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Originally Published: 7/23/2008


By The Issue Wonk


Iran has pursued nuclear energy technology since the 1950s. It made steady progress, with Western help, through the early 1970s. But, with the Islamic Revolution in Iran and overthrow of the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979, the U.S. ended its assistance.


Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)1 on July 1, 19682 and 6 years later it completed its Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).3 In the early 1980s Iran began to look at resuming the project, but put it off due to the Iran-Iraq War.


In the 1990s Iran re-instituted its project with the help of Russia. In 1992 there were allegations that Iran had undeclared nuclear activities, so Iran invited IAEA inspectors into the country and permitted them to visit all their sites and facilities – virtually anything that they wanted to see. Then IAEA Director General Hans Blix reported that all activities were consistent with the peaceful use of atomic energy.4


In August 2002 Alireza Jafarzadeh, a spokesperson for the Iranian dissident group MEK (see Iran: Making a Case to Attack), alleged the existence of 2 nuclear sites under construction – a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, part of which is underground, and a heavy water facility in Arak. It’s possible that intelligence agencies already knew about these facilities but the reports have been classified.


The IAEA immediately sought access to these facilities and demanded information and cooperation from Iran regarding its nuclear program. According to the agreements in force at the time, Iran was not required to allow IAEA inspections of a new nuclear facility until 6 months before nuclear material was introduced into it. In fact, Iran was not even required to inform the IAEA of the existence of the facility.5 This 6-month clause was standard for implementation of all IAEA safeguard agreements until 1992, when the IAEA Board of Governors decided that facilities should be reported during the planning phase, even before construction began. Iran was the last country to accept that decision, and did so February 26, 2003, after the IAEA investigation began.6


France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the “EU-3”) began a diplomatic initiative with Iran to resolve the questions about its nuclear program. In October 2003, Iran and the EU-3 foreign ministers issued a statement in which Iran agreed to cooperate with the IAEA and to sign and implement an Additional Protocol as a voluntary, confidence-building measure, and to suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities during the course of the negotiations.7 The EU-3 in return explicitly agreed to recognize Iran’s nuclear rights and to discuss ways Iran could provide “satisfactory assurances” regarding its nuclear power program, after which Iran would gain easier access to modern technology. Iran signed the Additional Protocol on December 18, 2003 and agreed to act as if the protocol were in force, making the required reports to the IAEA and allowing the required access by IAEA inspectors, pending Iran’s ratification of the Additional Protocol.


However, at the time that the above negotiations were being held, the IAEA had been working on a new report. This was issued on November 10, 2003. It stated that Iran had failed to meet its obligations regarding reporting the processing and use of nuclear material. What this referred to was Iran’s importation of uranium from China and the use of that uranium in enrichment activities. Iran was also obligated to report its experiments with the separation of plutonium.8 However, the IAEA also found no evidence that the previously undeclared activities were related to a nuclear weapons program, but also noted that it was unable to conclude that Iran’s nuclear program was exclusively peaceful.


Under the terms of the November 2004 Paris Agreement, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator announced a voluntary and temporary suspension of its uranium enrichment program, although enrichment is not a violation of the NPT, and the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol.9


Interestingly, for the 60 nations that have ratified the NPT safeguards and the Additional Protocol, the IAEA has been able to certify the absence of undeclared nuclear activity for only 21.8 Nevertheless, Iran voluntarily implemented the Additional Protocol and, on January 31, 2006, the IAEA certified that “Iran has continued to facilitate access under its Safeguards Agreement . . . and to act as if the Additional Protocol is in force, including by providing in a timely manner the requisite declarations and access to locations.”10 [Emphasis added.]


In February 2006 the IAEA Board of Governors voted to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council, where IAEA Director Mohammad ElBaradei suggested another agreement whereby Iran would give up industrial-scale enrichment and instead limit its program to a small-scale pilot facility and import its nuclear fuel from Russia. Iran indicated it would not be willing to give up its right to enrichment, allowed under NPT, but they would be willing to consider a compromise solution. However, in March 2006 the Bush administration made it clear they would not accept any enrichment at all in Iran.


Controversy and Sanctions


In April 2006 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had successfully enriched uranium to 3.5%, a level that could be used in a nuclear reactor if enough of it was made. President Bush continued to insist that Iran must be punished for its “defiance” of demands that it stop enriching uranium, a right it has under NPT. Not to be outdone, the U.S. Congress released a report in August 2006 making many allegations that have been strongly disputed by the IAEA who called it “erroneous” and “misleading.”11 IAEA officials continue to complain that most U.S. intelligence shared with it about Iran’s nuclear program has proved to be inaccurate and that none had led to significant discoveries.12


Yet, the international attacks and unwarranted reports against Iran have continued. In May 2007 Agence France-Presse (AFP), quoting unnamed diplomats, reported that Iran had blocked IAEA inspectors when they sought access to Iran’s enrichment facility. Both Iran and the IAEA denied this.


“There is no truth to media reports claiming that the IAEA was not able to get access to Natanz,” said the International Atomic Energy Agency spokesman Marc Vidricaire. “We have not been denied access at any time, including in the past few weeks. Normally we do not comment on such reports but this time we felt we had to clarify the matter,” he said. “If we had a problem like that we would have to report to the (35-nation IAEA governing) board. . . That has not happened because this alleged event did not take place.”13


The Iranian government has repeatedly made compromise offers to place strict limits on its nuclear program beyond what the NPT and the Additional Protocol legally require in order to ensure that the program cannot be secretly diverted to the manufacture of weapons.14 These offers included operating Iran’s nuclear program as an international consortium, with the full participation of foreign governments, which was rejected by the U.S. Iran has also offered to renounce plutonium extraction technology, thus ensuring that its heavy water reactor at Arak cannot be used to make bombs. Recently they’ve offered to operate uranium centrifuges that automatically self-destruct if they are used to enrich uranium beyond what is required for civilian purposes.15


In July 2006 the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1696 which demanded that Iran suspend uranium enrichment by August 31, 2006 or face possible economic and diplomatic sanctions. But Iran insisted there is no legal basis for the original IAEA referral to the Security Council since the IAEA had not proved that Iran engaged in any undeclared activities that had a relationship to a weapons program, and that all nuclear material in Iran, including material that may not have been declared, had been accounted for and had not been diverted for military purposes. Therefore, Iran failed to comply with the demand to suspend uranium enrichment and, in December 2006, they imposed sanctions on Iran’s trade in sensitive nuclear materials and technology. The IAEA then offered Iran a 60-day grace period for its suspension. Iran, however, did not comply and Resolution 1747 was passed in March 2007 intensifying the sanctions.


In late October 2007 Mohammed ElBaradei, Director of IAEA, stated that he had seen no evidence of Iran developing nuclear weapons. He said:


We have information that there has been maybe some studies about possible weaponization. That’s why we have said that we cannot give Iran a pass right now, because there is still a lot of question marks. . . But have we seen Iran having the nuclear material that can readily be used into a weapon? No. Have we seen an active weaponization program? No.16


ElBaradei went on to say he was worried about the growing rhetoric from the U.S. which focuses on Iran’s alleged intentions to build a nuclear weapon rather than evidence the country was actively doing so. ElBaradei said that if there is any actual evidence, he would like to see it.16


President Bush claims that Iran has a “desire” to have nuclear weapons or the “knowledge” of how to make a nuclear weapon.17 While agreeing that “it’s the sovereign right of Iran to have civilian nuclear power,” he added, “But the problem is . . . what’s dangerous is their desire to learn how to enrich uranium, and, because the enrichment process could lead to a weapon.” He also added that all military options are “on the table.”18


Since the “knowledge” of how to build nuclear weapons overlaps with the “knowledge” of civilian nuclear technology, applying Bush’s standard of depriving Iran of “knowledge” would mean depriving them of an independent civilian nuclear program. Such an attempt is against the NPT, which recognizes the right of nations to nuclear technology, to the fullest extent possible and without discrimination.1 Indeed, the technical knowledge to make nuclear weapons is not a secret and highly technical designs of nuclear bombs have already been placed in the public domain by declassified government documents. (See Nth Country Experiment)


The debate rages on. In June 2007 ElBaradei suggested that Iran be allowed limited uranium enrichment under strict IAEA supervision. The U.S. rejected the plan.19


In November 2007 the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) judged “with high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. 20 It should be noted, however, that it’s never been proved that Iran ever had a nuclear weapons program.


In March 2008 the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1803 which extended the sanctions against Iran. It restricts the import of technology that could be both peaceful and military, and asks the U.N. member states to inspect cargos suspected of transporting nuclear material to and from Iran. It also added names to the existing travel ban and asset freeze on companies and individuals thought to be engaged in Iran’s nuclear program.


Earlier this month (July 2008) talks were held in Geneva, Switzerland and, for the first time, the United States participated. Iran was offered a proposal, first offered last year, that if it would not add to its nuclear program, the U.S. “and other powers” would not seek new sanctions for 6 weeks, “to pave the way for formal negotiations.” Iran failed to respond to the proposal. The U.S. said that it would ask the Security Council for “new punitive sanctions.”21


Threats of Military/Nuclear Enforcement


The U.S. has repeatedly refused to rule out nuclear first strikes against Iran.22 The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, made public in 2002, specifically envisioned the use of nuclear weapons on a first strike basis, even against non-nuclear armed states.23 Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has reported that the Bush administration has been planning the use of nuclear weapons against Iran.24 Using nuclear weapons on a first-strike basis against non-nuclear opponents is a violation of the U.S. Negative Security Assurance pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear members of the NPT, such as Iran. Additionally, threats of the use of nuclear weapons against another country constitute a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 984 of April 11, 1995 and the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.


Hersh has also reported that the U.S. has already escalated covert operations against Iran.25 About the same time the NIE was released in December 2007 saying that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program, President Bush issued a “Presidential Finding” to get Congress appropriate money for covert incursions into Iraq. Bush dismissed the NIE findings and continued to emphasize that urgent action was necessary to counter the Iranian nuclear threat. Under federal law, when the administration wants a covert intelligence operation, he must issue a “presidential finding,” which is highly classified. The “finding” must be released to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and the Senate and the ranking members of their respective intelligence committees (the so-called “gang of 8”). Once briefed, Congress can then appropriate funding for the operation. Congress agreed.


According to Hersh, the Iranian operation was designed to destabilize religious leadership and gather intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. “But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command, have now been significantly expanded,” Hersh wrote. “The Finding was focused on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change” and involved “working with opposition groups and passing money.” Those activities reportedly include capturing members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and taking them into Iraq for interrogation.


In addition to the covert operations, Bush is attempting to push a bill through Congress, House Concurrent Resolution 362, that, though non-binding, could be construed as expressing the sense of Congress that the president ought to use military force against Iran. It specifically states that Congress


demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program; [Emphasis added.]


In order to impose “stringent inspection requirements” the U.S. would have to impose a land, air, and sea blockade of Iran, which, many believe, may be considered an act of war under international law.


The Resolution finishes with:


and to make clear to the Government of Iran that the United States will protect America’s vital national security interests in the Middle East.


I have been unable to determine what our “national security interests” are in the Middle East. However, this sounds suspiciously like the Authorization for Use Military Force Against Iraq which Congress gave to President Bush and which he uses to justify many of his questionable actions. Giving him more latitude with regard to Iran is beyond ludicrous.




1  The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Disarmament at the United Nations.


2  The NPT went into force on March 5, 1970. (Council of Foreign Relations)


3  Bruno, Greg. Iran’s Nuclear Program. Council on Foreign Relations, July 17, 2008.


4  Wise, Michael Z. Atomic Team Reports on Iran Probe; No Weapons Research Found by Inspectors. The Washington Post, February 15, 1992.


5  International Atomic Energy Agency. The Text of the Agreement Between Iran and the Agency for the Application of Safeguards in Connection with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. December 13, 1974.


6  International Atomic Energy Agency. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran. June 6, 2003.


7  International Atomic Energy Agency. Statement by the Iranian Government and visiting EU Foreign Ministers. October 21, 2003.


8  International Atomic Energy Agency. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran. November 15, 2004.


9  Arms Control Association. “Paris Agreement” Between the Islamic Republic of Iran and France, Germany and the United Kingdom, with the support of the High Representative of the European Union.


10 International Atomic Energy Agency. Developments in the Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Agency Verification of Iran’s Suspension of Enrichment-related and Reprocessing Activities. January 31, 2006.


11 BBC. U.S. Iran Report Branded Dishonest. BBC News, September 14, 2006.


12 Drogin, Bob & Murphy, Kim. Most U.S. Tips Fingering Iran False – Envoys: No Intelligence Given U.N. Since ’02 Led to Big Discoveries. Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2007, preserved at SFGate.com.


13 Reuters. IAEA Denies Iran Blocked Nuclear Site Visit. May 11, 2007, preserved at Khaleej Times Online.


14 Kerr, Paul. Iranian, P5+1 Proposals to Resolve Iranian Nuclear Issue. Arms Control Association, September 13, 2006.


15 Penketh, Anne. Iran’s Message is Softly Spoken, Yet Clear: It Will Enrich Uranium. The Independent, July 25, 2007.


16 Associated Press. U.N. Nuclear Watchdog Chief Expresses Concern About Anti-Iran Rhetoric From U.S. International Herald Tribune, October 28, 2007.


17 Bush, George W. Iran’s Nuclear Activities. U.S. Department of State, April 28, 2006.


18 TRANSCRIPT: Charles Gibson Interviews President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. ABC News, November 20, 2007.


19 Reuters. Iran Should Continue Limited Enrichment, Atomic Watchdog Says. International Herald Tribune, May 22, 2007.


20 National Intelligence Council. Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, November 2007.


21 Sciolino, Elaine. Nuclear Talks With Iran End in a Deadlock. The New York Times, July 20, 2008.


22 Hudson, Saul. Bush Refuses to Rule Out Iran Nuclear Strike. The Age, April 20, 2006.


23 Pincus, Walter. U.S. Nuclear Arms Stance Modified by Policy Study: Preemptive Strike Becomes an Option. Washington Post, March 23, 2002.


24 CNN. Hersh: U.S. Mulls Nuclear Option for Iran. CNN News, April 10, 2006.


25 Hersh, Seymour M. Preparing the Battlefield: The Bush Administration Steps Up Its Secret Moves Against Iran. The New Yorker, July 7, 2008.



© The Issue Wonk, 2008



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