UPI Interview: Iran and the bomb, Part 1


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Published March 22, 2006

MOSCOW -- Viktor Mikhailov is a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the director of the Institute of Strategic Stability of the Russian Federal Agency for Nuclear Power, a chief expert of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center at the Research Institute of Experimental Physics, a holder of the Soviet and Russian Lenin and State awards, and was the nuclear minister from 1992-1998. He discussed his insight into Iran's nuclear capabilities and ambitions with Viktor Litovkin, military commentator for the RIA Novosti news agency. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti and is the first of two parts.

RIA NOVOSTI: What is your general assessment of Iran's nuclear capability now?

MIKHAILOV: Though I am hardly in a position to judge, I have seen and talked to talented young experts when visiting their nuclear centers. Many of those people had graduated from universities in Western Europe and the United States. Moreover, I just recently made a small inquiry to learn that around 10,000 young specialists are still being trained there. Russia has never trained Iranians, except for Bushehr power plant operators.

The West has helped greatly build Tehran's nuclear industry, a great embarrassment for the Americans nowadays. When they tell me they do not believe Iran really needs a national nuclear power industry, I just ask them: "OK, but were it not you who once said you were going to build 20 NPPs there? Could you then explain why we cannot do now what you thought was quite appropriate for yourselves?"

They won't answer, but the answer is simple enough. A country with a national nuclear power capability sits firmly on the cutting edge of global technology. This means that there will always be jobs at home, and young people will stay at home. A country has no future if its young generation is fleeing abroad.

My assessment of Iran's nuclear level would be straightforward: It is very high. I have seen people working with neutron generators there who could very ably handle the 3D neutron registration software, a very complicated package (they received it from France) which shows a very realistic pattern of neutron flows stemming from a nuclear fission reaction.

In the early 1990s, when I was in Iran for the first time, I saw there the magnificent American Sun 4 and Sun 5 computers, which the United States barred from selling to Russia but sold freely to Iran; and they were working there very effectively. It is true that Iranian girls wear black shawls to conceal their hair but the girls I saw -- who had also graduated from U.S. universities -- were very smart when it came to handling state-of-the-art computers. The Iranians just took the United States by surprise by toppling the shah and starting a new state that would not pander to Washington. In short, it was the United States who built Iran's nuclear work force.

Historically, Persian people have been very intellectual. Of course, Iran saw a major setback in the beginning of the 19th century when Europe took the lead. But they have sent their young people to learn from the West, many are trained in the West now, and, I think, their research capability is very good.

And it has, in fact, very little to do with oil and gas. What the Americans do not like is Iran's national status, its government, its independence, and its reluctance to take orders from U.S. diplomats. This is a separate issue and it has nothing to do with Iran's nuclear program.

Q. Do we need to worry about an Iranian nuclear bomb in the near future?

A. People often ask me this question, which sometimes is formulated somewhat differently: "Do you think they want it or think about it?" I answer, yes, I do; they definitely want it and they clearly think about it, as nuclear weapons have become a critical factor of independence and sovereignty. The U.S. policy is mainly about exporting democracy by making offers one cannot refuse. They are doing this to countries whose history dates back millennia and who have unthinkable contributions to mankind under their belt. What Americans do not know how to do is take into account others' national sensitivities, customs, and traditions. What they are doing is trying to inculcate those countries with American lifestyles -- something that is hardly possible.

Q. Back to Iran. Can it ultimately create a nuclear weapon?

A. Of course, it can. Any highly developed country can do this, it's available on the Internet, if you like. The truth is that one needs much money and time. In the case of Iran, I think, they will do it in five to 10 years. I mean, they will be able to build a basic nuclear weapon. This weapon will not be as modern as Russian or American, but it does not matter -- the Americans are afraid of any, even old, nukes. Washington understands, sure enough, that however hard they try to build a nuclear missile shield, you don't have to deliver a nuke through space where the entire world will see it. There are many other ways, and what they are ultimately afraid of is at least one blast inside the United States. Their people will bury any administration that allows it to happen.

Q. The West does not trust Tehran. Why is Russia selling its nuclear technology to Iran?

A. Russia has never sold any nuclear technology. To tell you more, Russia, since Soviet times, has been constantly on watch for nuclear proliferation.

Proliferation was something only the West, with its century-old free market economy, could engage in. This is just because a free market economy is profit-oriented. If some relevant materials or technologies appeared and was not included in prohibitive lists fast enough -- state authorities were rarely fast enough -- it was sold without ceremony.

Everything the Iranians have today has come from the West. Even our fuel for nuclear power plants will be withdrawn for reprocessing at home and replaced with fresh cells. What President (George W.) Bush is promoting now, as if it were his own brilliant idea, a nuclear fuel leasing system, when a country pays for fuel and we deliver on the conditions of removing fuel wastes. Some Russian experts and I proposed it more than a decade ago. But the Americans did not support us. Their millionaire Alex Copson was in this business then and he wanted to do this, but President Clinton did not allow him to.

Q. Was Copson working with the Department of Energy?

A. He wasn't. Our acquaintance was a coincidence, in fact; he came to me with a project to lease a Pacific atoll and to use it as nuclear dumpsite and production facility for nuclear fuel -- in order to have a dumpsite in a remote ....

Q. And well-guarded, I expect?

A. ... Absolutely -- remote, neutral territory. Well, the point is, we have never sold anything abroad because the Americans were there. They sold, I have already mentioned that, even plutonium, to say nothing of other things. Do you know how Israel and South Africa gained access to nuclear weapons? It's clear they did.

Q.: How?

A.: With help from the United States.

Q.: There is information that the British helped Israel ...

A.: They did, but they were far from alone there. Israelis got a great deal of help from Washington through a British-American company in South Africa.

In (South) Africa, isotopes were separated by filtering uranium hexafluoride through a convergent-divergent nozzle, rather than in a centrifuge or by diffusion. Israelis may have got one or two (nuclear) charges and even tested them.

Later, South Africa had to abandon all those activities. I have been there and I can say the facilities were working very effectively as long as the white minority was in charge. They are not working any longer, small bits may have gone to Israel -- may have gone, mind you, but in any case they have stored them for too long to retain real effect.

Q. Were you referring to the nuclear charges?

A. Yes. Israelis may have withdrawn them from South Africa but even so, I guess, Israel cannot be a nuclear power. They were not able to do anything at home because they had no capacity and no place to put it, what with the entire Israeli territory immediately subject to hostile incoming fire.