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Iran has just revealed that for more than a decade it has been running secret programs to produce plutonium and enriched uranium - the two materials that fuel atomic bombs.
After months of being squeezed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran finally coughed up this information. The agency, which is responsible for monitoring Iran's nuclear activities, deserves much credit for extracting this confession. However, after doing so, it proffered a most unbelievable conclusion. It said that although Iran's secret nuclear efforts violated Iran's inspection agreement and were thus illegal, and although Iran had lied to the IAEA for 18 years to cover up what Iran was doing, and although making plutonium and enriched uranium were the most "sensitive aspects" of the nuclear process, Iran might still be innocent.
In the blunder of the century, the IAEA declared: "There is no evidence that the previously undeclared nuclear material activities... were related to a nuclear weapons programme." In fact, there is no evidence that they are related to anything else. First, consider the plutonium, 13 pounds of which powered the Nagasaki bomb. There is absolutely no use for plutonium in Iran's civilian nuclear program, which consists of a Russian-supplied reactor at Bushehr. The reactor will run on low-enriched uranium fuel supplied by Russia. Substituting plutonium for the uranium fuel would require Iran to break its fuel-supply contract with Moscow, to master the complex technology necessary to extract large quantities of plutonium from the Bushehr reactor's spent fuel, to break its promise to send Bushehr's spent fuel back to Russia, and to build an expensive plant to make the extracted plutonium into fresh reactor fuel. No one believes that Iran will ever do any of these things.
When somebody secretly and illegally produces a nuclear material that has no civilian use but is perfect for atomic bombs, that somebody is providing evidence of nuclear weapon activity.
Consider also enriched uranium, which fueled the Hiroshima bomb. Iran built two secret processes - centrifuges and lasers - to make this material. The only civilian use for enriched uranium in Iran is to fuel the Bushehr reactor. But, like plutonium fuel, using it would require Iran to break its fuel supply contract with Russia. Iran would also have to spend several times as much money to produce the fuel locally as the imported Russian fuel would cost, and might have to postpone for several years the reactor's operation while the Iranian fuel was made. No one believes Iran will do that either.
And there's the damning fact of how Iran did these things - illegally. Iran is obliged under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to report all its work on nuclear material to the IAEA. As long as it does so this work is legal. IAEA inspectors are then supposed to track the material and report anything amiss. If, as Iran says, it intended to use its uranium and plutonium only for peaceful purposes, why break rules and go secret? The answer: the world would have known years ago that Iran was building the means to make the bomb, and might have tried to do something about it. But like Iraq, Iran joined the NPT as a means of masking its activities, and then cheated for as long as possible before getting caught. The advantage was to gain time.
Iran tried hard not to get caught. It told the IAEA that 1.9 kg of imported uranium gas had evaporated from leaking valves in the gas container. In fact, Iran used the gas to test centrifuges for making enriched uranium. Iran also told the IAEA that 6.9 kg of imported uranium oxide had been lost in "processing." In fact, Iran put the uranium into a small reactor and irradiated it to produce plutonium. The reactor, by the way, was at a site the IAEA was inspecting - not too well. The reactor was supplied during the Shah's reign by - who else? - the U.S.!
Iran's cheating is a study in how far a country can get in making bomb material while pretending to comply with inspections. Iran seems to have set a record: it duped IAEA inspectors for 18 years. Now the mask is off. Any country that secretly builds factories that can make nuclear weapon material and lies about them has forfeited any claim that its program is for peaceful purposes, even if the amounts of plutonium and enriched uranium have been small. It has also forfeited any claim to confidence. If Iran has been lying for 18 years, how do we know it's not lying now? Or that it won't in the future?
These considerations should determine what happens next. The IAEA must not accept Iran's confession, or its penitent's pledge never to do bad again. That would be too easy. If a country can violate the NPT with impunity, the world's only system for stopping the bomb is a sham. The whole purpose of IAEA inspections is to catch cheaters in order to punish them, not to catch them in order to let them go. Otherwise, who'd obey the law? Because Iran has been caught cheating, the IAEA should refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council. The Council should then order Iran to shut down and dismantle its illicitly used equipment for making plutonium and enriching uranium. This, in effect, is what the Council did to Iraq after Saddam Hussein was found to be cheating in the same way. If Iran refuses to comply, the Council should slap Iran with the same kind of comprehensive trade sanctions that were used against Iraq. This would cost Iran and its trading partners a lot of money in the short run, but in the long run it would be much cheaper than giving a green light to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
Gary Milhollin directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, which publishes the Iranwatch.org web site.