EDITORIAL. Cecil Victor. VIII. IX. X
SPLITTING an ISLAMIC ATOM
by CECIL VICTOR
Original Video Aired by the BBC
A.Q Khan, Benazir Bhutto
The “Islamic Bomb”, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto christened it, was the first known divisible particle emanating from a Chinese reactor. It was conceived as a counter-measure against India. The Indian “peaceful nuclear experiment (PNE)” at Pokhran in Rajasthan in 1974, on its part, was in response to developments in the Chinese nuclear arsenal but it was not a nuclear weapon. That option was held in abeyance.
The very name implied that there was a tacit understanding between the Governments of Pakistan; of an oil-rich sheikhdom; and China for the sharing of ownership of the weapon. Dr Abdul Qadir Khan was to be the midwife. The lynchpin of the jigsaw fell into place when it became known that China had supplied a 2500-km range missile to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Placed at the north-east corner of the kingdom the missile would just about reach Mumbai. But it would place a large chunk of Iran within its radius of operation. Placed in the desert adjacent to the Persian Gulf it would have all of Iran’s major cities and population centres in its crosshairs. Chinese chequers?
Iran had by then passed out of the American orbit by the overthrow of the Shah and the replacement of the Pehlavi dynasty by hardline Shia regime of Ayotollah Khomeini. It was perceived as a threat by every Sunni regime in the region from Iraq which was largely Shia by population but ruled by Baathist Sunnis – a dichotomy that so pricked western corneas that they made it their national policy to support a rebellion of the “marsh Arabs” inhabiting the backwaters of the Persian Gulf adjacent to Iran with the intention of a regime change in Baghdad.
Pakistan denies that it used the Islamic Bomb as geopolitical currency and has tried to make out that Dr A.Q.Khan was freelancing when he supplied blueprints of warheads and centrifuges to Libya, the white racist regime in South Africa, North Korea and Iran. Revelations that former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto personally carried a copy of the blueprints of a miniaturized Chinese nuclear warhead to Pyongyang to exchange for North Korean missiles confirms that the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the means of delivery was a government-to-government arrangement.
Tel Aviv at night
The imposition of UN sanctions on Iran for refusing to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency requirements obfuscates the underlying regional rivalry between the Sunni and Shia regimes in the region. Shia Iran with nuclear weapons is anathema for Saudi Arabia and Israel alike. Israeli commentators have hinted at secret deals between Tel Aviv and Cairo on the one hand to restrict access between Iran and the Shia Hezbollah of Lebanon particularly after the last war in which Israel did not fare as well as it normally does in conflicts with Arabs.
Hints are also afloat of an understanding between Israel and Saudi Arabia on the issue of Iranian nukes. The fact is that the Iranian nuclear programme has not fructified into a nuclear warhead (although it has to be admitted that the Iranian missile programme has made remarkable strides).
The current international exertions, including the UN sanctions, are intended to ensure that Tehran is unable to proceed unilaterally towards splitting the atom for military purposes. Its improved centrifuge cascades and new facilities notwithstanding even western and IAEA sources are aware that Iran is not yet on the threshold of making the Shia bomb and there is no evidence to suggest, as in the case of Pakistan, whereby specialists like Leonard Spector were able to predict that Pakistan’s project was “just two screwdriver turns away” from becoming a reality. It was a remarkably accurate prediction.
In this scenario an Israeli-Arab meeting of minds may well result in Israel carrying out an attack on Iranian facilities just as it did with the Osirak project in Iraq in the 70s when it bombed the reactor dome and set Saddam Hussein’s project back several decades. For this Israel could be allowed overflight facilities most particularly by Jordan and Saudi Arabia By indicating recently that the US too is ready to attack Iran if it attempts to bust the UN sanctions Washington appears to have cleared the planned Israeli raid.
It does make sense to nip the Iranian project in the bud because if Tehran is able to create a warhead within the next three to five years intercepting a nuclear weapon tipped missile will be an altogether unpleasant experience as Saddam’s Scud missiles proved to both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both know that even a successful interception tends to allow the missile debris to hit ground installations in unpredictable ways. Israel suffered collateral damage in Tel Aviv suburbs even after a successful interception as did Saudi Arabia in Dhahran where a military barracks was hit because of a Patriot battery malfunctioned. These are risks one cannot take with nuclear-tipped missiles.
So we now have this very “Dr Strangelove” situation where the Sunni world will learn to love Israel if it destroys the Shia bomb. And what of Dr A.Q.Khan of Pakistan who sold centrifuges and warhead blueprints to Iran? They love him in Pakistan.