Iran Nuclear: Weapons or Energy

Iran threw open the doors to its Isfahan uranium conversion facility on Saturday to welcome a group of 100 diplomats, journalists and photographers – apparently signalling a shift in its response to US-led accusations that it is developing nuclear weapons. Iran’s approach to external scrutiny has historically been secretive and uncooperative, which has raised suspicions about the purpose of its nuclear program.

At the same time, the Bush administration has levelled thinly-veiled military threats at Iran based on allegations for which there is no clear evidence, and there are growing fears that these claims may yet be used to justify a military strike in Iran.

There has been considerable political posturing on both sides. US President George Bush has repeatedly demanded that the Iranians halt their nuclear program, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has retorted that Iran will not be bullied by the US into abandoning the development of technology which is peaceful and needed to provide for the country’s increasing population and power consumption.

Immersed in the middle of this debate is Mr Ahmadinejad’s constant threats to annihilate Israel and allegations that Iran is assisting its allies in Iran which U.S. officials are concerned could render a “Greater Iran” armed with nuclear power.  Recently, Iran hosted a conference which was a propaganda stunt to deny the existence of the Holocaust and, therefore, deny the importance of Israel as a Jewish sanctuary.

On December 23, UN Security Council Resolution 1737 approved economic sanctions and gave Iran 60 days to suspend its uranium enrichment activities or face further consequences. The overarching reason cited for the sanctions was Iran’s refusal to allow UN International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Even last month, 38 IAEA inspectors were refused entry into Iran, whose officials objected to the presence of US and Western inspectors. After a new team of inspectors was agreed upon, the IAEA conducted two inspections.

Saturday’s tour at Isfahan was intended to demonstrate transparency and build international confidence in Iran’s nuclear program. The assembly included visitors from the Sudan, Cuba, Egypt, Malaysia and Algeria, as well as representatives of the Arab League and two groups of developing nations known as the Nonaligned Movement and the G-77, who assert their right to pursue national interests unfettered by Western countries.

Iran’s facility at Isfahan is mainly used to convert yellowcake uranium into uranium hexaflouride gas (UF6) , an early step in the nuclear fuel cycle. The Natanz nuclear complex is where Iran intends to enrich uranium using cascades of centrifuges. The Natanz facility has been the major focus of international concerns because highly enriched (90%) uranium is used to make nuclear weapons.

To enable continuous monitoring of the activities at both facilities, the IAEA has installed cameras that take photographs every two minutes. Such surveillance is consistent with Iran’s obligations as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Since the August 2002 discovery of two previously unknown Iranian nuclear sites (in Natanz and Arak), the White House has made numerous claims that Iran is secretly trying to produce nuclear weapons. In the absence of clear evidence or intelligence to substantiate the claims, the Bush administration has based its case on circumstantial evidence and inference, and a discredited Congressional report which the IAEA has blasted as “dishonest and outrageous”.

Firstly, the US argues that Iran must be developing nuclear weapons because it kept two new nuclear facilities secret from the IAEA in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet according to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, “Iran is not required to allow IAEA inspections of a new nuclear facility until six months before nuclear material is introduced into it.” There was no obligation for Iran to even report the existence of the facilities in 2002; this has since been acknowledged by the IAEA Board of Governors.

Secondly, the Bush administration speculates that an oil-rich country like Iran – sitting on the third-largest oil reserves in the world – cannot possibly need nuclear energy, so they must be developing the technology for weapons. Vice-President Dick Cheney has said, “They’re already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. Nobody can figure why they need nuclear as well to generate energy.”

Yet during the 1970s, the Ford administration strongly supported the Shah of Iran’s plan to develop nuclear energy, according to The Washington Post. President Ford even endorsed a multibillion-dollar deal that would have provided Tehran with substantial quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium, either of which could be used to build nuclear bombs. “The introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals,” said the Ford strategy paper.

Since the 1970s, Iran’s population has more than doubled. Meanwhile, its petroleum industry has spiralled in a relentless decline that could see its exports wiped out by the year 2015, according to Professor Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Johns Hopkins University. While not weighing into the weapons debate, Professor Stern believes that Iran’s energy crisis is real and increasingly urgent.

Perhaps the least convincing case regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions came in the form of the August 2006 Congressional report of the House Intelligence Committee, then chaired by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.). The IAEA took the extraordinary step of addressing a written response to Mr Hoekstra, a copy of which was hand-delivered to Gregory Schulte, the US ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna. In its letter, the IAEA angrily refuted the report’s “outrageous and dishonest” claims and its “erroneous, misleading and unsubstantiated statements”.

The IAEA challenged the veracity of a number of the report’s claims, including: that Iran was producing weapons-grade uranium; that a senior IAEA inspector had been removed because he expressed concerns about Iran’s deception regarding its nuclear program; and that the IAEA’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, had an unstated policy that prevented inspectors from telling the truth about Iran’s program. The IAEA offered to provide clear evidence that these allegations were false.

Several US intelligence officials who spoke anonymously to the Washington Post also dismissed at least a dozen of the report’s claims on the basis that they were either “demonstrably wrong or impossible to substantiate”. It was revealed that the report had been written by a Republican staffer who was a former CIA officer and special assistant to former UN ambassador John Bolton, who has himself been accused of using false evidence to claim that Saddam Hussein tried to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger, in order to burnish the case for invading Iraq. The House report had not even been discussed in committee before it was released in August 2006 by Mr Hoekstra, who said its aim was to “help increase the American public’s understanding of Iran as a threat.”

“This is like pre-war Iraq all over again,” said David Albright, a former nuclear inspector who is now president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. “You have an Iranian nuclear threat that is spun up, using bad information that’s cherry-picked and a report that trashes the inspectors.”

IAEA inspectors are due to report back to the UN Security Council on February 21, to give their assessment of the current state and nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

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