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Insight on the News - Features

Nov. 14, 2003

State Blasts IAEA on Iran's Nukes

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

LIVERMORE, Calif. - The Bush administration is finally taking off the gloves as it prepares for next week's showdown in Vienna over Iran's previously undisclosed nuclear-weapons program.

On Nov. 13, Undersecretary of State John Bolton and his top deputy, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Steve Rademaker, delivered stinging rebukes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear "watchdog," for failing to hold Iran accountable for flagrant violation of its commitments not to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has "lied repeatedly" to the IAEA, Rademaker told an audience of U.S. nuclear-weapons experts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Iran claimed that it had never conducted a program to enrich uranium to weapons-grade or to reprocess spent fuel to extract plutonium. When U.N. inspectors found evidence that Iran had done both, Iran's leaders simply changed their story and "lied again," he said.

Despite having discovered previously undeclared facilities suspected of carrying out weapons-related work, the IAEA concluded in a recent confidential report to its board that it had found no evidence of a nuclear-weapons program. That conclusion, Rademaker noted acidly, was "not supported by the IAEA's own report."

The United States believes that the "massive and covert effort" by Iran to develop a wide range of nuclear technologies - from uranium mines to milling plants to a heavy-water plant to a centrifuge-enrichment "cascade" to plutonium reprocessing - "only makes sense as part of a bomb program," he added.

According to the IAEA report, the Iranians showed extraordinary contempt for U.N. inspectors, apparently in the belief they would not be caught in their lies.

Initially they claimed that their entire uranium-enrichment program was indigenous and used no foreign supplies. But when the inspectors found traces of highly enriched uranium on centrifuge parts, the Iranians said the parts were imported and must have been contaminated by the suppliers. Pressed to identify those suppliers, the Iranians replied that they had bought the equipment from "brokers."

"Is it plausible that Iran bought centrifuge components and didnt know where they bought them?" Rademaker asked.

When the IAEA Board of Governers meets in Vienna on Nov. 20, the United States will press members to "declare that Iran is not in compliance" with the treaty, he said. That would mean "referring" Iran to the U.N. Security Council, which would then have to debate whether to take punitive measures against Tehran.

The unusual public criticism suggests that the Bush administration is preparing for another high-profile standoff at the United Nations. But unlike the diplomatic confrontation over Iraq, this time it appears likely that Britain will not join the United States in urging vigorous international action against Iran.

"How many times has [British Foreign Minister] Jack Straw gone to Tehran recently?" one administration official asked Insight. "We get the sense that the British feel they need to show their independence from us on this one."

Straw accompanied his French and German counterparts for two days of talks in Tehran on Iran's nuclear program at the end of October. At the conclusion of those talks, French Foreign Mnister Dominique de Villepin hailed Iran's decision to "come clean" on its previous nuclear-research programs and promised that Europe would assist Iran to acquire "peaceful" nuclear technologies in exchange.

That was the original bargain on which the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was based, Rademaker noted. "Under the NPT, Iran can acquire all the capabilities it needs to produce nuclear weapons," he said.

Former chief U.N. arms inspector and Swedish ambassador Rolf Ekeus urged the United States and other supplier nations to rethink the terms of that pact. In comments at a Livermore conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program, Ekeus said there was little justification to spread enrichment technologies to developing countries.

As a condition for providing nuclear-power reactors, he said, supplier nations should provide reactor fuel and take back nuclear waste and either reprocess it or dispose of it themselves.

U.S. nuclear labs currently are exploring new ways of handling nuclear waste, either by mixing it with uranium into a form of fuel known as "MOX" that cannot be diverted to make nuclear weapons or through long-term disposal in deep underground sites such as the $60 billion Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada that has yet to be built.

Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos nuclear-weapons lab, agreed that nuclear-exporting nations should consider new restrictions on future nuclear sales and needed to begin a "global cleanout" of nuclear research reactors which are fueled with weapons-grade uranium. "We should be asking what are the requirements for handling nuclear technologies? Economic stability? Political stability? Technological infrastructure? Membership in the World Trade Organization?"

With rogue nations on the hunt for nuclear weapons and an increasingly jittery public worried about loose nukes and possible nuclear accidents, "The choice in managing nuclear technologies is between peace and prosperity and war and disaster," he said.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.

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