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News Review Special Edition

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International Developments, November 15, 2002 - February 1, 2003

US Alleges Clandestine Nuclear Activity in Iran

On December 13, the US State Department outlined dramatic new evidence purporting to prove that Iran is operating a clandestine and illegal programme to produce weapons-grade fissile materials. The evidence took the form of satellite imagery - first broadcast on CNN on December 12 - of partially concealed structures at the Natanz facility in central Iran. According to State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher: "Iran clearly intended to harden and bury that facility...That facility was probably never intended to be a declared component of the [country's] peaceful [nuclear] program... Iran has been caught constructing a secret underground site where it could produce fissile material." Another suspect site under construction, near the town of Arak, was identified by the Department as a possible heavy water plant. Summarising US analysis of the new intelligence, Boucher told reporters that the satellite images "of secret facilities in Iran reinforce our already grave concern that Iran is seeking technology to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. The suspect uranium enrichment plant, for example, could be used to produce highly-enriched uranium for weapons. The heavy water plant could support a reactor for producing weapons-grade plutonium." Boucher continued:

"These facilities are not justified by the needs of Iran's civilian nuclear program. There is no economic gain for a state that's rich in oil and gas like Iran to build costly nuclear fuel cycle facilities. I would point out that Iran flares more gas annually than the equivalent energy its desired reactors would produce. ... Iran has tried to hide these important facilities, and the United States will continue to emphasize our longstanding effort to get agreement from all countries to refrain from nuclear cooperation with Iran and to thwart Iran's covert efforts to buy or acquire sensitive nuclear equipment and expertise. At this point, the International Atomic Energy Agency is pursuing the matter with Iran. Unfortunately, Iran repeatedly rebuffed IAEA requests for access to the sites. As [IAEA Director General] Dr. [Mohamed] ElBaradei has said, he was supposed to visit this week to see these sites and they have pushed that back now again till February. ... In 1992, the International Atomic Energy Agency called on all states to commit themselves to an early declaration of all their nuclear facilities, and all other International Atomic Energy Agency states with safeguarded materials have accepted this obligation to provide complete design information on new facilities no later than 180 days before the start of construction. So Iran has not accepted that obligation. As a first step, that is something they should do."

The 'desired reactors' mentioned by Boucher refer to the planned facility at Bushehr, due to be constructed with Russian assistance. According to the spokesperson, doubts concerning the Natanz and Arak sites should suffice for Russia to meet a long-standing US request and withdraw from the project: "We've [now] reached the conclusion that Iran is actively working to develop nuclear weapons capability... [We have] always talked about the Bushehr reactor, which will be subject to IAEA safeguards, but said that is being used as a cover and a pretext for obtaining sensitive technologies related to weapons programs." White House Secretary Ari Fleischer commented (December 13) that the "recent disclosure...reinforces the concerns that the President has had all along".

Iran promptly dismissed the allegations. According to government spokesperson Abdollah Ramazanzadeh (December 13): 'We don't have any hidden atomic activities. All our nuclear activities are for non-military fields...". Ramazanzadeh expressed confidence that the planned IAEA inspections would clear his country of any wrongdoing. On January 14, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi remarked: "Within the next 20 years, Iran has to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity from nuclear power... We have been in contact with the IAEA over the two centres, and basically there is no possibility of concealing such centres..." Dr. ElBaradei would only comment (December 13): "This is not a surprise to us. Whether the programme is for peaceful purposes or not, this is obviously for us to verify... Iran [has] affirmed that all their activities are for a peaceful purpose." On December 15, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev expressed confident about the legitimacy of Iran's programme: "There is no proof they have violated anything. For such pressure [from Washington] to be justified, they've got to present evidence of abuse. So far there has been none."

Moscow has striven to justify the completion of the Bushehr contract, worth an estimated $800 million, while seeking to accommodate US concerns. As reported in Disarmament Diplomacy No. 67 (October/November 2002), in early September Moscow concluded an agreement with Tehran for the return of all spent nuclear fuel from the Bushehr reactor to Russia. On January 6, US Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow conceded that this arrangement "helps in reducing our concerns", while adding that "we still believe that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons and that the cooperation with Russia is helping them improve their know-how in this regard." In a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on January 9, Vershbow noted: "In the coming year Russia really needs to make some fundamental choices. It needs to fully contain the proliferation risks from the light-water reactor that they're building at Bushehr. The recent agreement...to take back all the spent nuclear fuel is encouraging, it's a good start, but it's not enough to contain risks from Bushehr. In addition, the Russians need to crack down more effectively on other transfers of technology to Iran, both for WMD and for ballistic missiles. If the situation doesn't get better, it will likely get worse in terms of pressures for new sanctions and new political frictions. On the other hand, if there were a serious change for the better, it could unlock very profitable cooperation in the nuclear and aerospace fields that is now blocked by the Iran Nonproliferation Act. So the challenge is there for Russia to make the right choice." On February 3, the economic advantages of a change of heart by Russia were stressed with equal candour in a State Department policy statement on 'Russia-Iran Nuclear Cooperation':

"We believe that President Putin shares our deep concern at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. We have made clear to Russia that any further nuclear cooperation with Iran, including construction of additional power reactors, will assist directly or indirectly Iran's ambitious quest for nuclear weapons. We have underscored to Russia that an end to Russian nuclear assistance to Iran would allow the United States and Russia to reap the full promise of our new strategic relationship, benefiting Russia economically and strategically far me than ay short-term gain from the construction of additional reactors or more sensitive transfers to Iran. One example is the potential transfer to Russia of spent reactor fuel currently held by third countries, much of which requires US approval for such transfer because the US originally supplied the fresh fuel to those countries. If the Russians end their sensitive cooperation with Iran, we have indicated we would be prepared to favourably consider such transfers, an arrangement worth potentially several billion USD [US dollars] in revenue to Moscow."

Moscow, however, continues to resist US pressure to pull out of the Bushehr deal. On December 25, Minister Rumyantsev, visiting Tehran, told reporters that work to complete the reactor would be expedited, with the possibility of providing a second reactor at Bushehr under active review. Rumyantsev remarked: "We always tell our American colleagues that all Iran-Russia cooperation is in accordance with the regulations and the resolutions of the International Atomic Energy Agency..." Speaking alongside Rumyantsev, Iranian Vice-President Gholamreza Aqazadeh, head of the country's Atomic Energy Organization, stated: "We agreed to speed up the completion process of the Bushehr power plant... A second subject we have agreed upon is to carry out feasibility studies for a second power generation unit. We hope to start a joint study in the next few months..."

Speaking on January 13, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov gave reporters a glowing overview of the Russia-Iran relationship: "Russia carries on a regular political dialogue with Iran, encouraging Tehran's constructive participation in regional affairs with an emphasis on the fight against terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking, and on disarmament, non-proliferation and export control". Such a perspective is clearly incomprehensible to the Bush administration and many in Congress. As one unnamed senior administration official was quoted as remarking in a December story in the New York Times entitled 'US Says Russia Helped Iran in Nuclear Arms Effort': "We are in an uncomfortable position where allies we need very much do not see these proliferation dangers the same way we do. Every week, that is getting more and more obvious."

Note: on February 9, Iran's President, Mohammad Khatami, announced on state television that the government had located and begun to mine uranium in the Savand region of the country, 125 miles from the city of Yazd in central Iran. The President further announced that processing facilities had been prepared in the nearby cities of Isfahan and Kashan. According to Khatami: "Iran has discovered reserves and extracted uranium. We are determined to use nuclear technology for civilian purposes. ... We assure the world that the Islamic Republic of Iran is making use of all domestic facilities to acquire peaceful nuclear technology and considers this its right to do... If we need to produce electricity from our nuclear power plants, we need to complete the circle from discovering uranium to managing remaining spent fuel. The government is determined to complete that circle." See next issue for further details and the predictably alarmed reaction in Washington.

Related material on Acronym website:

Reports: US has new evidence of Iran nuclear program, Reuters, December 12; White House Report, Dec. 13, Washington File, December 13; Excerpt - Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons, says Boucher, Washington File, December 13; IAEA to inspect Iran facilities in February, Reuters, December 13; Iran says has no hidden nuclear activities, Reuters, December 13; Iran says committed to nuclear power program, Reuters, December 14; Russian nuclear minister shrugs off US concern about Iran's nuclear facilities, Associated Press, December 15; US says Russia helped Iran in nuclear arms efforts, New York Times, December 16; Russia, Iran to sign deal on return of spent nuclear fuel, Islamic Republic News Agency, December 16; Russia says to go ahead with Iran nuclear reactor, Reuters, December 25; Iran, Russia consider building a second reactor at Bushehr nuclear power plant, Associated Press, December 25; US ambassador - Washington concerned about Moscow's nuclear cooperation with Tehran, Associated Press, January 6; Speech by Alexander Vershbow, US Ambassador to Moscow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, January 9, CEIP website, http://www.ceip.org; Russian, Iranian diplomats confer on fighting terrorism, Associated Press, January 13; Text - State Department on Russia-Iran nuclear cooperation, Washington File, February 3; Khatami says Iran mines uranium for nuclear plant, Reuters, February 9; Iran discovers uranium reserves, Associated Press, January 9; Iran mining uranium for fuel, BBC News Online, February 9.

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© 2002 The Acronym Institute.