Heading off a nuclear Iran

October 10, 2003|By Bennett Ramberg

LOS ANGELES - The international community is turning up the diplomatic heat on Iran's nuclear ambitions. But judging from the investment Tehran has already made to get the bomb, the diplomacy is unlikely to bear fruit, and another Middle East crisis is looming as a result.

Pressed by the United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency imposed an Oct. 31 deadline on Iran to reveal the hidden details about its nuclear program. If Iran fails to fully comply, the IAEA appears likely to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for action as early as November.

The mullahs have objected vehemently. But they know the consequence is unlikely to be serious in the short term.

Iraq demonstrated that the council is largely a debating society that will spend years issuing resolutions before acting in a resolute way. And by that time, Iran can make further progress to advance its nuclear ambitions. Still, Iran can use all the time it can get. Accordingly, we should not be surprised to see Tehran act in the "spirit of cooperation" to provide the IAEA with most of the documentation it requests. Indeed, the Iranians already have become more "forthcoming" by providing a list of imported parts.

Should Iran and the IAEA come to an understanding by the end of the month, Tehran will be able to pursue a legitimate program that will bring the country up to the nuclear weapons threshold. At this point - still a few years from now - it will be able to legally disavow the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty through its withdrawal provision. This permits a party to leave the agreement when "extraordinary events ... have jeopardized the supreme interests." North Korea's departure already provides a precedent.

But before all this happens, there will be another nuclear milestone in Iran's nuclear endeavors, namely the commencement of operations at its nuclear power plant near the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr. Built with Russian assistance, the plant is scheduled to go into operation in 2004 or 2005.

Washington speculates that Tehran can extract from the reactor's spent fuel weapons-grade plutonium. As a result, for years the United States pressed Moscow to halt assistance. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin remained unbending in his recent Camp David visit with President Bush. But Moscow has agreed to repatriate the plant's spent fuel. While this would eliminate the risk of plutonium diversion in the near future - assuming Iran complied - in years ahead the matter may become academic as Iran develops the potential to generate its own nuclear fuel.

Watching these events with enormous anxiety is Israel, which has told the Bush administration that it will not permit Iran to go forward with a program that can produce nuclear weapons. Israel, of course, is the only nation to have successfully bombed a nuclear plant to halt proliferation when it destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. Then, as now, time was of the essence.

To avoid the release of radiation, Israel chose to hit the plant before operations began. The Iranian plant - larger than Chernobyl - poses a far greater radiological hazard. Once operations commence, its destruction could result in radiological contamination spreading across the gulf oil fields, putting the world's energy supplies at risk.

Given Israel's distrust of Iran's nuclear ambitions, once Moscow sets a date for the fuel export, we should not be surprised to wake up one morning and find that the Bushehr plant and other Iranian nuclear facilities are a smoldering ruin as a result of an Israeli ballistic missile and/or air assault.

Israel's attack on Syria on Saturday is a harbinger. The United States, which has its own concerns that Iran's nuclear ambitions could provide terrorists with the wherewithal to mount a nuclear act, will have given Israel a wink and a nod. But with U.S. forces caught in the middle sitting in Iraq, we should expect payback in the form of stepped-up Iranian activity to expel them, plunging the region into yet another crisis.

Bennett Ramberg served in the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the first Bush administration.

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