Five minutes to midnight - Part I

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The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands on the Doomsday Clock from seven to five minutes to midnight on 17 January. Midnight is the symbolic end of civilisation: Armageddon. The scientists explained that the ‘level of danger has escalated precipitously’; they warned ‘We stand on the brink of a second nuclear age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices.’ The proliferation of nuclear weapons to more countries such as North Korea, the US’s recently stated readiness to use nuclear weapons to destroy ‘time urgent targets’ and the 26,000 nuclear weapons still held by the US and Russia, weighed in the decision to move the clock hands forward. The scientists also stressed the ‘dire threat to human civilisation’ posed by global warming. Time is running out for humanity. Trevor Rayne reports.

When President Bush announced his ‘Axis of Evil’ in January 2002, three countries were named: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Three months after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) announced on 9 October 2006 that it had tested a nuclear weapon and the subsequent US government mobilisation of the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions against it, the DPRK has faded from the news. Now Iran is back in the firing line. In December 2006 the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear and missile programmes and set a 60-day deadline for Iran to suspend almost all nuclear activity or face further sanctions. The US has proceeded to amass an armada in the Persian Gulf.

After the DPRK’s nuclear test the US’s lead negotiator on Korea, Christopher Hill, said, ‘It can have a future or it can have these weapons. It cannot have both.’ By January 2007 the US was engaged in six party talks with the DPRK, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea over the DPRK’s nuclear programme. The US had doubled its aircraft carrier force and airpower in the Persian Gulf and on 16 January despatched another aircraft carrier strike force to join them. The US also sent Patriot anti-missile systems into the Gulf. These weapons have nothing to do with winning a ground war with guerrillas in Iraq.

Unlike the DPRK, Iran is in no position to test a nuclear weapon and will not be able to do so for some years. Iran has stated that it has no intention of possessing nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the Persian Gulf is now so congested that on 9 January a US nuclear submarine collided with a Japanese oil tanker.

In his 10 January 2007 statement on increasing US troop strength in Iraq President Bush targeted Iran and Syria: ‘[they] are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops...Success in Iraq... begins with addressing Iran and Syria’. Five hours after Bush’s speech US soldiers raided the Iranian consulate in Kurdish-controlled Irbil in Iraq and seized five consular officials. Iraq’s foreign minister said they had worked in Iraq providing consular services for ten years. The US accused the officials of supplying weapons for use against US soldiers. We can expect part of the additional US troop contingent in Iraq to be stationed along the Iranian border and for the US to engage in cross-border ‘hot pursuit’ raids (as with Cambodia in the Vietnam War). A possible Gulf of Tonkin-type incident (used to escalate US engagement in the Vietnam War) might be staged in the Persian Gulf to justify an all-out US aerial attack on Iran.

The 2002 US National Security Strategy document states that there must be no global or regional rival to US dominance. That same year’s US Nuclear Posture Review directs US companies to build smaller, tactical nuclear weapons for battlefield use: China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya were identified as possible targets. The former Soviet Union made it a principle that it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons; the US made no such commitment. MAD (mutually assured destruction or deterrence) has been replaced by NUTS (nuclear use theorists) who propose pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The US maintains the right to attack non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons. In 2004 the US declared its new policy for the quick use of nuclear weapons to destroy ‘time urgent targets’. A recent announcement by the US Nuclear Weapons Council said that the US would implement the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme, building the next generation of nuclear weapons to accompany and then replace the current 10,000 nuclear warheads that the US has. Repeated US nuclear threats against the DPRK (1950, 1951, 1953, 1976, 1993 and 1995) surely forced that country to resort to developing its own nuclear weapons. Constant US bellicosity towards Iran is driving that country to a nuclear weapons defence.

Given that the US ruling class intends to establish itself as the unrivalled global power and that the Project for an American Century is foundering in the war in Iraq, it is to be expected that the US will use its military strengths to attempt to reverse its setbacks: it will not give up control over Middle East oil without a fight. A nuclear armed Iran threatens US and British dominance in the Middle East and Israel’s regional military superiority. Asked on 18 April 2006 if his assertion that ‘all options are on the table’ regarding Iran included the possibility of a nuclear strike, President Bush reiterated, ‘All options are on the table. We want to solve this diplomatically, and we’re working hard to do so.’

The Israeli military is equipped by the US to serve as an adjunct and extension to US imperialism. On 7 January The Times reported that two Israeli Air Force squadrons are training for a nuclear attack on Iran to destroy the country’s uranium enrichment facilities using ‘tactical nuclear weapons’. Israeli jets have been flying test bombing runs to Gibraltar and against a mock-up of the Iranian nuclear reactor at Natanz. The Israeli General Oded Tira described preparations for the attack that included ensuring minimum opposition to the Bush government in the US and Europe and gaining the cooperation of Saudi Arabia. Preparations are to include anti-Iranian reports in the media: psychological warfare. Last year Israel’s deputy defence minister said, ‘I do not advocate a military, Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran. I am aware of all its possible repercussions. I consider it very much the last resort, but sometimes the last resort is the only resort.’

Israel possesses the world’s third or fourth largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and conventional bunker-buster bombs. The Israeli military has the capacity to strike with nuclear missiles anywhere in the Middle East. Germany recently supplied Israel with submarines capable of carrying nuclear warheads; they are stationed in the Persian Gulf. A precedent exists: Israeli Air Force jets destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 with conventional weapons. The US prevented any UN sanctions being imposed on Israel. Israel has never formally acknowledged that it has nuclear weapons, has therefore never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) and does not open its nuclear facilities for inspection – which is demanded of Iran and the DPRK. Iran is a signatory to the NNPT and its nuclear facilities are open to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. The US accuses Iran of operating a clandestine nuclear programme, despite a CIA report to the contrary.

For imperialism and Israel an attack, including nuclear attack, on Iran holds out the prospects of humbling Iran, when its influence in Iraq and the Middle East is growing, and isolating Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon. President Bush could declare victory in preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons, while Israel, with US supplies, would remain the undisputed regional military power. However, if a nuclear attack is used, the purpose is also in the message it sends: the ability and willingness of imperialism to use nuclear weapons, of which it is the chief possessor with the greatest ability to deliver them to target. This demonstration would be a warning to everyone everywhere of the consequences of challenging the US ruling class. When the US and British Allies firebombed Dresden in February 1945 and exploded atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 they served as warnings to the Soviet Union and the advancing Red Army; warnings about the extents to which imperialism would go in defence of its interests. Harlan Ullman, who coined the phrase Shock and Awe used for the 2003 attack on Baghdad, explained the thinking, ‘You have this simultaneous effect, rather like nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but minutes...through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of mass destruction directed at influencing society writ large.’ The Times reports an Israeli source, ‘One mission, one strike and the Iranian nuclear project will be demolished.’

In The Independent (28 October 2006) Robert Fisk said that scientists have identified traces of a uranium bomb of some kind dropped by the Israeli Air Force on the Lebanese villages of Khiam and At-Tiri in August 2006. This may have been a trial for a new weapon. In August Hizbullah fired a missile that destroyed an Isaeli boat off the coast of Beirut. This missile was no doubt used as a test by Iran for Iranian batteries aimed at the Persian Gulf. Russia supplies Iran with nuclear equipment. In January Russia sold anti-missile missiles to Iran.

If Israel and the US resort to an attack of any kind on Iran, the gauntlet will have been thrown down to the peoples of the Middle East. The Shia militias in Iraq will escalate attacks on US and British forces. Iran will either undergo a collapse of its government or seek to quickly develop nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states will respond by implementing their own plans for nuclear weaponry. China and Russia will oppose military action against Iran. China, Russia and Europe will mobilise to defend their interests and assert their global ambitions. Oil prices are likely to soar as Gulf supplies are disrupted and a global depression could ensue. The US ruling class is likely to be engulfed in bitter disputes between rival factions; the Bush administration is said to be prepared to defy Congress to attack Iran. A US Air Force analyst estimated that 400 Iranian targets would have to be hit to destroy Iran’s nuclear industry. It may be possible to attack Iran and to fire tactical nuclear weapons, but it is not easy to calculate their economic and political consequences. The use of nuclear weapons and the attack on Iran will be a demonstration of political weakness.

A calculated gamble

Most of the guiding ideas for the development of the atomic and then hydrogen bombs were derived from European university laboratories. The sum spent on developing the atomic bomb was more than had been spent on all scientific research since the beginning of human history. The atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 reached 18 million degrees centigrade in one millionth of a second. The centre of the sun burns at 15 million degrees centigrade. The scientists who developed the atomic bomb feared that it might set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire and destroy life on the planet. Before testing the bomb they did a calculation: Edward Teller, ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’, forecast that the chances of this happening were three in one million.

FRFI 195 February / March 2007

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