Monday, June 27, 2011

The Age of Deception by Mohamed Elbaradei

The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous TimesWhen I saw this one on the library shelves, I thought it would be a very interesting read. Nailed it. Mohamed Elbaradei was the director of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, and his primary mission was to investigate potential violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He was right in the middle of many of the headlines of the last twenty years, in Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran, and has a unique viewpoint on the issues.

If the folks who propose to use a combination of sanctions and the threat of military force to discourage non-nuclear powers from developing atomic weapons are called "hardliners" (Baradei's term), then Baradei himself should be termed a "softliner", as he more often than not proposed incentives (I call them bribes) to keep the violators in line. Unfortunately, after reading his book, I'm pretty certain that neither the hardliner or softliner approach has really done much to contain the spread of nuclear technology to dangerous places.

One of the interesting conundrums in the book is that "Whether the end use is a mushroom cloud or a cancer-curing medical isotope, much of the underlying science and technology is the same." I think that we can all agree that all countries in the world, and all of their citizens should be allowed to enjoy the benefits of nuclear medicine and clean nuclear power. However, many of the nuclear "have-nots" in the world also believe, either for strategic reasons or for their national pride, that they are entitled to have nuclear weapons, as well. Many of the countries in the Middle East, for example, feel that it is unfair that the United States and other western powers support Israel's right to possess nuclear weapons, but keep them (Arabs, etc.) from developing their own. It also seems to stick in the craw of many nations that the big three nuclear powers, the U.S., Russia and China, continue to have large arsenals of nuclear weapons, while according to the terms of the NPT, no one else is allowed to have them.

I found it interesting that at the end of the first Gulf War, while U.S. intelligence sources knew of only two possible nuclear sites, the IAEA inspectors discovered a total of 18 sites. The controversy that came later over the lack of WMDs found after we invaded Iraq in 2003 reveals a huge failure of western intelligence operations, that seems to be endemic. Of course, it's easy to be a monday morning quarterback, and Elbaradei does that quite a bit in his criticisms of the U.S. He seems to have despised all of the players in the Bush administration, especially John Bolton.

On a side note, apropos of nothing much, I have a friend who likes to tell Sven and Olli stories when we're sitting around the campfire. On one of Elbaradei's visits to Pyongyang, North Korea, his companions were Sven Thorstensen and Olli Heinonen. There's gotta be a joke in there somewhere, Mike.

Elbaradei often points to times when the western powers failed to live up to the terms of agreements made with pariah nations such as North Korea. For example, part of the deal with NK in 2008 was that the US State Department would, if the Koreans began dismantling their enrichment facilities at Yongbyon, remove them from the list of terrorist-sponsoring states. When they were not removed from the list as soon as they complied, due to political scraps in America, they felt the U.S. had reneged on the agreement, and began re-installing the equipment, then banned IAEA inspectors from the facility. What I see, though, as a recurring theme in this book, that powers who are determined to get an atomic bomb will act on the slightest pretense to continue their actions.

The book goes into extensive detail on the operations of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist responsible for smuggling nuclear secrets and technology from Pakistan to several other countries. Fortunately, in at least one case, the weapons designs he provided were missing some key components. Khan's network was large and diverse, including a German supplier of vacuum pumps, lathe manufacturers in Spain, Swiss producers of centrifuge parts based on a Pakistani ripoff of a Dutch design, a smuggler of spark gaps for nuclear detonators from Israel, British engineers, and Turkish electronics workshops.

The issue of Iran's attempted development of a nuclear weapon takes up nearly the last half of the book. Both internal and external politics have made this situation extraordinarily difficult. Iranian leaders in the past have tied their nuclear capabilities to a sense of national achievement, and discontinuing the program could result in their loss of power. Opposition politicians who were once in  power and who had been involved in serious negotiations with the West and the IAEA to dismantle nuclear enrichment facilities, once it appeared that achieving a successful treaty with the West might give Ahmadinejad more power, flip-flopped and now strongly oppose rapprochement. Again, as with North Korea, the Iranian government seems to find any small excuse to back out of their agreements, and are at this point continuing down their dangerous path.

The IAEA wasn't strictly tasked with looking for non-compliance with the NPT, they also worked on safety and security issues for existing nuclear nations. Elbaradei mentions, "...the IAEA assisted with physical protection upgrades to more than one hundred sites in 30 countries; conducted hundreds of nuclear security workshops and training courses in roughly 120 countries; distributed more than three thousand radiation detection instruments; and secured nearly five thousand radioactive sources in countries across the world."

This was, indeed, an engrossing book, and if you read it you'll know far more than you ever wanted to know about the state of affairs in the nuclear weapons business. It might keep you awake  nights - not merely reading it.

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