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The Continuing Saga of Iran's Nuclear Build-Up

The Continuing Saga of Iran's Nuclear Build-Up

History was made about ten days ago in Vienna at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency when China and Russia voted along with the United States to sanction the Islamic Republic of Iran over its continued pursuit of nuclear energy. Iran, it is believed, intends to develop the technology to produce weapons of mass destruction. So say Western nations. Iran, of course denies all such accusations, claiming its nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful purposes.

What is “historic” in this context is the fact that both Russia and China saw eye to eye with the United States over Iran; indeed a diplomatic first. But what remains far from being historic in this case is the reason that pushed Russia, China and the United States to agree – for once -- over a major issue in foreign politics: simply put it has to do with oil; oil from Iran.

Or more precisely, the threat that the flow of oil from Iran could stop or be seriously hampered if Iran were to pursue its nuclear program.

The answer is the Israel factor.  Israel sees Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as nothing less that an existential threat.  Whether the threat is real or imaginable is actually irrelevant in this case, what matters is that Israel considers itself under attack, or liable to attack, and the survival of its people in question.  And when a country considers an issue to be affecting its very existence, all discussion is worthless. What counts is action.

The Jewish state fears that it is only a matter of time before Iran, once it has nuclear weapons, will be tempted to use them against Israel. Israel believes (and one may add, with good reason) that if Iran were to develop weapons of mass destruction it could deploy them against Israel, or, possibly pass on some of the components of a nuclear weapon to one of its Arab proxies. Those groups in turn could “weaponize” the nuclear material and deploy it against Israel.

Is this paranoia on Israel’s part? Hardly. Israel has good reason to worry. It has one such group on its northern border, Hezbollah, and another, Hamas on its southern border.

While both borders are well defended, and protected by armed troops and all sorts of fancy electronic gadgetry, both the frontier with Lebanon and the one with Egypt are far from impenetrable. Hamas has a huge network of secret tunnels it has burrowed under the frontier post through which it smuggles everything it needs in from Egypt.

And doubtlessly, Hezbollah must be emulating Hamas, although the Lebanese Shiite group has no reason to cross the border into Israel, unlike the Palestinians in Gaza.

Indeed, there is no need to develop long or intermediary range rocket mechanisms and then incorporate nuclear warheads on them in order to strike at an enemy, although Iran is developing the Shahab and the newer Zelzal missiles as well. But as a number of military specialists confirmed, you don’t really need rockets to deploy nuclear material.

Though not as easy to deploy, a “dirty bomb” timed to explode in a crowded area around the morning or evening rush hour will cause a high number of casualties and contaminate a radius around the explosion site for about 100 years. Not to mention the psychological effect it would have on the economy.

The size of the contaminated zone depends on a number of factors; how powerful is the explosive charge used in the dirty bomb? How high is the wind? How much nuclear material is being used? And so on.

A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive (TNT or semtex, for example) bomb that is wrapped in nuclear material. Of course that is easier said than done. The bomb along with the nuclear material, have to be smuggled into the country. As we pointed out in a previous paragraph, such a task is not impossible.

Alright.  Getting back to the point: In the event that Iran goes ahead with its nuclear program a strike by Israel could lead to the closure of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil chokepoint, through which 16.5-17 million barrels of oil (based on the first half of 2008) passes on a daily basis according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. This figure represents roughly 40 percent of all seaborne traded oil, or 20 percent of all the oil worldwide.

At its narrowest point the Strait of Hormuz is only 21 miles with the shipping lanes only two-miles wide. The vast majority of the oil that passes through these Straits is going to Asian markets, with China and Japan among the principal buyers. More than 75 percent of Japan’s oil goes through Hormuz.  In the event of Hormuz being closed the Gulf oil would have to use alternate routes which would be longer and more costly. The result would be higher costs at the pump.

According to official U.S. figures alternate routes include the 745 miles-long Petroline, also known as the East-West Pipeline, which traverses Saudi Arabia from Abqaiq to the Red Sea. The East-West Pipeline has a capacity to move five million-bbl/d. The Abqaiq-Yanbu natural gas liquids pipeline, which runs parallel to Petroline to the Red Sea, has a 290,000-bbl/d capacity. Other alternate routes could include the deactivated 1.65-million bbl/d Iraqi Pipeline across Saudi Arabia (IPSA), and the 0.5 million-bbl/d Tapline to Lebanon. Oil could also be pumped north to Ceyhan in Turkey from Iraq.

By. Claude Salhani

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