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Iran’s Nuclear Program Sparks Worldwide Debate

November 18, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Inside the Islamic nation of 69 million people, and around the world, questions swirled again this week about Iran’s uranium enrichment program, a key activity on the path to making nuclear warheads. At a news conference in Paris yesterday, a spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group, said a secret uranium enrichment site had been built just north of Tehran. They also claim Iran has warhead blueprints and enriched uranium from A.Q. Khan, the scientist who created Pakistan’s atomic bomb.

IRANIAN SPOKESPERSON: Our sources about this facility and the Iranian regime activities in the defense ministry and… this intelligence, this information is 100 percent correct.

RAY SUAREZ: Iran denies those claims. En route to a summit in Chile, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters last night he had seen intelligence that confirmed what the opposition group claims. Powell said: “I’ve seen some information that would suggest that Iran had been actively working on delivery systems.” And he added, “I’m talking about information that says they not only had these missiles but I’m aware of information that suggests they were working hard as to how to put the two together.”

These developments follow an agreement Sunday between Iran and three European nations– Britain, Germany, and France– on the scope of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran reaffirmed its commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, saying it will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran also agreed to indefinitely suspend its uranium enrichment program. The IAEA said it would police that commitment starting next week, ahead of its Nov. 25 board meeting when it evaluates Iran’s compliance. And the Europeans guaranteed Iran has the right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program. Iran’s president called it a “great victory,” but said his country could still pursue nuclear fuel.

PRES. MOHAMMAD KHATAMI, Iran: Producing uranium for nuclear fuel and the enrichment of uranium is our legitimate right. We have come to this knowledge and now are following its steps. We will never connive. We have stressed this several times, because it is our legitimate right. As long as we are under the jurisdiction of the IAEA, this right should be legally recognized.

RAY SUAREZ: The European deal delayed and possibly derailed a Bush administration effort to take the Iran nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council and possibly invoke economic sanctions. This latest dispute comes one year after the European trio brokered a similar agreement with Iran, an agreement that fell apart months later.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the latest European deal a good step toward allaying fears about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program?And how should we evaluate intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities in the wake of the Iraq War?

On those and other questions, we get two views. David Albright was a consultant to the U.N.’s nuclear agency in its inspections of the Iraqi nuclear program. He’s now president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. Paul Leventhal is founder of the Nuclear Control Institute, an independent research and advocacy group in Washington that promotes nuclear nonproliferation.

And on the heels of the National Council of Resistance announcement that Iran was still pursuing its programs secretly, away from the prying eyes of inspectors, out came what seemed to be an endorsement by Secretary of State Powell. Paul Leventhal, what do you make of that?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Well, Powell was clearly referring to intelligence that he believes the U.S. has acquired relating to Iran’s delivery system and an attempt to mate warhead to a missile, presumably the Shahab missile. But also his statement seemed to suggest that the information provided by this group comported with what he understood the case to be, and I’m not sure that that’s altogether a correct interpretation of what Powell had to say.

But I will say this, that the Council of Resistance has proven to be correct with regard to major disclosures about the Iranian nuclear program that were not known to the IAEA and perhaps not known to intelligence services either, and on the basis of their past track record I think — I think a lot of credence has to be put on this, and I think the IAEA should promptly investigate it before the board meeting coming up.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Paul [David Albright], what do you think? Are the charges from the Iranian resistance group credible, and do you think the United States is lining up with that and saying, no, we think it’s true as well?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: I don’t think the U.S. is lining up with it. I mean, it is new information or new accusations by the opposition group. It’s also — the group has had a mixed record. I mean, some of the stuff has been very good, as Paul has pointed out. Some of it has been very bad.

I think the timing of this announcement raises suspicions about whether this information is credible. They have a lot to lose if this deal between Iran and the European Union works out. They would be targeted as a terrorist organization by the European Union, increased constraints may be put upon the group’s activities in France and Germany under Iranian pressure during the negotiations. So I think they have a vested interest in sabotaging this deal, and I think you have to interpret their new information in that light, particularly because for almost all of it, particularly the most — the biggest claims they provided zero evidence.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what would evidence consist of? If you are exposing the existence of a covert program that is being carried on away from the international inspection regime and you’re announcing it in Paris and saying we think this work is going on anyway, what kind of evidence would you want to see to think that that charge is credible?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, in looking even at their past cases where they have presented evidence, you can actually use it to confirm what they are saying, and so I think that particularly the accusations about bomb design information being delivered to Iran, highly enriched uranium being delivered from Pakistan, and even uranium enrichment, their history on predicting those kinds of activities has been very poor. Where they have tended to be better is predicting that here’s a site that hasn’t been declared by Iran, and a richness of the information they provided is typically very actionable in the sense you can go to the site and look. When they have given information about what goes on in those sites or in other places, it’s tended to be usually wrong.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this mention of the NCR, the National Council of Resistance, being defined as a terrorist group, does that shape your judgment of the value of the information?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Well, this is the political arm of what has been a terrorist organization based in Iraq, in fact, with the — with the permission of Saddam Hussein to bother the Iranians to the fullest extent possible. They did lay down their arms promptly upon the start of the military action in Iraq, and they did win praise from the local military commander that they were cooperating with the U.S. and coalition forces.

They are being branded a terrorist organization is based on activities they engaged in perhaps 20 years ago, but the situation now is that in return for Iranian demands that the U.S. brand this organization a terrorist organization goes back to the Clinton administration — Clinton was appealed — the Clinton administration appealed to brand this as a terrorist organization and to shut down the political arm in Washington, the National Council of Resistance, and that was done, and implicit in that understanding was that Iran would not make difficulties in Iraq.

There seems to be contrary evidence now that — to the effect that Iran is making difficulties for the U.S. in Iraq, so this is sort of an interesting organization that has been labeled a terrorist organization but not actively so, and they have provided through their political arm actionable information.

I differ somewhat with David. I think, frankly, what they do is they declare a site to be where centrifuge enrichment is taking place and the IAEA was able to quickly verify that at Natans, and they are doing a similar thing here. They are naming a specific military facility within a 60-acre site where they say centrifuges were transferred and where weapons design activities are also taking place, and there’s also an allegation about enriched uranium which may or may not be accurate.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Yeah. I think the Natans site, actually they call it a fuel fabrication plant, and we were actually involved in making it public that it was a gas centrifuge plant. The revelation….

RAY SUAREZ: What’s the difference?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, the difference is a fuel fabrication plant is involved in another part of the fuel cycle, and it was actually being — planned to be done elsewhere in Iran, and this is an example where the site was a secret nuclear site, and they were correct on that — when they described what was going on at the site in this August 2002 revelation, it was incorrect, and I think that what we’ve already seen in their information, and we look at it carefully, and there was information they released two days ago that we’re evaluating very carefully, but we often see that they are good at sort of finding some sites but not always. They’re often misidentified places, but they are good at identifying sites in some cases, and it’s worth going to those sites to see what’s going on.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a quick comment from you on the implication of the timing. We’re right after the announcement of a deal to stop the enrichment and out comes this new hint that Iran may be cheating. Was it an attempt to scotch the deal with the European Union?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: There’s no question that the national — that the Council of Resistance has a political agenda, and they are pursuing that agenda. This information, the timing of it, is obviously very dramatic because it comes only about a week before the IAEA Board is to meet and effectively ratify the European agreement with Iran.

So I think one thing should be very straightforward and obvious, and that is that the IAEA should make it its business to go to Iran, to visit the site that has been declared, to use the enhanced powers that it has under the additional protocol to go wherever it wants, whenever it wants, however it wants to do it and come back and report to the board as to what they found or did not find, and if they found yet another clandestine operation, then I think this European deal is in deep trouble, as it should be.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the American posture during this time, how is the United States supposed to play this?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, one, they are not — I don’t think they are either supporting or actively condemning the EU Iran deal because finally we want Iran to suspend its — certain of its nuclear activities, and I think the United States understands that, but at the same time it is in conflict with what they want, which is to take Iran to the U.N. Security Council and have some kind of punitive actions taken against Iran.

And so the Europeans are taking the approach let’s try to give them a set of benefits if they are willing to give up these dangerous nuclear activities permanently, and I think the United States hasn’t reacted I think in a constructive way to that yet. I hope that they change their policy to start working with Europe to try to not only find a formula to give benefits to Iran but more importantly work out a better strategy to apply sticks if Iran does not go along with this call for a permanent cessation of its — particularly its uranium enrichment activities.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that sound like a plausible approach to you?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Well, I take a somewhat different view than David Albright on this. I think the European deal is a bad deal. I think when you have a situation where a country has been in violation of its safeguard commitments under the NPT for almost two decades and the matter comes before the board of governors and the board of governors then seeks to get into an extended negotiation with Iran where only time can favor Iran, assuming it is pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, it’s all misguided. They should have gone to the Security Council promptly.

The board of governors, under its own statute, is required to submit it to the Security Council, and they’re also required to consider punitive actions even in the board of governors, like denying privileges of the IAEA to a country that violates, like demanding the return of exported items, things like that, none of which was done, and I think frankly we’re being taken for a ride here, and it’s an extremely dangerous situation.

I would rank it comparable to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. The potential danger of Iran going nuclear, a state that actively not only supports but sponsors terrorism through its intelligence service, that declare – that feels pretty much about infidels as they call them as Hitler did about Jews and other undesirables and parading their Shahab missiles with let’s wipe out Israel, those types of things, this makes it a very serious situation and one that should not be subject to the usual minuet that you have in the nonproliferation community.

RAY SUAREZ: We’re extremely tight on time. Do you think we’re as close to the precipice as your colleague does?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: No, and I think, unfortunately, the strategy Paul has laid out is probably a strategy doomed to failure and could actually guarantee Iran gets nuclear weapons. And I think that trying to find a way to create a system of sticks and carrots I think is a much more effective strategy to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and if they do go down that path, you’ll have a united international community that is going to try to sanction and take punitive actions against Iran. It may convince it to change its mind.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Paul Leventhal and David Albright, thank you both.