Danger Ahead?

November 29, 2004

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


American Israel Public Affairs Committee: Near East Report

The latest compromise worked out by Iran and three Europeans nations could help rein in Iran's nuclear program or provide cover for Iran's development of an atomic weapons capability.

After breaking previous agreements not to work to develop nuclear weapons, Iran has again promised European diplomats to temporarily suspend a range of activities that could lead to a nuclear weapons capability.

While the deal Iran worked out with France, Germany and the United Kingdom was greeted warmly in Europe, Tehran's record and the agreement's shortcomings have aroused serious doubts that it will be sufficient to prevent Iran from moving ahead with efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Agreement Closes Some Loopholes

The latest pact lacks loopholes of the kind that Iran exploited in a similar deal concluded with the European Union (EU) last year.

Under the new agreement, Iran is to suspend all efforts related to the enrichment of uranium and the separation of plutonium, two activities that can produce the raw materials needed for an atomic bomb.

Iran is required to stop converting uranium yellowcake into the gas used as the feedstock of enrichment, and to halt the construction or import of the centrifuges in which enrichment takes place. The operation or construction of facilities for plutonium separation also is placed off-limits.

While these activities are suspended, Iran and the Europeans will negotiate a long-term pact that would have Iran guarantee the peaceful nature of its nuclear program in return for European aid, trade incentives, technological assistance for its nuclear program and security guarantees.

If closely monitored, this agreement has the potential to focus an international spotlight on Iran's compliance with nuclear non-proliferation requirements, or lack thereof.

Elements Are Cause for Concern

The European agreement's text presents ample reason to doubt its effectiveness. In the document, European signatories recognize Iran's rights under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to acquire the entire nuclear fuel cycle, a critical point since the Europeans said going into the negotiations that this was a point on which they would not acquiesce. Acting completely within the framework of the NPT, Iran could acquire the means to carry out full enrichment capabilities, then without warning withdraw from the treaty and immediately begin producing bombs.

There is also concern over the terming of Iran's temporary suspension of uranium enrichment a "voluntary confidence-building measure and not a legal obligation." The "temporary" suspension of enrichment falls far short of demands by the United States and others that Iran permanently end all activities related to enrichment and dispose of all nuclear materials acquired to date.

Upon concluding the deal, leading Iranian officials made it clear that they expect the cessation of uranium enrichment to be nothing more than a short-lived pause.

Iran expects to restart enrichment activities in "a matter of months, not years," said diplomat Hassan Rowhani, the top Iranian nuclear negotiator. Added Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran's supreme leader: "A long-term suspension of enrichment is a discussion without logic."

Giving Iran the Benefit of the Doubt

Another potential weakness of the latest agreement is that it assumes Iran is being totally honest about the same nuclear program it concealed from international inspectors for nearly 20 years.

Iran, the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, has lied repeatedly about various aspects of its nuclear program, denying the very existence of a nuclear program until presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

The latest agreement may also have been weakened by not going into effect immediately. Iran reportedly used the lapse in time between the signing of the deal and its start date to violate the spirit of the agreement by accelerating efforts to convert 40 tons of yellowcake uranium into the gas that fuels enrichment, an activity Iran was forbidden to undertake in the first place.

The converted yellowcake, which Iran has admitted to enriching, could provide enough material to assemble five nuclear bombs.

The Danger With Negotiations Key questions also surround the long-term negotiations promised by the Europeans.

The agreement indicates that talks about ensuring that Iran's nuclear program remains peaceful can proceed at a different pace than those concerning trade incentives and technological aid for Iran. So it's conceivable that European nations could conclude lucrative assistance to Tehran even if the Islamic Republic refuses to finalize a guarantee that it won't build nuclear weapons.

And while the nuclear technology provided by the Europeans is prohibitively safe, the possibility exists that Iran could simultaneously pursue nuclear weapons at hidden nuclear sites that arms inspectors don't know about and therefore cannot inspect.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has stated that his agency is "not yet in the position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials" in Iran that could have been used for weapons.

America Remains Unconvinced

European credulity notwithstanding, the United States is wary of Iran's latest vow to adhere to the non-proliferation straight-and-narrow.

President Bush recently said he was "concerned about reports" that Iran appeared "willing to speed up processing of materials that could lead to a nuclear weapon," describing it as "a very serious matter." Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell accused Tehran of adapting missiles to carry nuclear warheads even as it sends diplomats to negotiate with the Europeans in ostensible good faith. "There is no doubt in my mind & that they have been interested in a nuclear weapon that has utility, meaning that it is something that they would be able to deliver," Powell said.

The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, originally passed in 1996 and extended in 2001, aims to help slow Iran's nuclear pursuits by equipping the president with a range of sanctions to apply against foreign entities that invest in Iran's oil and gas sector. Such penalties would be further strengthened by new legislation that has been introduced by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Howard Berman (D-CA) and Tom Lantos (D-CA).

In the meantime, only close oversight by the international community to ensure that Iran is living up to its most recent commitments will determine the true success of this latest agreement.