Following a whirlwind visit Wednesday to Russia by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Moscow this week finally concurred with western assertions that Iran is operating a covert nuclear programme, and is, in the words of President George Bush's National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, a "sponsor of terror."
The tough talk from Washington following Powell’s visit and the rejoinder of the sentiment by Moscow created international tensions. Such hawkish bravado from the US side preceded the invasion of Iraq by US troops. More surprisingly, Moscow — a harsh critic of US intervention in Iraq — has apparently joined, at least in word, this machismo to rooting out of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East — even if that campaign targets its long time atomic ally, Iran.
Rice, while raising alarm about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, accused Iran of being one of the world’s leading “sponsors of terror.” She added that Iran allowed the notorious al Qaeda to operate from its territory.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi rejected those accusations as “baseless.”
“The Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its own principles, is very serious and resolved to combat terrorism and its nuclear programmes are very transparent and peaceful,” Asefi was quoted by Iran’s official IRNA news agency as saying.
But many in the international diplomatic community have expressed fear that the United States — which is cocky after its victory in Iraq — will take military action against other countries that US President George Bush’s considers part of the “axis of evil,” classically known to include Iran, North Korea and Iraq
But that “axis” — because of the United States’ aggressive stance in the ever more amorphous “war on terrorism” — is growing said some Russian and US government officials.
Nevertheless, some Russian diplomats have begun to support Bush’s cowboy approach in the Middle East, especially as it concerns non-proliferation.
“Russia is even more concerned for nuclear proliferation than the United States,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Georgy Mamedov, said in an interview earlier this week. “These weapons can be used in acute regional conflict along the Russian border, especially in the south.”
Mamedov said Russia would like Iran to sign an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, called the “additional protocol,” to put Iran’s nuclear facilities under closer watch and make sure they aren’t used as a cover for a nuclear weapons program and would allow for short notice impaction visits
According to a source familiar with the IAEA’s Iran issue, there are 31 Signatories of this protocol, including Australia, Canada and Japan. The European Union, as a whole, is expected to sign the protocol by years end.
The IAEA’s ‘additional protocol’
But the additional protocol issue with Iran continues to vex the United States and Russia. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has been urging this protocol on Tehran ever since his February visit to Iran, where he witnessed — “with surprise,” according to one official — the sophistication of the Islamic republic’s nuclear development. ElBaradei is expected to make a full report to the IAEA board on the condition of Iran’s nuclear programme in June. But Iran has argued that it undergoes some 50 inspections a year, and doesn’t see the point of more.
According to diplomats who were present at a closed-door address in Vienna last week by Iran’s Nuclear Minister Gholamreza Aghazadeh, he told the IAEA’s 135 member nations that Iran was not willing to submit to the tougher inspections. He repeated the assertion that Iran’s nuclear programme was entirely peaceful in nature, but added somewhat menacingly that whether it stayed that way would “depend on many condition,” the diplomatic sources quoted him a saying.
Russia and US plan Iran discussion at June summit
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov did not discuss Iran specifically with Powell during the US Secretary of State’s visit to Moscow, US and Russian diplomatic sources said it was apparent that ElBaradei’s June 12 report to the IAEA board will change the landscape of US-Russian relations over Iran.
Iran’s nuclear programme is high on the agenda for President Bush’s visit to St Petersburg on June 1st for talks with Putin, said a Russian official on condition of anonymity.
“Plainly, the Russians do not want a neighbour with nuclear arms,” said the official, noting Russia’s growing concern over the issue.
Minatom forced to change its story
The almost entirely unilateral US invasion of Iraq was billed — in addition to rhetoric about “liberating” the Iraqi people — as a search for weapons of mass destruction. But the vaunted stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons on which US President Bush based his incursion have remained largely undiscovered by American troops now scouring the county.
Their lack of evidence has been chalked up my US military leaders to the notion that Saddam’s chemical an nuclear arsenals were moved to neighbouring Syria before US invasion forces landed, which has given US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld more opportunities to issue Pentagon ultimatums to Damascus, regardless of the truth of the allegations.
But there is little question after the February’s visit to Iran by the IAEA that Tehran has the capability to produce nuclear weapons in the near future.
Last March — prior to Mamedov’s public remarks — Minatom had quietly divorced itself from the alleged weapons production programme. Following years of Minatom assertions that Iran had no nuclear weapons capability — Rumyantsev awkwardly admitted in an interview that he simply did not know what the future of Iran’s nuclear programme holds.
Iran’s current nuke capabilities
What, precisely, the Iranians have that is causing such an international furore and costing Tehran the trust of allies like Russia, are an advanced system of hexafluoride gas uranium enrichment centrifuges near Natanz, and a heavy water facility, which is necessary for the production of plutonium, near Arak. Both sites were revealed last December by commercial satellite photos.
According to some observers, the technology at the Natanz site specifically is so sophisticated that it could not have been built without significant help from the West.
A visit to Iran by the IAEA’s ElBaradei revealed hundreds of uranium enrichment centrifuges standing ready for use at Natanz, and equipment to build 5000 more at the same site — enough to produce at least two high-enriched uranium bombs per year.
The Natanz site is also heavily fortified, built partially underground with walls nearly a metre thick, in an apparent effort to thwart a military attack of the sort visited Iraq’s Osirak reactor on 1981 by Israeli bombers.
The Bushehr light water reactor — which itself is rumoured to be protected by a small arsenal of surface to air missiles — is scheduled to come on-line later this year, or early next year, and Tehran and Moscow have agreed that Russia will buy back all spent fuel — which could be reprocessed for plutonium — from the facility to insure against any proliferation risks.
Russia is also contractually to be the sole supplier of fuel for Bushehr — regardless of Iran’s own uranium enrichment capabilities — with the first 80 tonnes of fuel arriving this year. Russia has also discussed — to more US chagrin — the possible construction of at least five more reactors in Iran — a second reactor in Bushehr, and others to follow as plans develop.
US arrogance causing regional cold sweats
But the advanced state of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, as revealed by ElBaradei’s inspections of Natanz and Arak, gives the Tehran an almost indigenous capability to enrich uranium for fuel or weapons, and possibly to produce plutonium — making the Russian spent fuel buy-back scheme virtually worthless.
US officials have also long insisted that Russian reactor expertise — exported to Iran by more than 1000 Russia nuclear specialists — is being imparted to Iranian physicists for use in a weapons programme. Russian officials have discounted that possibility, but Iranian officials have worried in private interviews that the newly acquired US swagger in the Middle East could lead to a fresh war with Iran.
In an effort to cool tensions, Powell told Echo of Moscow radio late this week that Iran “is not a matter for the armed forces of the United States right now.”
This suggestion of a non-military approach apparently reflects a new Washington policy to resolve international threats, aside from Saddam Hussein, via the same international diplomacy the United States contemptuously eschewed in order to invade Iraq. For instance, a nuclear crisis like North Korea — which arguably poses a more serious threat to US well-being than Baghdad did — has been relegated by Washington to the purview of “international pressure” and the UN — the same institution the US Pentagon called “irrelevant” and castigated for its failure to agree with military intervention in Iraq.
Apparently, Powell would like to leave Iran and its nuclear programme in international hands as well.
“Neither Russia or the United States would like to see a programme that goes in the direction of developing a nuclear weapon in Iran,” said Powell during his Echo of Moscow. “We will work with the international community to persuade Iran that things should not move in this direction.”
International diplomats interviewed for this article were sceptical when the US soft-pedalled plans for further military intervention in the Middle East. Some suggested that the Bush Administration is simply trying to restrain its itchy trigger finger. But others said that the US — afraid of a war with a nuclear power — was avoiding conflict by passing the buck to the international community.
The Bushehr impasse
Moscow has been building — despite vociferous US protests — an $800m, 1000-megawatt reactor in the Iranian port city of Bushehr. But when the Natanz and Arak sites were revealed, officials with US Department of Defence, or DOD, said in interviews in December that the plants had been built with the help of the Russians — an accusation that both Tehran and Moscow loudly denied.
This denial may hold water: Since December, various intelligence sources revealed that much of the technology has possibly come from Pakistan, North Korea, and according to Deputy Foreign Minister Mamedov, unspecified Western companies. This assertion incensed Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, who insisted that Iran’s own national capabilities were responsible for the plants.
However, archival evidence from Minatom unearthed by the Russia-based anti-nuclear investigative group Ecodefence (located at www.antiatom.ru) suggests that Russia has been involved in nuclear weapons development with Iran for the past five years. According to Minatom publications obtained by Ecodefence, Russia built a so-called hydro-metallurgic plant for Iran in 1998. This could not be independently verified by Bellona Web.
Minatom weapons technology to Iran
Hydro-metallurgic plants, though outdated when compared to current technology in Iran, were instrumental in producing the first Soviet atomic bombs at the Mayak facility in 1948, said Ecodefence co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak. Such a facility would be sufficient to produce much of the necessary equipment for Iran’s alleged nuclear bomb project, he said.
However, according to one Russian nuclear physicist with Minatom, who is familiar with the Iranian project, the gift of a hydro-metallurgic plant to Iran as late as 1998 seems anachronistic.
The physicist did say, however, that a hydro-metallurgic plant would do well for the processing of uranium ore — a task well suited to Iran’s newly announced uranium mining efforts, and thus in keeping with Ecodefence’s assertions that Minatom has indeed aided in Iran’s nuclear programme beyond the benign contributions to the Bushehr reactor. Another Minatom physicist added that “there is no question that Russia has — with other contributing nations — been involved in Iranian nuclear weaponry — and, as we are now seeing, they have created something of a monster.”
Foreign ministry accuses west of Iranian nuclear aid
Deputy Foreign Minister Mamedov said in an interview that Russia’s nuclear obligations with Iran begin and end with the Bushehr facility and dismissed US concerns that Moscow has officially helped the Islamic Republic with more sensitive technology — although he acknowledged that whatever was produced by the Natanz and Iraq facilities were anyone’s guess.
On the count of Bushehr, he said, “our conscience is crystal clear.” But almost as surprising as his declaration that Iran is developing nuclear weapons was his accusation that unidentified Western firms are aiding Tehran in acquiring the materials it needs for a nuclear weapons programme.
“There is a legend that all problems stem from Russia’s peaceful nuclear cooperation with Iran, used as a cover for transferring nuclear weapons technology, and we categorically deny that,” Mamedov said.
“We are trying to attract US attention to the fact that some concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons program are related to the illegal activities of several western companies. We have questions that we are putting to the Iranian side, and we hope they will be answered.” Mamedov refused to provide any details, saying American and Russian experts were studying the issue.