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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 71, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 71, June - July 2003

News Review

US Turns Fierce Diplomatic Fire on Iran and Syria over WMD, Terrorism


As set out in the lead item in this News Review, the United States has been quick to draw new lessons from the military triumph of Operation Iraqi Freedom for international efforts to combat the threat of weapons of mass destruction. By its own account, for the Bush administration this threat resides not in the weapons themselves but in their possession by 'rogue' or 'outlaw' regimes, defined as such in part by their connections with international terrorist organisations. By virtue (the argument runs) of their closed, tyrannical nature, such states are likely to cheat on those non-proliferation obligations they have assumed, and are unlikely to mend their ways as the result of diplomatic pressure or the strengthening of multilateral arms control agreements. Such states may, however - particularly in the wake of the Iraq War - prove susceptible to more forthright pressures: economic, political, and military. In the period under review, two states in the Middle East region - Iran and Syria - were placed in the diplomatic firing line by Washington and pounded with accusations of rogue state behaviour and clandestine WMD activity. While there was no suggestion of imminent military action against either Damascus or Tehran, there was every indication of a new push - intended to be decisive, and designed to be swift - in long-standing US efforts to compel radical changes in the policy, orientation and even the internal system of both regimes.


Concern is rising, in both Washington and other, predominantly western, capitals, over the status and purpose of Iran's evolving nuclear programme. As reported in recent issues, in December last year the US drew attention to two facilities, both under construction, described by administration officials as clandestine and clearly designed to produce weapons-grade materials. The IAEA paid its first, delayed visit to the two sites - a uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz, and a heavy-water plant in Arak - in late February, and plans to deliver a detailed, interim assessment to the Agency's Board of Governors meeting in Vienna in mid-June. (See the Acronym Institute website and the next issue of Disarmament Diplomacy for extensive coverage.) The Agency's inspections came shortly after the announcement by Iranian President Mohamed Khatami (February 9) that the country had begun to mine newly-discovered reserves of uranium, and was now, in the President's words, determined to "complete the circle from discovering uranium to managing spent fuel".

IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, who led the Agency's delegation to Iran, is strongly urging the Khatami government to concluding an Additional Protocol agreement allowing for the introduction of a strengthened system of safeguards and inspections. Such a step, ElBaradei argues, would provide significant reassurance to the international community of the benign nature of the Iranian nuclear programme. Tehran, pointing out that only a small number of states (29) have so far signed the Additional Protocol, counters that no reassurance will persuade the White House to call off a campaign whose real aim is to deprive Iran of its rights under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enjoy the non-military benefits of nuclear energy. Iran further maintains that its desire to develop a fully independent fuel-cycle is primarily a response to US pressure on Russia to stop assisting Tehran's nuclear programme, both by supplying uranium and completing the construction of a light-water reactor (LWR) at Bushehr. Such arguments are in turn dismissed as spurious by US officials, who allege that Iran is trying to circumvent its own agreement to allow Russia to take back all spent fuel generated at Bushehr. American officials also incessantly raise a more fundamental cloud over Iran's programme: why, given the country's enormous reserves of oil and gas, is such an effort necessary at all?

The stage thus seems set for a major confrontation in Vienna in June. On May 8, President Bush, while careful not to prejudge the outcome of the Board of Governors meeting, made clear that he expected the Agency to take a firm stand: "We'll wait and see what it [the IAEA] says... I've always expressed my concerns that the Iranians may be developing a nuclear weapons..." In fact, since the President's May 1 declaration of an end to major combat operations in Iraq, US officials have been suggesting that the IAEA is now in possession of enough facts to declare Iran in non-compliance of the NPT, a move which would almost certainly move the issue to the UN Security Council and open the path to stringent international sanctions.

Washington insists that this new stance - moving beyond accusation to condemnation - stems not from events in Iraq but rather from the dramatic new evidence of an accelerating nuclear weapons effort in Iran itself. In particular, officials describe the preliminary findings, not yet released, from the IAEA's February inspections of the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility as disturbing in the extreme. On May 8, the Washington Post quoted an unnamed senior administration official stating that "we were surprised by the scale of the discoveries by the Director General. We knew that Iran was working on a centrifuge programme. But we were surprised by the number of centrifuge pieces waiting to be assembled. They had a hundred-plus centrifuges built, and they were building more." The same report quoted another unnamed official as remarking: "It's not just that Iran is speeding up its nuclear plans. It's also that we've only recently learned some things about their programme that have been going on for two years." The official added: "There's also been a lot of hammering from the Israelis for us to take this problem seriously." Such candour, even anonymous, is perhaps surprising, given the constant claims of double-standards in US policy, turning a blind eye to Israel's unsafeguarded nuclear facilities and reportedly extensive nuclear weapons capability while presenting unproven allegations against other states as proof of illegal, 'rogue' activity.

Despite the opening of Natanz to inspection, a senior US official told Reuters on May 6: "Nothing that we have seen suggests the Iranians are being transparent... It's deny and deceit, cheat and retreat. Nothing that we see about the programme convinces us they are in compliance [with the NPT]... I believe if there is a finding of non-compliance [at the IAEA Board Meeting in June], it has to be at least reported to the UN Security Council..." The official added that it was "difficult to see what could be reported to the Board...that doesn't constitute a violation". Undeclared operation of Natanz or Arak would clearly breach Iran's safeguards obligations as a non-nuclear-weapon NPT party; enrichment of undeclared uranium - even for purposes of testing equipment - would likewise constitute a clear transgression.

In Vienna on May 6, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, the Director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, held a private briefing for 135 diplomats from IAEA member states. A number of officials attending the briefing - a 40-minute presentation, followed by questions - provided details to reporters. With regard to the status of the Natanz plant, one diplomat told Reuters (May 6) that Aqazadeh had maintained "that they haven't tested" the enrichment system yet, and that "the first machine is supposed to be tested in the next few months". The likelihood of so many centrifuges being prepared for operation without any prior testing was, according to the diplomat, challenged in "tough questioning" from the representatives of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and others. The issue, of course, raises the spectre of Iranian importation of the centrifuges. According to a senior IAEA official, quoted by NBC news on May 8, the Agency's February inspection teams had expressed "shocked" certainty that the centrifuges originated in Pakistan. The only question, the official remarked, "is where the factory is that supplied the Iranian facility at Natanz - is it in Pakistan, or is it in North Korea?" The comment reflects widespread and long-standing suggestions - angrily denied in Islamabad and Pyongyang - of close collusion between the Pakistan and North Korean nuclear and missile programmes.

With regard to prospects for Iranian accession to the Additional Protocol, the diplomat quoted by Reuters on May 6 noted that Aqazadeh "put conditions on signing it. They want an end to the [US] embargo and access to nuclear technology." Another diplomat told the news agency that Iran "would be the first country to sign the Additional Protocol, which is supposed to prove a country's nuclear transparency, by bargaining for it." On May 7, Iranian government spokesperson Abdollah Ramazanzadeh told reporters: "We have fully cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency on our nuclear programme. It is very unlikely that the IAEA condemns Iran for violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty... Our nuclear programme is clear and transparent..."

Responding to Iran's diplomatic offensive, US State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher (May 8) noted dismissively: "We completely reject Iran's claim that it's doing this for peaceful purposes." Iran's claim of full transparency was, Boucher added, equally hollow: "Iran admitted to constructing a...uranium-enrichment plant and heavy-water plant only after it had no choice, because this had been [made] public... The...uranium-enrichment plant could be used to produce highly-enriched uranium for weapons. A heavy water plant could support a reactor for producing weapons grade plutonium. There is no economic justification for a state that's rich in oil and gas like Iran to build hugely expensive nuclear fuel-cycle facilities. Iran flares off more gas annually than the equivalent energy its desired reactors would produce. States with peaceful nuclear energy programmes have nothing to hide, and Iran did its best to hide all of these nuclear fuel cycle activities. Until this year, Iran had been the only state not to accept the International Atomic Energy Agency's 1992 call for states to declare new nuclear facilities before construction. It finally agreed to do so in late February - only because of intense pressure. ... The United States has made clear to the International Atomic Energy Agency, to other governments, and to the public that we strongly support a rigorous examination of Iran's nuclear activities."

On May 9, the State Department detailed its efforts to dissuade Russia from continuing its assistance to the Iranian nuclear programme. A written statement issued in response to media questions noted: "Senior US officials have repeatedly raised with senior Russian officials our view that Russia should reconsider its ongoing cooperation with Iran and disavow any additional cooperation. Russia agrees that we share a mutual interest in ensuring that Iran abides by its NPT and IAEA obligations... At the same time, Russia continues nuclear cooperation with Iran... We also believe that Iran attempts to support its nuclear programme via covert procurement efforts. All members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, except Russia, have agreed in principle not to provide nuclear cooperation to Iran. Most have put in place strong export control policies, including catch-all controls, and are willing to exercise this option to deny nuclear-related exports to Iran. Unfortunately, countries that are procuring clandestine nuclear programmes typically employ illicit procurement tactics to circumvent export controls, including use of front companies, falsification of end use or end user information, and use of third countries as intermediaries. In this way, Iran can target any state with both nuclear or dual-use technology, and it is important that all states with such technology be alert to such attempts."

In Moscow on May 5, US Undersecretary of State John Bolton discussed the issue with Alexander Rumyantsev, Russia's Minister of Atomic Energy and long-time defender of the Bushehr reactor project. Speaking after the meeting, Bolton told reporters: "We think these and other examples, and the overall clandestine way Iran has carried out this activity, demonstrate why Iran is in violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. The Russian government has a somewhat different view at present. On May 6, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov told the Interfax news agency that "Very sound evidence is needed to accuse anyone" of violating such serious obligations. "So far," Losyukov claimed, "neither the United States nor any other countries can present such evidence." The Minister described the Iranian programme as, to the best of Moscow's knowledge, "strictly in line with IAEA norms".

On April 22, Atomic Energy Minister Rumyantsev told a press conference that detailed plans to guarantee the return of spent nuclear fuel from Bushehr to Moscow were close to completion: "Russia and Iran have agreed on a return of irradiated fuel to this country, and we plan to sign an agreement with [the] Iranians to that effect shortly... Authorities in both countries are preparing special notes on the issue. They will be exchanged by diplomatic channels." Rumyantsev elaborated: "The Iranians believe - and we support them on it - that the fact they buy the fuel from Russia means it becomes Iranian property, and Russia will have to pay for the irradiated fuel. We'll make special provisions on it in the purchase agreements."

Visiting Tehran on April 24, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin directly appealed to President Khatami to defuse the crisis by "signing the Additional Protocol...as demanded by Mr. ElBaradei". However, a statement issued the same day by the President's office seemingly confirmed the view that no movement would be forthcoming on the Protocol issue in the absence of compromise on the question of nuclear technology: "Why do countries possessing such technology not respect the principles of the Non-Proliferation Treaty by not helping us in turn to acquire it?"

Note: please see Rebecca Johnson's report in this edition of Disarmament Diplomacy for details and analysis of the extensive treatment of the Iran issue at the NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting in Geneva (April 28-May 9).


As reported in the last issue, at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom in late March, the Bush administration accused Syria of a number of "hostile acts" undertaken in support of the regime in Baghdad. These actions allegedly included transfers of military supplies, providing safe haven to Iraqi officials, and perhaps allowing its territory to be used to shelter Iraqi WMD materials and equipment. The backdrop to the administration's accusations - all vehemently denied by officials in Damascus - is the long-standing US designation of Syria as a state-sponsor of terrorism and a clandestine possessor and developer of chemical and biological weapons.

On April 13, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told CBS television that Syria was persisting in "making a lot of bad mistakes, a lot of bad judgments". The same day, President Bush told reporters: "I think that we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria... Each situation requires a different response and, of course we're - first things first. We're in Iraq now. And the second thing about Syria is that we expect cooperation. And I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation." On April 14, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer stated bluntly: "Syria is indeed a rogue nation". Fleischer then quoted from a Central Intelligence Report, released to Congress on April 11, on recent proliferation trends. According to the study, a review of developments during the first half of last year, Syria "sought CW [chemical weapons] related precursors and expertise from foreign sources during the reporting period. Damascus already held a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, but apparently is trying to develop more toxic and persistent nerve agents". The same day, Secretary of State Colin Powell commented that in "light of this new environment" in the Middle East following the destruction of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship - leaving Syria as the only Ba'athist regime in the region - the leadership in Damascus would be well-advised to "review their actions and their behaviour, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria, and [their own] weapons of mass destruction [programmes], but especially the support of terrorist activity".

The flurry of comment aroused immediate international alarm. A spokesperson for Kofi Annan noted (April 14) that the UN Secretary-General "is concerned that recent statements directed at Syria should not contribute to a wider destabilization in a region already affected heavily by war..." The European Union's senior foreign policy diplomat, Javier Solana, suggested (April 14): "The region is going through a very difficult process and I think it would be better to make constructive comments to see if we can cool down the situation". German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (April 14) agreed: "We should concentrate on winning the peace and not...get into a new confrontation".

On April 15, Secretary Powell sought to assuage such concern, arguing "Iraq was a unique case": "There is no war plan to go and attack someone else, either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or imposing democratic values. ... There is no 'list'..." UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (April 14) told reporters in Kuwait: "As far as 'Syria is next on the list', we made clear that it is not... There is no 'next' list... There are important questions which the Syrians need to answer." Straw continued: "There is much evidence of considerable cooperation between the Syrian government and the Saddam regime in recent months... It is very important for Syria to appreciate that there is a new reality now the Saddam regime is gone, and that its policies reflect that new reality... Syria [must] fully cooperate over these questions that have been raised about the fact that some fugitives from Iraq may well have fled into Syria, and other matters including whether they have in fact been developing any kind of illegal or illegitimate chemical or biological arms..."

Syria's basic response to its portrayal as a clandestine WMD-possessor is to couple denial - "how can the Americans accuse Syria of having what they can't find on Iraqi territory?", as Foreign Minister Faruq Shara asked on April 12 - with a demand for a comprehensive approach to the WMD issue in the region. On April 16, on behalf of the 22-state Arab League, Syria introduced a draft resolution in the UN Security Council calling for all states in the region to join all three anti-WMD treaties: the NPT, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Israel, citing threats to its national security and the need for a comprehensive regional peace settlement, stands outside all three treaties; Syria, citing Israel's stance, has yet to ratify the CWC and BWC. Syrian Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe described the resolution as representing "a very important factor for the peace process and settling the peace and security [situation] in the Middle East". Supporting "as a goal" the "removal of all weapons of mass destruction from the entire Middle East region", US Ambassador John Negroponte identified two problems with the draft text: first, "the focus at the moment is the search for WMD in Iraq"; second, "we're concerned about Syria's own WMD." Speaking the day before, Secretary Powell had effectively expressed a position identical to Israel's: "If we can move forward with a comprehensive peace process that leads to a comprehensive solution...and ultimately have that comprehensive solution reach out and touch Lebanon and Syria, then I think a lot of pieces will begin to fall in place with respect to what people's various needs are. But right now we will just continue to say that we believe that the entire region should be free of weapons of mass destruction."

On April 17, Powell declared his intent to visit Syria as part of a tour of the region in early May. Speaking on PBS television, Powell put the planned trip in context: "As I have said...there is no war plan on anyone's desk right now to go marching on Syria... [Our comments in recent days] were designed to point out some rather straightforward truths and facts: one, that Syria has sponsored terrorism over the years...and that's been a concern to us, especially the support they provide to Hezbollah. We also have stated clearly over the years that we believe Syria is developing weapons of mass destruction and we are concerned about, especially, their chemical weapons programme. I think what highlighted it at this point in time, however, is the changed situation in the region. We have been successful in Iraq. There is a new dynamic in that part of the world. And we want to point out strongly to the Syrians that this is a time for you to take another look at your policies." Speaking on CBS television, Imad Moustapha, Syria's deputy permanent representative to the UN, stated: "We will welcome Secretary Powell in Damascus... We don't want any more inflaming of this region... Isn't this enough? Isn't one war enough?"

The visit took place on May 3, when Powell held meetings with President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Shara. Speaking on NBC television on May 4, the Secretary of State remarked that there would now be "no illusions" in President Assad's mind "as to what we are looking for": "There was, as we put it in diplomatic terms, a candid exchange of views, but it is not promises that we are interested in, or assurances, it is action. We will see what happens in the days, weeks, months ahead. ... What I said to him is that we will be watching, and we would measure performance over time, to see whether Syria is now prepared to move in a new direction in light of these changed circumstances..." Asked on CBS television what would happen if the US didn't like what it saw, Powell remarked: "There are consequences lurking in the background..."

With regard to the WMD-dimension of what the US would now like to see, perhaps the clearest articulation of the administration's position came from Undersecretary of State John Bolton on April 9. In the context of the collapse of the Iraqi regime, Bolton told a press conference in Rome, "I think Syria is a good case where I hope that they will conclude that the chemical weapons programme and the biological weapons programme that they have been pursuing are things that they should give up... It is a wonderful opportunity for Syria to forswear the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and, as with other governments in the region, to see if there are not new possibilities in the Middle East peace process..."

Related material on Acronym website:

Reports: US tells Iran, Syria, N. Korea 'learn from Iraq', Reuters, April 9; Unclassified report to Congress on the acquisition of technology relating to weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional munitions, 1 January through 30 June 2002, US Director of Central Intelligence, Unclassified Report to Congress, April 11; France urges end to US-Syrian war of words over Iraq, Agence France Presse, April 12; White House warns 'Syria needs to cooperate', Washington File, April 14; Bush accuses Syria of harbouring chemical weapons, Global Security Newswire, April 14; Bush administration ratchets up pressure on Syria, Reuters, April 14; Britain - there are no plans to invade Syria next, Reuters, April 14; France says will be pragmatic on postwar Iraq, Reuters, April 14; US has no further war plans, Powell says, Washington File, April 15; Powell asserts no plan for war with Syria, Associated Press, April 15; US favors WMD-free Mideast, linked to peace, Reuters, April 15; Syria introduces Arab-backed resolution, Associated Press, April 16; Syria asks UN to put heat on Israel's nuclear arms, Reuters, April 16; Powell welcomes N. Korea nuclear talks, Associated Press, April 17; Transcript - Powell says it's time for Syria to take another look at its policies, Washington File, April 18; Official - Russia to supply nuclear fuel to Iran - Tass, Dow Jones, April 22; France urges Iran to allow tighter IAEA checks, Reuters, April 24; France sees progress on nuclear issue, human rights in Iran, Agence France Presse, April 24; Powell outlines objectives of talks with Syrian leaders, Washington File, May 3; Powell calls for cooperation from Syria in 'new situation' in Mideast, Washington File, May 4; Powell warns US will be 'watching' Syria, Reuters, May 4; Powell - Syria now knows what US wants, Associated Press, May 4; Syria to face 'consequences' if it fails to pull weight in region, Agence France Presse, May 5; US pressures Russia over Iran nuclear cooperation, Reuters, May 5; US concerned over Iran nuclear program, Associated Press, May 5; US says Iran failing to clear up nuclear concerns, Reuters, May 6; Iran defends nuclear program - diplomats doubtful, Reuters, May 6; Iran denies having nuke weapons program, Associated Press, May 6; Russia - no sign Iran sought banned nukes, Associated Press, May 6; Iran expects clean bill of health from IAEA, Reuters, May 7; New US concerns on Iran's pursuit of nuclear arms, New York Times, May 8; US wants nuclear ruling against Iran - NY Times, Reuters, May 8; Bush voices concern about Iran's nuclear programs, Reuters, May 8; UN watchdog considers Iran compliance, Reuters, May 8; US ramps up pressure over Iran nukes, NBC News Online, May 8; Iran - IAEA not ready to rule on Tehran's nuclear program, Global Security Newswire, May 9; Excerpt - State Department voices 'serious concern' over Iran's nuclear program, Washington File, May 9; Text - US has consulted Russia and China over Iranian nuclear facilities, Washington File, May 9.

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