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Mullahs with nukes

IT'S BEEN nearly two years since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) initiated efforts to determine Iran's nuclear weapons status. Iranian dissidents prompted the investigation when they revealed the revolutionary regime's secret nuclear enrichment program. The disclosure set off alarms in Washington and other capitals.

It is now evident that Iran, despite intense international pressure, will not fully divulge its nuclear enterprise. The scheduled IAEA Board of Governor's meeting tomorrow will have little impact in changing this. Rather, the time is approaching when we will have to acknowledge that international efforts to halt the mullahs' nuclear ambitions have failed.

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A harbinger of Tehran's effective indignation and sham cooperation strategy to deflect international demands emerged when it contested the IAEA decision to investigate the dissidents' claims. Iran called the action "selective" and "discriminatory." It stammered that the IAEA based the decision on "false attributions," "arm-twisting at many capitals" and U.S. "partisan politics."

Feigned interest in collaboration emerged when Iran announced its "full" commitment to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT). Subsequent events belied the representation. On June 6, 2003, drawing on international inspections and new documentation, the IAEA revealed its initial findings: Iran had "failed to meet its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement with respect to reporting of nuclear material, the subsequent processing and use of that material and the declaration of facilities where the material was stored."

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In August, the IAEA said that Iran had increased its cooperation by providing better access to facilities and information. But the finding of high enriched uranium residues - suggesting an effort to acquire nuclear weapons material - generated concerns. Continuing reticence to release information also raised eyebrows. However, a visit to Iran in October by the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany resulted in Tehran's commitment to halt production of uranium hexafluoride, a feed material for enriching uranium, prompted hope that Tehran might mend its ways.

But November brought more serious revelations about centrifuge testing, laser experimentation and plutonium generation. This prompted the IAEA board to "strongly" deplore Tehran's failed safeguards' compliance. Despite Iran's apparent violation of the NPT, most board members resisted calls to bring the matter before the U.N. Security Council for action. Iran would be given more time to come clean. Iran fed the hope by agreeing to sign the Additional Protocol.

By the March IAEA meeting, it became apparent that Iran was stalling. True, it had provided access to military installations and new data on its enrichment program. But the IAEA expressed serious doubts over "a number of discrepancies and unanswered questions concerning the source for centrifuge components and high enriched uranium contamination uncovered on components." The findings raised the troubling question: Was Tehran close to acquiring weapons-usable high enriched uranium?

Tension between the IAEA and Iran may be coming to a head. The mullahs recently declared that they had honored their NPT commitments and the time to halt further investigations had arrived. But inspectors report yet more traces of increasingly enriched but not quite bomb-grade uranium. They have evidence that Iran continues to produce centrifuge components despite its declared suspension. Separate reports that Iran seeks to import magnets to make 4,000 centrifuges prompt further concerns.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami recently threw down the gauntlet when he threatened to resume enrichment uranium production unless the IAEA becomes more accommodating. Ominously, the Iranian parliament also called for the abandonment of the NPT should international pressure continue.

This game of chicken presents the IAEA with a stark choice. It can continue to press Iran to pry loose the smoking nuclear gun - which is wishful thinking - or it can refer Iran's noncompliance to the U.N. Security Council for action.

Unfortunately, Iran has the Security Council over an oil barrel in the current tight energy market. Aside from rhetorical reprimands, material action from the squeamish council is unlikely. The United States normally would pick up the gauntlet. But wounded in Iraq, it will be unable to mobilize either international or domestic support for bold measures.

Britain, France and Germany could take the lead, as they tried in October. But the latter two would prefer to stay in the shadow of the American bogeyman taking the heat. Israel's response, however, is an unknown quantity.

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More likely, the Iranian atomic weapons die is cast. Therefore, it's not too early to ponder strategies to prevent the nuclear Middle East from exploding.

Bennett Ramberg served in the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the administration of President George H. W. Bush.


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