Might escalating armed hostilities in the Middle East lead Donald Trump to bomb nuclear facilities in Iran before he relinquishes command of the nation’s arsenal January 20? Iran vowed to retaliate after its top nuclear scientist was assassinated November 27, presumably by Israeli commandos with close coordination from Washington. Corrales’ Paul Stokes, who directed nuclear inspections in Iraq for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) prior to the U.S. assault on that country, was asked for insights that might have bearing on the current conflict with Iran.
How confident can the American public be that any U.S. preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be justified, given the erroneous assertions made about Saddam Hussein’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq? Can current inspection methods determine conclusively whether Iran is now trying to produce nuclear weapons? What might be the health effects globally if the United States or Israel bombed a reactor or uranium enrichment plant there?
Stokes served for two years on an “action team” conducting nuclear inspections in Iraq after the First Gulf War. “We essentially shut down the Iraq nuclear weapons program, and ascertained that it continued to be shut down, despite the unwarranted policies of the Bush administration,” he explained in a November 29 interview with Corrales Comment. Given the Iraq experience, he was asked what might be the international repercussion if an Israeli-American strike occurred without defensible justification.
Corrales Comment: At some point an assessment was made that the allegations General Colin Powell made to the United Nations were in fact accurate and therefore the action that was taken was justified. Is there some protocol in place now that would avoid another “false positive?”
Stokes: “I don’t really know, but there were a lot of us who didn’t believe what Colin Powell was saying at all. But he got enough belief so there were people who, for political reasons, decided to go ahead and invade Iraq. I don’t know how many of those people really believed that. But a lot of us didn’t.”
And now, Stokes said, people who have been involved in such inspections are skeptical that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. “There just is no evidence that would say that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is imminent and therefore we have to attack. I know of nothing like that.”
Comment: If Israel or the United States did bomb an Iranian nuclear facility, what kind of international repercussions would be expected?
Stokes: “That would be an act of war. And there are international laws to deal with that. You would think that the international community, at least a good part of it, would object. “I am not up to date on the extent to which the Iranians have disclosed or not disclosed their program, but it could be that nuclear reactors would be a target because they can produce nuclear materials. The damage would depend on what they bombed and how extensively they bombed it.
“I don’t know the details, but I do know they were putting their enrichment facilities underground. Those would be pretty hard to get at. Of course, we developed weapons systems to try to address that. We have earth-penetrating bombs, that, incidentally, were developed at Sandia National Labs.
Comment: From what you know, what would be the health effects expected if an Iranian nuclear facility were to be bombed? Presumably there would be a lot of radiation released.
Stokes: “There’s probably no single answer to that, but it should be pointed out that Israel did bomb an Iraqi reactor that was producing nuclear material that could eventually become part of a weapon.
“That was not done to the level that might have been. They destroyed buildings and what-not, but not to the extent that it destroyed a reactor, for example. If you bombed a facility to completely put it out of commission, you’d be scattering a lot of nuclear material and radioactivity into the air. “I’ve seen estimates that that could result in the death of as many as 70,000 people. So it could be pretty bad if you really bombed the hell out of a place like an enrichment facility.”
As the interview got under way, Stokes set the context for his remarks. “My broadest concern about this whole topic is why, indeed, do we have to have Iran as an enemy? We could go into a variety of geopolitical reasons, but it probably has a lot to do with Israel and our knee-jerk response to Israel’s concerns. “Israel does have concerns about a nuclear weapons program in Iran, there’s no doubt about that. But I don’t see that having Iran as an enemy helps that situation very much.”
Comment: How accurate can we expect a determination to be that a country’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes?
Stokes: “There are a lot of countries that could have nuclear weapons programs that we wouldn’t know about, or we wouldn’t be sure about. Japan would be one; Germany would be one; Switzerland could be one, and that goes on and on. I don’t happen to think any of them do, but I suspect that each one of those has a plan, or something in their files somewhere, so that they could have a nuclear weapon if they felt they needed it.
“But in the case of Iran, there’s a difference, in that they are part of a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, so they are subject to inspections. Those inspections make it hard [to have a clandestine weapons program]. The inspections regime was organized and set up by the International Atomic Energy Agency as part of the nonproliferation treaty way back in the Sixties. So, they have lots of practice.
“As a result the operation at the IAEA is really highly professional and pretty well staffed. The inspection regime that was designed for Iran under tha Obama administration could and did take advantage of all of that learning. So I have full faith in the inspection process, although there are still some uncertainties.
“Based on intelligence from many countries and from the IAEA’s own experience over many decades now, I feel there is high assurance that they’ve found all the potential places and all the places that were being used by Iran before their nuclear weapons program was exposed have been identified and are now subject to appropriate inspections.”
Comment: If Iran or some other country were found to be violating terms of the treaty, what would be the consequences?
Stokes: “Normally that would be set out in the arms control agreement, but usually they leave that kind of vague. It’s almost like an ‘everythings on the table’ argument. The other parties to the agreement would have to decide what their response would be and then move forward with it. But they never state that initially, and I assume they didn’t in this Iran agreement.”
Comment: Is it left vague because a decision to impose some penalty is more a political one rather than a technical one?
Stokes: “Very much so. But there are some technical things that you can do. You can deny them technology that they really need, and then you can apply economic sanctions that are even more severe than those already imposed. I think the political measures are the more important ones.”
Comment: Given the heightened tensions around Iran’s suspected progress toward a nuclear weapon and what Israel and or the United States might do during the last days of the Trump administration, what should a citizen do?
Stokes: “The trouble is that most citizens really don’t know what’s going on over there. Actually, I think the situation over there is pretty much under control, and we as citizens should state that. It might be helpful to get that message to Biden, that we want to avoid any over-reaction. And in the future, I think it would help if we as a nation can be less threatening to other countries.
“Can we work with Israel to tamp down activities that seem like a threat to Iran?” In the November 30 online newsletter from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a run-down of assassinations of Iranian scientists was provided. Since 2007, four Iranian scientists and engineers working on nuclear projects were assassinated and an attempt was made on a fifth.
In one of those, physics professor Masoud Ali-Mohammadi was killed by a remote-controlled bomb in January 2010. Eleven months later, a similar bomb killed Majid Shariari, a nuclear engineer. A separate blast at that time wounded Fereydoon Abassi, now vice- president of the Islamic Republic and director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. In July 2011, another man connected to the country’s nuclear program, Darioush Rezaeinejad was gunned down and killed. In every case, the assassinations were credibly thought to have been carried out by agents of Israel with assistance or concurrence of the United States.