Much is being said, though unfortunately from the publicly available source that is really all that is going on, about Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability. However there is a potentially even more dangerous story that is being missed by many. It is the story of the nuclear cooperation between Venezuela and Iran. Unfortunately, for the United States, cooperation between the illegitimate Chavez and the heretical Mullahs is nothing new; in fact, they are very possibly each other’s closest ally in their respective regions. This cooperation of course ranges from the benign issues of legitimate trade to the more dangerous areas of support for terrorism and now nuclear cooperation. Unfortunately the issue at play between Iran and Venezuela is likely far more dire than most realize.
For those that are not aware of what is happening, Iranian and Cuban geologists are working with a team of Chavez loyalists in the exploration for Uranium deposit within the Venezuela. Some naturally have assumed that if successful this program is meant to eventually result in the export of Uranium from Venezuela to Iran in support of that régimes weapons program. However, in all likelihood the truth is something even more dangerous, because this analysis ignores two very disturbing facts, which are Gachin and Saghand.
Gachin and Saghand are Iran’s domestic and active Uranium mining operations. Gachin, which is somewhat near the straits of Hormuz and the smaller of the two and which Iran denied the existence of it until 2004 and is estimated by the US State Department of being capable of producing 23 tons of Uranium per year. Through enrichment that translates into enough highly enriched Uranium for approximately 4 nuclear weapons. Saghand, which is in central Iran approximately 300 miles south of Tehran, was established and ran with the assistance of the Chinese government, which continue to assist Iranian scientist in exploration activities for more Uranium deposits and likely also had a hand in Gachin. Saghand began industrial level operation in the extraction of Yellow Cake, which is actually Uranium Oxide and represents the first step in the recovery of Uranium from the raw ore, this past month. It is believed that once Saghand comes completely online that it will be capable of producing approximately 33 tons of Uranium per year. Using the previously stated Department of State figures, that level of production translates into potential capacity of half a dozen nuclear weapons per year. When we add in the estimated 1-3 Plutonium based bombs per year capacity from the Arak Heavy Water facility Iran is left with a potential nuclear production capability of 11-13 nuclear weapons per year from domestic sources of fissionable material. Ironically, the United States on the other hand is the only nuclear power that does not currently have an active production program.
Of course this figure of 11-13 weapons is based solely the amount of nuclear material available, not necessarily the actual bomb production capabilities, although for most that is likely a distinction without a difference as even 1 Iranian nuclear weapon per year is too many. However the question arises why would the Iranian government be seeking out Uranium deposits in the jungles of Venezuela. After all their own mining operations, which avoid any potential importation problems, is likely going to be exceeding their bomb production capacity for many years to come. The reality is that Venezuela represents an embryonic stage of the next wave of nuclear proliferation. This secondary proliferation, i.e. not stemming directly from a major state such as the US, Russia or China, although considering China’s relationship with Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela it would not be surprising to find their hands at work there as well, is a frightening glimpse at what the future actually holds. This issue of proliferation is the other side of the current nuclear crisis that is being missed by many. In addition this is only the most recent and somewhat visible manifestation of what could be termed the Global Encirclement of America in which smaller states working together with their allies in China and Russia seek to undermine America and the system of stability that our allies and we are seeking to ensure. Some may claim that to be an overstatement but in this example alone there are Cuban, Iranian, Venezuelan, and potentially even Chinese agents working together to find Uranium for Chavez.
Fortunately for America, however, Venezuela is not likely to go nuclear in the near term, it is likely where Iran was approximately in the early 1990’s or North Korea in the late 1980’s, unless of course Chavez is successful in his efforts to secure the purchase of a North Korean, Iranian, or other black market nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, though, what took North Korea about 15 years to do under the Cold War era only took Iran 7 years to accomplish during the early stages of globalization, aided of course by A. Q. Kahn network, which itself took around 20 years to arm Pakistan. With this in mind what we see developing is a kind of nuclear Moore’s Law in which the spread of weapons technology and know how between each succeeding generation of states that seek nuclear weapons at a faster rate and lower cost. In turn, each generation also represents a decrease in the size and level of development of the state acquiring these weapons.
In addition, unfortunately for the United States this latest development is occurring in a region that is perhaps the most neglected, in terms of American strategic attention, in the entire world. A region which has seen, in some cases, decades of democratic history being unraveled by the Castro-Chavez alliance in just the past few years, while America sits back in astonishment as each new nation moves from being an ally to being a problem. Perhaps with the reach of islamist and Chinese forces into the region we will finally wake up before the next nuclear crisis that we are dealing with is not in the Middle East or Asia but just south of our own border.
Christopher Brown is the Director of the newly created Menges Hemispherical Security Program at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C. He recently placed a collection of open source indicators of Iranian covert actions inside Iraq on his blog http://global-encirclement.blogspot.com/
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