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Irans Nuclear Ambitions

Middle East Update:

War Games

On April 1st, 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Ayatollah returned to Iran at the end of the Islamic Revolution, after having spent 14 years in exile. This past month Iran commemorated these events by showcasing its military strength. It conducted a series of missile tests and large-scale military maneuvers involving tens of thousands of troops and over 1500 naval vessels.

Iran launched its arms development program during the 1980-88 war with Iraq to compensate for a U.S. weapons embargo. Since 1992, Iran has produced its own tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles and a fighter plane. Recently, they have test-fired a new radar-dodging and multi-targeting missile, an underwater high-speed missile and a new medium-range land-to-sea missile.

Iran has also successfully tested what it calls a ''supermodern flying boat.'' Iran claims that the flying boat was entirely ''made in Iran'' and that it can move at high speeds and avoid radar detection. The United States said it was possible Iran had developed weapons that could evade sonar and radar but warned the Islamic Republic had a tendency to ''boast and exaggerate.''

Nuclear Iran

These recent missile tests and war games coincide with increasing tensions between Iran and the West over Tehrans controversial nuclear program. The United States and its allies believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran denies this, saying its program is for peaceful purposes. The UN Security Council has demanded that Iran halt its uranium enrichment activities, but so far Tehran has refused.

The Shkval

Military experts have taken particular interest in Irans test of a high-speed underwater missile. Iran claims the missile is capable of carrying multiple warheads at speeds of up to 225 mph. Speaking on state television, a high-ranking Iranian military commander said the missile has been in development for six years, and ''even if an enemy warships sonar can detect the missile, no warship can escape from this missile because of its high speed.''

He called it the fastest underwater missile in the world - but it has the same speed as the Russian-made Shkval (''Squall''), developed in 1995 and believed to be the worlds fastest, three or four times faster than a torpedo. Many experts believe that Irans underwater missile - called the ''Hoot'' or ''Whale'' - is in fact Russian made, or at the very least its design is based on the Shkval.

The Russian Shkval is an exceptionally high-speed underwater torpedo. It is reported to attain almost 200 knots, giving its target little opportunity for evasive maneuvers. Apparently fired from standard 533mm torpedo tubes, the Shkval has a range of about 7,500 yards. The weapon clears the tube at 50 knots, after which its rocket fires. By creating a local ''envelope'' of supercavitating bubbles, the weapon can achieve its spectacular speed.

Examining Irans Motives

Iran has announced plans to start building a new nuclear plant in an undisclosed location. Construction on the plant will begin this year, and it will contain 3,000 enrichment centrifuges - small for the production of nuclear fuel but ample to make fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Iran claims that under Article 4 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty they have the right to develop nuclear technology. Iran insists that it is pursuing nuclear technology for peaceful energy purposes, but that leads to the obvious question: why would a nation with immense oil and gas reserves need nuclear energy? Iran claims it is building costly nuclear fuel-cycle facilities to meet future electricity needs, while preserving oil and gas for export, but Irans uranium reserves are minuscule, accounting for less than one percent of its vast oil reserves. Iran controls 11 percent of the worlds oil reserves and its natural gas reserves are the second largest in the world. Iran does not have enough indigenous uranium resources to fuel even one power-generating reactor over its lifetime, but it does have enough uranium to make several nuclear bombs.

According to a report by the U.S. State Department on Irans nuclear program: ''The costly infrastructure needed to perform all of these activities goes well beyond any conceivable peaceful nuclear program. No comparable oil-rich nation has ever engaged, or would be engaged, in this set of activities - or would pursue them for nearly two decades behind a continuing cloud of secrecy and lies to IAEA inspectors and the international community - unless it was dead set on building nuclear weapons.''

Enrichment Breakthrough

On April 11th, Iran declared that it had ''joined the nuclear club.'' Iranian officials announced that they had, for the first time, successfully enriched uranium to make nuclear fuel. The announcement marks a major breakthrough in Irans nuclear program. Iran stated publicly that it had achieved a 3.5 percent level of uranium enrichment.

Again, Iran has said that its goal is not to make nuclear weapons, but to develop nuclear energy. This leads us to another important question: If Iran does develop a peaceful nuclear energy program, how difficult would it be to use that same technology to make nuclear weapons? Nuclear power plants need 3 to 4 percent enriched uranium for fuel, but natural uranium only contains 0.7 percent. Thus uranium must be processed in a uranium enrichment facility before it can be used as fuel for nuclear power.

What most people dont realize is the exact same technology and equipment used to enrich uranium for fuel can be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons; it simply requires more passes through the enrichment plant. A nuclear bomb requires about 90 percent enriched uranium, which is high compared to the percentage found in fuel, but according to experts it requires more energy to convert natural uranium to fuel than it takes to convert fuel into weapons-grade uranium.

The Fallout

Iran is governed by Shiite Muslim clerics committed to a stern interpretation of Islamic law. Hatred of the United States has been a key component of Iranian foreign policy since the 1978 Islamic revolution, and Irans leaders often refer to the United States as the ''Great Satan.''

Irans distaste for the United States is surpassed only by their utter loathing of Israel. Irans political and religious leaders have repeatedly called for Israel to be ''wiped off the map.'' They have also denounced any attempts to recognize Israel or normalize relations with it.

A nuclear-armed Iran would be a serious threat to our security. However, with troops already deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush appears - at least for the time being - to be committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Some experts have speculated that Israel may be planning a preemptive strike, although military action would most likely be used as a last resort.

In 1981, Israel bombed Iraqs Osirak nuclear reactor when it believed Saddam Hussein was close to producing a nuclear bomb. If Israel does attack Iran it would undoubtedly bring about a firestorm in the Middle East.

Unfortunately we are running out of time, and neither Israel nor the United States is willing to accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. What happens if diplomacy continues to fail? Will military action become our only option? Stay tuned. Film at eleven!


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