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Iran - Going Nuclear, May 2005

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Iran's Nuclear Program, Nuclear Proliferation, Media Resources, Blogs and Commentary


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The Story
Tehran covered in snow; Reporter paul Kenyon; Two women sitting near the river

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It's nighttime when FRONTLINE/World reporter Paul Kenyon arrives at the Tehran Grand Hotel, where Chris Charlier, a senior U.N. nuclear weapons inspector, is staying. Charlier has been coming here since the Iran nuclear crisis first erupted three years ago, when an Iranian exile group revealed that Iran had a secret nuclear program.

Charlier tells Kenyon that, when he is in Iran, he is always followed by the secret police. His job is to check out nuclear sites, but often the Iranians won't grant him or his team access. One site, Lavizan, had been bulldozed by the time the team was allowed to visit.

Natanz, a uranium enrichment plant, is Iran's most closely guarded secret. It is largely underground and patrolled by anti-aircraft guns. When the inspection team returns from the plant in Natanz, where they have installed surveillance cameras, Kenyon wants to hear what they found out. However, the inspectors say they can't talk; they are being followed.

With secret police still following him, Kenyon heads to the ancient city of Isfahan, the site of another nuclear facility. "We decide to start copying some of our tapes in the hotel at night in case the originals are confiscated," Kenyon says.

More anti-aircraft positions indicate that Kenyon has come to the plant where uranium arrives as yellowcake and leaves ready for enrichment at Natanz. The Iranians claim that this is all related to their nuclear energy program, but Kenyon points out that using this same process, they are not far from having the material to make weapons.

Back at the hotel, the nuclear inspectors send notes back to their headquarters in Vienna.

George Healey, one of the inspectors, takes Kenyon to a bazaar in Isfahan where glass lamps made with uranium are sold. Kenyon explains that Iran has significant nuclear deposits but not enough to fuel the ambitious nuclear power program it envisions; therefore, it has bought 500 tons of yellowcake from a third country.

The next morning, the U.N. team sets off for another inspection. But Iran's security services warn Kenyon and his crew not to accompany the inspectors and order the camera crew back to Tehran.

In Tehran, Kenyon goes looking in a warehouse district for the Kalaye Electric company, where inspectors believe Iran has been conducting nuclear experiments. Although things start in a friendly fashion, Kenyon is soon told to leave. Charlier tells Kenyon that the inspectors had been denied access to the site many times before they were finally granted entry.

"The inspectors wanted to test for nuclear particles," Kenyon reveals, "but the Iranians seemed to have attempted a cover-up." Charlier says that the building had been cleaned and painted just before they arrived.

Kenyon goes to a university in Tehran to talk to Ali Akbar al-Salehi, a professor who was until recently Iran's top nuclear negotiator. Al-Salehi insists that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful. When Kenyon persists and asks him why Iran hid its nuclear energy program for nearly two decades, al-Salehi points to the international sanctions against Iran, which he says meant that Iran couldn't openly buy what it needed to create a nuclear energy program.

On the streets of Tehran, Kenyon asks Iranians if they talk about the current nuclear crisis. Several people tell him that Iran has only peaceful intentions. One man says Iran has the right to do what the United States and Israel have already done. Kenyon says that, off camera, people ask him when the Americans are going to attack Iran.

On Iran's annual Revolution Day -- this year marking the 25th anniversary of the overthrow of the American-backed shah -- Kenyon goes to a rally. President Mohammed Khatami tells the crowd that nuclear technology "completes the scientific wheel of our country," and that it wasn't built to be destroyed by outsiders. The United States considers Khatami a reformer, but on the issue of Iran's having its own nuclear program, Khatami takes the same position as the hard-line clerics.

Kenyon's time in Iran draws to a close. On his way to the airport, he is stopped by Iranian security, interrogated for five hours and detained in his hotel for two days. The bulk of his film of Iran's nuclear facilities is confiscated.

In Vienna, the home of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kenyon meets again with Chris Charlier, who has returned to headquarters from his latest inspection tour of Iran. Charlier refers to the Iranian nuclear program and his inspections as a game of hide-and-seek.

The press gathers to hear the findings from Iran. Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the IAEA, tells the group that there has been some improvement in cooperation from Iran since December. The Europeans have persuaded Iran to suspend its nuclear activities, but Iran is threatening to restart enrichment in Isfahan and Natanz. "If they do," Kenyon says, "the Americans say they'll push to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council just like Iraq before the war."

Stephen Rademaker, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, says that there is no question that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. He says that the best evidence is the clandestine nature of Iran's nuclear program while it was obligated by treaties to report its activities.

Sirus Naseri, head of the Iranian delegation, says that Iran has an "inalienable right" to produce nuclear energy.

Meanwhile, the United States is lobbying U.N. diplomats in Vienna, reminding them that Iran has hidden key parts of its nuclear program for 18 years.

Rademaker tells Kenyon that the United States would like Iran to completely dismantle its enrichment program and that the "EU-3" -- Britain, France and Germany -- agree.

But Naseri tells Kenyon that Iran, not America, calls the shots. "Who are the Americans to say what we want to have, what we should have and what we should not?" He adds that the Iranians don't trust the Americans just as much as the Americans don't trust the Iranians.

Kenyon reveals that, in the middle of the IAEA meeting, new information becomes public: Inspectors have found a secret tunnel under the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan. Naseri dismisses it as a storage facility.

Then Charlier reveals that samples from the Kalaye nuclear research facility show a concentration of enriched particles of approximately 36 and 54 percent -- far higher than Iran would need just for energy.

Kenyon says that the question remains about whether Iran enriched the particles itself, or if the particles were contamination imported with centrifuges that Iran bought on the black market from Pakistan, as Iranian officials claim.

Kenyon says that inspectors are investigating a secret nuclear proliferation network -- the Abdul Qadeer Khan network -- based in Pakistan. They have obtained from Libya a compact disk containing plans for a nuclear centrifuge. Olli Heinonen, a senior IAEA investigator, says that the disk includes drawings and instruction manuals.

"The IAEA is worried about who else in the world might have these plans," Kenyon says.

But Charlier is still focused on Iran; he says that there is a lot of work to be done and questions to be answered before U.N. inspectors can give Iran a green light.

Kenyon says that U.N. inspectors hope to make more trips to Iran in the coming months. The United States is pressing for total cessation of Iran's nuclear program, but Iran is not backing down. A diplomatic resolution appears far off.

Iran's former nuclear negotiator Salehi tells Kenyon that Iran does not seek a confrontation, but he insists that Iran has never been stronger, and the United States has never been weaker. So, if there is going to be a confrontation over the nuclear issue, now is the time. However, he hastens to add that Iran still hopes to resolve the conflict diplomatically and peacefully.

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