Something to Declare

Iran at last comes clean about its secret nuclear program. Or does it?


A report issued Monday revealed no hard evidence that Iran has a nuclear arms program but confirmed that the Iranian government has dabbled with uranium and plutonium, perhaps with a view to making bombs.
The U.S. has said all along that Iran has a weapons program and views the draft report, by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as vindication of this view. Europeans, among others, aren’t willing to go that far.

The 30-page report praises Iran for finally coming clean but criticizes the country for its policy of concealment. Iran’s work with nukes extends back at least 18 years–not that anyone knew about it. In the report, Iran owned up to having secret facilities to conduct experiments for making plutonium, which is hard to confuse with the stuff used in a civilian power plant. The amount of plutonium found, the report says, very small, but the point is that Iran clearly has the tools to extract materials to make nuclear arms. Mohamad El Baradei, director of the IAEA, the U.N.s nuclear watchdog, said “Given Iran’s past pattern of concealment, it will take some time before the IAEA is able to conclude that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Iran has repeatedly denied the U.S. accusation that it is using its civil nuclear power program for weapons making. On Monday Iran sent a letter to the IAEA saying that it would agree to open itself up to more intrusive inspections, as well as to temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment program.
But Iranian President Mohammad Khatami had complaints about the report, claiming that the plutonium was for medical purposes only and uses that were “totally peaceful”:

“In the report the important point was that there is no proof Iran is seeking to build the atomic bomb. Overall, there are positive points and there are points that did not need to have been mentioned.”

Some experts don’t see the report as enough evidence to condemn Iran. Hans Blix, former chief UN weapons inspector, says he can’t find compelling evidence to suggest Iran has a weapons program. He pointed to the example of Iraq, where no weapons were found despite repeated accusations by the U.S. .

Meanwhile, others see the report’s findings as a definite indication that Iran has the beginnings of a nuclear weapons program. Thomas B. Cochran, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council says:

“It’s dumbfounding that the I.A.E.A., after saying that Iran for 18 years had a secret effort to enrich uranium and separate plutonium, would turn around and say there was no evidence of a nuclear weapons program. If that’s not evidence, I don’t know what is.”

Critics of Iran’s policy of concealment say that not only has Iran been hiding their stock of nuclear arms, but there’s no way to know how far they have come in their experiments. An editorial in the New York Times speculates that perhaps Iran is even further advanced into a weapons program than the report suggests:

“Iran seems to have been caught at an early stage of a secret program. But nobody can be sure whether this is the whole truth or whether Iran simply admitted what it thinks international inspectors already know.”

Some find it curious that the IAEA was able to say there was no evidence of a weapons program; one Western diplomat questioned this, given the findings of activities usually related to bomb-building:

“We may have seen the tip of the iceberg or the bottom of the iceberg. But it’s very possible that there may be part of the iceberg somewhere else.”

Pressure on Iran to disclose information about nukes was racheted up when the U.S. lumped Iran with North Korea and Iraq as part of an “Axis of Evil.” After refusing to comply with repeated demands for information about a nuclear weapons program, in July El Baradei went to Tehran to press Iran to sign an additional protocol allowing IAEA’s inspectors the right to visit nuclear facilities on short notice. The IAEA gave Iran until the end of October to hand over all information about nukes, and shortly before the deadline, Iran sent the agency what it said were full details.

There’s a split between the U.S. and European nations in how to deal with Iran, with the U.S. taking a typically hard line, and France, Germany and Britain urging a more gentle approach. Guesses vary as to why Iran finally admitted to experimenting with nuclear power—not least is the hunch that Iran most likely wanted to avoid sanctions from the U.N. for breaches of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which the U.S. has been pushing for.

The U.S. would argue that Iran’s confession was in part a consequence of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the warning message it sends to Iran. France, Germany, and Britain might say that it was their lighter, more diplomatic touch that did it; they went to Tehran recently to press the Iranian regime to cooperate.

The 35 member-nations of the IAEA will meet November 20 to decide what to do about Iran. The U.S. has been pushing for the Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran as punishment for breaching nuclear accords. But Iran’s recent cooperation could undermine this argument. U.S. Britain, France, and Germany place more emphasis on dialogue, and may even want to reward the country for its candor.

The Economist writes:

“While Britain, Germany and France may argue that Iran’s new co-operativeness should be rewarded, America is expected to call for Iran’s breaches of the NPT to be reported to the United Nations Security Council (which can choose to impose sanctions). This would infuriate the Iranian government, which no doubt hopes it has done just enough to avoid the Security Council’s censure. On Wednesday, President Muhammad Khatami hinted that the country’s co-operativeness might stop if this were to happen.”

Critics say that the current control methods by the international community are insufficient—which is why nations like North Korea and Iran have been able to come so far with their weapons program, under the noses of groups set up to watch for nuclear activity. By all accounts, North Korea has a much more advanced weapons program than Iran, and are probably capable of detonating a bomb.The New York Times notes that the IAEA’s mission is self-contradictory: it was set up to help nations develop civilian nuclear programs, but is also expected to ensure that materials from these programs are repurposed for military uses. The whole system of nuclear oversight may be long overdue for a rethink.

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