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Iran's nuclear Pandora's box


Today, Thursday, November 20, 2003, the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will meet in Vienna to decide whether Iran's violations of its nuclear safeguards agreements are severe enough to warrant referral to the UN Security Council in New York, a step that could lead to multilateral diplomatic and economic sanctions. (The key players on the IAEA board and the Security Council are essentially the same few states.) It's clear enough that in light of a new degree of openness and cooperation from Tehran, the Europeans have chosen to resist any move toward confrontation at this time. But the same IAEA Director-General's report of November 10 that details this heightened cooperation also inspires profound pessimism about how much longer Europe's stance of "constructive engagement" can be sustained.

The report itself -- the best copy available to the public is at the website of the Federation of American Scientists, at http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/iran/nuke/iaea1103.pdf -- is the third in a series of unusually visible reports of the Director-General on Iran's nuclear program presented to the IAEA board. It documents a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity in the month before the IAEA's October 31 deadline for Iran's full cooperation. It is also a stunning catalogue and chronology of Iranian concealment of and deception about virtually all aspects of its nuclear program. Some acts of deception continued almost up to the last moment. And unfortunately, some acts of deception appear to persist. Chances are, we'll know the truth before the year is out. And then it may be difficult to sustain the balancing act that has brought us to this point.

The new disclosures began with a letter from the Iranian government to the IAEA on October 9 that confessed to some previously hidden activities. But the real turning point seemed to come a week later:

On 16 October 2003, at the invitation of the Iranian Government, the Director General met in Tehran with H.E. Dr. H. Rohani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, to discuss the open issues requiring urgent resolution... At this meeting, Dr. Rohani stated that a decision had been taken to provide the Agency, in the course of the following week, with a full disclosure of Iran's past and present nuclear activities....

As a follow-up to the 16 October 2003 meeting, in a letter to the Director General dated 21 October 2003 and received on 23 October 2003, H.E. Mr. R. Aghazadeh, Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and President of the AEOI, reaffirmed that "the Islamic Republic of Iran ha[d] decided to provide a full picture of its nuclear activities, with a view to removing any ambiguities and doubts about the exclusively peaceful character of these activities and commencing a new phase of confidence and co-operation in this field at the international level." Mr. Aghazadeh stated further in his letter that Iran was prepared "to provide, in full transparency, any additional clarifications that the Agency may deem necessary."

As part of this process, IAEA experts were visiting Iranian nuclear sites during October and even into early November. But these visits came so late that some of the new revelations could not be verified in a time for the November 10 report or the November 20 board meeting. The experts' findings on the veracity of the latest claims are not due until December, and there is good reason to be suspicious about the outcome. This becomes most clearly evident in the detailed technical chronology at the back of the report. There are several examples of this problem. Here is just the most egregious:
Agency inspectors were told in early October 2003 that all of the centrifuges from the Kalaye Electric Company had been scrapped, and therefore were not available for inspection, whereas it became clear later that the centrifuges had in fact been stored at another location in Tehran and were finally shown to the inspectors at Natanz on 30-31 October 2003, at which time Agency experts examined the centrifuges and associated equipment, and took environmental samples. All major imported and domestically produced components, as well as various pieces of manufacturing equipment have now been sampled. The results of the sample analyses are not expected to be available before December 2003.
Briefly: the Kalaye Electric Company is the Tehran "watch factory" where, earlier this year, IAEA inspectors found traces of enriched uranium that wasn't supposed to exist. As of the November 10 report, the Iranian government now concedes that it produced some of this enriched uranium -- just the low-enriched (LEU) variety, not the highly enriched (HEU) kind, which it attributes to contaminated equipment from another country. HEU is closely associated with nuclear weapons, and plays no role in Iran's civilian nuclear program, so HEU production, even as a test, would be very difficult for Tehran to admit. The report continues:
The nuclear material held in this equipment will be verified during the forthcoming inspections. The Agency has now also obtained information about the source of the components that Iran claims to have been contaminated.
So today Iran is likely to get a passing grade, but only provisionally. If in December, the lab results from Natanz (and elsewhere -- see the report for details) show the "wrong" results, the grade is liable to change.

In the view of this writer, some observers are too eager to see this result. If Iran is subjected to sanctions for violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is perfectly capable of withdrawing from the NPT and completing its nuclear weapons program, sanctions or no sanctions. It probably no longer needs much, if any, outside help. The Iranians saw how India and Pakistan weathered sanctions after their 1998 nuclear tests, and they may be sorely tempted to tread the same path. North Korea, too, has since set a bad precedent by withdrawing from the NPT in 2002, an example that some Iranian hardliners have already made clear that they would be pleased to follow.

If, as seems altogether too likely, Iran's latest version of the facts proves just as transitory as the last three or four, there may still be a way to avoid a confrontation that can end only with Iran's going nuclear or in violent confrontation between Iran and the United States. Essentially, Iran, which so far has only agreed to freeze its uranium- and plutonium-related activities, would have to commit to dismantle them completely, and rely solely on external suppliers such as Russia for reactor fuel. This would be the only persuasive way left for Iran to foreswear its transparent ambition to obtain nuclear weapons while avoiding the embarrassment of total denuclearization. Indeed, if Iran were to give up on the nuclear fuel cycle, it would smooth the path for European and other partners to build and supply additional new reactors in Iran.


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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000115.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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