Los Angeles Times: Iranian officials made clear Tuesday that international outrage at North Korea’s declared test of a nuclear bomb would not deter them from moving ahead with their own nuclear program. The Los Angeles Times
Tehran vows to proceed with its nuclear efforts. Analysts say it may even be reassured by global uncertainty over how to punish Pyongyang.
By Alissa J. Rubin, Times Staff Writer
PARIS Iranian officials made clear Tuesday that international outrage at North Korea’s declared test of a nuclear bomb would not deter them from moving ahead with their own nuclear program.
Indeed, the North Korean test comes as a relief to Iran because it takes the focus off its program which Tehran says is aimed only at producing electricity, not weapons and channels American ire toward Pyongyang, analysts said. They added that the international community’s uncertainty about how to punish North Korea seems to have reinforced the Iranian government’s belief that it has little to fear by proceeding with its program, vindicating its decision to resist international pressure to suspend it.
Western intelligence agencies disagree about how long it would take Iran to reach the point North Korea apparently arrived at this week. The U.S. government says officially that Iran is as much as a decade away from a nuclear weapon, but Israeli intelligence analysts and evidence from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear monitoring arm, suggest it could detonate a device much sooner.
A former American nuclear weapons expert with access to the latest intelligence said Iran was within a year or less of being able to set off a test explosion.
Iran’s program is designed to produce enriched uranium, which can be used as fuel for a reactor. When enriched to a higher level, uranium can be used to make a bomb.
Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran would insist on its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to develop the nuclear fuel cycle for civilian purposes.
“Our policy is clear insisting on the nation’s right without any retreat,” state television quoted Khamenei as saying to a meeting of high-ranking government officials.
Two years ago, the Islamic Republic tried the path of negotiation, suspended its enrichment program and got nothing for it, Khamenei suggested. Now, he said, the program will proceed full bore.
“Two years ago [when”> we started suspending uranium enrichment, if we didn’t experience that path, we would have blamed ourselves for not testing that path,” he said. “But today, we are going ahead with courage because no one can provide an acceptable reason why Iran’s nuclear path is wrong.”
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a strong supporter of his nation’s nuclear program, echoed the cleric’s thoughts, telling the group that Iran’s most recent proposal to negotiate with European countries and the United States was as far as the country would go.
Longtime Iran watchers in the United States say the Iranian leadership has drawn lessons from watching North Korea, as well as India and Pakistan, both of which tested nuclear weapons in 1998.
Both India and Pakistan were severely censured at the time, and the United States initially imposed stiff economic penalties against both. But today, the United States considers Pakistan “a major non-NATO ally,” and the Bush administration is pushing a deal to sell nuclear technology to India. Analysts say the Iranians have concluded that the consequences of obtaining the bomb appear to have been positive for both countries.
“Iran has already convinced itself that like other great civilizations, like India, they can get away with it,” said Gary Samore, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. If the United Nations Security Council “can actually mount an effective action against North Korea, [Iran”> might be concerned,” Samore added, but for now, the leadership in Tehran appears unworried.
A U.S. Defense Department analyst who closely follows Iran expressed a similar view. “I imagine the Iranians will be even more certain, more resolved that there really isn’t anything that could be done to stop them if they choose to continue, so why not move ahead,” the analyst said.
Western governments have cited several pieces of evidence suggesting that Iran wants more than just a civilian program: Until 2002, the country’s nuclear program was clandestine for 18 years, in violation of the nonproliferation treaty, of which Iran is a signatory.
After Iran was forced to disclose its program, officials continued to refuse to answer many of the questions raised by the IAEA. U.N. inspectors were denied access to some sites for nearly two years, and one of the sites was razed during that time, virtually eliminating the chances of inspectors being able to detect whether nuclear material had ever been there.
At another military site, Parchin, U.S. intelligence agencies believed that Iran was testing explosives that could be part of a triggering system for a nuclear bomb. Although international inspectors found no trace of nuclear material at the site, they had limited access to the vast area. The IAEA has independently found documents explaining how to cast uranium into hemispheres, a step necessary only in making a bomb.
Diplomats from the United States, the European Union and other countries have been working for more than three years to persuade Iran to halt its efforts to enrich uranium.
The effort fell apart in April when Tehran announced it had successfully enriched uranium to a low level at its pilot plant at Natanz.
In the Middle East, the emphasis is on the slender hope of reversing the tide, by persuading North Korea to back down and refrain from further tests, said the Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations agencies in Vienna.
“Now that Korea has performed a nuclear test, I think what’s important is that everything is reversible, the issue of denuclearization should be pushed. What happened in North Korea has implications for the whole nonproliferation regime,” he said.