Monday, May 08, 2006

Iran joins the nuclear club

At the beginning of March 2006, Iran announced that it intends to activate a uranium conversion facility near Isfahan (under IAEA safeguards), a step that produces the uranium hexafluoride gas used in the enrichment process. The IAEA concluded that Iran introduced this gas into some centrifuges (used to enrich uranium) at a secret location to test the process. This is a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory.

Iran first attempted to develop nuclear technology under the Shah in the 1950s as part of the “Atoms for peace” program. Eisenhower was the force behind this program which got its name from a 1953 speech he made to the UN. Under this program, large quantities of fissionable material was shifted from military to civilian stockpiles in the form of a ‘nuclear bank’.

The Americans supplied the Shah with a reactor fuelled with enriched uranium at the Gulf port of Bushehr. US support continued right up to the 1979 revolution. Afterwards Iran under the mullahs tried to go it alone but the program lapsed without US and European support. It stalled completely after reactors were damaged by Iraqi air attacks during the Iran-Iraq war. In 1995 Iran signed a contract with Russia to rebuild the Bushehr complex. A year later, the Chinese sold Iran a conversion plant and gas to enrich uranium despite US disapproval. When the ex-mayor of Tehran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, the program took on a new zeal and he resumed conversion of uranium which had been halted while the EU were investigating.

The stand-off tension increased in February this year when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported Iran to the UN security council. In April, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran joined the group of those countries which have nuclear technology.

The U.S., U.K. and France proposed a resolution in the United Nations Security Council on May 3 demanding Iran cease uranium enrichment, and said they would seek sanctions should the government in Tehran fail to comply. The U.S. claims Iran plans to build a nuclear bomb, while Iran says its program is for generating electricity. Russia and China are currently opposed to the resolution.

Mohamed El-Baradei is Director General of the IAEA. The IAEA is a non-subsidiary body of the UN whose mandate is to “promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies.” The US government has accused El-Baradei of having a lenient approach in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. He argues that his stance is more likely to keep Iran under the umbrella of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.

The Egyptian El-Baradei is serving his third term as director-general and won the Nobel peace prize with the IAEA in 2005. As well as his softly-softly approach on Iran, he incurred American wrath when he questioned US intelligence on Iraq prior to the invasion. The US opposed his third term and tapped the telephones in 2004 at his Vienna headquarters in search of ammunition to oust him. However he is well respected by the IAEA board and faces no likely challengers. The US failed in a bid to get the Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer to take the role in 2004!

So the question, if as is likely China and Russia veto a security resolution to impose sanctions on Iran, will the US or Israel mount a pre-emptive strike?

There are three facilities; Bushehr, Natanz and Arak, which are hundreds of kilometres away from each other. Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981 but this would represent a much bigger challenge at greater distance. And because so much of the program is home-grown, the industry could survive an attack on all three facilities. The Russians would also become involved as they have many people working on the Bushehr facility. Iran would also seek revenge for such an attack. They have missiles which could reach Israel or any of the many American targets now in the region. Iran would also be likely to work to destabilise Iraq further. The impact on oil prices is impossible to calculate but is hardly likely to be pretty.

It is difficult to see how an attack on the facilities would have anything other than devastating consequences for the region and the world. And yet given 25 years of animosity between US and Iran with both Bush and Ahmadinejad issuing fighting words, this situation is only likely to deteriorate further.

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