According to a new agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA inspectors will be granted greater access to Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to monitor its compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran claims that its nuclear research is only for civilian purposes permitted under NPT. However, Iran’s system of nuclear facilities is tailored for nuclear-weapons research and has little civilian benefit. As demonstrated in North Korea, the IAEA is not equipped to overcome the deceptions of a hostile government. Instead, Iran will maintain a façade of cooperation with the inspection regime as cover for its ongoing weapons research.
Iran claims to be pursuing only civilian nuclear research and rightly argues that its ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970 entitles it to build a wide variety of nuclear installations. Under that guise, Iran has steadily constructed a range of reactors, laboratories, and fuel-cycle plants. However, while building these facilities is technically legal under NPT, it does not serve Iran’s civilian needs, and is functionally useful only for military purposes.
Iran’s tenacious commitment to the Bushehr nuclear complex is typical of its nuclear development. According to a July 31, 2003 U.S. State Department release, “Iran’s copious oil and natural gas reserves put into question Iran’s stated rationale of pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes; it currently throws away more energy annually by flaring off natural gas than Bushehr could produce [emphasis added].”
Nonetheless, Iran is still committed to the Bushehr project after nearly 30 years. The German company Siemens began work on two 1200-1300 Megawatt nuclear reactors outside Bushehr in 1974. By 1979 the first reactor was undergoing testing and only two years from completion.
During the 1980s though, Bushehr regressed. In the wake of the Iranian Revolution and the overthrow of the American-backed shah in 1979, the Reagan administration blocked international aid to Iran’s nuclear projects and Siemens discontinued work on the reactors. A 1982 fire and a series of Iraqi bombings between 1984 and 1988 caused at least $3 billion in damage to the reactors and reactor housings. In the 1980s Iran tried several times to find new partners for Bushehr but failed to reach agreements with either Siemens or an Argentine-Spanish consortium.
Work on Bushehr only continued in 1995 after Russia agreed to complete the facilities for $800 million. Russia claimed to have included clauses in the 1995 contract allowing for the removal of all spent nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing. This was key to allaying U.S. fears that Iran itself would take possession of potentially fissionable material. However, later in 1995 the U.S. discovered a secret annex to the Bushehr agreement contracting Russia to provide Iran with research reactors, fuel fabrication facilities, and a centrifugal uranium-enrichment plant–the very facilities needed to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel.
Bushehr is now one small part of a wide network of Iranian nuclear sites. In 2002, U.S. surveillance satellites photographed two more nuclear facilities nearing completion. The heavy-water reactor at Arak and the gas-centrifuge array at Natanz will give Iran a viable nuclear capacity independent of foreign help, undermining international institutions’ efforts to maintain oversight of Iran’s reactors. Likewise, independent fuel-cycle capability will enable Iran to divert enriched uranium or spent fuel to nuclear-weapons programs. In February 2003, Iran acknowledged its intent to construct all of the facilities necessary to produce, use, and reprocess nuclear fuel.
Shockingly, nothing in this litany of nuclear developments contravenes the NPT. It was only IAEA’s August 2003 discovery of trace amounts of highly enriched uranium at the Natanz array that raised the possibility of a breach. Enriched uranium was found again in late September at the Kalay-e Electric Company outside Tehran. U.N. officials say the amounts of enriched material detected are insufficient for an atomic device, but that Iran might nonetheless be in violation of the NPT. The Iranian government responded to the discoveries by saying that enrichment is not taking place, and that the detected material came from equipment contaminated when it was delivered.
However, according to a translation by the Israeli defense ministry, Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Tehran Radio on September 17, 2003 that “young Iranian scientists conduct uranium-enrichment experiments…This is why the Iranian people are so proud.” Tellingly, in the October 21 accord with the IAEA Iran offered not to refrain from enrichment, but to cease enrichment.
As long as Iran can keep up its charade of cooperation with the IAEA, it can continue its clandestine research and construction. In effect, the IAEA is Iran’s insurance policy against a preemptive attack by Israel or the United States. As long as IAEA inspectors are in Iran, Israel and the United States will be hard-pressed to justify an attack. Once Iran activates a reactor in six months, a year, or two, the costs of an attack will far outweigh the benefits, as radioactive material would be blown into the atmosphere. It is not by coincidence that Israel’s 1981 strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor came just before it went “hot,” and that North Korea was suddenly emboldened in its rejection of IAEA demands just after it activated its own nuclear facilities. According to Israeli estimates, the Iranian nuclear program will reach a “point of no return” in ten months.
Israel has maintained a studious silence on the possibility of an Osirak-style preemptive strike against Iran since the IAEA discoveries at Natanz and the Kalay-e Electric Company. However, by all indications Israel is proceeding under the assumption that Iran will obtain nuclear arms. Last month, American and Israeli officials leaked that Israeli engineers successfully adapted American-made, submarine-based Harpoon missiles to carry nuclear warheads. While some technicians have questioned the feasibility of modifying harpoons for nuclear payloads, even the possibility of some portion of Israel’s nuclear arsenal surviving an Iranian first-strike magnifies Israel’s deterrent capability. While Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s December 2001 threat that “a single atomic bomb has the power to completely destroy Israel” remains true, Iran now confronts the possibility of suffering a massive retaliatory attack.
The United States might decide to follow Israel’s lead in this regard and threaten Iran with overwhelming retaliation for a nuclear attack. Given Iran’s decades-long sponsorship of terrorism, the United States might elect instead to forcefully prevent a nuclear Iran in accordance with the Bush Doctrine. Whatever the choice, the U.S. can have no illusions that Iran’s convenient concession to the IAEA means it has given up its nuclear-weapons development.
–Jon Levin is a researcher at the Investigative Project.