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Briefing and Opinion
November 19, 2004

Nuclear Negotiations

A report on Iran's nuclear past and the present state of negotiations from correspondent John McWethy.

IranIran has 10 percent of the world's proven oil reserves, yet it is building a series of nuclear power plants and uranium enrichment facilities. This makes some people suspicious.

Iran's leaders say they just want another source of energy when their oil runs out and they need to learn now about the technology. But the same technology used to enrich uranium to low levels for nuclear power plants, can also be used -- with modifications -- to produce highly enriched uranium for atomic weapons.

President Bush began raising concerns more than a year ago.

"The international community must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon," Bush warned. "Iran could be dangerous if they have a nuclear weapon."

So what are the facts?

There is no hard evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, but there is powerful circumstantial evidence.

Robert Einhorn

Robert Einhorn is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He suggests that the evidence has been very incriminating over the last few years. "I think a fair observer would have to conclude that this elaborate program they have had for so long is not designed to simply produce fuel for a nuclear power reactor," says Einhorn. "There are other motives here."

A year ago, Iran gave the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, what was supposed to be a complete summary of its nuclear development program, but it soon became clear Iran had not been telling the whole truth. Iranian officials were forced to admit that more than a decade ago they had obtained from Pakistan the blueprints for sophisticated centrifuges that could rapidly enrich uranium to make bombs. IAEAInspectors also found traces of weapons grade uranium at a facility the Iranians said had never produced such material.

George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is certain of Iran's deception. "There is now a well documented record of basically 19 years of lies and deception on the part of the government of Iran. Anybody who can read can see that."

Still, Iran's foreign minister has repeatedly claimed the nuclear effort was not and is not aimed at making a bomb. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi insists that Iran is "against production of nuclear weapons legally and religiously even."

But Iran would have many reasons to risk taking this step. Mohamed Hadi SematiMohamed Hadi Semati, a professor of political science at Tehran University, explains, "You have to have power to be reckoned with and having nuclear technology in this rough neighborhood is one way to be reckoned with." Semati says even a hint that Iran might be developing nuclear weapons can be very useful. "It is more the power of the technology and the recognition that it brings about that is more important than the weapons themselves really."

Iranians claim they have good reasons today to feel threatened. The U.S. has invaded two of its neighbors -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- and is openly hostile, claiming Iran is the world's leading supporter of terrorism and that it's lying about its nuclear intentions.

But with Washington so focused on Iraq, it has done little about Iran.

The Bush administration has been unable to agree on a policy for dealing with Iran. Some want a vote in the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions. Others want an even tougher policy goal of "regime change" with the threat of air strikes to take out the nuclear facilities as a real possibility.

But there are huge problems with any military option: lack of precise intelligence on where any secret nuclear facilities might be and the potential of serious political backlash.

Einhorn speculates that "U.S. military action against Iran would be seen as much less legitimate than even U.S. action against Iraq and the political reaction would be very, very strong."

UN Security CouncilEven an attempt to get the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran could have embarrassed the U.S. with likely vetoes by China and Russia and possible votes against the U.S. by France and Britain. For now, it is the Europeans -- France, Germany and Britain -- who have taken the lead.

Perkovich explains, "Their view is that negotiating with Iran is the least bad option that's available. The U.S. can't tell them there is a military option that is plausible, so the Europeans say, 'In that case, we better figure out how to negotiate with these guys.'"

In exchange for halting its uranium enrichment efforts, Iran will get the nuclear fuel it needs from elsewhere and a lucrative trade package.

For now, the U.S. is left watching from the sideline. Though Iran and the Europeans have struck a potentially historic deal, Administration officials remain skeptical that the Iranians will -- in the end -- give up what they have spent billions over decades to develop in secret.