June 1981, 11 miles southeast of Baghdad, 14 Israeli F-15s and F-16s attacked the French-designed Osirak (Tammuz 1) reactor before any fuel had been loaded, arguing that it had been being built for the purpose of providing fissile material for nuclear weapons. The Iraqis had always claimed it was simply a research reactor, but inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency had previously worried that the inspection regime was not good enough to keep plutonium from being diverted for weaponization. Whatever the case, the reactor was destroyed.

In January 2006, Joseph Cirincione, now president of the Ploughshares Fund and then director for Nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote:

Back in June of 1991, then-Defense Secretary Cheney gave a photograph of the Osirak reactor to the man who had commanded the Israeli air force during the raid on the site in 1981. “With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981,” Cheney wrote, “which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.” Cheney may have forgotten that the Reagan administration condemned the raid when it took place, as did most nations. And he may not be aware that the Israeli raid, far from crippling Iraq’s nuclear program, actually accelerated it. The raid was a tactical success but a strategic failure.

After Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor on June 7, 1981, using U.S.-supplied F-16s and F-15s, the Reagan administration said, “The United States government condemns the reported Israeli air strike on the Iraqi nuclear facility, the unprecedented character of which cannot but seriously add to the already tense situation in the area.” …

The raid had not, despite Cheney’s praise, made “our job much easier” but had complicated an already difficult problem. Hussein dispersed and hardened his secret new facilities and protected them with air defenses. In the 1991 war, 43 days of coalition bombing failed to destroy the program, which ended only when U.N. disarmament teams methodically destroyed the equipment on the ground.

Today, with Iran, many of my colleagues would like to keep this option open – if only as a bluff – believing that we need the threat of military action to force Iran into compromise.  They may feel the need to prove their “toughness” to the current administration.  But it is a dangerous stick to wave, particularly when you do not have any real control over it.  The true lessons of the Osirak raid are worth remembering as optimistic plans for “solving” Iran now come flying out of neoconservative circles.

Target Arak

Having failed to buy a research reactor from the Chinese, Russians and French, the Iranians decided to build their own. So, unlike the Dimona, Osirak, Bhabha and possibly Al Kibar reactors, the Arak reactor will apparently be of “indigenous” Iranian design. Construction, as confirmed by satellite imagery, got underway sometime in 2004, which, experts say, makes the 2009 start-up date that Iran has claimed completely reasonable.  That doesn’t mean it will be finished then, but it could be.

Once operational, the nuclear chain reaction at Arak will be “moderated” by heavy water, that is, ordinary water enriched in the hydrogen isotope deuterium. Needing a source of heavy water, the Iranians inaugurated their own production plant at the Arak Qatran Complex near the Qara-Chai river on August 26, 2006, 10 years after construction began. Although Arak was one of the two facilities revealed in 2002 to be part Iran’s secret nuclear program, the ceremony celebrating the start-up of the heavy water production plant two years ago was no secret, far from it.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke to reporters at the time:

After inaugurating the heavy water plant, he again said Iran would never abandon its nuclear programme, but that nuclear weapons were not its goal.

“Basically, there is no talk of nuclear weapons,” he said. “There is no discussion of nuclear weapons. We are not a threat to anybody, even the Zionist regime which is a definite enemy of the people of the region.”

Iran says the Arak reactor (IR-40), fueled by natural uranium, will be purely for research and production of medical and industrial isotopes. It can serve that purpose, replacing an aging research reactor provided by the United States to the shah in 1967. But a small light-water reactor would do the job, too, without being a good source of plutonium. Thus, many critics, and not just in rightwing U.S. circles, find the prospect of the Arak reactor troubling.

But there is no evidence that a plutonium-reprocessing facility is being built on the Qatran Complex site, without which no nuclear Bombs could be made. Iran has told the IAEA that it has no plans for such a facility. If there were a reprocessing operation, depending on the reactor’s capacity – that is, how often it actually is running – the IR-40 could produce between 9 kilograms and 12 kilograms of plutonium each year, enough for two or three Bombs.

For more than five years, Western governments individually and collectively have repeatedly sought to get Iran to freeze its nuclear-related activities at Arak (and elsewhere). On February 4, 2004, the IAEA adopted a resolution calling for a halt on Arak activities. On June 12, 2004, Iran Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said at a news conference:

“We will not accept any new obligation. If anyone asks us to give up Isfahan industries to change yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas or to give up heavy-water facilities in Arak, we cannot accept such an extra demand that is contradictory to our legal rights.”

One matter that gets far too little attention is the double-standard displayed by the United States, in particular, regarding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. One need not be sanguine about the prospect of an Iranian Bomb to recognize that the U.S. appears determined to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear activities even if they are in alignment with Article IV of the NPT. India, on the other hand, which developed its nuclear weapons capability without being a signatory to the NPT, gets rewarded with the Bush-Singh deal providing the country with access to Western nuclear technology. But then New Delhi, unlike Tehran, is pursuing a neoliberal agenda at home and providing a counterweight to Beijing, something Washington very much likes.

Much as the NPT needs to be revampled and applied with an even hand that treats non-signatories with the constraints they should be, this is a very long-term prospect. A possible strike on Arak, with its putative 2009 start-up date, is of far more immediate concern. If the internal debate in Israel ultimately comes down on the side of a Begin Doctrine-based Osirak-Al Kibar attack, the hellish consequences are all-too-easy to see. Retaliation against Israel would be a near certainty. Followed, most likely, with further Israeli attacks on Iran, strike and counterstrike eventually backed up by U.S. attacks.

The consequences of such attacks have been widely discussed. For example, in January 2006, I did it in Nuke Iran Now! Let’s Kill a Million or Three. And in February 2006, Paul Rogers of the Oxford Research Group did it in Iran: Consequences of a War . There are plenty of others, expert and speculative. Massive damage, massive death, massive geopolitical destabilization.

For logistical or other reasons, Israel may choose not to attack Arak. But there is a good deal of pressure being exerted in the twilight of the Cheney-Bush era to “get the job done” in Iran before a new administration arrives in Washington. Were Arak to be blasted now, and Iran were to retaliate, the prospects for satisfying the foreign policy elites who have been so desirous of bomb, bomb, bombing Iran would surely rise steeply.

14 comments

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    • pfiore8 on April 26, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    we’ve created this new way to handle perceived aggression…. with pre-emption. okay. we went into Iraq. and we’re agitating to go into Iran.

    soooooooo, what do we do when it’s turned on us? like when the guy we’re told is a a nut in North Korea gets nervous and sweaty when we attack the guy we’re told is a nut in Iran.

    and their policy elite think they ought to take out our reactors?

    yet one has to wonder… just how sane are we? from my POV, the world perceives us a paper tiger pretending we’ve got Iraq under control. and we send our weakened army into Iran.

    who are the nuts????

    • brobin on April 26, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    U.S. says Iran increasing support of insurgents

    The top U.S. military official accused Iran of increasing arms and training support to insurgents in Iraq as well as militants battling U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

    Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Defense Department news conference that he has “no smoking gun” proof that the highest leadership in the Iranian government has approved the stepped up aid to insurgents who are killing U.S. and Iraqi forces.

    But he said it is clear that recently made Iranian weapons are flowing into Iraq at a steadily increasing rate, including to support insurgents during the recent fighting in Basra in southern Iraq.

    Still.

  1. That little adventure with Lebanon has made Israel a little gun shy, so to speak. But if Cheney winds them up enough….who knows.

    This summer won’t be boring.

  2. pre-bombing (???) on Google Earth with good resolution. Here are a couple of photos.

    The first is of the site in question and the surrounding area from 3500 ft. It can be seen much better on Google Earth itself because of the limited size here. It is approximately a mile from the highway, the river and what looks like a railroad. It looks as it is totally accessible, no gates, no fence, no security of any kind. Seems odd for a reactor site. There is a structure along the river bank which could be a pumping station (for cooling water).

    Photobucket

    The second photo is a closer view from about 2000 feet. The structure that was bombed, or perhaps one that replaced it is about 49m x 45m.

    Photobucket

    The building or structure, the one that was destroyed by bombing, topside is roughly 45m x 49m as measured with the tool on Google Earth.

    • robodd on April 26, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    The Bush admin is trying to pull this Iraq shit on us again.

    But if they’re right, it was sure nice for the Syrians to build their reactor right out in the open like that.

    Massive damage, massive death, massive geopolitical destabilization.

    Just up Bush’s alley.

  3. …what I have pointed out since the beginning; there is no public evidence that Israel even has the capability of mounting an attack on Arak with anything other than ballistic missiles.

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