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Iran: Nuclear Expert Expresses Worry Over Political Developments

By Bill Samii and Fatemeh Aman An international monitoring expert at Iran's Isfahan uranium-enrichment facility earlier this year (official site) Iranian officials frequently defend the country's nuclear program by asserting that Iran's nuclear capabilities have been developed domestically and solely through Iranian brain power. Efforts to prevent Iran from mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, according to this argument, actually reflect the desire to block the intellectual and scientific development of the Iranian people. Although Iranian accomplishments in the nuclear field have benefited from input by scientists and physicists from China, Pakistan, Russia, and possibly other countries, foreign nuclear experts are impressed by Iranian accomplishments. The hard-line position of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, however, undermines the possibility that such arguments will mollify outside observers who suspect Iran of being interested in nuclear weapons.

Joseph Cirincione, senior associate and director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats," visited Iran in March to attend a conference on nuclear cooperation and sustainable development. During that trip, Cirincione and other visitors went to the Isfahan uranium-conversion facility.

Cirincione told Radio Farda that the accomplishments at the Isfahan facility were notable. "I was impressed by the advanced capabilities that were at the facility that were particularly the metallurgical capabilities at the Zirconium production plant that was making a very sophisticated alloy of Zirconium that is necessary to cover the nuclear fuel rods," Cirincione said. "Very few countries can do that, and the Iranians were proud that they have a facility to do that."

Cirincione cautioned that many "technological challenges" remain: "They actually had not produced a final zirconium yet despite years of trying. This is a plant that they had started in 1990 s with Chinese assistance. Nor they had been able to produce usable UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] from this facility." Cirincione added, "I could see that the Iranian capabilities were ambitious and sophisticated and the people managing one of them are quite competent, but this is a very technologically demanding process and they have not mastered it yet. They still have ways to go."

Arguably the main reason Western governments have for being concerned about Iran's nuclear activities is the possibility that the country might be trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. Tehran denies having such an objective, and Iranian officials repeatedly claim that the use of such weapons is religiously forbidden. However, the statements of Iranian officials -- such as President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- undermine confidence in these denials and raise suspicions about Iranian intentions.

In an interview with Radio Farda shortly after the June 2005 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad was elected, Cirincione sounded optimistic and said he did not think the new president would take a hard line. "I think that a conservative president has greater political flexibility in negotiating a deal with the Europeans, because he will be more protected from charges that he was selling out the country's interest and the new president has a lot of promises to deliver on Iranian economy," he said.

Being a pariah state and a loss of Western contracts would make it difficult for Ahmadinejad to fulfill his promises to improve the economic situation, Cirincione said. "For that reason, I think those significant forces inside Iran that want to arrive it at a compromise on the Iranian nuclear program, a compromise that would allow Iran to go ahead and build reactors but not to go ahead and build the plants that would produce the Uranium that would go inside those reactors," he said.

But after Iran's resumption of enrichment activities in August, Ahmadinejad's aggressive speech at the United Nations in September, and his repeated calls for Israel's destruction in October, Cirincione was downbeat. He told Radio Farda on 7 November that the Iranians he spoke with during his March visit suggested that a conservative president would be the one who could make a deal with the United States. However, Cirincione said: "Ahmadinejad's presidency is turning into a disaster. He has alienated all the supporters Iran had in Europe and around the world. His statements are getting not just to the nuclear issue, but to a host of political issue and even economic relations at this point." Cirinncione speculated on the reasons behind Ahmadinejad's behavior, saying: "I believe that Ahmadinejad either strongly believes that he has to bring Iran back to the path of the early 1980s or he is getting some very terrible advice from his advisers. But either way, it's a dead end for Iran. It is not going to work."

Cirincione told Radio Farda that the world might have to tolerate Ahmadinejad's extremism for some time to come: "I am afraid we may have to go to a period of months of this administration’s extreme speeches [and] extreme positions before it’s proven to the leadership of Iran that this is a dead end."

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iran's Nuclear Program

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.