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Iran - Going Nuclear, May 2005

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Background to a Crisis
President Mohammed Khatami addresses a crowd of Iranian citizens.

President Mohammed Khatami addresses a crowd of Iranian citizens.
By Zachary K. Johnson

Revelations of a Secret Program

In August 2002, a group of Iranian dissidents made a startling announcement at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, the representative of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, told the world that the Iranian government had a secret nuclear program and was building two facilities south of Tehran in central Iran that would be capable of producing material that could fuel a nuclear weapon.

The U.S. State Department said that Jafarzadeh's group was a part of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK), which killed U.S. citizens in Iran in the 1970s and supported the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran but was expelled after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. After that, the dissidents waged a worldwide campaign to topple the Iranian government and replace it with a secular regime.

Despite questions about the source of the information, the dissidents' claim that Iran had a covert nuclear program proved to be true. The hidden sites -- a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy-water plant in Arak -- were later confirmed by a U.N. monitoring group and the Iranian government, though the Iranians insisted that they were intended only to generate peaceful nuclear energy.

The World Reacts

The international community reacted to the revelation with both condemnation and attempts to negotiate with the burgeoning nuclear power. Europe took the diplomatic lead in a series of slow negotiations over the next three years, resulting in progress, setbacks, a temporary agreement and, ultimately, doubt over what would happen next.

The U.N. group that watches over the world's nuclear programs to make sure they don't become nuclear weapons programs is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Countries, like Iran, who have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), are required to notify the IAEA about their nuclear facilities. When the IAEA board met in September 2002, it was visited by H.E. Reza Aghazadeh, the vice president of Iran who is also president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Aghazadeh told the agency that his country planned to develop a 6,000-megawatt nuclear power program over the next 20 years; the program would include researching how to make the fuel to power the reactors. He also said that IAEA officials were welcome to come and see it for themselves. In December 2002, a few months after the dissident group had blown the whistle, the U.S. State Department announced that it believed Iran was covering up a nuclear weapons program, pointing out that a nation as rich in oil and natural gas reserves as Iran had no legitimate need for a nuclear program. Iranian President Mohammed Khatami quickly refuted the accusation, saying that Iran was abiding by the NPT by not seeking to build nuclear weapons and by operating under the supervision of the IAEA.

Negotiations and Questions

The original date for inspection teams to view the newly discovered nuclear facilities at Natanz came and went in October 2002, but the following February Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's director general, went to Iran to meet with nuclear officials. During the visit, Iran confirmed that it was building a heavy-water production plant in Arak and officially declared the two uranium enrichment plants it was building in Natanz, which ElBaradei visited. His trip was cut short, however, as the international debate over whether Iran's neighbor Iraq had a nuclear weapons program was about to erupt into war.

Once Saddam Hussein's regime had fallen to U.S.-led coalition forces, the world again turned its attention to Iran. In June 2003, the IAEA criticized Iran for hiding nuclear facilities and called on the country to sign an additional protocol to the NPT, putting its nuclear program under greater scrutiny. When talking to reporters later, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the United States would not rule out the "military option" in dealing with Iran. In August, IAEA inspectors visiting Iran discovered traces of enriched uranium in Natanz. Enriched uranium is used to fuel nuclear reactors, but if it is enriched to a purer state, it can also be used to form the core of a nuclear weapon. During the visit, inspectors also found traces of enriched uranium at the Kalaye Electric Company, just south of Tehran. Iran claimed the equipment had been contaminated with highly enriched uranium when it was imported from an unnamed country, believed to be Pakistan. Frustrated by the obfuscation, the IAEA passed a resolution urging Iran to be more transparent.

Also in August 2003, the major European states stepped in to cajole Iran into cooperation. Germany, France and Britain said they would help Iran develop peaceful nuclear technology if it agreed to stop its uranium enrichment program and was open to more-stringent oversight by the IAEA. This set off months of slow-moving diplomacy between Iran and the "EU-3."

With its relationship with Iran strained at best, the United States left the talking to the Europeans. In fact, Iran and America had not been on speaking terms for a long time. In the 1950s the two countries had signed a cooperation agreement, which gave Iran access to peaceful nuclear technology and allowed it to lease enriched uranium. And by 1968, still in cordial times, the United States and Iran both signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But after 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with the newly formed Islamic Republic. Since then, the two countries communicate officially only through intermediaries, and the United States has stopped most trade with Iran, although, in 2003, sanctions were temporarily waived to allow in aid after an earthquake flattened the ancient city of Bam.

After months of shuttle diplomacy, the EU-3 and Iran issued a joint statement that Iran would fully disclose all aspects of its nuclear activities to the IAEA, allow enhanced inspections of its facilities and temporarily suspend production of enriched uranium. In return, Europe promised Iran easier access to nuclear technology for energy use.

Despite these hopeful beginnings, Iran was again under suspicion when the IAEA disclosed in November 2003 that Iran had acknowledged producing small amounts of plutonium. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with members of the European Union but failed to persuade them to declare that Iran was violating the NPT and should be referred to the Security Council for possible sanctions. Worried about possible escalation, the Israeli defense minister implied that Israel had developed plans to strike at Iran's nuclear facilities if called upon to defend itself.

By the end of 2003, Iran agreed to sign the NPT additional protocol, which would force it to open up to tougher inspections, including inspections at those facilities developed in secrecy over the previous 18 years.

Cooperation and Conflict

By January 2004, new evidence emerged that Iran, by its own admission, had continued to build centrifuges for uranium enrichment, according to the defense research group

It also appeared that Iran was again not fully cooperating with the IAEA. When inspectors went into the country in February 2004, they uncovered an advanced centrifuge design that Iran had never before revealed. When an inspection team notified Iran that it would be coming to look at Natanz at the beginning of March 2004, Iran postponed the visit until the end of April.

By June, the EU-3 had ratcheted up the language in a resolution passed by the IAEA, saying that they "deplored" Iran's lack of cooperation during inspections and that Iran continued to produce uranium hexafluoride, the gas put into centrifuges to make enriched uranium.

Iran responded one month later by breaking IAEA seals meant to prevent the use of centrifuges, saying it would continue its uranium fuel production activities. Amid growing concern in Washington, the Bush administration responded by calling for the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions. When the IAEA board met in September 2004, it implied that it would support sanctions if Iran did not abide by the original October 2003 agreement.

In this continuing game of cat and mouse, tensions eased again in November 2004, when Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program, temporarily and voluntarily, while continuing to negotiate. The IAEA said it could account for all the nuclear material declared to be in Iran and dropped its threat to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council.

New Revelations

Whatever amity there was after the November 2004 agreement didn't last long. Despite the agreement, Iran continued its uranium enrichment program until February 2005.

The following month, more details of Iran's covert program were confirmed by the Pakistani information minister, who said that the clandestine nuclear technology network orchestrated by his country's most renowned nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had given Iran centrifuges that could be used to enrich uranium in the 1980s. Also in March 2005, Iran's President Khatami declared that Iran would never give up its nuclear program. The United States -- though still not a part of the official talks -- said it would consider offering incentives to Iran to help negotiations; one of these was dropping its opposition to Iran's inclusion in the World Trade Organization.

By the time the 189 signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty met to review the treaty in New York in May 2005, Iran was clearly annoyed by the slow pace of the negotiations; one official announced that his country would "soon" continue its uranium enrichment. With negotiations in stalemate, the Europeans said they, too, now were prepared to go to the Security Council and ask for sanctions.

What Iran intends to do next is unclear. It has said it will one day produce enriched uranium to fuel reactors, but the United States and Europe argue that Iran can have peaceful nuclear energy without this step. The gap between Iran and the West still appears to be wide.

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