2003 November 14 Friday
Iran, IAEA, US, Europe, And Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

Iran is developing nuclear reactors that can generate electricity for civilian purposes. Iran also has large reserves of oil and natural gas and can generate electricity far more cheaply using fossil fuels. Iran has also admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it has pursued a number of efforts to develop nuclear weapons over the last 18 years and has revealed to the IAEA a number of details about those efforts. The IAEA concludes that Iran is not currently trying to make nuclear weapons but that Iran has concealed a lot of activities that violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report this week that Iran had been involved in numerous cases of covert nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment and the production of small amounts of plutonium that effectively put the nation in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

But it also praised Iran for cooperation and openness and said it had found no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

The IAEA has effectively given the Europeans the diplomatic space they need to be able to pretend that the threat posed by nuclear weapons development in Iran is a problem that has been solved by an Iranian agreement with the IAEA to allow instant inspections of various Iranian nuclear facilities..

The British government reaction fits with the general European reaction.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said Britain’s analysis of a United Nations report into the country’s nuclear programme differed from that of the US.

The US government reaction is not so favorable.

"I must say that the report's assertion is simply impossible to believe," Undersecretary of State for Non-proliferation and Arms Control John Bolton said.

Bolton points to the scale and length of the various deceptions the Iranians have conducted.

``It attempts to cover its tracks by repeatedly and over many years neglecting to report its activities and in many instances providing false declarations to the IAEA,'' Bolton said in a speech at a dinner of The American Spectator magazine.

A number of experts outside of government share the US government's concern.

Weapons experts described the report as deeply troubling, mostly because of the disclosures about how Iran hid its activities from nuclear inspectors.

"It's quite clear now that Iran was engaged in willful and systematic deception," said Michael Levi, a science fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The Iranians were working toward becoming fully proficient in all stages of processing nuclear materials.

The 29-page IAEA report, obtained by The Independent, concludes that "while most of the breaches identified to date have involved limited quantities of nuclear material, they have dealt with the most sensitive aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment and reprocessing".

The New York Times, in an article that also highlights a CIA report on increased North Korean weapons production, points to the bottom line: Iran lags North Korea but has made a lot of progress and seeks to retain the ability to resume making progress.

But the essence of the Central Intelligence Agency report about North Korea is that that country is speeding up its weapons production. And Iran's decision to allow the international agency into facilities that were previously closed to inspectors may, diplomats said, blunt Mr. Bush's effort to seek some kind of sanctions in the United Nations, leaving Iran with an advanced nuclear infrastructure that could be restarted at a moment's notice.

Taken together, the reports show that Iran and North Korea have each dabbled in separating plutonium — one path to a bomb — and have each set up centrifuges to enrich uranium.

It is questionable whether a fully empowered IAEA inspection team can even entirely halt Iranian progress at its current stage - especially if the result is the continued construction and eventual operation of a nuclear reactor which the Iranians say is solely for making power for civilian purposes. An operational reactor will put the Iranians in a position of being able to throw out the inspectors at some later point so that Iran can take materials from the "civilian" reactor and use them for nuclear weapons making.

Because the small amounts of WMD-related materials found in Iraq the Bush Administration is now in the position of the girl who cried wolf. Iran's nuclear program has been a greater threat than Iraq's since Gulf War I led to the seizure of some of the nuclear weapons related equipment that Saddam had. North Korea is even further along in nuclear weapons development. But Iran and North Korea are harder nuts to crack and the public and international reaction to the US occupation of Iraq leaves the Bush Administration already fighting politically just to win support for its Iraq policies. The Bush Administration has a limited supply of political capital to expend to win support for its policies and doesn't have enough to win support for brinksmanship with Iran. The approach of the 2004 election is even more problematic for anti-nuclear proliferation efforts because the Democrats are inclined to criticize any initiatives the Bush Administration might make against countries that are developing nuclear weapons and the Democrats simply don't support hardline foreign policies.

Amir Taheri, an Iranian living in Paris, has written an excellent article on the topic of Iran's nuclear program. Taheri says that the problem is that Iran is trying to get very close to being able to make nuclear weapons fairly quickly.

The real issue is not the bomb," he says. "Regardless of who rules in Tehran, Iran is sure to have nuclear weapons whenever its leaders decide to have them. The real issue is who will be in control of those weapons and who will be their target."

The view is echoed by Gary Samore, the nuclear expert in the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London.

"There is no doubt that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme," he says. "No amount of diplomatic manoeuvring and political pressure is likely to persuade Iran to drop what has become a top national priority."

Taheri says that Iran can maneuver itself to being within 18 months of being able to produce a nuclear bomb even while under an IAEA inspections regime.

The revelation of a laser uranium enrichment program as part of the IAEA report is more important than the small amount of enriched uranium it produced because laser uranium enrichment demonstrates considerable technical skill. (same article here)

"People were saying, 'So Iran's pursuing laser enrichment? Ha-ha-ha, Let's let them do it,'" recalled David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and enrichment expert.

No one's laughing this week. In a confidential report Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran's atomic executives have acknowledged that they fired up a pilot laser-enrichment plant late last year and enriched tiny amounts of uranium to low levels.

The Israelis have an even more pessimistic take on the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran will have nuclear capability in one year, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Wednesday.

My guess is that Iran will either manage to make nuclear weapons while under an IAEA inspections regime or will continue to develop nuclear technologies while under IAEA supervision and then eventually throw out the IAEA and then make a quick sprint for nuclear power status while it attempts to delay a response from the United States. The Bush Administration at this point probably doesn't have enough political support to maintain a harder line toward Iran in order to force the Iranians to surrender or destroy some of their nuclear equipment. So the Iranians just have to play for time and wait for some future point where the US has an even more distracted and less confrontational leadership. At that point the Iranians will be able to throw out the IAEA and sprint for the nuclear finish line.

Update: Look at the broader context of the IAEA report on Iraq: The Bush Administration has not sought to increase the size of the US military to make it big enough to properly run a counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq. One reason it hasn't done so is because some of its more Panglossian neoconservative hawks think the US military can prevail with small numbers equipped with modern technology. But another reason for the reticence is that it would be very hard to win an increase in defense spending of the size required and it would take years to build up the force. The US ground forces are already overstretched in Iraq. That alone puts Iran's leaders in a stronger position to continue to pursue nuclear ambitions. But even if the US troops were not on the ground in Iraq the US would be hard pressed to stop Iran. A ground invasion would be much harder than was the case in Iraq and the building of political support for an attack on Iran would be much harder than was the case with the war against Saddam.

Limitations in US intelligence abilities, an overstretched Army, a US federal budget deficit already at a half trillion dollars, and a public that does not appreciate the size of the threat combine to place severe limits on US efforts to stop nuclear weapons proliferation. Throw in a European elite opinion that has a greater desire to challenge the US than it does to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and the outlook for nuclear anti-proliferation efforts seems bleak.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 November 14 02:30 PM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control

Corsair said at November 14, 2003 2:45 PM:

Jon Levin had and interesting article on National Review Online last week about this and how Israel is already developing a response: nuclear tipped Harpoon missiles in its subs. The Gulf is about to get that much closer to doomsday.

Randall Parker said at November 14, 2003 3:30 PM:

I've been reading recent reports on Israeli nuclear sub missiles and couldn't figure out why this was considered news. The Israelis have been working on a nuclear missile sub force for a long time and I had assumed they had solved the delivery vehicle problem by now. My guess is that the story was floated in order to make a point.

My guess is that Iran is going to become a nuclear power and that that various neighbors will respond by developing nuclear weapons as well. Nuclear non-proliferation efforts are breaking down.

lindenen said at November 14, 2003 11:58 PM:

I swear. France and co. labor under serious delusions.

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