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Iran's nuclear gambit

Print edition : Sep 09, 2005 T+T-

President Ahmadinejad says he has new ideas to break the nuclear deadlock even as Iran restarts its uranium conversion facility at Esfahan despite international pressure against doing so.

ATUL ANEJA in Bahrain

TENSIONS between Iran and the West are on the rise again following Teheran's decision to revive uranium conversion at its plant in Esfahan. The decision was taken soon after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's new hardline President, assumed office. Iran also changed its key nuclear negotiator - the moderate Hassan Rouhani with Ali Larijani, a loyalist of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The United States and the European Union (E.U.) are of the view that the resumption of the conversion work at Esfahan is symptomatic of Teheran's ambition to build nuclear weapons. They suspect that under the cover of a peaceful nuclear programme, Iran wants to build weapons. Uranium enrichment is seen as a vital step on the route to weaponisation. Enriched uranium that is used to generate electricity can be used in weapons when refined to a high degree of purity. By enriching uranium, Iran, it is feared, would be in a position to fulfil one of the core requirements for making a bomb.

Analysts point out that Iran has enough reasons to justify its presumed bid for acquiring nuclear weapons. First, it would deter arch-foe and nuclear-armed Israel from attacking it. Second, it would discourage the U.S. from considering military action against it. Security planners in Iran are fully aware that U.S. troops are stationed on its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran, however, denies any intention to acquire atomic weapons. It points out that its nuclear programme is aimed at making the country energy-surplus. Iranian negotiators say that their country wants to utilise its finite oil resources to earn export revenues and rely more on nuclear power to fulfil domestic energy demands. In fact, they have reminded the world time and again that the Iranian nuclear programme preceded the 1979 Islamic revolution, and the U.S. encouraged it during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi.

The standoff with the West over its nuclear programme prompted Iran to begin negotiations with Germany, France and Britain last year. The discussions acquired urgency after it came to light that Iran had not reported the existence of a key underground facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, which is a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by Iran, was revealed after Iranian exiles apprised Western authorities about it.

Subsequently, Iran signed an additional protocol to the NPT, under which the IAEA could make surprise inspections of any of its real or suspected nuclear facilities. In November 2004, Iran suspended work related to enrichment at all its facilities including Esfahan and Natanz, which were subsequently sealed by the IAEA.

The nuclear fuel cycle, which Iran says it is entitled to master, consists of mining uranium ore and processing it into uranium oxide (yellow cake). The yellow cake is converted to uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) gas and then to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, which is enriched to varying degrees of purity.

On August 8, after a lag of nine months, Iran restarted work at its Esfahan facility, which essentially converts uranium into feedstock for enrichment at Natanz. Iranian officials argue that by resuming work at Esfahan, they have revived uranium conversion but the fact is that enrichment work can be done only at Natanz, where the status quo prevails.

The revival of the Esfahan facility has also been done under safeguards. Work began only after IAEA monitors had positioned surveillance cameras inside the facility.

Faced with mounting pressure from the U.S. and the E.U., Iran has been defiant, and has pointed out that revival of work at Esfahan has legal sanction. Iranian officials argue that Teheran is entitled to master all aspects of the fuel cycle so long as all its facilities are monitored by the IAEA. This is a right, they say, Iran has acquired as a signatory to the NPT, which encourages the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Article IV of the NPT gives any signatory "an inalienable right to develop, research, produce, and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes", and to acquire technology for this purpose from other signatories.

Sidestepping the legal wrangles, the U.S. has argued that it is "suspicious" of Iranian intentions and wants it to dismantle its nuclear programme entirely. U.S. President George Bush threatened Iran with the possible use of military force in case of non-compliance.

"All options are on the table," Bush said, when asked about the use of force during an interview with an Israeli television channel. "The use of force is the last option for any President. You know we have used force in the recent past to secure our country," he said.

Despite the Bush administration's rhetoric, Iranian authorities are aware that a U.S. military attack on their country is far-fetched so long as American forces remain bogged down in Iraq. With the casualties mounting in Iraq and support for the war dwindling within the U.S., an American attack on Iran is, for the moment, not seen as a possibility. Iranians are also aware that an attack on Iran, the second largest oil producer in the world, would send oil prices sky-rocketing.

It, therefore, did not come as a surprise to Iran when the 35-member board of the IAEA did not recommend its case to the United Nations Security Council. Had the IAEA done so, the Security Council would have been in a position to impose comprehensive sanctions. Nevertheless, at its meeting on August 11 the IAEA board passed a resolution calling Iran to stop enrichment work at Esfahan. The resolution expressed "serious concern" over Iran's resumption of work at Esfahan. The statement said that "outstanding issues relating to Iran's nuclear programme have yet to be resolved, and that the IAEA is not yet in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran." The IAEA has asked its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, to report on Iran's compliance by September 3.

Cyrus Nasseri, Iran's chief negotiator at the IAEA talks, criticised the resolution. It is evident that the motive is to apply pressure, he said. "Fortunately, Iran will not bend. Iran will be a nuclear fuel producer and supplier within a decade," he added. He also warned the U.S. and the E.U. against referring Teheran to the Security Council. "I think that would be a grave miscalculation by the U.S., and particularly by Europe, to move towards the path of confrontation," he said. "There is no legal base whatsoever to go to the Security Council. If there is, it is by political choosing and it will be [a] big, big mistake."

Despite its hardline credentials, the new administration in Iran has said that it is open to negotiations. During his inaugural address, President Ahmadinejad said he had new ideas to break the nuclear deadlock, which he would unveil once members of his administration were appointed. Ahmadinejad stressed that his country would reject foreign coercion.

"Some governments have been trying to deprive our nation of its definite right. Such an attitude forms resistance in people and converts their right into a national pride,'' he said. Ahmadinejad added that Iran would not "follow illegal decisions that plan to violate the rights of the Iranian nation".

The standoff between Iran and the West is likely to continue in the coming days as Teheran appears determined to acquire its grip over the nuclear fuel cycle despite the dissuasive international pressure against it.