Iran Nuclear NewsAs Iran seeks aid, atom agency faces quandary

As Iran seeks aid, atom agency faces quandary


New York Times: At a place called Arak in the desert southwest of Tehran, behind barbed wire and antiaircraft guns, Iran is building a heavy-water nuclear reactor. The government says it will produce radioactive isotopes for medical treatments. As an unavoidable byproduct, it will also make plutonium, one of the primary fuels for atom bombs. The New York Times


At a place called Arak in the desert southwest of Tehran, behind barbed wire and antiaircraft guns, Iran is building a heavy-water nuclear reactor. The government says it will produce radioactive isotopes for medical treatments. As an unavoidable byproduct, it will also make plutonium, one of the primary fuels for atom bombs.

At the International Atomic Energy Agency, inspectors are trying to make sure that Tehran never uses its nuclear infrastructure to make weapons. Indeed, for just that reason, the agency’s board has repeatedly called on the Iranians to abandon the Arak reactor. Yet when the board meets this week in Vienna, it will consider an Iranian request for technical help in safely completing the reactor, which is to go online as soon as 2009.

Traditionally, technical aid has been routinely granted, part of the agency’s efforts to nurture the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Now, though, amid growing international suspicion about Iran’s real nuclear intentions — and especially about a far more publicized part of its nuclear program, the enrichment of uranium — the Arak proposal is provoking bitter and unusual debate.

Calling the reactor an arms threat, the United States and its allies say the agency should deny Iran’s request. Helping make Arak’s operations safe, they say, would only speed the reactor’s completion — and Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power.

But some developing nations say that a rebuff to the Iranians would set a bad precedent that could threaten their own peaceful atomic pursuits. Echoing an argument that Iran has often used in its recent nuclear diplomacy, they frame Arak as a new front in a war between the world’s nuclear haves and have-nots.

In recent days, the dispute has produced a rush of speeches, lobbying and behind-the-scenes arm twisting among members of the agency’s 35-nation board.

“It’s a big deal,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private group in Washington. “This is the first test of the I.A.E.A.’s resolve to pressure Iran to halt this project. If it moves forward, it could give Iran a second track to making nuclear material for bombs.”

Agency officials say a rejection of technical assistance would be unprecedented, and some of them want to press ahead. Last week, the agency’s secretariat said it had found no legal basis to deny the request, diplomats said.

Arak, in short, shows the increasingly delicate nature of the atomic energy agency’s long-running balancing act — part nuclear policeman, part promoter of atomic science and safety. By its nature, the same nuclear technology that lights cities can, with a little extra effort, fuel bombs. A question Arak poses for the agency is whether it must adjust its dual role in a time of heightened concern about nuclear proliferation, not just in the Middle East, but worldwide.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the agency, based in Vienna, denied that the Arak reactor had any use for weapons, saying it would aid hospitals, agriculture and industry.

“The world should know the other side of the coin, not just what the White House says,” he said in an interview. “The international community has the right to see the reality of the exclusively peaceful nature of our activities and our full cooperation with the agency.”

Mr. Soltanieh said Iran had won support for agency assistance to Arak from such international bodies as the group of developing states known as the G-77. “Technical cooperation should not be politicized,” he said. “Iran should be encouraged to use the agency’s technical expertise for nuclear safety.”

But Robert J. Einhorn, who directed nonproliferation at the State Department from 1999 to 2001 and now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the agency’s board should reject aid to “a project conceived long ago as providing Iran another route to a nuclear weapons capability.” Arak, he added, “will be capable of producing enough plutonium for about two bombs a year.”

Mr. Einhorn conceded that the reactor could have peaceful uses, though implausibly so. “A 12-inch hunting knife,” he said, “also could be used to spread jam on your toast in the morning.”

To opponents of the Arak project, it would be surprising were the board to approve the Arak proposal just days after the atomic energy agency reported that inspectors had found unexplained traces of plutonium in Iran, and that Tehran continued to withhold answers to important questions about its nuclear activities.

And it was the agency’s board that, in February, after Iran defied agency demands to halt its uranium enrichment program, decided to report the case to the United Nations Security Council. That set in motion a search for sanctions that still divides the world’s nuclear powers.

The agency’s aid to Iran is part of a wide program of “technical cooperation” that is poorly known outside specialist circles. Still, it accounts for about one-third of the annual agency budget; the agency is spending roughly $100 million on such programs this year. In a way, the projects are a carrot the agency offers to offset its intrusive policing of civilian technologies to bar nations from the secret pursuit of atom bombs. But critics say the deal is intrinsically bad. “Atoms for peace,” they insist, is an illusion that no amount of policing can make real, with dishonest states always able to turn civilian nuclear technologies to destructive ends.

Today, the technical aid program involves more than 100 nations. The agency assisted Iran’s hunt for uranium in the 1980s and currently has 14 cooperative projects with Tehran, including helping it prepare to operate its Bushehr reactor, which is designed to make electricity.

“We provide expert services, so they can learn to do things for themselves,” said M. Peter Salema, an agency official who helps run the Iranian projects. The paramount aim, he added, is reactor safety. “If there is a bad incident, it affects the whole nuclear industry everywhere, like Chernobyl.”

Iran’s new request seeks agency aid not in designing or building the 40-megawatt Arak reactor, but in ensuring its safe operation. Western diplomats say that includes everything from helping Iran learn how to avoid catastrophic plant failure to minimizing radiation dangers in the handling of spent fuel rods, which would bear the plutonium.

That plutonium is the reason Arak has been a subject of concern since construction first came to light in 2002. Atom bombs use two main fuels — plutonium and uranium. In recent years, world attention has focused mainly on Tehran’s efforts to enrich uranium. But weapons designers often prefer plutonium, because it takes less to produce a significant blast, making it ideal for compact missile warheads.

What’s more, experts say heavy-water reactors like Arak are inherently dangerous for nuclear proliferation because they are better at producing weapons-grade plutonium than light-water reactors like Bushehr. Heavy water, so called because it contains a heavy form of hydrogen, slows down speeding neutrons so uranium fuel can absorb them. In some cases, this merging splits uranium atoms in two. In other cases, the uranium is transformed into plutonium. Engineers remove the plutonium from spent fuel in a step known as reprocessing.

The Arak reactor, experts say, is similar in design to heavy-water reactors that Israel, India and Pakistan use to make plutonium for nuclear arms.

The Arak complex holds both the half-built reactor and a sprawling plant for the production of heavy water that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad formally inaugurated in August, saying, “The Iranian people are determined to take big steps.”

The wrangling over aid to Arak began last week at preparatory meetings in Vienna. Egypt and some other developing nations argued for preserving the status quo and trusting the secretariat’s judgment that there was no basis for denying the aid.

The American ambassador to the atomic agency, Gregory L. Schulte, said in an interview that objections had arisen because Arak made little sense from a civil perspective but great sense for making weapons. Moreover, he said, Iran had failed to explain inconsistencies that the agency uncovered in a clandestine Iranian program to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel.

“The United States and other board members,” he said, “cannot agree to have the I.A.E.A. assist the project.”

Some Western diplomats suspect that Iran expected to have the reactor aid denied, and that its real goal was to show that the United States and its allies want to keep the developing world in a state of atomic backwardness.

In a speech last Thursday at the University of Vienna, Mr. Schulte predicted that the agency’s board “will not fall for Iran’s attempt to politicize and misuse the I.A.E.A.’s technical cooperation program.” He stressed his country’s longstanding financial support for technical aid, saying the United States had contributed more than $200 million since 2003. But he added, “Technical cooperation is meant for peaceful purposes, not to help countries build nuclear bombs.”

At the meetings last week, Iran also warned against the politicization of technical aid. An Iranian representative said conservatives in Iran would use a decision to deny the aid as evidence of the West’s malice. “Don’t give fuel to the hard-liners, who are ready to put everything in jeopardy,” he said, according to a diplomat present.

In the interview, Mr. Soltanieh said Washington was wrong to see Arak as a step to acquiring nuclear weapons, insisting that Iran had no plans to build a reprocessing plant that could extract plutonium from Arak’s spent nuclear fuel. “Their calculations and physics are very weak,” he said of American officials. “They make so many mistakes.”

From Monday through Wednesday, a committee of the agency’s board is to study hundreds of proposed aid projects, and the full board is to vote on them when it meets Thursday and Friday. The board, currently led by Slovenia, does not include Iran.

While the United States has lobbied hard on the Arak issue and says it expects to prevail, there are countries on the board that may back Iran, including Bolivia, Cuba and Syria, diplomats said. It takes a simple majority of the board to back or kill a measure.

A possible compromise, some said, would have the issue of Arak aid deferred rather than rejected outright.

Diplomats said that only twice before had technical aid projects drawn political fire. The United States questioned aid to Cuba around 1990 and to North Korea in 1991, but both projects moved ahead, the diplomats said.

Nuclear experts doubt that an aid denial would do much to slow the eventual completion of Arak, given the growing skill of Iranian engineers and Iran’s aggressive nuclear stance.

“No matter what, we are going to continue the construction,” Mr. Soltanieh said. “There’s no way to stop it.”

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