Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Michael Richardson: UN must move on Iran's atomic plans

A team of United Nations weapons inspectors is in Iran this week to check whether it will comply with a resolution of the UN Security Council calling on Tehran to halt its suspect nuclear activities.

But with China and Russia opposed to sanctions against Iran based on suspicion it is seeking nuclear weapons while the United States, Britain and France want selective penalties applied if diplomacy fails, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are deeply divided over how to proceed.

Each has veto power over Council decisions and their recent meeting in Berlin again exposed the split over strategy on handling Iran. Beijing and Moscow insisted that sanctions would only provoke Tehran and fan instability in the energy-rich Persian Gulf region, which supplies critically important crude oil to China and other users in Asia and is set to be the source of increasing amounts of natural gas.

In rejecting sanctions, Dai Bingguo, China's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, made a thinly veiled criticism of the conflict in Iraq caused by the US-led invasion in 2003 when he said that "there has already been enough turmoil in the Middle East. We do not want to see new turmoil being introduced to the region."

A day before the Berlin meeting, the UN Security Council, after three weeks' wrangling, approved a watered-down statement that gave Iran 30 days to end its uranium enrichment programme. The resolution called on the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to report back before the end of this month on Iran's response. Both China and Russia resisted US pressure for language that would have called Iran's nuclear activities a threat to peace and security. The most sensitive of these activities were concealed from the IAEA for 18 years until revealed by an Iranian opposition group in 2002.

"Before we call any situation a threat, we need facts, especially in a region like the Middle East, where so many things are happening," said Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister. "So far, they have not been provided."

Since Iran has cut international nuclear co-operation and resumed enrichment-related work, the IAEA in its next report is unlikely to be able to go much beyond what it has said previously: that it cannot prove Tehran has a weapons programme but can't be certain it hasn't.

In this stalemate situation, Western officials and nuclear analysts fear that Iran is intensifying efforts to build a bomb from highly enriched uranium. The country is now reported to be on the verge of mastering a critical step in building and operating a gas centrifuge plant that could produce significant amounts of enriched uranium for either peaceful or military purposes.

If enriched to less than 5 per cent - as Tehran says it plans to do - the output could only be used as fuel for nuclear power plants to generate electricity. But if purified further to at least 80 per cent through cascades of many interconnected centrifuges, the product would be suitable for making a crude nuclear bomb.

John Negroponte, the US director of national intelligence, said in February that if Iran continued on its current path, it "will likely have the capability to produce a nuclear weapon within the next decade". This is generally interpreted to mean that it will be five or 10 years before Tehran has nuclear arms. Iran is known to have had problems operating enrichment cascades and preparing the uranium feedstock.

Unlike North Korea, which is thought to have several nuclear bombs and to be making at least several more each year from plutonium, Iran has not yet crossed the nuclear weapons threshold. A five or 10-year lag before it does so would appear to allow time for negotiations or, as the threshold draws nearer, tougher measures.

However, Robert Joseph, the US undersecretary of state for arms control, said last month that Iran might only be months away from the "point of no return" - the moment when it has the technical ability to start producing enriched uranium for a bomb.

This has fuelled media reports that the US, backed by Israel, may launch air attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities, even though they are widely dispersed, tightly guarded and in some cases deep underground.

Adding to the sense of urgency is a new report from two arms control experts at the Institute for Science and International Security in the US which concludes that it may only take Iran three years to produce its first crude nuclear weapon from highly enriched uranium. One of the authors of the report, David Albright, is a former IAEA weapons inspector.

Of course, if Tehran does indeed want nuclear arms its schedule could be delayed by technical problems. But enough is known about Iranian enrichment plans and activities to suggest that hard decisions on countering proliferation cannot be postponed indefinitely.

* The writer, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

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