Next week in Vienna, the governing board of the United Nations nuclear watchdog will meet to discuss Iran's nuclear activities. The United States, which accuses Tehran of pursuing nuclear weapons, wants the matter taken before the UN Security Council for possible punitive action. But Britain, Germany, and France say their policy of constructive engagement with Iran is beginning to bear fruit.
Washington, 13 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Does Iran have a nuclear arms program in violation of its international agreements? If so, what should be done about it?
Those are the questions the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set to discuss when it meets in Vienna on 20 November.
A new IAEA report, due to be released at the Vienna meeting but leaked to the media this week, stops short of concluding that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. But it outlines nearly two decades of concealment of several activities, such as enriching uranium and processing plutonium.
U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton last night said the report's findings that there is no evidence Iran has a nuclear weapons program are "impossible to believe." Bolton said the report only reaffirms the U.S. belief that "the massive and covert Iranian effort to acquire sensitive nuclear capabilities make sense only as part of a nuclear weapons program."
Analysts say the report does appear to support U.S. claims that Tehran has been secretly pursuing nuclear weapons, despite having signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970.
Gary Milhollin, who directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, a Washington research group says, "This IAEA report is a stunning revelation that Iran has for a long time been cheating, cheating the inspectors, and been secretly making material that could be used in making nuclear weapons without telling anybody. And that's a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it should cause everybody to be very alarmed."
Analysts say that, despite the report's findings, recent cooperation by Tehran with the IAEA suggests its board will likely rule in favor of further engaging rather than punishing Iran.
In recent weeks, Iran has gone from denying wrongdoing to acknowledging past "mistakes" in not reporting honestly to the agency. While still maintaining it only wants to generate nuclear power, it has delivered what it says is complete information about past suspect activities.
Last month -- after meeting in Tehran with the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany, and France -- Iran announced it would suspend uranium enrichment and open its nuclear programs to unfettered IAEA inspections.
On 10 November, Tehran delivered on those promises. Hasan Rowhani, the powerful head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, announced in Moscow that Tehran's uranium enrichment had been suspended and that a letter committing Iran to extensive inspections has been given to the IAEA.
Returning to Tehran on 11 November, Rowhani said Iran believes it has a right to pursue enrichment but was temporarily desisting from such activity in order to ease concerns.
"Iran has decided to ease international concerns about Iran's nuclear activity. Also, we decided to create a new atmosphere in international affairs by suspending our uranium enrichment program for a certain period of time. However, we consider it our right to pursue that [enrichment program]," Rowhani said.
Behind the new Iranian cooperation lies intense pressure from both Europe and the United States, which now occupies Iran's neighbor Iraq after waging a war based on the alleged threat of weapons of mass destruction.
But unlike Iraq, where Washington dictated the pace of events, analysts say Europe is in the driver's seat with respect to Iran, with which it has adopted a policy of constructive engagement at odds with Washington's efforts at further isolation.
Miriam Rajkumar is with the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. She says Europe -- just as much as the U.S. -- does not want to see a nuclear Iran emerge. She adds, however, that Europe is also keen not to see a major confrontation over the issue between Washington and Tehran.
Still, Rajkumar tells RFE/RL that Europe has usually had a more engaged policy with Iran than has Washington. Europe, she says, has been more willing to offer Tehran future rewards in exchange for changing its behavior. Washington, given its limited contacts with Iran, may not have that kind of leverage.
For example, before the 21 October agreement, Rajkumar noted that Europe had threatened to forgo planned trade negotiations with Iran in a bid to force Tehran to see the potential economic costs of pursuing a nuclear bomb.
"They've also been always more willing than the United States to do business on civilian nuclear technology with Iran. And I suspect that's been part of the understanding, at least. We don't know for sure what was promised when the deal was made. They [seem] to be much more willing than the U.S. to offer something down the road in order to bring them into line now," Rajkumar said.
Europe's position on Iran is also somewhat new for Washington in that Britain, a key ally in the Iraq war, is also engaging Iran along with Germany and France, who bitterly opposed the Iraq conflict.
Nile Gardiner was an aide to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Now with the Heritage Foundation in the U.S. capital, Gardiner tells RFE/RL that Britain's position on Iran disturbs Washington but could be a sign of things to come.
"The British government is under immense pressure to toe the line in Europe on most foreign policy issues. [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair took an immense amount of flak over Iraq. And I think in an attempt to offset some of that criticism, he has tried to make amends by siding with the [European Union] on a number of other foreign policy issues, including dealing with rogue states such as Iran and Syria," Gardiner said.
Still, some say that the new IAEA report gives Washington plenty of fodder to argue that Iran has been lying, that it repeatedly violated the NPT, and that it is unlikely to be trusted to comply in the future.
The report said Iran admitted to producing small amounts of plutonium, usable in a bomb and with virtually no civilian uses, and had conducted secret tests of its enrichment centrifuges using nuclear material.
Although the IAEA said it would wait to say whether the program was peaceful, it added that Tehran's recent disclosures "clearly show that in the past, Iran had concealed many aspects of its nuclear activities, which resulted in breaches of its obligations of the safeguard [NPT] agreement." On 12 November, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami insisted Iran's plans were purely peaceful. "It's not important what machinery we have," he said. "It's important that we are not pursuing nuclear weapons."
Iran's announcement on 10 November that it would sign the NPT's Additional Protocol will give the UN the right to conduct more intrusive, short-notice inspections to flush out any secret weapons-related activities.
The Carnegie Endowment's Rajkumar notes that the protocol may make it hard for Iran to secretly pursue nuclear arms, but that it does not prevent Iran from pursuing legal fuel-cycle capabilities that would give it what she called a "break-out" nuclear weapon option.
Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project believes for that reason and others, Washington is likely to press hard at next week's IAEA meeting to involve the UN Security Council in the Iranian nuclear issue: "It seems to me that we ought to go to the Security Council -- we, the United States -- and ask for a resolution. If we don't get one, then we can decide what to do next."
But not everybody believes the matter is that urgent.
As UN inspectors begin to comb Iran, Raymond Tanter, who served on former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, believes they will come up with even more compromising evidence of its nuclear ambitions. For that reason, Tanter believes that Washington is in a strong position on Iran vis-a-vis Europe and can afford to wait to take action.
"I believe Iran has lied and therefore more and more things are bound to come out. And the United States is in a happy position of not having to drive the process, as it had to do with respect to Iraq. The United States was the driving force behind Iraq. The three European foreign ministers who went to Tehran will have the burden of reconciling their supposed concession from Iran with the facts as they are coming out," Tanter said.
Washington fears that within a decade, Tehran could put nuclear warheads on long-range missiles that could reach Israel.
Yesterday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told a think tank in Washington that Iran's nuclear program could score a "breakthrough" within a year unless there is strong international pressure to stop it.