Byline: Kenneth R. Timmerman, INSIGHT
Livermore, Calif. - Get ready for another high-profile confrontation with Europe over a rogue state bent on developing weapons of mass destruction. As with Iraq, U.N. arms inspectors have made astonishing finds: undisclosed facilities producing nuclear-weapons material, secret supplier agreements to import banned equipment and officials who have engaged in a systematic effort at deception. This time, with Iran, France and its European partners demonstrated more skill in managing the rhythm of events to prevent escalation into crisis. But, despite their efforts, the crisis emerged on Nov. 20 when the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met in Vienna to debate what to do about dramatic new revelations in Iran and that country's clandestine efforts to acquire the bomb.
Just two days before the fateful meeting which failed to find Iran in "material breach" of its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Secretary of State Colin Powell met with European foreign ministers in Brussels but manifestly failed to win their support for more vigorous action on Iran. Powell warned that the European-backed resolution on Iran being massaged by the IAEA board was inadequate because it lacked "trigger mechanisms in the case of further Iranian intransigence or difficulty." State Department spokesman Richard Boucher added that the United States believes "we need to verify the promises and the information that Iran has put forward" and not just continue with business as usual.
Behind the diplomatic language lurked dramatic new events that could catapult Iran from a rogue state with nuclear aspirations to an imminent threat to the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Two things are key to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapon state, U.S. officials tell Insight: closing down existing but previously undisclosed nuclear plants in Iran and preventing Iran from gaining access to key materials and technologies that
Europe and others continue to provide. Neither seems about to occur without vigorous U.S. action.
The emerging crisis with Iran began earlier this year when IAEA inspectors discovered two previously undeclared uranium-enrichment plants under construction at Natanz, a mountain town just north of Isfahan. A subsequent inspection turned up traces of highly enriched uranium (HEU), a sure sign of a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. Elsewhere, IAEA inspectors discovered facilities the Iranians had tried to keep secret, where they admitted they were converting uranium ore so it could be enriched, and where they had extracted plutonium from spent fuel. Pressed by the IAEA, Iran also admitted that it was building a heavy-water production plant and a separate research reactor in Arak that could fabricate weapons-grade fuel. The IAEA suddenly realized that for 18 years Iran had been submitting false declarations about its nuclear activities.
The Natanz site is particularly worrisome because underground production facilities were being prepared to house some 50,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges which Iran has begun to manufacture locally. Once it goes operational, the Natanz plant could produce enough HEU for an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons within a year.
To head off a crisis, the French, British and German foreign ministers traveled to Tehran for two days of talks in late October and claimed that Iran had pledged to "suspend" its clandestine nuclear programs, including the Natanz enrichment plant. In exchange, Europe agreed to continue trading with Iran [see sidebar] and offered to counter U.S. efforts to haul Iran before the U.N. Security Council for international sanctions. Iran's promises to behave, and Europe's willingness to believe it, left U.S. officials speechless.
Iran has "lied repeatedly" to the IAEA, Assistant Secretary of …