Tehran Offers Conditional Assurances on Nuclear Weapons Programme

Publish date: May 13, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Gholamreza Aghazadeh Iran's top nuclear official denied in Vienna Tuesday that his country was working on an atomic weapons programme — and despite the furore surrounding the Islamic Republic's nuclear capabilities, he told the UN that his country was not willing to submit to a tougher regimen of inspections from international observers.

On the same day, the US Senate’s Armed Service Committee — a group largely in the hands of the conservative republicans beholden to the administration of George Bush — approved a new measure that would allow for the testing and development of low-yield nuclear weapons. A vote on the issue is expected by September, a congressional aid said.

Aghazadeh told the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA — the UN’s nuclear watchdog group — that Iran’s nuclear programme was “only for peaceful purposes,” a diplomat who attended the meeting said. Aghazadeh, however, Aghazadeh said further cooperation with IAEA inspectors would “depend on conditions… It was very conditional,” the diplomat quoted Aghazadeh as saying.

Aghazadeh was speaking before the 135 members of the IAEA during a closed door-meeting during which he told them that Iran needs its nuclear facilities to make its own nuclear fuel, the diplomat quoted him as saying. Aghazadeh, said the diplomat, spoke in general terms about Iran’s energy planning and why the economic and environmental costs of oil in the long term don’t make sense as the only energy source and “that they want nuclear in the mix.” Iranian officials have said they have nothing to hide because their nuclear programme is meant only to generate electricity, said the diplomat. The US has been sceptical of this stated motive because of Iran’s vast supplies of natural gas.

In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said Tuesday there was no evidence Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons.

Very sound evidence is needed to accuse anyone. So far, neither the United States nor any other countries can present it, Losyukov said, according to the Interfax news agency.

Losyukov did acknowledge that Iran’s nuclear program had some uncertainties, and that Moscow would work with Tehran to “add more transparency” to its program. As for Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation, Losyukov said the work was “strictly in line with IAEA norms.”

The US move toward low-yield nuclear weapons testing was seen by many analysts as a forceful message to Iran to cease its nuclear programme or face the threat of a possible attack from the United States — a peril that the Bush administration has grown less wary of brandishing since its war on terrorism began and its successful war in Iraq has been all but declared victorious.

The Iranian issue is bound to come to a head as US Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, meet in Moscow on Wednesday, say diplomatic sources and analysts.

ElBaradei’s report on Iran
The IAEA chief, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, is expected to deliver the findings he made in Iran last February to a closed-door session of the IAEA board of directors on June 12. Much of ElBaradei’s activities since his visit to Iran, say sources close to the IAEA chief, have been to get Iran to sign accords that would make its nuclear programme more transparent.

One expert source familiar with the issue said that the seemingly protracted nature of the negotiations has proved to be “a long, arduous process,” but that is was not unusual.” He noted that, despite recent Iranian bravado about blocking nuclear inspections, the country “is undergoing inspections on a regular basis.” By some estimates, the IAEA has inspection teams in Iran at least once a week.

According to the source close to the negotiations, the results of the June IAEA proceedings, will not — at least immediately — be made public.

A spokeswoman for the agency, Melissa Fleming, told Reuters that “inspections and analysis” of Iran’s nuclear sites were still under way, and that the report to be delivered in June was not yet ready.

“Were not yet in a position to make any kind of judgment about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” she said.

US accusations
Moscow’s position on Iran’s nuclear programme is pivotal because Russia has helped Iran construct a nearly completed $800m 1,000-megawatt, light-water reactor in the western port of Bushehr, and has considered additional nuclear reactor projects for Iran. Bushehr, which will receive its first 80 metric tonnes of fuel this month, is expected to go on line in late 2003 or early 2004.

The United States believes that the Bushehr project is a cover for the exchange of more sensitive technologies to develop nuclear weapons — something both Russian and Iran have repeatedly denied. Washington also suspects that Russian scientists, without Russian government approval, are helping the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, and it wants Moscow to crack down vigorously on such activity.

The United States government, and several Iranian exile groups operating in Washington, have accused Iran of having already tested its uranium enrichment capabilities at a secret site, which the US and the exile groups say fronts as a watch factory. If this is true, it constitutes a direct violation of the 1973 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. These exile groups, who have held press conferences largely at the expense of the US administration, have unequivocally stated that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

This US-side frustration culminated last month, according to diplomatic sources, when Undersecretary of State, John Bolton — one of Washington’s chief arms negotiators visited Moscow to speak with Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksander Rumyantsev to again try to dissuade Russia from aiding Iran’s nuclear efforts. In the past, the State Department has offered Russia lucrative imports of US-controlled spent nuclear fuel — a failing pet project of the Russian Atomic Industry — but US officials were rebuffed. On this occasion, too, the leaders made little headway, and Bolton returned home empty-handed, diplomatic sources said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said during his daily briefing Tuesday that the evidence collected by the IAEA and even Iranian statements pointed to an alleged weapons programme.

“I think there is a lot of information available on Iran’s nuclear program. There are statements the Iranians have made themselves, information that the International Atomic Energy Agency has collected during the course of their visits,” said Boucher.

“And I think it is important for people to look straight at that information to face up to what it says — and it says that Iran, despite the economics, despite their protests, despite their claims, Iran is developing a full-scope nuclear program that it would not behove anybody to cooperate with.”

“And so we will keep making the case. We will keep making the point with the information that is available, and I would say increasingly available, that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are much bigger than many had hoped,” Boucher added.

The tough talk from the State Department, however, meant little in the wake of Bolton’s unsuccessful visit.

The Russia connection
In an effort to mollify western concerns, Moscow and Tehran drafted stipulations indicating that Moscow would be the sole supplier of uranium fuel — with the first 80 tonnes due in May — for the reactor, and would buy back the spent product to prevent it from being reprocessed for plutonium.

But Iran’s goals in the nuclear area have grown increasing bold and independent in recent months. In February, President Mohammad Khatami announced that Iran was mining its own uranium deposits. The IAEA’s ElBaradei also viewed a site near Natanz, in central Iran, where several hundred hexafluoride gas centrifuges stand ready to enrich uranium. The site, according to Elbaradei’s report, is equipped to build as many as 5000 more centrifuges, giving Iran the almost entirely indigenous capability of producing at least two uranium bombs — the type that destroyed Nagasaki — per year.

The presence of this heavily fortified plant at Natanz — with walls nearly a metre-thick apparently to thwart a military attack — was initially discovered by commercial US satellite photography, which also revealed the presence of heavy water facility, a necessary component for the production of plutonium — another route to a nuclear bomb, the kind of which was used to destroy Hiroshima — near the Iranian city of Arak.

Russia’s agreement to buy back spent fuel from Iran in an effort to prevent proliferation is therefore in tatters.

Russia backs off
In recent months, Russian officials have begun to back away from their previous and repeated insistence that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and in March, Russian Atomic Minister Rumyantsev said he no longer knew Iran’s native capability for producing fuel or weapons.

In December, sources in the Pentagon accused Russia of assisting Iran in build the Arak and Natanz sites. But since that time, it has been revealed that much of the technology has possibly come from Pakistan, and possibly North Korea — an assertion that has incensed Khatami and others, who insist that Iran’s own national capabilities were responsible for the plants.

The source familiar with the IAEA’s Iran work confirmed this. “I don’t think they would have been that dumb,” said the source. “Russia wouldn’t have done anything so blatant. They have done this on their own — it’s cobbled together from a number of places.”

IAEA inspectors, speaking anonymously, said they were “shocked” that the fundamental designs of the centrifuges at Natanz were of the type designed by Pakistan, an erstwhile, well-paid ally of the United States during its original incursion into Afghanistan during the first phase of the war against terrorism.

“The question is, where is the factory that supplied the Iranian facility at Natanz?” one senior IAEA official said in an interview. “Is it in Pakistan, or is it in North Korea?”

Iraq, with North Koran and Iran, has been bracketed by the Bush administration as “the axis of evil.”

Said Andrei Kortunov, vice president of the Russian Foreign Policy Association: “There has indeed been a certain change in Moscow’s attitude toward North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs.”

Moscow, meanwhile, has expressed growing concern about North Korea’s diplomatic brinkmanship, particularly its recent withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty — a route, according to one Russian Foreign Ministry source who requested his name not be mentioned, Iran may take in the future, especially with the presence of American troops in the area following the war with Iraq.

Iran’s NPT future — and a history of discrimination
The source familiar with the IAEA’s work in Iran said that there was little likelihood that that Iran would back out of the NPT — as North Korea has done — but he said that Iran has plenty of complaints about the discriminatory treatment it receives under the agreement.

The bargain behind the framework of the NPT is that states that possess nuclear weapons are to pursue disarmament. In their turn, states that do not possess nuclear weapons agree not to pursue acquiring them. As reciprocation, weapons states are then to offer peaceful support to civilian nuclear programmes in states that do not have nuclear arms.

“It is enshrined in the NPT that countries with no nuclear weapons — and comply with the NPT — get support from weapons nations,” said the source. “But this has never been the case with Iran.”

According to the source, some 40 countries, from the United States to the European Union to Japan have denied Iran assistance in its supposedly civilian nuclear pursuits.

“In that sense, assuming Iran is in compliance with NPT, you have a situation of blackmail where Iran says ‘if you are not going to help us, we will help ourselves,'” the source said. Iranian President Khatami, in fact, issued just such a statement two months ago.

“Establishing a balance between energy sources is the sovereign right of any country,” Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told Interfax Russian news agency during a trip to Tehran in March.

“Nevertheless, it was important for us to obtain first-hand information about plans for the development of the nuclear power sector for peaceful purposes,” he added.