At a moment when the North Koreans claim to have
a nuclear reactor for weapons fuel," the latest flare-up in the Iranian/European
Union negotiations involving the "Iranian bomb," well described below by Dilip
Hiro, only highlights the increasingly precarious state of nuclear proliferation
on our poor planet. It's almost impossible to tell quite who is doing what,
but many countries from China and Israel to the United States and Russia are
stirring and, in one fashion or another, planning or upgrading.
As the 7th "review" conference of Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) signees continues
in New York – one
week in and the 188 parties evidently can't even agree on an agenda – the
treaty itself, like some dam overflowing and beginning to structurally
degrade, looks shaky indeed. The NPT, the major instrument of nuclear safety
(other than "mutual assured destruction") that the planet has developed these
last decades, is in danger of biodegrading, and the Bush administration can
thank itself for at least a reasonable part of the nuclear fix that we're now
in. We are clearly at the edge of an all-nuclear-all-the-time world, and our
leaders, who – thank you, John Bolton – have wanted to keep every nuclear "edge"
possible while shutting off much of the rest of the world, long ago opted for
an improbable military solution to the globe's nuclear proliferation problems.
It seems this includes planning
for the possible use of nuclear weapons to stop "rogue" nuclear programs.
As a recently leaked Pentagon document put the matter, the U.S. arsenal is to
be "so numerous, advanced, and reliable that the U.S. retains an unassailable
edge for the foreseeable future."
Saddam Hussein's nuclear-weaponless Iraq was supposed to be the test case for
the administration's anti-proliferation policies, which involved the threatening
of, and then launching of, proliferation wars to rein in proliferation, and
we can see where that got us. If anything, it only confirmed the value of actually
possessing nuclear weapons, which turned out to be the coin of the realm of
power in the age of the younger Bush. In fact, for all of Washington's official
and unofficial bluster, however eager officials there might be to take military
action against Iran, the U.S. might be incapable of doing so, given the situation
in neighboring Iraq (and forget about North Korea).
The split between the U.S. and non-nuclear signees of the NPT that Dilip Hiro
analyzes below is growing. As with so many treaties and agreements, the Bush
administration is interested in this one, if at all, only as a one-way street.
As Richard Butler, the Australian former head of the UN Special Commission to
Disarm Iraq, wrote
"The Bush administration has not only refused to adhere to its obligations
under the treaty … but has now embarked on what is anathema under the treaty
– the production of a new generation of nuclear weapons. These are the new,
more compact, nukes the administration says it needs for the so-called war on
terrorism. It beggars belief that the administration appears to believe it can
succeed in restraining Iran while it proceeds to violate its obligations."
According to American intelligence, Iran
is probably still seven years away from producing a nuclear weapon (assuming
that's what it's intent on doing, which is not at all clear) – and yet Iran
may prove the fulcrum on which the NPT is cracked open. In the meantime, the
Bush administration is in search of that new generation of mini-nukes (while
protecting nuclear allies, in particular transforming post-9/11 Pakistan
a "nuclear outlaw to 'major non-NATO ally'"), while Israel, with an estimated
nuclear arsenal of 200-300 weapons, ranging from ones small enough to imagine
using in war-fighting situations to those large enough to level any city in
the Middle East, evidently continues to quietly upgrade. In fact, it seems that
once any country has such weaponry, the urge to build and upgrade is almost
irresistible, even when militarily completely pointless. Tom
The Iranian Nuclear Issue in a Global Context
by Dilip Hiro
With the Iranians threatening to resume some nuclear
activities in the near future, their European Union (EU) interlocutors are threatening
to break off their six-month long negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue
diplomatically. They have called an emergency meeting of the 35-member Board
of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna at which
they are likely to join the United States in recommending that the Iranian situation
be referred to the United Nations Security Council.
But they are unlikely to get their way. The Europeans – represented in the
negotiations by the troika of Britain, France, and Germany – claim that before
the latest round of talks, starting in mid-November, Tehran promised to freeze
"all uranium enrichment-related activities." What the Iranians have, in fact,
done is not to start the actual enrichment of uranium hexafluoride (UF6 gas),
but to convert uranium yellowcake into a precursor for UF6. According to a
non-European diplomat in Vienna, the nonaligned governors of the IAEA Board
will accept the Iranian argument that this is uranium-conversion work and not
The emerging crisis is the result of a stalemate between Iran and the EU troika.
The Europeans are aiming to get Tehran to cease all uranium-related activity
permanently and depend instead exclusively on imports of low-enriched fissile
material produced by the Europeans for Iran's civilian nuclear program. This
is totally unacceptable to the Iranians.
On May 3, addressing the UN conference to review the nuclear Nonproliferation
Treaty (NPT), Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi hinted at the real reason
for the devolving Iranian nuclear situation. He spoke of the demands being made
on Iran as "arbitrary and self-serving criteria and thresholds regarding proliferation-proof
and proliferation-prone technologies" which violate "the spirit and letter of
the NPT and destroy the balance between the rights and obligations in the Treaty."
At the core of the Nonproliferation Treaty is Article IV. It gives any signatory
"an inalienable right to develop, research, produce, and use nuclear energy
for peaceful purposes," and to acquire technology to this effect from fellow
signatories. In practical terms, removing Article IV from the NPT – as some
in the Unites States have proposed – would mean terminating the right of the
signatory to "the nuclear fuel cycle."
This nuclear fuel cycle consists of mining uranium ore, processing it into
uranium oxide (yellowcake), transforming yellowcake first into uranium tetrafluoride
(UF4) gas and then into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, followed by the enrichment
of UF6 to varying degrees of purity for the lighter U235 isotopes: 3.5 to 4
percent for use in nuclear power reactors; 10-20 percent for research reactors;
and 90 percent-plus pure for use in the building of nuclear weapons.
After the fuel rods in a nuclear power plant have yielded their energy, transforming
water into steam to run electricity-generating turbines, they are called "spent
rods." They can then be reprocessed with the aim of extracting from them plutonium
(Pu239 or Pu241), which can be used as yet more fissile material. Nuclear fuel
thus produces both electric power and more nuclear fuel, and is therefore in
principle a renewable source of energy.
"The termination of the fuel cycle activities demanded of Iran [by the EU]
means you have killed off the nuclear NPT," said Hassan Rouhani, Iran's chief
negotiator with the EU troika and secretary of the country's Supreme National
Security Council (SNSC). "If you take out Article IV, all developing countries
will step out of the treaty."
This is not a fanciful scenario. Just before the UN conference of 188 countries
opened in New York on May 2 to review the Nonproliferation Treaty, the non-nuclear
weapons signatories to the NPT met in Mexico City under the auspices of the
New Agenda Coalition (NAC).
Seven foreign ministers from Asian, African, European, and South American countries
that do not have nuclear weapons summarized the NAC's stance in the International
Herald Tribune in the following fashion: "When the nuclear NPT came
into force 35 years ago, the central bargain was that non-nuclear-weapons states
like us would renounce their right to develop nuclear weapons while retaining
the inalienable right to undertake research into nuclear energy and to produce
and use it for peaceful purposes … while the five declared nuclear-weapon states
reduced and then eliminated their nuclear weapons [Article VI]."
By now, it has become crystal clear that this bargain has not been – and will
not be – kept. The New Agenda Coalition criticized the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) for spending all its time and energy monitoring and enforcing
compliance by non-nuclear-weapon countries suspected of wanting to develop such
weapons, while overlooking the obvious – that the nuclear powers have not implemented
the commitments they made at the NPT review conferences of 1995 and 2000 .
For instance, in 2000 the U.S. government pledged to ratify the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty but has not done so yet and shows no signs that it will. It
also promised to sign a verifiable accord to end the production of new fissile
material for nuclear weapons but has failed to do so. To make matters worse,
the Bush administration has been trying for two years to get Congressional authorization
to fund research on a new generation of nuclear weapons including small yield
mini-nukes and nuclear bunker busters. It has also mandated nuclear labs in
the U.S. to come up with ways of upgrading the present nuclear arsenal by making
it more robust and longer lasting.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker carefully pointed out to
the NPT review conference that the Bush administration's Moscow Treaty with
Russia in 2002 required sharp reductions in the number of operationally deployed
nuclear warheads it retained by 2012. What he failed to say was that these warheads
would be mothballed, not destroyed, and that the bilateral treaty lacks verification
The New Agenda Coalition representatives also brought up another sore point
for non-nuclear NPT signatories. They highlighted the 2000 NPT review conference
where nuclear-weapon countries once again formulated an "unequivocal" undertaking
to completely eliminate their nuclear arsenals. "This goal is all the more important
in a world in which terrorists seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction,"
they wrote. "The nuclear-weapons states should acknowledge that disarmament
and nonproliferation [are] mutually reinforcing processes: What does not
exist cannot proliferate."
In contrast, the three western nuclear-weapon counties (the United States,
Britain, and France) are primarily interested in closing what they see as loopholes
in the NPT that, in their view, can be exploited by non-nuclear-weapon states
to fabricate nuclear arms – especially, of course, "the inalienable right" to
acquire dual-use technology which could then be deployed for civilian or military
ends. For example, centrifuges used for enriching uranium to 3.5 to 4 percent
purity for nuclear-power plants or 10-20 percent purity for research reactors
can also be harnessed to produce 90 percent-plus pure uranium for weapons.
In the case of Iran, its leaders have publicly offered the EU troika "objective
guarantees" regarding the peaceful intentions of its uranium-enrichment program
(to be monitored by the IAEA). Washington, on the other hand, insists that Tehran
is using the NPT as a cover to go to the brink of nuclear weapons production;
that it intends to withdraw from the NPT at a time of its own choosing (just
as North Korea did) and then assemble a nuclear weapon within weeks. By so doing,
Iran would break the nuclear weapons monopoly Israel has enjoyed in the Middle
East since 1968. Both the Bush administration and Israel are determined to maintain
Washington also argues that Tehran has forfeited any rights under the treaty
by misleading the IAEA over the nature of its uranium-enrichment program. Iran
does not accept this assessment nor have the remaining 34 members of the IAEA's
board of governors.
Iran attributes its cat-and-mouse behavior in the past to the economic sanctions
applied against it by the Europeans and the Americans that deprived it of access
to civilian nuclear technology to which it is entitled as a signatory to the
These days, however, Iranian leaders are learning that transparency has its
virtues. Following the publication in the March 13 Sunday Times of a
leak from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office regarding his country's
possible plans to raid Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, President
Muhammad Khatami escorted a party of 30 local and foreign journalists to the
That dispelled some of the fear-filled mystique about the place created by
the story Israeli officials had planted. Among the structures the visiting journalists
saw was a huge empty hall meant for the installation of thousands of centrifuges
at some future date. A few weeks later, Iran broke another taboo. It took Elahe
Mohtasham, a representative of the London-based International Institute of Strategic
Studies, on a day-long visit to the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan.
In a long report she published in the Sunday Times on May 1, she described
not just the equipment and buildings she saw, but also her conversations in
Persian with scientists and other officials at the site. The facility, completed
in March 1998, is visited by the IAEA every three or four weeks. It was there
that, in March 2004, the Iranians converted yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride
gas UF6 for the first time. Iran thus became the tenth country in the world
to do so – the five members of the initial nuclear club, the U.S., Russia, Britain,
France, and China; and later, Israel, India, Pakistan, and Brazil.
Within three months, the Isfahan facility had produced 45 kg of UF6. By October,
its stock of UF6 rose to 3,000 kg. The scientists and technicians, including
women, had also managed to transform UF6 gas into liquid. It was then, with
Iran entering talks with the EU Troika, that all such activity was suspended.
When asked whether they would be able to produce enough UF6 to feed the prospective
50,000 centrifuges at Natanz, 90 miles to the northeast, the scientists replied,
According to the IAEA, between April and October 2004, the number of centrifuge
rotors in Iran rose from 1,140 to 1,274. And Rouhani revealed that the government
had built and assembled all those centrifuges in a year and several months.
Later, he stated that the reports of protective tunnels and underground facilities
being built by Iran for its nuclear facilities "might be true."
The scientists at the Isfahan uranium conversion plant were familiar with the
Sunday Times story about Israeli plans to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
They told Mohtasham that they had no protection against military attack and
that the tunnels were actually very narrow, just enough for two people to squeeze
through. They believed, however, that any attack by the U.S. or Israel would
destabilize the whole region and, at that point, Iran would probably withdraw
from the Nonproliferation Treaty and start a genuine nuclear-weapons program.
The European negotiators seem aware of the dire consequences of military attacks
on Iran by Israel or the United States. Until now, they seemingly wanted to
keep the talks simmering along, hoping that a pragmatic winner in the presidential
election on June 17 could open the way for accommodation on the issue. "Pragmatic"
is their code word for Ali Akbar Hashemi Rasfanjani, a wily politician who,
along with Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, is now the only surviving member of
the top leadership that was instrumental in bringing about the Islamic revolution
The Iranians do not seem unduly worried that the emergency meeting of the IAEA
governors will postpone the discussion of the Europeans' complaint to their
regular quarterly meeting, due to take place just a few days before the Iranian
presidential election. Even if the issue is referred to the UN Security Council,
there is a very strong chance that China and Russia will veto any resolution
imposing sanctions on Iran. Overall, the Iranians feel that this issue, if pushed
into the international arena, will cause a global divide between the developing
world and the Western world. It may be that they are overestimating, but there
is no doubt that this is an issue of paramount importance in international affairs.
Dilip Hiro is the author of The
Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies (just
now being published by Nation Books) and The
Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide.
A printed version of this article is available in The Middle East International,
Copyright 2005 Dilip Hiro