Monthly Archives: November 2019

Nuclear Lies and Broken Promises

Nuclear Lies & Broken Promises

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 22, 2019

 

 

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an economic meeting in the city of Sivas on Sept. 4 that Turkey was considering building nuclear weapons, he was responding to a broken promise.

 

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the government of Iran of lying about its nuclear program, he was concealing one of the greatest subterfuges in the history of nuclear weapons.

 

And the vast majority of Americans haven’t a clue about either.

 

Early in the morning of Sept. 22, 1979, a US satellite recorded a double flash near the Prince Edward islands in the South Atlantic. The satellite, a Vela 5B, carries a device called a “bhangmeter” whose purpose is to detect nuclear explosions. Sent into orbit following the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, its job was to monitor any violations of the agreement. The Treaty banned nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, underwater and in space.

 

Nuclear explosions have a unique footprint. When the weapon detonates, it sends out an initial pulse of light, but as the fireball expands, it cools down for a few milliseconds, then spikes again.

 

“Nothing in nature produces such a double-humped light flash,” says Victor Gilinsky. “The spacing of the hump gives an indication of the amount of energy, or yield, released by the explosion.” Gilinsky was a member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a former Rand Corporation physicist.

 

There was little question who had conducted the test. The Prince Edward islands were owned by South Africa and US intelligence knew the apartheid government was conducting research into nuclear weapons, but had yet to produce one. But Israel had nukes and both countries had close military ties. In short, it was almost certainly an Israeli weapon, though Israel denied it.

 

In the weeks that followed, clear evidence for a nuclear test emerged from hydrophones near Ascension Island and a jump in radioactive iodine-131 in Australian sheep. Only nuclear explosions produce iodine-131.

 

But the test came at a bad time for US President Jimmy Carter, who was gearing up his re-election campaign, a cornerstone of which was a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

 

If the Israelis were seen to have violated the Partial Test Ban, as well as the 1977 Glenn Amendment to the Arms Export Control Act, the US would have been required to cut off all arms sales to Israel and apply heavy sanctions. Carter was nervous about what such a finding would have on the election, since a major part of Carter’s platform was arms control and non-proliferation.

 

So Carter threw together a panel of experts whose job was not to examine the incident but to cover it up. The Ruina Panel cooked up a tortured explanation involving mini-meteors that the media accepted and, as a result, so did the American public.

 

But nuclear physicists knew the panel was blowing smoke and that the evidence was unarguable. The device was set off on a barge between Prince Edward Island and Marion Island (the former should not be confused with Canada’s Prince Edward Island) with a yield of from 3 to 4 kilotons. A secret CIA panel concurred but put the yield at 1.5 to 2 kilotons. For comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons.

 

It was also clear why the Israelis took the risk. Israel had a number of Hiroshima-style fission bombs but was working on producing a thermonuclear weapon—a hydrogen bomb. Fission bombs are easy to use, but fusion weapons are tricky and require a test. That the Vela picked it up was pure chance, since the satellite had been retired. But its bhangmeters were still working.

 

From Carter on, every US president has covered up the Israeli violation of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, as well as the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So when Netanyahu says Iran is lying about its nuclear program, much of the rest of the world, including the US nuclear establishment, rolls their eyes.

 

As for Turkish President Erdogan, he is perfectly correct that the nuclear powers have broken the promise they made back in 1968 when the signed the NPT. Article VI of that agreement calls for an end to the nuclear arms race and the abolition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, in many ways Article VI is the heart of the NPT. Non-nuclear armed countries signed the agreement, only to find themselves locked into a system of “nuclear apartheid,” where they agreed not to acquire such weapons of mass destruction, while China, Russia, Great Britain, France and the US get to keep theirs.

 

The “Big Five” not only kept their weapons, they are all in the process of upgrading and expanding them. The US is also shedding other agreements, like the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Agreement. Washington is also getting ready to abandon the START treaty that limits the US and Russia to a set number of warheads and long-range strategic launchers.

 

What is amazing is that only four other countries have abandoned the NPT: Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and India (only the latter three have been sanctioned by the US). But that situation cannot hold forever, especially since part of Article VI calls for general disarmament, a pledge that has been honored in the breach. The US currently has the largest defense budget in its history and spends about 47 percent of what the entire rest of the world spends on their militaries.

 

While the US doesn’t seem able to win wars with that huge military—Afghanistan and Iraq were disasters—it can inflict a stunning amount of damage that few countries are willing to absorb. Even when Washington doesn’t resort to its military, its sanctions can decimate a country’s economy and impoverish its citizens. North Korea and Iran are cases in point.

 

If the US were willing to cover up the 1979 Israeli test, while sanctioning other countries that acquire nuclear weapons, why would anyone think that this is nothing more than hypocrisy on the subject of proliferation? And if the NPT is simply a device to ensure that other countries cannot defend themselves from other nations’ conventional and/or nuclear forces, why would anyone sign on or stay in the Treaty?

 

Turkish President Erdogan may be bluffing. He loves bombast and effectively uses it to keep his foes off balance. The threat may be a strategy for getting the US to back off on its support for Israel and Greece in their joint efforts to develop energy sources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

 

But Turkey also has security concerns. In his speech, Erdogan pointed out “There is Israel just beside us. Do they have [nuclear weapons]? They do.” He went on to say that if Turkey did not response to Israeli “bullying,” in the region, “We will face the prospect of losing our strategic superiority in the region.”

 

Iran may be lying—although though there is no evidence that Teheran is making a serious run at producing a nuclear weapon—but if they are, they in good company with the Americans and the Israelis.

 

Sooner or later someone is going to set off one of those nukes. The likeliest candidates are India and Pakistan, although use by the US and China in the South China Sea is not out of the question. Neither is a dustup between NATO and Russia in the Baltic.

 

It is easy to blame the current resident of the White House for world tensions, except that the major nuclear powers have been ignoring their commitments on nuclear weapons and disarmament for over 50 years.

 

The path back to sanity is thorny but not impossible:

 

One: re-join the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, thus making Russia’s medium range missiles unnecessary, and reduce tensions between the US and China by withdrawing ABM systems from Japan and South Korea.

 

Two: re-instate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Agreement and find a way to bring China, India and Pakistan into it. That will require a general reduction of US military forces in Asia coupled with an agreement with China to back off on its claims over most of the South China Sea. Tensions between India and Pakistan would be greatly reduced by simply fulfilling the UN pledge to hold a referendum in Kashmir. The latter would almost certainly vote for independence.

 

Three: continue adherence to the START Treaty but halt the modernization of the Big Five’s nuclear weapons arsenals and begin to implement Article VI of the NPT in regards to both nuclear and conventional forces.

 

Pie in the sky? Well, it beats a mushroom cloud..

 

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A New Middle East Is Coming

Middle East: A Complex Re-alignment

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 28, 2019

 

 

The fallout from the September attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities is continuing to reverberate throughout the Middle East, sidelining old enmities—sometimes for new ones—and re-drawing traditional alliances. While Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria is grabbing the headlines, the bigger story may be that major regional players are contemplating some historic re-alignments.

 

After years of bitter rivalry, the Saudis and the Iranians are considering how they can dial down their mutual animosity. The formerly powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Persian Gulf monarchs is atomizing because Saudi Arabia is losing its grip. And Washington’s former domination of the region appears to be in decline.

 

Some of these developments are long-standing, pre-dating the cruise missile and drone assault that knocked out 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. But the double shock—Turkey’s lunge into Syria and the September missile attack—is accelerating these changes.

 

Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, recently flew to Iran and then on to Saudi Arabia to lobby for détente between Teheran and Riyadh and to head off any possibility of hostilities between the two countries. “What should never happen is a war,” Khan said, “because this will not just affect the whole region…this will cause poverty in the world. Oil prices will go up.”

 

According to Khan, both sides have agreed to talk, although the Yemen War is a stumbling block. But there are straws in the wind on that front, too. A partial ceasefire seems to be holding, and there are back channel talks going on between the Houthis and the Saudis.

 

The Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war was supposed to last three months, but it has dragged on for over four years. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was to supply the ground troops and the Saudis the airpower. But the Saudi-UAE alliance has made little progress against the battle-hardened Houthis, who have been strengthened by defections from the regular Yemeni army.

 

Air wars without supporting ground troops are almost always a failure, and they are very expensive. The drain on the Saudi treasury is significant, and the country’s wealth is not bottomless.

 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to shift the Saudi economy from its overreliance on petroleum, but he needs outside money to do that and he is not getting it. The Yemen War—which, according to the United Nations is the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet—and the Prince’s involvement with the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has spooked many investors.

 

Without outside investment, the Saudi’s have to use their oil revenues, but the price per barrel is below what the Kingdom needs to fulfill its budget goals, and world demand is falling off. The Chinese economy is slowing— the trade war with the US has had an impact—and European growth is sluggish. There is a whiff of recession in the air, and that’s bad news for oil producers.

 

Riyadh is also losing allies. The UAE is negotiating with the Houthis and withdrawing their troops, in part because the Abu Dhabi has different goals in Yemen than Saudi Arabia, and because in any dustup with Iran, the UAE would be ground zero. US generals are fond of calling the UAE “little Sparta” because of its well trained army, but the operational word for Abu Dhabi is “little”: the Emirate’s army can muster 20,000 troops, Iran can field more than 800,000 soldiers.

 

Saudi Arabia’s goals in Yemen are to support the government-in-exile of President Rabho Mansour Hadi, control its southern border and challenge Iran’s support of the Houthis. The UAE, on the other hand, is less concerned with the Houthis but quite focused on backing the anti-Hadi Southern Transitional Council, which is trying to re-create south Yemen as a separate country. North and south Yemen were merged in 1990, largely as a result of Saudi pressure, and it has never been a comfortable marriage.

 

Riyadh has also lost its grip on the Gulf Cooperation Council. Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar continue to trade with Iran in spite of efforts by the Saudis to isolate Teheran,

 

The UAE and Saudi Arabia recently hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pressed for the 22-member Arab League to re-admit Syria. GCC member Bahrain has already re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus. Putin is pushing for a multilateral security umbrella for the Middle East, which includes China.

 

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not,” Middle East scholar Mark Katz told the South Asia Journal. And while many in the region have no love for Syria’s Assad, “they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s ally.”

 

The Arab League—with the exception of Qatar—denounced the Turkish invasion and called for a withdrawal of Ankara’s troops. Qatar is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for pursuing an independent foreign policy and backing a different horse in the Libyan civil war. Turkey is Qatar’s main ally.

 

Russia’s 10-point agreement with Turkey on Syria has generally gone down well with Arab League members, largely because the Turks agreed to respect Damascus’s sovereignty and eventually withdraw all troops. Of course, “eventually” is a shifty word, especially because Turkey’s goals are hardly clear.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to drive the Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border and move millions of Syrian refugees into a strip of land some 19 miles deep and 275 miles wide. The Kurds may move out, but the Russian and Syrian military—filling in the vacuum left by President Trump’s withdrawal of American forces—have blocked the Turks from holding more than the border and one deep enclave, certainly not one big enough to house millions of refugees.

 

Erdogan’s invasion is popular at home—nationalism plays well with the Turkish population and most Turks are unhappy with the Syrian refugees—but for how long? The Turkish economy is in trouble and invasions cost a lot of money. Ankara is using proxies for much of the fighting, but without lots of Turkish support those proxies are no match for the Kurds—let alone the Syrian and Russian military.

 

That would mainly mean airpower, and Turkish airpower is restrained by the threat of Syrian anti-aircraft and Russian fighters, not to mention the fact that the Americans still control the airspace. The Russians have deployed their latest fifth-generation stealth fighter, the SU-57, and a number of MiG-29s and SU-27s, not planes the Turks would wish to tangle with. The Russians also have their new mobile S-400 anti-aircraft system, and the Syrians have the older, but still effective, S-300s.

 

In short, things could get really messy if Turkey decided to push their proxies or their army into areas occupied by Russian or Syrian troops. There are reports of clashes in Syria’s northeast and casualties among the Kurds and Syrian Army, but a serious attempt to push the Russians and the Syrians out seems questionable.

 

The goal of resettling refugees is unlikely to go anywhere. It will cost some $53 billion to build an infrastructure and move two million refugees into Syria, money that Turkey doesn’t have. The European Union has made it clear it won’t offer a nickel, and the UN can’t step in because the invasion is a violation of international law.

 

When those facts sink in, Erdogan might find that Turkish nationalism will not be enough to support his Syrian adventure if it turns into an occupation.

 

The Middle East that is emerging from the current crisis may be very different than the one that existed before those cruise missiles and drones tipped over the chessboard. The Yemen War might finally end. Iran may, at least partly, break out of the political and economic blockade that Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel has imposed on it. Syria’s civil war will recede. And the Americans, who have dominated the Middle East since 1945, will become simply one of several international players in the region, along with China, Russia, India and the European Union.

 

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