The Mullahs and the Bomb

The New York Times
October 23, 2003, p. A27

WASHINGTON – With much fanfare, and the reluctant endorsement of the Bush administration, Iran has vowed to suspend its controversial effort to produce enriched uranium – which can be used as fuel in nuclear weapons – and to clear up a host of suspicions about its nuclear program. In exchange, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany promised new “cooperation” – meaning trade – in high technology with Tehran. While perhaps getting any concessions out of the mullahs should be seen as a step forward, this particular deal won’t prevent Iran from making the bomb. It also risks having the same outcome as the deal North Korea made in 1994 and later violated, and threatens to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies on Iran policy.

The suspicions about Iran’s nuclear aims are well founded. Leaving aside the question whether such an oil-rich country even needs nuclear power plants, America has long questioned why Iran is building a factory to enrich uranium, material for which there is no reasonable need in Iran’s civilian power program.

Iran also plans to produce plutonium, another fuel for nuclear weapons, by building a 40-megawatt heavy water reactor at Arak. This type of reactor, too small for electricity and larger than needed for research, is now providing the fuel for atomic weapons programs in India, Israel and Pakistan. And Iran is developing a fleet of long-range missiles, which don’t make sense as a way to deliver conventional warheads. The only logical purpose of such missiles is to carry nuclear ones.

International suspicions about these programs led to the current crisis: the International Atomic Energy Agency has given Iran until Oct. 31 to explain how mysterious traces of bomb-grade uranium got into two Iranian nuclear sites. Iran says the traces arrived on contaminated imports; the other explanation is that Iran has been secretly enriching uranium in violation of its inspection agreement with the agency. The agency also wants to know how Iran developed such a high level of enrichment technology without secretly testing it with nuclear material, which is also forbidden. The agency’s experts are convinced that the testing occurred.

Under the new deal, Iran is supposed to explain all this. If it doesn’t, it risks being condemned as a pariah by the Security Council and the European Union may have to shelve its trade agreement with Iran, which would cost all concerned a lot of money. Thus Britain, France and Germany, as well as Iran, have an interest in seeing Iran comply.

But the problem is, even if Iran does so, there will be little assurance that the deal will really dampen Iran’s nuclear hopes. Consider what happened with the pact hammered out by the Clinton administration with North Korea in 1994, which had much in common with the present situation.

North Korea faced worldwide condemnation and a possible war with the United States after violating its inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. By agreeing to suspend its effort to produce plutonium, North Korea avoided censure and got economic benefits from the West, and yet it preserved its nuclear potential intact. North Korea’s 8,000 fuel rods – containing five bombs’ worth of plutonium – never left the country. Like a sword poised over the world’s head, they remained only months away from being converted into bomb fuel – something that the North Koreans say was finally done this summer. The North Korean bomb program only shifted into neutral; now it is back in gear.

Under Tuesday’s deal Iran, too, will shift into neutral, while keeping its nuclear potential intact. It won’t – for the time being – operate its newly constructed centrifuges, which are needed to enrich uranium to weapon grade. But the deal won’t stop Iran from building more centrifuges to augment the limited number it now has, thus adding to its future ability to enrich uranium. Nor does the agreement bar Iran from completing the factory that produces the uranium gas that goes into the centrifuges. Nor does it prevent the building of the heavy water reactor or, indeed, the resumption of enrichment in the future. Thus the agreement could insulate Iran from international censure without hampering its nuclear progress in any way.

These defects won’t be cured by Iran’s acceptance of more rigorous inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The inspectors’ new rights are still weaker than those that were enjoyed by their counterparts in Iraq – and we all know that the Iraqis repeatedly foiled those efforts with delays and obfuscation.

The only real solution is to convince Iran to dismantle all the plants that can make fuel for nuclear weapons. This would remove the threat that Iran could go back into the bomb business on a moment’s notice, and the country could still benefit from the electricity generated by its Russian-supplied reactor at Bushehr, which should be sufficient if Iran truly wants only civilian nuclear power.

This goal is what the Europeans hope to achieve in the long run. It would probably satisfy the United States as well. But the current agreement won’t take us there, and it may lead to the same sort of bickering between the United States and its vital allies that fractured international action on North Korea and Iraq.

The only chance for a solution to the Iran nuclear problem, short of war, is for a united West to apply relentless economic pressure. That means quickly closing any gap between Europe and the United States. It may be possible to convince Iran that the costs of building nuclear weapons exceed the benefit of having them. Unlike North Korea, Iran has large trade interests that really matter. However, unless the rest of the world is willing to put those interests at risk, it will probably soon have to live with a new nuclear power in the Middle East.

Gary Milhollin is director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.