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Iran Nuclear Issues: US and European Viewpoint

Much of the debate about the ‘Iranian nuclear threat’ is driven not so much by any hard evidence about a weapon driven program but by concern that Iran’s mastery of civilian technology would provide the means to rapidly develop a weapons capability should it wish to do so in the future. President Bush has claimed that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons that .could trigger “World War III”, while Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has warned Iran ay be seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Sceptics of Iran’s intentions cite Iran’s concealment of many nuclear activities for nearly two decades in violation of its NPT safeguards obligations. According to The Economist magazine, “even before the election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Iran was negotiating in bad faith. During this period, European officials believe, it continued to work in secret on nuclear research, having promised to suspend uranium enrichment.” Note that Iran only promised to suspend enrichment on a temporary basis, which it verifiably did according to the IAEA, but did not make promise to suspend all nuclear research. The Iranians also attribute the concealment f portions of their nuclear program to the fact that the US repeatedly hampered their overt attempts at acquiring the necessary technology for their program.

Some sceptics also argue that energy and economic considerations would not justify Iran’s nuclear power program, since “if Iran really were short on energy, it could build gas fired power plants at much lower cost, or make better use of its vast hydraulic resources;” and that the huge investment needed for nuclear power would pay greater returns if used to maintain or upgrade Iran’s basic oil industry infrastructure. In another story the Economist magazine argued that “learning to enrich uranium--a hugely costly venture--still makes questionable economic sense for Iran, since it lacks sufficient natural uranium to keep them going and would have to import the stuff.” However, independent studies conducted in the National Academy of Science in the US and Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the British Parliament have since confirmed that Iran has a valid economic basis for its nuclear energy program. Another analysis of the economics of Iran’s investment in nuclear fuel cycle activities, including mining, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication, condludes that they are poor energy investments compared to capturing and generating electricity from natural gas that is currently flared from oil fields.

However, the British parliamentary report specifically stated that “the gas flared off by Iran is not recoverable for energy use” and that “other energy-rich countries such as Russia use nuclear power to generate electricity and we do not believe that the United States or any other country has the right to dictate to Iran how it meets its increasing demand for electricity” Sceptics also argue that other countries, such as Russia and France, have offered to provide uranium for power generation, and that Iran is fully capable of having nuclear power without needing to enrich its own uranium.

In March 2005, the New York Times reported that a bipartisan Congressional inquiry concluded that the United States had inadequate intelligence to reach any conclusions on the state of Iran’s nuclear program.

The U.S. has repeatedly refused to rule out nuclear first strikes against Iran. The US Nuclear Posture Review made public in 2002 specifically envisioned the use of nuclear weapons on a first strike basis, even against non-nuclear armed states. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has reported that the Bush administration has been planning the use of nuclear weapons against Iran When specifically questioned about the potential use of nuclear weapons against Iran, President Bush claimed that “All options were on the table”. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, “the president of the United States directly threatened Iran with a preemptive nuclear strike. It is hard to read his reply in any other way.” The policy of using nuclear weapons on a first-strike basis against non-nuclear opponents is a violation of the US Negative Security Assurance pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear members of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) such as Iran. Threats of the use of nuclear weapons against another country constitute a violation of Security Council Resolution 984 of 11 April 1995 and the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.

In the spring of 2006 Bush seemed to justify a military attack by setting an impossibly high bar for Iran to meet. “The world is united and concerned about their [Iranians] desire to have not only a nuclear weapon, but the capacity to make a nuclear weapon or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon...,” (emphasis added) Bush said in an April 2006 press conference.20 Since the “knowledge” to build nuclear weapons largely overlaps with the knowledge of civilian nuclear technology, this standard would mean that Iran would be deprived of an independent civilian nuclear program. Furthermore, an attempt to deprive Iran of such knowledge would be contrary to the text of the Non Proliferation Treaty which recognizes an inalienable right to nuclear technology, to the fullest extent possible and without discrimination. Indeed, the technical knowledge to make nuclear weapons is not a secret, as the Nth Country Experiment showed, and highly technical designs of nuclear bombs have already been placed in the public domain by declassified government documents.

In November 2007, Bush appears to have modified his position, acknowledging that Iran has a sovereign right to civilian nuclear technology.

On July 31, 2006, the United States rounded up European powers, and got China and Russia to acquiesce, to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1696. The resolution demanded that Iran stop “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.” (Reprocessing involves removing highly radioactive plutonium from nuclear waste products, a procedure that can lead to production of bomb-grade fuel.) A month later, in a report not released to the public, IAEA Director ElBradei indicated that Iran was not reprocessing uranium.

ElBaradei criticized Iran, however, for continued attempts at uranium enrichment. “Iran has not addressed the long outstanding verification issues or provided the necessary transparency to remove uncertainties associated with some of its activities….” wrote ElBaradei.

An IAEA official told the New York Times that “the qualitative and quantitative development of Iran’s enrichment program continues to be fairly limited.”

The IAEA report was hardly a smoking gun. But the Bush Administration persisted that Iran’s failure to uphold the Security Council resolution meant the world should impose more sanctions. On March 24, 2007, the UN Security Council voted to impose another round sanctions, prohibiting the sale of Iranian weapons to other countries and freezing the overseas assets of more Iranian individuals and organizations.

The United States failed to get any backing for military attacks on Iran to enforce the sanctions. The March resolution even restated the UN position that the Middle East region should be nuclear free, a criticism of Israel’s large nuclear arsenal.

U.S. officials told the New York Times that the new sanctions went beyond the nuclear issue. “The new language was written to rein in what they [U.S. officials] see as Tehran’s ambitions to become the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf and across e Middle East.”

France’s foreign minister Bernard Kouchner warned that the international community had to be prepared for the possibility of war in the event that Iran obtains atomic weapons. We will not accept that such a bomb is made,” Kouchner said. ‘We must prepare ourselves ‘or the worst,” he said, specifying that that would be war. He did not elaborate on what kind of preparations that could entail. “We have decided, while negotiations are under way ... to prepare for eventual sanctions outside the United Nations, which would be European sanctions,” he said.

Kouchner was not specific about what penalties Europe might impose, other than to say they could be “economic sanctions regarding financial movements.” “Our German friends proposed this. We discussed it a few days ago,” he said. “The international community’s demand is simple: They must stop enriching uranium,” Kouchner said. “Our Iranian friends want to create, they say, civilian nuclear energy. They have the right to that, but all that they are doing proves the contrary. That is why we are worried” he said.

Tensions have been raised by media reports of an Israeli air incursion over northeastern Syria on Sept. 6. One U.S. official said the attack hit weapons heading for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran, but there also has been speculation the Israelis hit a nascent nuclear facility or were studying routes for a possible future strike on Iran. Others suspect Israel was performing an intelligence operation for the
With Iran adding to the talk of military options, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns called in September 2007 for U.N. Security Council members and U.S. allies to help push for a third round of sanctions against Iran over the nuclear program.

In 2006 the Germans suggested that Iran would be able to operate their enrichment program, subject to IAEA inspections. The German Minister of Defense Franz Josef Jung stated that a ban on Iranian enrichment work was unrealistic, that “One cannot forbid Iran from doing what other countries in the world are doing in accordance with international law” and that IAE/\ oversight of any Iranian enrichment activities would provide the necessary assurances to the international community that Iran could not secretly divert the program of weapons use. Later, the Europeans reportedly also considered a compromise proposal where Iran would be allowed to continue spinning its centrifuges but would not feed any processed uranium hexafluoride (UF6) into the machines during the course of negotiations.

The Iranians had also indicated that they were willing to consider suspending large- scale enrichment for up to 2 years, but was not prepared to freeze enrichment entirely.

The compromise ideas were reportedly shot down by the US, and Robert Joseph, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control reportedly told ElBaradei: “We cannot have a single centrifuge spinning in Iran. Iran is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and our allies, and we will not tolerate it. We want you to give us an understanding that you will not say anything publicly that will undermine us.”

In June 2007, IAEA director Mohammad ElBaradei suggested that that Iran should be allowed limited uranium enrichment under strict supervision of the IAEA. His remarks were formally criticised by Nicholas Burns, the US Under-Secretary of State, who said: “We are not going to agree to accept limited enrichment”.

In February 2008, Pierre Vimont, the French Ambassador to the United States, urged that the United States adopt a more flexible approach to Iran by accepting its regional role and recognizing that the nuclear issue has broad popular support among Iranians.

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