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Iran’s Nuclear Stonewall

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: November 17, 2006


Iran is forging ahead with its uranium-enrichment program, according to the latest report (PDF) by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tehran also refuses to answer basic questions or provide access to all its records, making it nearly impossible for the IAEA “to confirm the peaceful nature” of its nuclear program. The IAEA continues to press Iran to readopt the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran opted out of last February, and calls for more intrusive inspections. Adding to inspectors’ suspicions were traces of plutonium recently found at a waste storage facility in Karaj, suggesting that Iran may not have halted all its experiments with reprocessing technology. Previously, inspectors found traces of highly enriched uranium at the same site. The Iranians shrugged off the allegations (Reuters), claiming the material stems from peaceful experimentation at a light-water research reactor.

Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while maintaining his denial he wants to build a nuclear bomb, pledged Iran would take its nuclear program to its “final step,” promising 3,000 centrifuges by the end of the Persian calendar year (March 2007) and 60,000 as his end goal. As he told the Islamic Republic News Agency, “We are at the beginning of a wave” (LAT). Setting aside for a moment the question of Iran’s ultimate goals, nuclear experts are not convinced Ahmadinejad’s promises on scientific progress are realistic. Virtually no one believes Iran will meet its March goal of 3,000 centrifuges. Further, though Iran has doubled its enrichment capacity from earlier this year (from 164 to 328 centrifuges) and feeds them with six times as much UF-6—a gaseous form of uranium used for enrichment—technical hurdles remain. For one, as David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security point out (PDF), Iran has not linked its two operational cascades, a necessary step to fulfilling Ahmadinejad’s dreams of “full nuclearization.” Others say the recent discovery of traces of plutonium prove the IAEA inspections, while far from perfect, are working. Most experts still maintain Iran will not be nuclear capable for at least half a decade or longer.

Still, experts like Albright are troubled by recent developments with Iran. He tells’s Bernard Gwertzman the UN Security Council effort to press for an Iranian freeze is weakening even while Iranian defiance stiffens. Iran is assisted by its main backer on the Council, Russia, which has sought to divert any sort of punitive measures against Tehran. The Council’s mixed record in using targeted sanctions to influence behavior is explored in this new Backgrounder.

But most U.S. policymakers say there is still time for diplomacy. The permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany continue to debate whether sanctions should be used to pressure Iran. CFR Fellows Lee Feinstein and Michael A. Levi suggest shifting the focus off the Security Council, which remains divided, and back on the transatlantic partnership. “Europe should commit itself to imposing more sanctions outside the United Nations,” they write in the International Herald Tribune. “In return, America should agree to enter unconditional negotiations with Iran.” This idea received a boost last week after President Bush picked Robert M. Gates, an intelligence veteran who chaired a 2004 CFR Task Force report advocating direct negotiations with Iran, to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

The IAEA report also comes on the heels of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Washington. Olmert sought to reaffirm the White House’s commitment to preventing Tehran from aquiring nuclear weapons. His deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, made news last week by voicing his belief that military action is  “sometimes the only resort.” Olmert also called for “one voice” on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and warned the world would “enter a new era of instability (AP) unlike any the world has ever seen.” Some Israelis say their proxy war with Hezbollah earlier this year may foreshadow a larger conflict ahead. “Things would have been quite different if Hezbollah’s patron had already been armed with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them,” writes Ze’ev Schiff in Foreign Affairs. Still, most experts do not believe a military option, by either Israel or the United States, exists that would prevent Iran from building a bomb.  

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