In this article we will try to explain the Iranian power structure and the Iranian nuclear programme. We will deal with the Iranian power structure first.
Let us start with the Presidency. In theory, the President of Iran is a directly elected (something of a sham, as the 2005 election turnout showed) and second only to the Supreme Leader, authority.
In practice, the Iranian Presidency is little more than a PR exercise, with real power, notably over the country’s armed forces, being in the hands of the Supreme Leader, who, in practice controls the armed forces and has the final word on security, defence and foreign policy issues.
True democracy in Iran is further circumscribed by vetting by the Guardian Council, whose democratic credentials appear to be questionable, to say the least. The same applies to the Iranian Parliament, in that all Bills have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, who have a strong non-democratic bias.
We therefore see that the ‘elected’ elements on the Iranian political system are subservient to the non-elected ones – not what Western commentators describe in their complicated flowcharts. In theory, the Supreme Leader is supervised by the Assembly of Experts. However, this body only meets a few times a year, which implies that it’s supervising function is sketchy, to say the least. This shows us the similarities with the USSR Supreme Soviet.
Following on from this, the actual Iranian power structure more and more resembles the “pyramid of granite” that constituted the actual government of the USSR. One faction, the weakest, is the elected bodies, and the second, much stronger, faction is the clerics, who have a stranglehold on the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council. The question is – what is the third?
This is the Revolutionary Guards Corps (RGC), which has a powerful presence throughout the Iranian Government and apparently the Iranian economy as well.
What most concerns us is that Western governments have either completely mis-interpreted the apparatus – as warned against by Cooper in The Breaking of Nations – or they have failed to correct such a mis-representation within the Western media and hence Western public opinion. Iran is neither a functioning democracy or a mass of competing factions ripping at each other. The phrase “see you all at the protect march” comes to mind…
Another factor that we observed is: How the Iranian political apparatus evolved into it’s current form and why. As the 1917-1921 Russian Civil War moulded the Soviet system, so the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq Warmoulded the Iranian one. The following summarised description is taken from Prof. Karsh [The Iran-Iraq War 1980-88, Osprey, 2002].
What Western public opinion needs to realise is the Islamic Republic of Iran started life as an aggressive revolutionary state, dedicates to spreading it’s own interpretation of Shia Islam throughout the Middle East. The Government of Saudi Arabia has never forgotten this, hence it’s publicly-expressed hostility to the Iranian regime.
Prof. Karsh [2002, Page 9] makes it clear that the 1980-1988 war was, in effect, started by the Iranian ‘revolutionaries’. For example, these august gentlemen mounted an assassination attempt on Tariq Aziz, at the time the Iraqi Deputy Premier. Such an attempt was also made against LatifMusseif al-Jassin, the Iraqi Information Minister. These antics were accompanied by propaganda calling on the Iraqi people to rise up against their rulers, and a whole series or armed ‘provocations’ (to use a Soviet expression) were mounted along the whole length of the Iran-Iraq border.
The Western media, or at least some of it, has always cast the Iraqis as the aggressors. This is not so. The Iraqis were in fact responding to Iranian provocation. In other words, the Iranians brought the whole disaster upon themselves. Prof. Karsh [2002, Page 14] describes the whole process in much more detail.
One faction, the clerics, of the Iranian “pyramid of granite” had come to power as a result of the 1979 revolution. The other more powerful faction, the Revolutionary Guards, came into power as described by Prof Karsh [2002, P19] as a result of the clerics’ regarding the ‘regular’ Iranian armed forces as “the Shah’s instrument of oppression and a potential source of counter-revolution” (Prof. Karsh’s words). A ruthless purge of the Iranian military leadership (another similarity with the USSR) soon followed. The severe effects on Iranian military effectiveness are not relevant to this article, but ever since Iran’s regular armed forces have been kept much weaker that the Revolutionary Guard. To take a current example, the Iranian Air Force has currently less than 100 relatively modern (only one generation out of date, in other words) combat aircraft – in practice, less strength than a single U.S. carrier battle group.
The main lesson form Prof. Karsh’s book is that the strongest elements of the current Iranian regime were established at the beginning of the 1980-88 war. The similarities with the USSR are most marked.
The conclusion was that such weapons were unachievable by all but a few major nation-states that had access to the necessary high level of scientific and engineering expertise, not to mention correspondingly highly advanced economic, scientific and technical resources.
Let us now consider the rhetoric on the Iranian “nuclear weapons” programme. The recent and current Western media panic centres around the Iranians enriching uranium to the extent that they may construct their own version of Little Boy – the weapon dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, for the uninitiated.
Let us suppose that the Iranians managed to enrich enough uranium to make two sub-critical masses of this material, to be combined together by an explosive charge – this is how Little Boy worked, by the way.
The problem here is that these blocks of enriched uranium will be hot, due to radioactive decay, not to mention pumping out large amounts of radiation. Alpha particles (helium nuclei) and Beta particles (high energy electrons) are relatively easy to shield against, but gamma rays (high-energy electromagnetic radiation) are a different matter!
This means that the Iranians must construct, as well as the ‘bomb’ itself, a high-capacity cooling system and protection against radiation. So, they will have a ‘rig’ that is something that is the size of a 38-tonne truck (mostly cooling system) that will stand out like the proverbial sore thumb on infra-red as well as be pumping out enough gamma-rays to ‘set off’ the gamma-ray detectors that all other interested parties have either in space or within range of Iranian territory.
Forget invasions, a couple of “bunker busters” would wreck such a device , although radioactive contamination would be a different matter. All said and done, an Iranian uranium-based device is simply not a practical proposition.
Let us now look at the Iranians’ prospects for a plutonium-based weapon as per Fat Man (the Nagasaki device) and it’s successors. For this, the Iranians would require a reliable supply of plutonium, which in turn requires a functioning nuclear fission reactor (one of the North Koreans’ Calder Hall copies would do) and an irradiated fuel processing facility to extract the plutonium.
It is the reprocessing that is the key technology, which not only involves radiological precautions against plutonium, but chemical ones as well,, as this element is apparently a virulent chemical poison as well as a radiological hazard. Then there is the small matter of the concentrated acid and other equally virulent chemicals used in the reprocessing the irradiated fuel rods. This means that the Iranians would have to establish not only a nuclear industry, but a state-of-the-art chemical industry as well.
Now, what do we find? The Russians, who, to their great credit, have kept their heads in all this, have completed for the Iranians a functioning nuclear fission reactor, but have very carefully kept uranium fuel supply and reprocessing facilities out of the Iranians.
This is not quite basic physics and chemistry but anyone who has even the most basic appreciation of the problems in producing nuclear warheads ‘on the quiet’, such a project is, to all practical intents and purposes, out of the question for the Iranians.
No doubt some readers would complain “But what about the Pakistanis?” Similar conditions apply, and we are extremely doubtful that the Pakistanis have produced usable nuclear warheads (which would also require advanced fabrication and electronics techniques). Granted, they have conducted nuclear tests, but “38 tonne” size uranium “bombs” would be quite adequate for this. In fact, the only country to have successfully mastered plutonium-based technology supposedly illicitly is Israel, who appears to have been given high-level scientific assistance by the French and Americans.
The only conclusion that a dispassionate consideration of the putative Iranian nuclear weapons programme that that it simply cannot produce a usable warhead. This should explain why there have been reports that the Iranians stopped trying tom produce nuclear warheads as long ago as 2003. The most they could achieve are bulky and relatively low-yield uranium-based devices that could not be delivered by practical means such as ballistic missiles (see below) and the sort of aircraft available to the Iranians.
Following on from this, a dispassionate observer can only conclude is that the US, British and Israeli governments, or at least a significant body of self-appointed “talking heads” in those countries, are working themselves into a frenzy over what is, effectively, nothing. If these ravings are being even remotely seriously by the political leaders of those countries, one can only doubt the collective sanity of the US, British and Israeli political leaderships.
We would like to conclude this narrative by looking at the other “bugbear” of certain Western commentators, namely the Iranian ballistic missile programme.
According to Zaloga [Scud Ballistic Missile and Launch System, Osprey, 2006, P35, P40] Iran first acquired Scud missiles from Libya in 1982. The Libyans were pressured by the Soviet government to stop further supplies, so the Iranians turned to the North Koreans.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, than Iran has a regular supply of Scud missiles and derivatives. This raises the question of how the Iranian RGC (the apparent operator of the Iranian Scuds, according to Zaloga) can continue to operate these weapons.
The Iranians will require a regular supply of Furaline (the kerosene-based product used as fuel by the Scud) and Red Fuming Nitric Acid (the oxidant) [Zaloga, 2002, P5]. The raises the immediate question ass to where the Iranians can get the materials, given the weakness of the Iranian petrochemical industry (Iran cannot even refine enough of it’s own petrol) and apparent non-existence of an Iranian large-scale chemical industry capable producing concentrated nitric acid in the required quantities, strength and purity. It therefore appears that the Iranians would have to import these chemicals in a finished state. Such transactions would excite the immediate attention of the external intelligence agencies of other interested countries.
A prime example of what can happen occurred recently when the Iranians tried to test a long-range missile of their own design – apparently a Shahab-3 capable of reaching Israel. According to Western daily media reports, it blew up on the launch pad!
To conclude, we are very firmly of the opinion that the Iranian ‘threat’ is no such thing, as the country has neither effective armed forces or a credible nuclear programme.
Author: Dr. Özdeş TÜRKEL
01 April 2012
Steven J. Zaloga, Scud Ballistic Missile and Launch Systems, Osprey, 2006, ISBN 1-84176-947-9
Efraim Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988, Osprey, 2002, ISBN 1-84176-371-3
BBC Website, Foreign Affairs, Page last updated at 09:42 GMT, Tuesday, 9 June 2009
Guide: How Iran is ruled