Iran's Nuclear Moves Add To 'Huge' Proliferation Challenge For US

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Iran denies accusations that it is closer to building nuclear weapons than previously thought, but the White House is dismissing claims that Tehran's nuclear program is purely peaceful.

An expert pointed out that Iran could come close to building bombs without breaking international treaties.

Reports in U.S. media Sunday and Monday said the Iranians have built hundreds of gas centrifuges to produce enriched uranium at a facility in Natanz, a desert town in central Iran. Enriched uranium can be used to build nuclear bombs.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday Iran had a "more aggressive" nuclear program than previously thought by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.

The U.S. assessment of Iran's nuclear ambitions is not itself new.

In the CIA's most recent unclassified report to Congress on countries' attempts to acquire non-conventional weapons, released last month, the agency says it is "convinced Tehran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program."

It says Iran uses its civilian nuclear energy program as justification for its efforts, but that the CIA believes the development of a nuclear weapons program is the objective driving the Iranians' attempts to acquire the relevant facilities. The report refers to uranium enrichment, but not to the facility at Natanz.

In Tehran, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi responded to the latest media reports by pointing out that IAEA director-general Mohammad ElBaradei had visited the Natanz facility last month and said he was satisfied with Iran's nuclear program.

Asefi accused the U.S. of trying to sabotage Iran's cooperation with the IAEA.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer Monday called into question Iran's professed willingness to cooperate with the U.N., saying Tehran had only admitted to the facility's existence after an Iranian opposition group went public with information about the site.

The National Council of Resistance in Iran, an Iraqi-based group, released the data at a press conference in Washington last August.

Citing the situations in both Iran and North Korea, Fleischer said proliferation was "a growing problem for the world to face," and warned that if the U.N. was unable to enforce weapons agreements around the world, "proliferators will celebrate."

According to Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, there were weaknesses in international agreements that could be exploited by the likes of Iran.

Once news of the Natanz facility was made public, he said Monday, Iran had been happy to allow the IAEA to visit.

As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Iran can produce enriched uranium as part of a peaceful nuclear energy program, subject to IAEA oversight.

As long as inspectors were present, the Iranians could therefore enrich uranium - to an advanced level - all the while pointing to its "transparency" even as it moved toward being in a position where it could build bombs at relatively short notice.

In its own brief statement issued after ElBaradei's Feb. 21-22 visit to Iran, the IAEA said it asked Tehran to give it additional inspection authority to provide more comprehensive assurances about the peaceful nature of the program.

'Make North Korea pay a price'

Sokolski voiced optimism that the anticipated future establishment of a U.S.-friendly government in neighboring Iraq may provide the necessary leverage to dissuade the Iranians from pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.

But he also argued for a new approach to the North Korean nuclear standoff, saying that failure to make Pyongyang pay a price for its recent actions may encourage not only Iran but also other countries like Syria and Egypt to go the nuclear route.

Since last December, North Korea has kicked out IAEA monitors, withdrawn from the NPT and restarted a nuclear reactor frozen under a 1994 accord with the U.S., the Agreed Framework.

Experts continue to debate the road ahead for the Bush administration, some pushing for a much firmer line with Pyongyang, and others urging the U.S. to enter direct talks, as demanded by North Korea.

Sokolski said the U.S. should neither retaliate militarily against the newly-restarted nuclear facilities nor give in to North Korea's insistent demands for a non-aggression pact, he said.

The former option, he said, would risk severe military retaliation against South Korea and destroy Washington's security relations with Seoul and Tokyo.

Agreeing to a non-aggression agreement, on the other hand, could undermine allied support for keeping U.S. forces in South Korea, according to Sokolski. Capitulation would also confirm to states like Iran that "going nuclear gets you what you want."

Sokolski said the U.S. and its allies should instead act firmly to deny Pyongyang's military revenue - by blocking narcotics and other illicit trafficking that brings in the currency required for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Along with better policing, the U.S. should continue its surveillance flights off the peninsula, rather than signal weakness by pulling back in the face of the recent interception by North Korean fighter planes.

Sokolski said Washington should also make it clear that because of Pyongyang's nuclear infringements it had forfeited any further U.S. help for the building of civilian reactors for North Korea.

The option of these plants being completed in the future - in line with the all-but-defunct Agreed Framework - has not yet been taken off the table.

"As with Iraq, which defied the NPT and now is banned from receiving atomic technology, Pyongyang's nuclear cheating should also disqualify it from getting any nuclear reactors," he said.

These steps would not do away with the possibility of U.S.-North Korean negotiations, Sokolski said. But they would remove from the table two things that should not be there - non-aggression pacts and new reactors.

Conceding that the broader non-proliferation challenges facing the U.S. and its allies were "huge," Sokolski said they wouldn't get any less so by ignoring violators.

He pointed, too, to nuclear-capable countries accused of helping nuclear "wannabes," including Russia, China -- and Pakistan, which is suspected of collaborating with both the North Koreans and Iranians in this field.

"We've got a rich menu of things to do," he acknowledged.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow