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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > Spinning its way to conflict again


Spinning its way to conflict again

Friday 9 March 2007, by Siddharth Varadarajan

BASED ON what the world knows or fears about Iran’s nuclear programme, is the crisis really so dire that sanctions and war are the only way of securing ourselves from the possibility of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons? This is a question every country needs to ask, now that the Iranian government’s predictable refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment programme has led Washington to push for a tougher menu of punitive measures against the Islamic Republic.

For the past year and a half, every report of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran has reached two broad conclusions. First, that there has been no diversion of declared nuclear material for prohibited purposes. And, secondly, that the IAEA is not yet in a position to certify that Iran has no undeclared nuclear facilities.

In other words, the world can be assured that in all the Iranian facilities currently under international safeguards — including the Esfahan uranium conversion facility, the pilot fuel enrichment plant (PFEP), and the fuel enrichment plant (FEP) both above and below the ground at Natanz — no activities or operations prohibited by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) are taking place.

The fear, of course, is that Iran might have built — or might be building — secret nuclear facilities at other locations the IAEA knows nothing about. The United States, Britain, and Israel believe this to be the case, though they have provided no evidence to date that it is indeed so.

In order to be able to certify the absence of undeclared nuclear facilities, the IAEA needs to do two things. First, assemble as complete a record of Iran’s research, experiments, and acquisitions in the nuclear field as possible. And, secondly, have the ability to inspect any location where undeclared nuclear activities might be going on. Granting international inspectors such unlimited and intrusive access is not part of the safeguards agreement that Iran or any other country has signed with the IAEA. It is only the Additional Protocol that does so. Iran, like many other NPT signatories including several who are members of the IAEA Board of Governors, is not a party to the Additional Protocol. In 2003, however, it voluntarily adhered to the Protocol’s requirements, rescinding its adherence only in February 2006 when the IAEA Board voted to send its nuclear file to the United Nations Security Council.

During this period, the IAEA had the freedom to visit pretty much any location it wanted and take environmental samples as well. Though neither the Agency nor the United States has admitted as much, virtually all of those locations were pre-selected by the U.S. on the basis of its "national technical means," i.e. intelligence and espionage network. This was also the way Unscom and Unmovic operated in Iraq during the long and eventually fruitless hunt for weapons of mass destruction there. Needless to say, none of the Iranian locations identified by the U.S. showed evidence of undeclared, let alone prohibited, nuclear activities when IAEA inspectors visited them.

Despite this, Washington insists the Iranian nuclear programme is aimed at producing weapons and not energy. In a recent speech, U.S. Ambassador Gregory L. Schulte asked a series of pointed questions: "If the program is peaceful, why 18 years of deceit? If the program is peaceful, why not cooperate with the IAEA? If the program is peaceful, why the unexplained ties to the A.Q. Kahn [sic] network? If the program is peaceful, why does Iran possess a document on fabricating nuclear weapons components? If the program is peaceful, why the unexplained ties to Iran’s military and its missile program?"

Each of these questions has an answer. To begin with the "18 years of deceit." It is often forgotten that Iran’s enrichment facilities at Natanz — currently in the eye of the storm — were not developed in violation of IAEA rules. Under its safeguards agreement in force at the time, Iran was only obligated to inform the Agency of new facilities six months prior to the introduction of nuclear material. Of course, the IAEA did find Iran guilty of failure to declare other nuclear imports and experiments over an 18-year period but such failures were neither unique to Iran nor did they have any weapons-related implications. As IAEA Director-General Mohammed el-Baradei noted in a report to the IAEA Board in 2005, all of those failures have since been resolved.

Iran’s secret enrichment programme did draw on Dr. A.Q. Khan, but what Mr. Schulte fails to note is the fact that Iran turned to the clandestine network only after all its open and well-publicised attempts to collaborate with the IAEA, Argentina, and China on the development of enrichment technology were scuttled by the U.S. Why did the U.S. block those legitimate efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s? What evidence did it have that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons?

Not much of a smoking gun

Mr. Schulte’s reference to Iran’s possession of "a document on fabricating nuclear weapons components" is also disingenuous. The document was voluntarily handed over to IAEA inspectors by Iran in the autumn of 2005 and was first mentioned in Dr. El-Baradei’s report to the Agency’s Board of Governors in November 2005. That report described it as a document "on the casting and machining of enriched, natural and depleted uranium metal into hemispherical forms, with respect to which Iran stated that it had been provided on the initiative of the procurement network, and not at the request of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran." A subsequent report, prepared by Dr. El-Baradei’s deputy, Oli Heinonen, in the run-up to the crucial February 2006 Board meeting, repeated this information but added the words "related to the fabrication of nuclear weapons components."

Despite this characterisation — which the IAEA curiously chose not to make when it first reported the existence of the document — the U.S. has not succeeded in turning the issue into a smoking gun. For one, if the Iranian story about its unsolicited receipt were false, it is unlikely that they would have voluntarily shown it to the Agency and allowed its inspectors to study it closely. Though the document has been placed under the IAEA’s seal, Iran is unwilling to hand it over or allow it to be copied. This is understandable. Were it to do so, it would only be a matter of time before Washington tom-tommed its contents as "proof" of Iran’s intention to produce a nuclear bomb. In any case, the IAEA apparently has a copy of the document — procured from another part of the Khan network — and hardly needs physical possession of the Iranian copy in order to study it any further.

The last of Mr. Schulte’s allegations about "unexplained ties to Iran’s military and its missile program" refers to the so-called evidence gleaned by the CIA from a purloined Iranian laptop. The computer supposedly contained information about Iranian research work on nuclear warheads and a secret uranium conversion programme known as "Green Salt." After months of quiet scepticism, IAEA officials have finally begun airing their misgivings about the genuineness of the laptop and its contents. On Saturday, both the Guardian and The Los Angeles Times quoted unnamed IAEA officials as expressing surprise at the fact that the entire contents of the laptop were in English rather than Farsi.

The only part of Mr. Schulte’s catalogue of allegations that is even remotely accurate is Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA. While Tehran must go flat out to provide international inspectors the information they need to verify the completeness of its declarations, the main difficulty here is that Iran is being asked to prove a negative — that it has no undeclared activities. Matters are stuck on the extent of Iranian research into the P-2 centrifuge, where, because of the current political climate, the IAEA is unwilling to believe Iran. But even assuming the Iranians are lying about the extent of their work and have actually developed a vast underground facility full of P-2s capable of thousands of separative work units of enrichment, the best remedy is unlimited physical access by the IAEA. The irony here is that the Agency had that right until February 2006, when the IAEA Board unwisely appeased the U.S. and sent Iran’s file to the Security Council.

Rather than trying to impose tougher sanctions if Iran does not immediately suspend enrichment, the international community should focus on restarting the dialogue process without preconditions. Once talks start, Iran can be expected to resume its adherence to the Additional Protocol and implement a time-bound suspension linked to the development of objective guarantees that its nuclear programme will never be misused for military purposes. Insisting on preconditions and holding out the threat of sanctions and war will not help resolve the nuclear issue. Dialogue, diplomacy, and the implementation of safeguards is the only way forward.