Sometime next week the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will discuss the latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme. This will not be the first time that the governors, representing 32 nations hear a report on that subject. This time, however, they will hear a different tune. They will have to decide whether to declare that the Islamic Republic, having ignored five Security Council resolutions, is in actual conflict with the United Nations. The stage is being set for a showdown between Tehran and the UN.
For almost 20 years, the United Nations nuclear watchdog did its best not to notice the slow but steady building of a military nuclear capability in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
First, Hans Blix, the Swedish director of the IAEA, pulled the wool on he governors’ eyes by admitting that Iran might have cheated on its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) but still merited being given a second chance. His successor, the Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei went further by casting himself in the role of apologist-in-chief for Tehran’s nuclear program. Even when IAEA inspectors discovered evidence that Tehran was secretly enriching uranium, something that the mullahs had repeatedly denied, ElBaradei insisted that the intentions of the Islamic Republic were purely peaceful.
The IAEA’s new director, the Japanese Yukia Amano has no desire to play happy cuckold and harbors no presidential ambitions. This is why he has allowed the publication of a new report confirming decade-old suspicions that the Iranian program may be a facade for building a nuclear arsenal.
The report to be discussed at a meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors in Vienna March 1-5 is likely to report the Islamic Republic to the United Nations’ Security Council.
The report breaks a number of taboos raised by Blix and ElBaradei. It uses forbidden words and phrases such as missiles, payload, and military purposes. The report sets the whole issue in a new framework by making four crucial points:
1. Iran has never fully cooperated with the IAEA inspectors, and its level of cooperation in recent months has declined further.
2. Iran may have had a secret parallel nuclear program for some time.
3. There is concern about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.
4. Iran is in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and five Security Council resolutions.
Iran’s nuclear journey started in 1956 with the setting up of a project under President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atom for Peace. The first batch of Iranian students studying nuclear physics was dispatched to the United States in 1958. In 1967 the first atomic reactor, a gift from the US, started work in Amirabad, then a suburb of Tehran but now absorbed into the city itself.
By 1970, Iran had set up a full Atomic Energy Commission ostensibly to supervise the building of 20 nuclear power stations in a decade but with the obvious goal of mastering the entire nuclear technology, including the ability to make warheads. Contracts to build the promised power stations were signed with France, Germany, Canada and the United States. However, by the time the Shah’s regime fell in 1979 only one nuclear power station, designed by a German company, was under construction in Iran. Four years later, French Super-Etandard planes, loaned to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, destroyed the unfinished edifice.
Iran’s new ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini claimed that the Shah’s nuclear project had been nothing but a “Zionist-Crusader” plot and would have no place in the new Islamic Republic.
Retired General Mohsen Rezai, former Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps now claims that Khomeini changed his mind shortly before his death and ordered the resumption of the Shah’s project.
In 1989, just weeks after Khomeini’s death his successor as “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, revived the Atomic Energy Commission with a grander mission to “master the entire possibilities of this new technology.”
In 1993, the Islamic Republic developed its so-called “new defense doctrine” under the guidance of then President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
That “doctrine” provided for the development of a massive infantry, a large arsenal of missiles, and a nuclear capability.
Over the past two decades, the Islamic Republic has developed several generations of missiles with help from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Austria, Switzerland and, above all, North Korea. In 1994, the Islamic Republic concluded a defense cooperation agreement, the only one of its kind, with North Korea, which, among other things, envisaged an ambitious missile project. Today, the Islamic Republic’s short and medium-range missiles, the Shahab (Meteor) I and Shahab II are believed to be among the most efficient weapons of their kind in the region. Tehran has also developed the first generation of Zelzal (Earthquake) and Sajjil (Enforcer) missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads for use against “enemy troop concentrations.”
Most experts believe that Tehran now has a fully-fledged domestic missiles industry capable of producing anything from short-range Soviet-designed Katuyshas, which Tehran has given to the Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza, to Shahab III and Shahab IV missiles capable of hitting most targets in the Middle East and Europe.
Because these missiles could carry only small payloads, they would make little sense if used as conventional weapons. For example, hitting a target in Italy with 75 kilograms of conventional explosives would do little damage. The outcome would be different if the payload is nuclear. This is why the second pillar of the new defense doctrine would make sense only if the third is in place.
That third pillar is the nuclear project, put under the direct control of the IRGC in the 1990s. The initial aim was to create the industrial, scientific and technological infrastructure needed to build an atomic arsenal without actually building the bomb right away.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now claims that the needed infrastructure is already in place. The next step is to learn to enrich uranium up to the 90 degrees needed to build a warhead.
Despite repeated promises to the UN, the Islamic Republic continues with its enrichment program. Last year it was enriching up to 3.5 per cent. Today it is enriching to 20 per cent. The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Commission, Ali-Akbar Salehi, an MIT graduate, claims that enrichment up to 80 per cent is “within our reach in a few months.” Despite continued technical difficulties, the Islamic Republic may well be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium at its Natanz facility to build half a dozen or so atomic bombs within the next 18 to 24 months. It is also building a new plant in Arak to build warheads using plutonium.
Anyone familiar with the thinking of Iran’s current messianic leaders knows that the Islamic Republic will not abandon its nuclear ambitions under diplomatic pressure or because of President Barack Obama’s undeniable charm.
Those who regard a nuclear-armed Khomeinist regime, now increasingly dominated by its military-security elite, as a threat to regional and world peace, would have to think of something more effective for dealing with a regime bent on defying the United Nations.