Tags: Iran's | Nuclear | Neighborhood

Iran's Nuclear Neighborhood

Thursday, 28 October 2004 12:00 AM

Before the cancer-stricken shah was forced into exile, he had launched a plan to build 20 nuclear reactors, including two in Bushehr, which became a Russian project. The shah's regime also ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970, and promptly began research and development efforts on fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

Russia made clear in 2002 it will finish construction of the $840 million nuclear reactor in Bushehr and has contracted to build five more Iranian reactors over the next 10 years for $10 billion. Jobless former Soviet nuclear engineers are known to have landed lucrative contracts in Iran. Could this know-how and expertise have rubbed off on Iranian counterparts in the form of weapons technology?

With 140,000 U.S. soldiers next door in Iraq, and U.S. carrier task forces south and west in the Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean, and the Israeli air force rehearsing pre-emptive strikes against Iran's underground nuclear facilities, the incentives, as the ayatollahs see them, are to speed things up. Tehran is also buying time by agreeing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A new IAEA report on Iran won't be ready till mid-February 2005.

"We have a lot of work to do before we can conclude that Iran's program is exclusively for peaceful purposes," as the clerics claim, said IAEA Director-General Mohammed el-Baradei. Meanwhile, uranium enrichment and a parallel plutonium effort continue in 11 different underground facilities. These are designed to reduce the risk of detection or attack.

Pakistani denials notwithstanding, nuclear black marketeer Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and arguably his country's most popular figure, built his fortune by assisting North Korea and Iran — two of the evildoers on President Bush's axis of evil — in their nuclear quest. Mr. Khan supplied the centrifuges now used to process uranium into fuel for reactors or fissile material for bombs.

Iran received Mr. Khan's centrifuge designs as early as 1987. That was when Gen. Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's late dictator, greenlighted secret nuclear cooperation with Iran. Pakistan's intelligence agency knew Iran was willing to cough up several billion dollars — much of it in free oil — for "Dr. Strangelove" Khan's nuclear secrets. Mr. Khan and some of his nuclear scientists made several trips to Iran in the late 1990s.

President Pervez Musharraf has assured the Bush administration he knew nothing of Mr. Khan's extracurricular activities. If that were true, Mr. Musharraf was conceding by the same token he didn't know what his intelligence agency was up to.

Some ranking European diplomats based in Tehran have told their home governments Iran will pursue its nuclear ambitions as long as Israel remains the only nuclear power in the Middle East. Israel, for its part, long ago concluded its very survival depends on its nuclear monopoly in the region. Hence, its decision to destroy Iraq's nuclear reactor before it went critical in 1981.

With 10 percent of the world's oil reserves and oil at $50 plus per barrel, Iran may not be too impressed by the threat of U.S. and European sanctions under counter-proliferation strategies. But these may persuade Iran to opt out of NPT and, like North Korea, go nuclear before the U.S. can figure out how to neutralize its efforts.

North Korea's latest act of nuclear defiance came over the weekend with a warning it would double its nuclear deterrent force if the United States persists in challenging its nuclear-weapons program.

Iraq has drained what little credibility the United States has left in the Middle East. For the United States to demand an end to Iran's nuclear programs while developing a new class of bunker-busting tactical nukes and to acquiesce in Israel's nuclear arsenal by pretending it doesn't exist, doesn't build back trust.

Unencumbered by image problems in the Middle East, Israel may take it upon itself to find a military solution to Iran's budding nuclear threat. That may well be the message the Bush administration intended when it was leaked that the United States had supplied Israel with 500 deep-penetration precision-guided bombs. They are effective through concrete walls and ceilings to a depth of 100 meters.

There is little doubt Israel, using fighter-bombers, air-to-air refueling over Iraq, and submarine-launched cruise missiles from the Persian Gulf, can retard Iran's nuclear plans several years. But there is also little doubt such an Israeli strike would inflame the region. Some Arab intelligence sources believe Iran would retaliate by "activating" a new Iran-Iraq front. That, in turn, would spell quagmire for U.S. forces in Iraq.


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Before the cancer-stricken shah was forced into exile, he had launched a plan to build 20 nuclear reactors, including two in Bushehr, which became a Russian project. The shah's regime also ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970, and promptly began research and...
Thursday, 28 October 2004 12:00 AM
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