Iran Nuclear NewsNuclear déjà vu: Now it’s Iran that does or...

Nuclear déjà vu: Now it’s Iran that does or doesn’t intend to make nuclear weapons


New York Times: As the Bush administration presses the world’s other major powers to speed ahead with sanctions against Iran, a fascinating puzzle of conflicting evidence, contained in the latest findings by international inspectors, is fueling the debate on whether to confront Tehran over its nuclear activities. The New York Times

Published: September 6, 2006

WASHINGTON, Sept. 5 — As the Bush administration presses the world’s other major powers to speed ahead with sanctions against Iran, a fascinating puzzle of conflicting evidence, contained in the latest findings by international inspectors, is fueling the debate on whether to confront Tehran over its nuclear activities.

Ever since the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report last Thursday, American officials have insisted that it sealed their case. Iran, they argue, has refused the United Nations Security Council’s demand that it cease enriching uranium.

“In the end, that’s all that matters,” R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, said last week. “They have defied the Council.”

The report surprised experts with its revelation of tantalizing new evidence. The inspectors said they had found traces of highly enriched uranium, which can fuel atomic bombs. So far, the Iranians have not explained how it got there, adding to suspicions in the United States and Europe that the inspectors are being shown only part of Iran’s program and that some covert facilities have been hidden.

But the same report also noted that Tehran had made little progress in setting up new equipment at its main nuclear site, at Natanz, to enrich uranium. In the last few days diplomats from the European Union and Russia have cited that finding to bolster the case that there is no urgency and no crisis — and that the Bush administration should back off.

Taken together, those two views put the Bush administration and the United Nations into a situation parallel to where they were on Iraq four years ago this month, in the period leading up to the war there.

In September 2002, Mr. Bush addressed the United Nations, demanding that Saddam Hussein allow international inspectors into Iraq. European and Russian officials have cited that example repeatedly in recent weeks to make the case that imposing sanctions would inevitably lead to Iranian defiance, and from defiance to confrontation.

Over the weekend, Secretary General Kofi Annan appeared to endorse that view.

“I do not believe sanctions are the solution to everything,” Mr. Annan told the French newspaper Le Monde on his way to Iran. “There are times when a little patience is more effective. I think that is a quality we should exercise more often.”

Iran, he said, could prove that its program was benign “by giving the U.N. inspectors access to all its facilities.”

Mr. Bush himself once acknowledged, at a news conference last December, that intelligence failures surrounding the issue of whether Iraq possessed unconventional weapons made it difficult for him to press a credible public case against Iran. Now, outside experts say, he is beginning to pay the price.

Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has argued that the seemingly contradictory evidence reported by the atomic energy agency may simply indicate that Iran’s overt nuclear program is less advanced than its covert efforts to master the fundamentals of nuclear weaponry.

“That’s not only plausible, but likely,” he said in an interview on Monday. “A prudent American approach should include the possibility that the negotiations about the overt track are essentially a conjurer’s distraction to keep us focused on the hand that’s moving while the other one is putting the rabbit into the hat.”

Uranium enriched to low levels can fuel nuclear reactors, which Iran claims as its goal. But skilled engineers can fashion highly enriched uranium into nuclear weapons, which the United States asserts is Tehran’s real objective.

The race to understand Iran’s true intentions intensified in January, when Iran cut the locks and seals that had been placed on its uranium enrichment plants after inspections and restarted its effort to make atomic fuel. By April it announced that it had used a string of 164 centrifuges at its sprawling Natanz plant to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, boasting that the achievement meant that it had joined “the nuclear club.”

At the time, Western atomic experts predicted that Tehran would soon succeed in setting up and operating two more cascades, or strings of centrifuges, each consisting of 164 machines. They expected Iran to do so in May and June, respectively, bringing it much closer to mastering the fundamental technologies of making bomb fuel.

Instead, progress slowed significantly this summer. According to atomic inspectors, Iran completed neither of the two additional cascades and simply did more enrichment tests with the first one.

David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security, a research group in Washington that tracks the Iranian program, concluded in a recent report that “Iran may be either delaying deliberately the pace of its work while diplomatic efforts are under way, or is experiencing technical problems.”

While some European diplomats hail the delays as a reason for a lack of urgency, others say Tehran is intentionally stalling to lessen the odds of international condemnation and to further divide allies seeking atomic curbs and sanctions.

In contrast to the image of Iran’s nuclear backwardness, the atomic energy agency’s report presented stark evidence of strides toward enrichment.

It said the inspectors had found new traces of highly enriched uranium at an Iranian facility — the third such episode in three years. In the earlier cases the agency concluded that at least some of the traces had come from contaminated equipment that Iran had obtained from Pakistan.

But in this instance the nuclear “fingerprints” of the particles did not match those of the other samples, an official familiar with the inspections said, raising questions about the particles’ origin.

In three years of inspections, the agency has discovered more than a dozen circumstantial clues suggesting that Iran harbors hidden nuclear ambitions.

Among the most important was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s boast that the country was researching a new generation of advanced centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Inspectors have never seen those centrifuges.

David E. Sanger reported from Washington for this article, and William J. Broad from New York.

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