November 14, 2003,
Is Iran producing nuclear weapons?
Tehran says: No.
Washington says: Yes
The European Union says: Maybe.
And next week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is expected to say: Maybe yes, maybe not!
Why are there such divergent views on an issue that, given the wealth of data now at the disposal of the IAEA, should not be so hard to handle?
Part of the confusion is because the wrong question is asked.
Iran is right in saying that it is not producing nuclear weapons. What Iran is doing is to set up all the technical, industrial, and materiel means needed to produce such weapons, if and when it decides to do so.
In other words, while not producing nuclear weapons right now, Iran has a nuclear program designed to make such weapons within 18 months. It is like a chef who brings in all that is needed for making a soup but does not actually start the cooking until he knows when the guests will be coming.
With a brief interruption in the post-Revolution era, this has been Iran's policy since 1970.
In the past three decades Iran has trained and mobilized the scientists and technicians needed, built the research centers required, and set up structures for a complete nuclear cycle, from raw materials to the finished product. In that sense Iran's nuclear program maybe better structured than those of several countries, including Pakistan, Ukraine, Serbia, and Brazil that helped with the various stages of its development. Iran has its own uranium reserves, regarded as among the richest in the world, and has a history of nuclear research that dates back to 1955.
Part of the Iranian national defense doctrine is based on the capacity to produce and deploy nuclear weapons within a brief time span.
Before the revolution Iran regarded its northern neighbor, the Soviet Union, as the sole serious threat to its national security. The Iranian war strategy was based on a scenario in which a Soviet invasion would begin with conventional weapons only. In that case Iran would withdraw its forces from its northern provinces, almost a third of its territory, to regroup them across the Zagross mountain range. After that Iran would threaten to use its nuclear weapons against Soviet occupation forces.
The hope was that Soviet leaders, faced with the high cost of a nuclear exchange would agree to withdraw their troops from the occupied provinces.
That scenario was based on the 1945-46 fight between Tehran and Moscow over the Iranian provinces of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan that had been under Soviet occupation since 1941. At that time the Soviets did not yet have nuclear weapons, and a threat from the Truman administration in Washington was sufficient to persuade Stalin that it was prudent to withdraw from Iran.
After the revolution, Iran's national defense doctrine has been based on the assumption that it will, one day, fight a war with the United States plus its Arab allies and Israel.
The central assumption of Iranian strategists is that the U.S. cannot sustain a long war. It is, therefore, necessary to pin down its forces and raise the kill-die ratio to levels unacceptable by the American public. In the meantime, Iran would put its nuclear-weapons program in high gear, and brandish the threat of nuclear war as a means of forcing the U.S. to accept a ceasefire and withdraw its forces from whatever chunk of Iranian territory they may have seized.
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has publicly evoked the possibility of using nuclear weapons against Washington's regional allies, especially Israel.
"In a nuclear duel in the region, Israel may kill 100 million Muslims," Rafsanjani said in a speech in Tehran in October 2000. "Muslims can sustain such casualties, knowing that, in exchange, there would be no Israel on the map."
Iran's top military commander, General Rahim Safavi, and Defence Minister Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani have also spoken about a military clash with the United States as the only serious threat to the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.
They believe they have three trump cards to play.
The first is that Iran has a demographic reserve of some 20 million people and is thus capable of sustaining levels of casualties unthinkable for Americans.
The second is that Iran is already the missile superpower of the Middle East and could target all of Washington's allies in the region.
"We have enough missiles for a rain of death the kind of which no one has imagined in this part of the world," Shamkhani claimed in a speech in Tehran in 1999.
Iran's third trump card is its nuclear program. Without it the other two cards will not have the effect desired, especially if the U.S. could unleash its new generation of low-grade nuclear weapons designed for battlefield use.
Hamid Zomorrodi, an Iranian strategy expert says it is unlikely that Iran will cripple its national defence doctrine by abandoning its nuclear aspect.
The real issue is not the bomb," he says. "Regardless of who rules in Tehran, Iran is sure to have nuclear weapons whenever its leaders decide to have them. The real issue is who will be in control of those weapons and who will be their target."
The view is echoed by Gary Samore, the nuclear expert in the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London.
"There is no doubt that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme," he says. "No amount of diplomatic manoeuvring and political pressure is likely to persuade Iran to drop what has become a top national priority."
Washington hawks believe that the only realistic policy towards Iran is one of regime change before the Khomeinists produce their nuclear arsenal. They believe this could be achieved with a mixture of military and diplomatic pressure combined with moral and material support for the pro-democracy movement in Iran.
The Europeans, however, fear that any attempt even at soft regime change may push the Khomeinists on the offensive in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, the Caucasus, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.
"The Americans are right in asserting that Iran is the world's terrorism superpower," says Zomorrodi. "Strangely, however, they believe that Iran would not use its terrorism resources if and when its back is to the wall. That is a dangerous assumption. "
Olivier Roy, a French specialist on Iran, agrees.
He says it is wrong to believe that the tactic used against Saddam Hussein could also be employed against the Khomeinists in Tehran.
Saddam had no network of support in the region whereas the Iranian regime does and is thus in a position to make a great deal of trouble for the US and its allies.
On November 20, the International Atomic Energy Agency will submit its report on Iran to the United Nations' Security Council. An internal IAEA report on the subject, however, shows that Iran will almost certainly be charged with violating aspects of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) which it signed in 1970. The accumulation of detail in the report and in two previous assessments from Dr ElBaradei this year paints a picture of a long-term, sophisticated program running since the mid-1980s. Only this year did the rest of the world obtain a glimpse of the Iranian projects.
"Iran has now acknowledged that it has been developing, for 18 years, a uranium centrifuge enrichment programme, and, for 12 years, a laser enrichment programme," the report said.
Four unnamed foreign countries had helped the Iranians with know-how and equipment. Other sources have identified the countries as Pakistan, Serbia, Ukraine, and North Korea.
ElBaradei also said his inspectors had not yet resolved the origin of the weapons-grade uranium traces found at a Tehran plant and the Natanz enrichment complex. He insisted that to settle the plethora of open questions about the Iranian programmes, the IAEA would need "a particularly robust verification system," requiring "full transparency and openness on the part of Iran".
At first Iran said it had kept Natanz secret because it had developed the entire project with domestic technology which it feared might be "stolen" by others. But when traces of highly enriched uranium were found, Iran claimed that the machines installed at Natanz had been bought second-hand from abroad, and may have been used to produce weapons' grade materiel in their country of origin. IAEA inspectors also found the following:
Plutonium: Manufactured at a Tehran laboratory between 1988 and 1992, despite previous denials from Iran. Very small quantity extracted, not enough for a bomb. But Iranian scientists now know how to manufacture bomb-grade plutonium. If Iran does not plan to make any bombs there is no reason why it should produce any plutonium.
Laser uranium enrichment: Under U.N. questioning in October, Iran admitted it had built a pilot laser-enrichment facility at Lashkar Abad, northwest of Tehran in 1999. Four unnamed countries have been involved in supplying equipment and know-how for 20 years. The Iranians admit banned experiments there until this year. They say the facility was dismantled in May. Last month U.N. inspectors' requests to examine equipment and talk to the scientists were "deferred by Iran."
Uranium metal conversion: Uranium metal is most commonly used for nuclear missiles. Earlier discoveries of metal conversion work were explained away by the Iranians as "shielding material." In October they said the uranium metal was for use in the previously undisclosed laser-enrichment project.
Weapons' grade uranium: The IAEA's previous report disclosed traces of two types of weapons-grade uranium at the underground centrifuge enrichment plant at Natanz. The IAEA then reported traces of weapons-grade uranium at the Kalaye electric company in Tehran.
Heavy water: Iran has been working on heavy water, needed to manufacture plutonium, at a secret facility in Arak, west of Tehran since 1995. Having denied the existence of the facility, Iran admitted it last month but has refused to allow IAEA inspectors to visit it.
The real question is: Can the world accept the present Iranian regime with nuclear weapons?
It is clear that the answer cannot come from the IAEA.
Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He's available through www.benadorassociates.com.