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Iran: The Keys to the Nuclear Crisis

1) What is known about the Iranian nuclear program?

We know that this program has existed for almost twenty years, that it remained totally clandestine until 2002 and that some part of it - the scope of which no one knows - is still secret. Thanks to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), we also know:

1) that Iran produces small quantities of plutonium in research laboratories.

2) that it is (almost) capable of converting uranium into gas and has the ability to do that on a large scale at Ispahan.

3) that Teheran has acquired or built several hundred machines designed to enrich that gas: the famous centrifuges that produce, according to their configuration, either fuel for an electric power station or fissile matter for an atomic bomb.

4) that the Islamic Republic intends to install tens of thousands of centrifuges in Natanz soon, but that Iranian engineers have not yet mastered the know-how required for them to run smoothly.

5) that the Iranian Army is testing medium range missiles, potentially capable of propelling a nuclear load for over 1,000 kilometers.

Virtually anything else is nothing but a theory.

2) Is this program necessarily military?

Teheran repeats that its objective is civilian: that it's all about producing electricity. "Why reject this explanation totally?" asks Bruno Tertrais, from the Foundation for Strategic Research. "The country is overflowing with oil and gas, but those resources will be exhausted. Consequently, it's not absurd for a big nation like Iran to plan for post-hydrocarbons. The Shah already had that idea ..." But it appears that it's something else. "Even if there is no formal proof, the clues to the principally military character of this program are numerous and corroborating," says Pascal Boniface, Director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). In the main, there's the secrecy that has surrounded this matter for so long. Teheran's refusal to fully cooperate with the IAEA, its connections with the network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the Pakistani bomb, and the traces of highly enriched uranium the inspectors have found on several machines. But for the specialists, the most troubling indicator is the recent discovery by the UN agency of plans for the construction of half-hemispheres made out of uranium metal. In fact, there is no known usage for such pieces up till now that is not military. According to the IAEA, these half-hemispheres fit into the composition of the bomb's "explosive heart."

"Thus, in all probability, Iran is looking to provide itself with the means to build an atomic bomb," says Bruno Tertrais, "but nothing proves that the political decision to actually build that bomb has been taken. Teheran wants to imitate Japan and not cross the nuclear "threshold" - that is, to reach the technical and industrial level that would allow it to produce a weapon in several months, if necessary." However a number of experts believe that the Islamic Republic wants to cross that "threshold" and that the American decision to invade Iraq has only strengthened its determination.

3) How long would it take for Iran to produce an atomic weapon?

The scenarios vary a great deal according to the experts and the circumstances. From 1995 to last summer, American secret services asserted on several occasions that Iran would have an atomic bomb "within five years," in other words, a deadline that has already been overshot several times. In August 2005, to general surprise, they "leaked" a new estimate: ten years, or 2015. Why such an extension? The spies justify their caution by the fact that the Iranian enrichment program encountered numerous difficulties and that Teheran would not have enough fissile material before "the beginning of the next decade." A further deadline that could also be interpreted as a confession of impotence: being tied down in the Iraq war would make any American military action against Iran impossible for some years from now, in any case. Several American and European specialists bet on a nearer date: 2009 or 2010, without bringing any more evidence to bear.

4) Must we prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons?

According to IAEA Director and Nobel Peace prize winner Mohamed El Baradei, we must "stop thinking that it's morally unacceptable for certain countries to want nuclear weapons and morally acceptable for others to lean on them for their defense." But since the June 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who proclaims his desire to wipe Israel off the map, the West distrusts the true intentions of the Islamic Republic more than ever. And for most analysts, a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by Teheran would also risk bringing about a very worrying proliferation dynamic in the Middle East. Iran's nuclearization could also revive the atomic ambitions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, even Turkey and establish the definitive failure of international non-proliferation agreements.

5) Why have the negotiations undertaken by the Europeans failed?

In 2003, France, Germany and Great Britain engaged in negotiations with Iran for two principle reasons. On the one hand, the Europeans were - and remain - worried about the constantly increasing reach of Iranian missiles with a potential nuclear capacity, missiles that could hit London, Paris, or Berlin one day. On the other hand, right in the middle of the American war in Iraq, the European troika wanted to prove to the world that proliferation problems can be settled diplomatically. After two and a half years of discussions, the failure is bitter. Certainly Iran has suspended its most sensitive activities on two occasions and consequently apparently lost a little time. But several experts assert that these voluntary stoppages were more due to technical problems than the skill of European negotiators. Last July, the troika made a global offer to the Islamic Republic: in exchange for the cessation of its enrichment activities and the opening of all its atomic sites and archives to IAEA inspectors, Europe would furnish it with light water nuclear plants (which do not risk being hijacked for military purposes), would support its candidacy at the WTO, and renew big trade negotiations that had been abandoned at the beginning of the nuclear crisis. But Teheran rejected this proposition out of hand. Why? "It's simple: the two parties' red lines are not compatible," explains Bruno Tertrais. "Iran wants to promote nuclear enrichment, which the Europeans want to absolutely prohibit it from doing." There is, it seems, another reason. "The Americans did not want to participate in these negotiations and offer the Iranians what might have convinced them: the lifting of the embargo they've imposed on Teheran since 1979 and the assurance that they won't attack them," adds Pascal Boniface. Whatever the case, to try to overcome the impasse, Moscow submitted an intermediate solution in November 2005 that was accepted by the West and China: the creation of an Irano-Russian company that would operate in Russia under IAEA control. New rejection by Teheran, which vociferously declares its desire to perform enrichment on its own soil. All diplomatic paths having been, in their estimation, exhausted, the Iranians announced at the beginning of 2006 that they were resuming their sensitive activities, suspended a few months earlier, including the construction of centrifuges. A slap in the face for Europe and the whole diplomatic community.

6) What can the Security Council do?

Probably not much. Last week, after multiple threats, the IAEA consequently transferred the Iranian case to the United Nations' supreme decision-making body, the Security Council. Motive: Teheran's multiple breaches of its obligations as a signatory to the Non-proliferation Treaty. That's an apparent victory for the United States, which has loudly demanded this transfer for nearly three years. But what new stage can it attain?

The fifteen members of the Security Council will probably first launch a solemn - but not comminatory - appeal at Iran. Then, if Teheran persists, will come the time for sanctions. "The Council will only be able to take limited measures," explains Bruno Tertrais, "such as restrictions on the movements of Iranian leaders or the freezing of their accounts abroad." For there is good reason to bet that two permanent members will not want to go further than that. Russia, on the one hand, has just sold surface to air missiles to Iran and is negotiating, among other things, the supply of fighter planes. Moscow also fears the destabilization of its southern border in the case of a serious crisis with the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, there's China, which is getting ready to sign a gigantic oil and gas contract with Teheran that is indispensable for its pursuit of economic growth.

The United States will undoubtedly also not seek to move towards the use of force. Scalded by the Iraqi fiasco of beginning 2003, it wants to preserve the - very fragile - unity of the international community with regard to this case. In fact, only Europe - or almost only - envisages taking more severe measures with respect to Teheran. For several months, France and Great Britain have been reflecting upon establishing a battery of "targeted" sanctions that "would spare" the Iranian people. They would only affect the nuclear program, the Guardians of the Revolution and the regime's leaders. But no one can predict the impact of such measures. Under pressure, Iranian leaders could decide to accelerate their race to the bomb rather than slow it down.

7) Is military action against Iran conceivable?

Stuck in the Iraqi quagmire, the United States does not really contemplate this eventuality - at least not in the short term. But while the British Foreign Affairs Minister excludes it "under any circumstances," Washington obviously wants to be able to brandish this threat. "Only one thing would be worse than military intervention: that Iran possess nuclear weapons," repeats Republican Senator John McCain. Consequently, Pentagon strategists make known that they are working on scenarios for an attack on Iranian nuclear sites. That could come from B-2 Stealth bombers stationed in Missouri or from the attack submarines that cross through the region. As long as it doesn't come from Israel: Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who originally came from Iran, has declared that "under no circumstances could Israel tolerate Iran being in possession of nuclear weapons." The Israelis assert that they have all the firepower necessary for these preventative strikes. But questions remain about the range of action of the Hebrew state's bombers.

In fact, a military operation would only serve to delay the Iranian program, not to destroy it. For the Iranians learned their lessons from the 1981 bombardment of Osirak in Iraq: they have dispersed and buried their installations. Only the Ispahan conversion factory is situated far from an urban center and seems to be little protected. On top of that, the consequences of such an operation could prove to be catastrophic for the region's stability. Iran could counter-attack by launching its Shahab missiles against Israel and American bases in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic could also stir up the sectarian war in Iraq and organize a Shiite uprising against American troops. It could also re-launch Hezbollah attacks against Israel's north. As for the closing of the Strait of Hormuz through which close to 25% of the world's oil transits, that would make the price per barrel explode ...

8) How far is the Iranian state prepared to go?

If tensions exist between the different decision-making bodies of the Iranian government, the nuclear question unifies more than it divides. There's even a consensus in the country on this subject. "Even those who are opposed to nuclear weapons, including the lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Chirin Ebadi, defend Iran's right to civilian nuclear technology," says Pascal Boniface. But that is not to say that there is unanimity with respect to the manner of conducting negotiations. Three attitudes are perceptible within Teheran's power circles. There are those who favor pursuit of the nuclear program whatever the cost. This first group includes president Ahmadinejad and the "Kayan" journal which has always maintained that Iran should quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The second group, represented by Ali Larjani, the head of the Iranian nuclear issues negotiators, believe that the pursuit of the nuclear cycle "is Iran's inalienable right," but would like to continue the negotiations within the framework of international treaties. For the third group, which is also the most marginal, the costs of pursuing the nuclear cycle outweigh its advantages. That group also supports a direct dialogue with the United States. Former president Rafsandjani could share that point of view. The great unknown remains: the position of Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, the ultimate decision-maker on the nuclear issue.

Whatever the case, the nuclear arm-wrestling contest is but one symptom of Iran's new ambitions. The Americans being bogged down in Iraq and the increase in the price of gas allow Teheran to claim loud and clear its status as a regional power. All the more so in that Iran has seen its position strengthened by its enemies' (Saddam Hussein's and the Taliban's) defeat and by its friends' victories (the Shiites in Iraq's elections, Hamas in Palestine). Persuaded that a confrontation with America is inevitable, the Iranian president prefers to precipitate this confrontation while the balance of power is in his favor. According to the International Crisis Group, "We are not at the beginning of a conflict between Iran and the United States, but in the middle of this conflict which comprises the theatres of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel."

Chronology of the Iranian Crisis

August 2002: A group of Iranian exiles asserts that Iran is secretly constructing two nuclear sites. Satellite photos confirm their statements.

December 2002: Iran agrees to IAEA inspections.

June 2003: The IAEA accuses Iran of not revealing the extent of its nuclear program.

October 2003: After a meeting with the French, German, and British Foreign Affairs Ministers, Iran agrees to suspend its nuclear enrichment activities.

September 2004: Iran resumes its uranium conversion activities. The IAEA demands that it stop.

November 2004: Iran agrees to suspend its activities while it begins negotiations with the three European countries.

August 2005: The new Iranian president rejects the European offer. The Ispahan enrichment factory starts up again.

September 2005: Very hard IAEA report against Iran.

November 2005: Moscow makes another proposal, also rejected by Teheran.

January 2006: Iran resumes its sensitive activities.

March 9, 2006: the IAEA transmits the case to the Security Council.

(Translation: Leslie Thatcher ) .

Sara Daniel & Vincent Jauvert

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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