Keeping Watch on Iran Nukes; Web Site Provides Data

The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)
August 9, 2005, p. 3A

From her office window in Paris, Valerie Lincy keeps her eye on Iran and checks in frequently with her boss, a Wisconsin emeritus law professor based not in Madison, but in the District of Columbia.

This global tetrahedron, while baffling at first, converges logically on the issue of nuclear weapons. Lincy is an employee of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a Washington research center founded in 1986 by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Gary Milhollin.

Lincy is the editor and principal investigator for Iran Watch (, the Wisconsin Project’s latest watchdog Web site that monitors a country widely believed to be a serious nuclear threat.

“The Web site just tries to provide useful research tools for journalists, people in government and regular people who just want to find out more about what they’re hearing in the media,” Lincy said. “We try to make it really simple.”

Iran Watch was launched in September 2004 and now has more than 7,000 searchable pages of information about Iran’s nuclear activities, pulled together from a vast array of sources, from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the U.S. government.

Along with regular status reports on Iran’s latest activities, one of the site’s main features is a comprehensive list of “suspect entities.” For example, a browser interested in Natanz – a nuclear production plant in Iran – can conduct a search and pull up a detailed profile of the facility. The synopsis explains why Milhollin and Lincy identified Natanz as the most troubling Iranian entity: because, if fully developed, it could produce substantial amounts of enriched uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons technology.

The Web site’s format was based on its highly successful predecessor Iraq Watch, which Milhollin said received more than 1 million hits during one week at the height of the 2003 weapons investigation in Iraq.

The American public may develop a similar interest in Iraq’s neighbor to the east, Milhollin said, as Iran appears headed down the same path as North Korea, India and Pakistan, which are already major nuclear weapons concerns in the international community.

“We started the Web site because we were convinced that Iran would be a big strategic challenge for the U.S.,” Milhollin said. “We have been watching Iran for a while, and Iran has been doing things that can only be explained by a desire for nuclear weapons. Otherwise, their programs wouldn’t make much sense.”

Late last week, several European leaders offered economic incentives for Iran to curtail its uranium enrichment programs and other activities that point to a possible interest in weapons of mass destruction. As Milhollin predicted, Iran unofficially rejected this proposal on Saturday, continuing to argue that their nuclear facilities are entirely fuel-related and that they would not respond to international threats.

“We have a pattern in the world of countries saying that these projects are for peaceful purposes,” Milhollin said, “and then you see a mushroom-shaped cloud.”

In addition to informing the public, Milhollin and Lincy said they hope Iran Watch will help shape the U.S. government’s strategy for negotiating with Iran. They said that may have already taken place last fall, when the Wisconsin Project suggested that the United States take a more active role in dealing with Iran.

“The findings from a roundtable that we held last November suggested that if the United States did not get on board, they would miss the boat on Iran,” Lincy said. “Our voice sort of added to the many voices saying that the U.S. should try to do something.”

But the question of exactly what to do about Iran’s weapons program is very complex, Lincy said, and the answer won’t be found on any Web site. She said the European proposal may have been, from a Western perspective, “the best deal Iran was going to get.”

Now that the proposal has been rejected, however, Iran could face economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council. But an embargo on Iran’s most valuable and influential commodity – oil – would of course have international consequences.

“It would certainly be a big stick that we could threaten them with,” Lincy said. “But it would be costly for the West, costly for everyone.” And most Americans, said Milhollin, are not ready to make the sacrifices that would come along with cutting ties with the world’s second-biggest oil producer.

“If the average American wants to drive his SUV at a low price,” Milhollin said, “one of the costs may be an Iranian bomb.”

Another function of Iran Watch is to identify countries like Russia and China that have funded certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, usually motivated by “greed,” Milhollin said.

“Iran has oil, and Iran wants weapons of mass destruction,” Milhollin said. “So if you want to do better in the oil business in Iran, it’s obvious what the Iranians would like you to do for them.”

Lincy said pulling together all the relevant statistics and intelligence on Iran has been a challenge.

“It’s been a real moving target,” Lincy said. “In the last couple of years a lot of new info has come out. Between trying to trace through all of the secret expansions that took place over the past two decades, and dealing with a tremendous amount of diplomatic activity, it’s been hard to keep on top of things.”

She said she hopes that through her efforts, keeping an eye on Iran has become a more user-friendly process.