27 December 2004, Volume 7, Number 46
CHRISTIANS IN IRAN. Iran is officially designated the Islamic Republic, yet among its more than 66million people is a small Christian minority. Most of Iran's Christians are Armenians and Assyrians who have lived for centuries on the territory of what is today Iran, and they remain relatively free to follow their faith. Life for the increasing numbers of Protestants and evangelical Christians is said to be much more difficult.
The number of Armenians, Iran's largest Christian minority, was estimated at about 300,000 in 1979. It has declined in recent times but remains culturally important.
"The 400-year history of the Armenian community in Iran is perhaps the greatest example of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence, even at the time when the country experienced isolation and socioeconomic backwardness," Radio Farda director Mardo Soghom said. Soghom is Armenian by origin but grew up in the central Iranian city of Isfahan. "In the 20th century, as the country modernized, the Armenian community thrived both economically and culturally. After the revolution, dislocations and restrictions affecting the general population also created hardships for Armenians, nearly half the community left Iran. Some discriminatory policies and restrictions came into effect, but still community rights are generally protected."
Armenians have two seats in the Iranian parliament but continue to face cultural, social, and administrative difficulties. They report discrimination in finding work, and just a few Armenian schools are fortunate enough to have an Armenian schoolmaster.
The Assyrian Christian population is estimated at some 10,000. They have one seat in the parliament. Iran is also home to a small number of Catholics and a small but growing number of Protestants.
A relatively new phenomenon is the rising number of Muslim-born Iranians who convert to Christianity. Issa Dibaj is the son of Reverend Hassan Dibaj, a Christian convert who was jailed and later found murdered in 1994. Issa Dibaj left Iran five years ago and now lives in the U.K. He told RFE/RL that the number of converts is growing and he estimated that there are 100,000 of them.
Such Christians run a potentially dangerous risk. Under Islamic law as practiced in Iran, a Muslim who converts to another faith can face the death penalty. The government has refrained from executing people for this in recent years; nevertheless it has taken measures to curb proselytizing by Christians. Some churches have been closed and reports say the authorities are putting pressure on evangelicals not to recruit Muslims or to allow them to attend services. In September, 85 members of the Assemblies of God church were arrested during a conference in Iran. One remains in jail.
Dibaj said he sees a growing interest in Christianity despite the restrictions: "[Iranians] see that the establishment which came in the name of Islam has brought them only war, rancor, hatred, and killings. At the same time, they see the message of Jesus, which is love. It attracts them through programs they see on satellite or through their Christian friends." Dibaj added: "People are very curious, very interested. Iranians [are] open and they like to know more about different cultures, ideas, and religions. I had friends who had been prisoners of war in Iraq, at the university they were my best friends, they were very interested [about my faith], and I gave some of them the Bible."
Iranian Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus pretty much like other Christians around the world. They decorate Christmas trees, exchange gifts, and attend services. Depending on the calendar, Armenians and Assyrians celebrate Christmas on 6 January. Others celebrate usually on 24 December. According to some reports Persia may even be the land of origin of the "ThreeWise Men" who -- according to the Bible -- arrived bearing gifts for the birth of Christ. Some say they were Persian "Magi" -- members of the priestly caste at the time. (Golnaz Esfandiari)
TEHRAN DENOUNCES UN HUMAN RIGHTS RESOLUTION. The United Nations adopted on 21 December a resolution that criticized Iran for its arbitrary sentencing, discrimination against women, floggings, public executions, stonings, and torture, Reuters reported. Canada sponsored the resolution, possibly because a Canadian citizen named Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death in Evin prison in June 2003 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 and 21 July2003). The resolution also noted Iran's discrimination against religious minorities, including Bahais, Christians, Jews, and Sunni Muslims.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 21Decemberthat the resolution is "politically motivated" and "unrealistic," Mehr NewsAgency reported. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 71 in favor, 54against, and 55 abstentions. Assefi said this tally indicates that many countries oppose politicization of human rights institutions.
An Iranian state radio analyst referred to as "Mr. Fathi" questioned the timing of the resolution at a time when U.S., European, and Israeli actions are "extremely inhumane." The adoption of the resolution marks the beginning of a European propaganda campaign, he said. "Everyone in Iran knows," he said, that the country "values human rights and freedom of expression better than any other country in the world."
When the General Assembly's human rights committee passed the resolution in mid-November, RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon cited Canadian Ambassador to the UN Allan Rock as saying that the committee hopes the resolution will lead to change in Iran. The resolution also noted UN rapporteurs' visits to Iran and different states' human rights discussions with Iran as positive developments. However, Rock said, overall deterioration of the situation in Iran indicates that the weight of international opinion must be brought to bear on Iran.
At the time of the November resolution, RFE/RL's McMahon reported, Iranian envoy Paimaneh Hasteh said the resolution's charges are baseless. Resolutions singling out Iran will fail, she said. "We even warn that this approach, if it continues to prevail, will jeopardize the entire processes of ongoing cooperation and dialogue initiated by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the bilateral and multilateral levels. (Bill Samii)
RIGHTS GROUPS SHINE SPOTLIGHT ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN IRAN. An Iranian official has confirmed reports published by some media as well as Amnesty International that the country's Supreme Court has approved the death sentence of a woman convicted of adultery. Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad told Reuters that the judiciary must still decide whether the woman will be stoned or hanged. The news follows reports that another woman -- a mentally disabled 19-year-old -- faces imminent execution for "acts contrary to chastity."
Along with China and the United States, Iran has one of the highest execution rates in the world. In the last two decades, thousands of political prisoners, drug traffickers, and drug addicts have been executed in the Islamic Republic. In 2003, more than 100 executions were recorded in Iran. Human rights groups, however, say the real number of people put to death is much higher.
"Unfortunately, every year there are some 300 to 400 executions in Iran," International Federation of Human Rights Leagues Vice President Abdolkarim Lahiji told RFE/RL. "When we look at a number of executions, we have to consider it in proportion with the population of that country. Considering the populationof China and the U.S., I have to say that Iran is on top of the list."
Death sentences have also been issued for women convicted of adultery and minors. In recent months, several cases have sparked national and international indignation. In August, a 16-year-old girl, Atefeh Rajabi, was hanged in public in the town of Neka for having "illegitimate sexual relations."
Now, human rights groups are expressing concern over the possible execution of two other women -- Hajieh Esmailvand and Leila M. -- both of whom face morality-related charges.
Nicole Choueiry is the Middle East press officer for Amnesty International, and she discussed the cases with RFE/RL. "Hajieh Esmailvand was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, and the Supreme Court then said that the sentence should be followed by execution through stoning. The reason for this, as the court says, is caused by adultery with an unnamed man who committed the adultery when he was 17 years old. We know that she was imprisoned in the town of Jolfa since January 2000."
The Supreme Court reportedly ordered Esmailvand's stoning sentence to be carried out before 21 December. However, a judiciary spokesman told Reuters on 18 December that there have been no orders yet to carry out the sentence. He added that the sentence could still be suspended by the head of the judiciary.
Leila, a 19-year-old who has the mental development of an 8-year-old, was sentenced on charges of having had intercourse with blood relatives and giving birth to an illegitimate child. Reports say the mother of Leila forced her into prostitution as a child. Leila is now in prison, awaiting her fate.
Amnesty's Choueiry noted that the Supreme Court has yet to approve her death sentence: "Since the death sentence against Leila M. has not been passed yet, we think there is also some room for changing the death sentence, and this is why we've been urging the Supreme Court not to pass and to confirm this sentence. Three women this year have been sentenced to death in Iran with regards to execution of minors. We have many concerns because Iran has executed at least three child offenders in 2004."
Choueiry said Amnesty is hoping to raise international attention on the two cases in a bid to prevent the death sentences from being carried out: "Amnesty International would like to appeal to the Iranian authorities to reconsider their sentence against both Leila M. and Hajieh Esmailzad because there is still a way for saving their lives, we equally call on our members, on people all over the world to pressure the Iranian government to do the same."
According to Amnesty International, 10 minors have been put to death in Iran since 1990. In October, some 20 Iran-based human rights groups, including the Center of Human Rights Defenders founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, called on the head of Iran's judiciary (Ayatollah MahmudHashemi-Shahrudi) not to sentence minors to death.
Iran condemns young alleged offenders to death and then executes them once they turn 18, the IFHRL's Lahiji noted: "According to our figures, 25 teenagers under the age of 18 who have been sentenced to death are awaiting their unfair sentences to be applied."
Last autumn, the European Parliament strongly condemned the execution of children in Iran and called on the Iranian authorities to halt stoning and to prevent any further application of the death penalty to minors. Iran's judiciary recently announced that it has sent a bill to parliament that, if approved, would eliminate the death penalty and lashings for offenders under the age of 18.
Despite the heightened concern over juvenile execution in Iran, Lahiji said the number of executions overall has decreased in recent years. He cited two reasons for that: "First, as [the authorities] say, they are trying to 'legitimize' the executions. In that regard, the death sentences have to be approved by the Supreme Court in Tehran. And the other reason is international pressure and the struggle by human rights organizations under which political executions have very much decreased in Iran."
Amnesty International calls the death penalty the most inhumane punishment of all, one that violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Golnaz Esfandiari)
IMPRISONED STUDENT'S CASE COMES UP FOR REVIEW. The case of a young student whose image personified the Iranian student demonstrations of July 1999 in the international media came up for review on 20 December, according to the man's attorney. A photograph of Ahmad Batebi waving a bloody shirt was published by major international media, and he was subsequently imprisoned for his role in the 1999 tumult and his subsequent comments and actions. Batebi's attorney, Khalil Bahramian, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on 19 December that after much effort he had the opportunity to read his client's file and he sees absolutely no reason for his continuing imprisonment. Batebi is charged with acting against national security, the lawyer said, but in fact he was helping emergency crews tend to the injured from clashes between students and hard-line vigilantes who stormed the Tehran University campus. The 15-year sentence against Batebi is groundless and he should be released immediately, Bahramian claimed. Bahramian also told Radio Farda that he has received a court summons. He is unaware of the reason for the summons, he said. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN STUDENTS STAGE SIT-IN. An unspecified number of students at Shahid Rajai University in Tehran have staged a sit-in, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported on 20 December. They are objecting to the 2 1/2-year suspension of Majid Ashrafzadeh, political secretary of the university's Islamic Student Association. ILNA reported on 19 December that Ashrafzadeh was suspended for publishing and directing "Dipar," and the charges against him include spreading rumors against the system and officials, promoting apostasy, propagating for grouplets, and causing tension and rioting at the university. The students at the sit-in unsuccessfully have demanded a meeting with the vice-chancellor for student affairs. (Bill Samii)
LABOR UNREST OCCURS UP AND DOWN IRAN. The employees of a textile factory in Gilan Province have not received their wages for seven months and are threatening to march from the provincial capital of Rasht to the capital city of Tehran, Radio Farda reported on 19 December. The factory workers have complained to the local House of Labor. In the city of Khomein, workers at the Nakh-i Talai (Golden Thread) factory in Khomein have not worked for almost four weeks because they have not received their wages, Radio Farda reported. There is no electricity at the factory and it is not operating. Issa Kamali, a House of Labor official in the southern city of Bushehr, cited cases in which workers there have not been paid for months, Radio Farda reported. He said this is an especially risky situation in the Asaluyeh area, where there are more than 50,000 Iranian and foreign workers, because this affects national security and the oil sector. (Bill Samii)
LEGISLATOR DIES AFTER AUTO ACCIDENT. Morteza Karami, a parliamentary representative from Ilam, died on 19 December as a result of injuries he suffered in a 7 December automobile accident, state television reported. His burial was scheduled for 21 December. Iran has one of the highest traffic-fatality rates in the world. (Bill Samii)
IRANIAN COUNTERNARCOTICS PERSONNEL VISIT UZBEKISTAN. An 11-member team of Iranian Drug Control Headquarters (DCHQ) personnel has gone to Uzbekistan for counternarcotics training, Mashhad Radio's Uzbek-language service reported on 20December. The trip follows Uzbekistan's agreement to provide 10 dogs for Iran. The training takes place at a canine facility in Tashkent, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is covering the costs of the dogs and their handlers.
DCHQ chief Ali Hashemi visited Tashkent in early June. He met with his Uzbek counterpart, Kamal Dustemov, on 1 June according to IRNA, and they agreed on the need to cooperate on the problem posed by Afghanistan, the world's biggest opium producer. Hashemi met with Uzbek Health Minister Firuz Nazirov on 3 June, IRNA reported. Hashemi described his country's demand-reduction efforts and said there are 350 rehabilitation and treatment facilities in the country. "We believe that if we spend one dollar on preventing drug addiction, we willsave12 dollars for treatment and rehabilitation of addicts," Hashemi told his host. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN FREEZES HEKMATYAR'S ASSETS. The Iranian government has frozen the bank accounts of former Afghan Prime Minister and current Hizb-i Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the BBC reported on 18 December and "Arman-e Melli" newspaper reported from Kabul the following day. Hekmatyar's mujahedin group was based in Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad, and he served as prime minister when the mujahedin seized power in Afghanistan (1992-96). Hekmatyar fled to Iran after the Taliban takeover, and Tehran expelled him in early 2002 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 March 2002). The freeze reportedly is in response to a request from a United Nations committee that monitors sanctions against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. (Bill Samii)
INTELLIGENCE MINISTER'S VISIT TO BAKU YIELDS THREE NEW PROTOCOLS. Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi's mid-December visit to Baku resulted in the addition of three new protocols to an earlier memorandum of understanding, Azerbaijan's Space TV reported on 19 December. The protocols were signed when Yunesi met with Azerbaijani National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov, and they focus on counternarcotics, counterterrorism, organized crime, smuggling, and illegal trade. The protocols were added to a memorandum signed in July 2002, according to Space TV. (Bill Samii)
IRAQ STOPS ISSUING VISAS TO IRANIANS. Muhammad Majid al-Shaykh, the Iraqi ambassador to Iran, said on 19 December that his country has stopped issuing visas to Iranian pilgrims because of the security situation in his country, Iranian state radio reported. Al-Shaykh rejected Jordanian King Abdullah's earlier assertion that more than 1 million Iranians have entered Iraq to vote in the 30 January elections (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 December 2004). He explained that the only visas issued to Iranians are business visas. "Therefore, how is it possible for 1 million Iranians to have entered Iraq?" he asked, apparently dismissing the possibility of illegal immigrants to the country. "No foreigner can enter Iraq without a visa, otherwise they will be arrested."
Iranian Foreign Ministry official Masud Khaleqi said on 18 December that more than 1,500 Iranian pilgrims have been detained in Iraq, IRNA reported. Families of the detainees demonstrated in front of the Foreign Ministry in Tehran and demanded information on their loved ones. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN BLAMES U.S. FOR BOMBINGS IN IRAQ. In Tehran on 20 December, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that the previous day's suicide bombings in the Iraqi cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala reflect an effort to undermine Islamic unity and to spark a sectarian war. In his comments to pilgrims preparing to leave for Mecca, Khamenei said the United States wants a war between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, state radio reported. "I have no doubt that the American and Israeli espionage services are involved in these incidents," he said. "They either do it themselves or they might deceive a few people and force them to do it." Khamenei warned his audience that "mercenaries" will be hired to cause problems during the pilgrimage.
Parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel condemned the bombings on 20 December, IRNA reported, pinning the blame on the "occupation forces" and those who fear Iraqis' taking charge of their country's leadership.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 19 December that the bombings are "part of the effort to exacerbate disputes, fan the flames of war, and cause insecurity for various ethnic groups and religious sects," state television reported.
"There is no doubt that the arrogance [United States] has new plans to dominate the whole world, especially the Middle East region," Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said in a 21 December address to clerics assigned to the armed forces' Ideological-Political Organization, state television reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani condemned the 19 December bombings in Al-Najaf and Karbala, and he said clerics have played a valuable role in restraining violence there.
Also on 21 December Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi accused the United States of spreading rumors about alleged Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, IRNA reported. Assefi said Tehran has challenged Washington to provide evidence to support its accusations, but Washington has only said that Iran and Iraq are neighbors. Assefi said Iran wants to assist in the restoration of security and stability in Iraq." (Bill Samii)
IRAN ANNOUNCES ARREST OF 'NUCLEAR SPIES.' Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said in Tehran on 22 December that over the last few years Iran has arrested more than ten "nuclear spies" in Tehran and Hormozgan who were working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Israel's Mossad, state television reported. Yunesi said, "Three of those spies were employees of the Atomic Energy Organization. Some of them were military officers and some of the others were self-employed."
Yunesi added that any information the U.S. got through these agents was "worthless." The Mujahedin Khalq Organization, an exile opposition group that is on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, has been the source of several reports on covert Iranian nuclear activities. Yunesi claimed that the U.S. let the MKO make these announcements in order to divert attention from its principle agents. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN DOES NOT OBJECT TO U.S. ROLE IN NUCLEAR TALKS. Supreme National Security Council official Hussein Musavian said on 21 December that Iran does not object o U.S. participation in the current Iran-EU nuclear discussions, Radio Farda reported. He dismissed the possibility of direct U.S.-Iran talks. Musavian saidthe EU and the U.S. must settle their differences on how to handle the Iranian nuclear issue.
Responding to a question about Musavian's statement, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on 22 December, "We have certainly made clear our concerns about Iranian behavior," Radio Farda reported. "We have made clear our support for the European Union effort to get them to suspend and stop their nuclear-enrichment activities and programs that raise concerns about their development of nuclear weapons." Boucher continued: "We have made clear how serious our concerns on these and other issues -- we're looking for Iran to do something."
Boucher went on to say that Washington is not interested in having a more active role in the current Iran-EU negotiations. He said, "We're not looking for anything other than to see the Iranians stop developing nuclear weapons, stop supporting terrorists, stop trying to sabotage the peace process, and stop violating human rights." (Bill Samii)
IRAN ALLEGEDLY MAKING URANIUM POWDER. Anonymous diplomats in Vienna said on 21December that by making uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) powder Iran is violating the spirit but not the letter of its agreement to freeze uranium-enrichment activities, AFP and Reuters reported. Making the UF4 is permissible, although according to AFP this is a precursor to UF6, a gas that is used in centrifuges to make enriched uranium. (Bill Samii)
IS TEHRAN TRYING TO DEVELOP NUCLEAR WEAPONS? (Part 1) In the wake of the Iraq invasion, there has been a faint but growing drumbeat sounded in Washington by officials who believe the Bush administration should now confront another member of its so-called "axis of evil" -- Iran. Washington alleges that Tehran is a state sponsor of terrorism and that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran's nuclear activities include building a commercial reactor with Russian assistance near the Gulf port of Bushehr. But what worries Washington are Tehran's efforts to master uranium enrichment -- a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or, at advanced levels, material for nuclear bombs. Until recently, Tehran kept those efforts secret from the UN's nuclear watchdog agency. Now, as UN inspectors insist that Iran fully disclose all of its activities, the question of whether Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons is the focus of worldwide debate. In the first of a four-part series, "Iran Nuclear Crisis," RFE/RL looks at what is known -- and unknown -- about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently put Washington's position toward Iran's nuclear activities in very clear terms. "The evidence that has been put forward so far demonstrates clearly that Iran has been moving in the direction of creating a nuclear weapon," Powell said. "And that is why the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] got so involved, why the Russians have been careful about providing fuel for the new reactor at Bushehr, and why the European Union sent their three foreign ministers in to get the Iranians to stop."
But Iranian officials, including President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, say Tehran is only interested in nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. "We have made our choice: Peaceful nuclear technology -- yes. Atomic weapons -- no. Not 'no' only for ourselves -- no [nuclear weapons] for the region, no [nuclear weapons] for the world," Khatami said.
So who is right?
Analysts say the only way to decide is to weigh the physical evidence that has kept the crisis at the center of the world stage since 2002. Much of that evidence emerged when an exiled Iranian opposition group exposed a secret pilot project to master the process of uranium enrichment. The project included some 160 assembled gas centrifuges -- plus equipment to build some 5,000 more -- hidden in reinforced underground bunkers strong enough to resist air strikes.
In the process, uranium is first converted to uranium hexafluoride gas, a substance that is fed into centrifuges used to enrich uranium.
The discovery of the sites was alarming because enriched uranium can be used either as a nuclear fuel or -- at higher levels of enrichment -- as material for nuclear bombs. It also showed that Iran was violating safeguards in the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which it is a signatory. The treaty gives Tehran the right to acquire nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but also binds it to declare all such facilities to the UN's IAEA and to open such sites to its inspectors.
Later visits to the site by IAEA inspectors revealed that some of the centrifuges had been used to enrich two types of uranium to 20 percent or more. That is far higher than the usual 2 to 3 percent enrichment level required for nuclear fuel.
Nonproliferation experts say uranium enriched to a 20 percent level is sufficient to make a very cumbersome nuclear bomb. But it falls well short of the enrichment levels -- 90 percent or higher -- needed to produce the kinds of missile or airplane-deliverable warheads that make a country a nuclear power.
Fred Wehling, an arms-control expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, says the discovery of Iran's uranium-enrichment activities made many nonproliferation experts skeptical of Tehran's explanation that it was seeking only to master the nuclear fuel cycle for energy purposes. "If Iran was to develop an indigenous enrichment capacity, it could eventually make its own fuel, which could then be used in Bushehr," Wehling said. "But then if that were really the case, you wouldn't need to go to all the trouble of having a clandestine facility and acquiring uranium under the table to test it and so on."
Equally worrisome, nonproliferation experts said, are indications that Iran might have built some of its uranium-enrichment equipment according to blueprints acquired on the global black market for nuclear secrets. The suspected source is the trafficking network organized by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. It is not known whether the network also sold Iran information about how to design a nuclear weapon, as it did to Libya.
Since the discovery of Iran's clandestine efforts, Tehran has sought to assure the IAEA that it is now fully cooperating with international inspectors to disclose all of its nuclear work.
But Tehran said it still insists on its right under the NPT to develop its own nuclear fuel cycle and will not give that up.
There are varying estimates of how long it could take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, if it wished.
Daniel Keohane, an international security expert at the Center for European Reform in London, put the timeline this way: "If you ask the Europeans how far away are the Iranians from a bomb, the general consensus seems to be four to six years. And in Washington, I understand, the consensus is closer to three years and possibly even sooner, depending on how the Iranians behave over the next year or so."
Keohane said any progress Tehran might make in developing a nuclear weapon will be determined by how much it cooperates with current efforts by European states to persuade it to give up programs related to uranium enrichment in exchange for trade incentives. (Charles Recknagel)
TEHRAN TAKES TWO TRACKS ON NUCLEAR-WEAPON DEVELOPMENT (Part 2). The challenge for any country clandestinely seeking to become a nuclear power is how to acquire enough fissile material for such weapons. Most countries begin by starting a commercial nuclear program, a right to which any state that has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is entitled. The commercial program can then provide a cover for engaging in so-called dual-use activities, which can have either peaceful or military uses. In Part 2 of our series on the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, we look at the progress Tehran is believed to have made along two separate routes to making a nuclear bomb.
One of the "dual-use" activities often exploited by nations who are seeking to acquire nuclear weapons is the enrichment of uranium. Enriched uranium can be used for nuclear fuel or -- at high levels of enrichment -- for nuclear bombs.
The other method is the production of plutonium, a material that can be used in medical research or -- again -- for nuclear weapons.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated Washington's concerns over how Tehran intends to use this technology. "We have to be nervous when a nation such as Iran continues to take action that, at least suggests to us, that it continues to be interested in a nuclear weapons program," Powell said.
Iranian officials said Tehran will not give up its right under international treaties to produce its own reactor fuel, but said they have no interest in nuclear weapons. President Mohammad Khatami put Tehran's position this way in late October: "We are ready for complete cooperation and [to reach an] understanding with the world and also with the [International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA] to make sure that Iran's [nuclear] activities do not move toward nuclear weapons."
Shannon Kile, an expert in nonproliferation issues at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden, noted that although Iran maintains that its programs are entirely aimed at civilian nuclear energy and research, there are aspects of each that are highly troubling to experts because they appear to go well beyond normal civilian activities. "Well, Iran basically has two uranium-enrichment facilities that we know about," Kile said. "They are both located at Natanz, which is south of Tehran. One is a very small-scale facility, holding about 1,000 centrifuge cascades. The other one is a much larger facility, holding up to 50,000 centrifuges. And what is striking about it is that it is built deep underground with heavily reinforced walls and roofs, which would indicate that, a) the Iranians are interested in hiding it, and b) they are concerned about the possibility of military strikes against it."
Tehran did not declare the existence of these facilities to UN arms inspectors -- as required under the NPT -- until the sites were exposed by an exile Iranian opposition group in 2002. Follow-up UN inspections of the facilities raised serious questions about whether they were being used to enrich uranium to levels above that needed for nuclear fuel.
"There are some specific activities that are troubling," Kile said. "The International Atomic Energy Agency has detected the presence of high-enriched uranium on some of the centrifuge components that they have examined. Now, they do accept that it is possible that some of that contamination has come, in part, from a third-country supplier, which would most likely be Pakistan. But it is difficult to accept that all of it has come from a third-country supplier. And that means that Iran might have enriched uranium. And it is difficult to know why it would enrich [uranium] to that level if it were going to simply use it for a nuclear fuel program."
The UN nuclear agency's inspectors found traces of uranium enriched to 20 percent -- far higher than the usual 2 to 3 percent enrichment level required for nuclear fuel.
Kile said many nuclear experts believe that unless Iran commits to abandoning its uranium-enrichment activities, it could acquire enough weapons-grade material for a bomb by 2007 or 2008. However, he said it remains uncertain whether Iran is seeking to produce a bomb immediately or is merely trying to perfect a technical capacity for future production. That would permit Tehran to "break out" as a nuclear power anytime in the future, should it feel the need.
As for the second route to making a nuclear weapon, Iran has a program to produce plutonium that centers on a heavy-water nuclear reactor to be built near the central city of Arak. The project -- which was again not declared to arms inspectors until it was exposed in 2002 -- is described by Tehran as an effort to produce isotopes for medical use.
But Iran's plans worry many nuclear experts because it is building what is commonly known as a "breeder reactor." Such reactors are efficient at quickly producing significant amounts of plutonium, particularly for military use.
Kile said the "breeder" design exceeds normal specifications for reactors generating plutonium for civilian uses. "The 40-watt heavy-water reactor at Arak is ideally suited for producing weapons-grade plutonium," Kile said. "And, in fact, this is the type of reactor that was used by all of the [original] nuclear weapons states [United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China] in the early years of their nuclear programs."
Construction of the reactor is just now getting under way, and it will be eight to 10 years before it becomes operational.
Kile said there is ample precedent for countries successfully using both uranium enrichment and plutonium production as clandestine routes to nuclear weapons. He noted that Pakistan is believed to have derived a bomb using uranium enrichment, while India and Israel are thought to have taken the plutonium route.
The five "nuclear-weapons nations" recognized under the NPT -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China -- have used both technologies to produce their nuclear arsenals.
(Parts 3 and 4 of Charles Recknagel's series on Iran's nuclear program will appear in the next issue of the "RFE/RL Iran Report.")