Two weeks from now, time runs out for Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear research and development programs are solely meant to produce energy, not warheads. The United States, tied up with challenges in Iraq, has been happy so far to allow the International Atomic Energy Commission to take the lead on this issue. But Washington is not likely to stay mute if the deadline passes without a major reversal of policy in Tehran, and Israeli officials, along with hawks inside the Bush administration, have been urging the Pentagon to dust off contingency plans for the systematic aerial destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Iran began on Friday what its state-run media portrayed as “final negotiations” with the IAEA chief, Mohamed El Baradei, and Iran’s president said he was confident that an agreement to clear up all questions could be reached within a week.
“For our sovereignty and territorial integrity we are going to discuss and we are going to reach final agreement and we have already started final negotiations,” President Mohamed Khatami told reporters.
But the IAEA, a United Nations organization charged with inspecting nuclear facilities around the world, has been uncharacteristically harsh in its appraisals of Iran’s cooperation to date. On Wednesday, El Baradei told The Independent of London “I cannot accept that by the end of the month we will be in a position ... [where] we believe we have not got all the information we require.” If these are, indeed, “final” negotiations, that statement does not urge much optimism over the outcome.
The Bush administration, too, faces its own dilemma. Given the widespread impression around the world that Washington overstated, perhaps even deliberately, Iraq’s nuclear capabilities to justify a war, can it really rely on a policy toward Iran based on international inspections, sanctions and escalating threats vetted by the U.N. security council?
So far, the administration is keeping its powder dry, at least in public.
“Iran has not fully disclosed its nuclear programs,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said earlier this week. The IAEA inspectors, he said, “have continued to carry out rigorous inspections of Iran’s nuclear activities, and so we look forward to seeing their reporting once they have been able to complete that task.”
Despite the routine sound of that response, the deadline is marked in red on American and Israeli calendars. With 130,000 American troops now in Iraq because of an alleged arsenal of banned weapons there that has not yet materialized, the administration can hardly take a cavalier attitude toward a nuclear weapons program that U.N. inspectors are meticulously documenting.
Iran, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has foresworn any ambition to build a nuclear weapon and must declare all its nuclear-related activities and subject these facilities to IAEA inspection.
Tehran claims that all of its nuclear research and development programs, from the Russian-built reactor still under construction at Bushehr, to the secret laboratories that have been exposed by an Iranian dissident group, are for “peaceful” purposes.
Washington clearly sees this as a lie, and the IAEA, which has now inspected many of the formerly undeclared nuclear sites, has found damning evidence: traces of highly-enriched, “weapons-grade” uranium on centrifuge components. This, too, was undeclared. Iran’s explanation: the centrifuge components were imported, and so the enriched uranium traces found on them must have originated outside the country.
THE OTHER PARTY
Israel for years has regarded Iran as its most serious foe, both because of its funding for militant groups like Hizballah and Islamic Jihad, and because of the sophistication of Iran’s nuclear research and ballistic missile capabilities. Israeli officials who visited the White House in August again brought up the issue of “pre-empting” Iran’s nuclear program, according to a source close to those talks, and were assured that the Bush administration is not so distracted by Iraq that it would allow further Iranian flouting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Gary Milhollin, a nuclear weapons expert at the University of Wisconsin, says “the Israelis have been lobbying to that effect for a while.” Israel launched its own “pre-emptive” strike against Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981, destroying a French-built reactor before it came on line. Milhollin and other experts have suggested that, if Washington refuses to act, Israel may once again take things into its own hands. Israel’s current leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was defense minister at the time of the 1981 strike on Iraq.
“Israel may take action on its own,” agrees Michael Levi, a science and technology fellow at the Brookings Institute. But Levi says such a move could backfire, however, since there is no way to know if there are facilities still not identified.
“It could lead Iran to, very quickly, decide to take the step they only seem to be flirting with now,” he says. “It might actually create a nuclear Iran.”
DOUBLE TIME OR DOUBLE TALK ?
Iran’s answers to questions about its nuclear programs have, to say the least, failed to impress the IAEA. If Iran fails to provide reasonable explanations and a full accounting of its nuclear program by Oct. 31, U.N. economic sanctions could follow soon afterward.
Even if that is the only immediate reaction, the stakes for Iran’s Islamic government are considerable. The European Union, prodded by Britain, has threatened to suspend a free trade accord on which Iran’s hopes for economic growth depend. Iran’s clerics are deeply unpopular in a nation where nearly two-thirds of the population was born after the 1979 revolution. Youth unemployment is a major problem and Iran’s mullahs know nothing will shorten their tenure more quickly than continued economic failure.
Russia, too, is moving. Moscow previously had been scrupulously determined to continue work on the lucrative Soviet-era contract to finish the nuclear energy reactor at Bushehr. But Moscow announced last week the date of the plant’s opening was going to be delayed for over a year to late 2005.
While Moscow claimed the decision to be “purely technical, not political,” the Russians appear to be concerned, if not about the prospect of a nuclear Iran, than at least by the specter of an American or Israeli air strike aimed at preventing that from coming to pass. Russia, for instance, recently decided not to sell uranium to Iran for the plant’s start up until Tehran promised to return all “spent” fuel to Russia for reprocessing. The dispute has dragged on for months, and Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry is now threatening to sell the fuel slated for Bushehr to a domestic plant instead.
DESIGNING A SOLUTION
The IAEA chief says he will hold Iran to a strict standard as the ultimatum approaches. In an interview Thursday with the BBC, immediately following El Baradei’s talks in Tehran, he said: “We’ve been here for a year, the credibility of this verification system requires that by that time we need to have all the information .... But I will not compromise on the need for Iran to come with the full story, comprehensive information, in the next couple of weeks and I was assured that this was going to happen, that they will come forward, and we’ll see.”
All of these factors are viewed as good news within the Bush administration, and some believe Iran will recognize the stakes and come clean. Nothing prevents Iran from pursuing nuclear energy research, or even from enriching uranium, as long as it does not produce nuclear weapons. If an extremely intrusive program is agreed to, says Levi, a crisis could be averted. But, he notes, “the administration is and should be concerned that inspections could lull the world into a false sense of security.”
(MSNBC.com’s Rachel Elbaum contributed to this report.)