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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Iran: The next crisis?

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

After Iraq, Iran is shaping up to be the next major crisis in the Middle East.
Aerial view of Natanz facility (Image: DigitalGlobe)
The Natanz facility in Iran where centrifuges might be assembled (Image: DigitalGlobe)

The question is whether Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb.

"Iran has decided to resume research and development in the enrichment of uranium," sources who track Iranian activities claimed to News Online. "It now has time on its side to acquire the capability. It is racing forward."

"There has been a pattern of cheating the world and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and of trying to disguise its true intentions under the pretence of needing energy for civilian purposes. Iran wants to produce nuclear weapons," asserted the sources, who spoke on condition that they were not identified.

Iran's case is that it needs nuclear power and has to make the fuel itself as it cannot rely on outside sources, as many countries do. It denies that it intends to make the bomb. It is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and therefore is committed not to do so.

Diplomatic offensive

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israel has started a diplomatic offensive to win support for its view that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

If Israel becomes convinced that Iran is going down that road unstopped by the United Nations, it could one day take unilateral action, as it did when it bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.

The Israeli cabinet is reported to have been told that Iran could make a bomb by between 2007 and 2009.

There is a new atmosphere of urgency in advance of a meeting of the UN's nuclear watchdog the IAEA in mid-September. The meeting will examine whether Iran is in compliance with IAEA inspection rules.

Europeans try to save agreement

For other players in this high stakes game, the jury on Iranian intentions is still out.

Sources who spoke to News Online said they believed that Iran had taken the strategic decision to control the "full nuclear fuel cycle"
This week, senior officials from Britain, France and Germany (the E3) are to meet Iranian officials. They want to find out why Iran has terminated an agreement under which it would freeze its uranium enrichment activities in return for future supplies of fuel for its projected nuclear power programme.

The European effort to negotiate with Iran, always regarded with scepticism by the United States, is at crisis point. At the very least, the E3 want to salvage that part of the agreement under which Iran agreed to stricter IAEA inspections, known as additional protocols.

The enrichment issue

At the heart of the problem is the enrichment of uranium. It is carried out in a cascade of centrifuges which spin a gas made from uranium ore. The heavier parts needed for nuclear purposes are thereby separated.

The technology is legal when it is used to enrich uranium to a standard needed to produce power. But the process could then be taken further illegally, and secretly, to enrich uranium to weapons grade.

The sources who spoke to News Online said they believed that Iran had taken the strategic decision to control the "full nuclear fuel cycle". That means developing the ability to enrich uranium to weapons grade level.

Suspicious activities

The sources listed a number of discoveries by the IAEA which they said indicated that Iran was "not behaving like a country with a civilian only programme".

  • The use of a laser uranium separation process, an alternative to centrifuges

  • The discovery of plutonium in one facility. Iran said this was for experimental purposes.

  • The secret purchase by Iran of advanced centrifuges, possibly from the network run by the Pakistani scientist A Q Khan

  • The possession of polonium which is used to trigger a nuclear explosion

  • The development of a heavy water research reactor

  • The clearing of a site at Lavizan before an IAEA inspection.

    Last year the Iranians felt insecure after the invasion of Iraq and were ready to agree restrictions. Now they feel more confident
    Gary Samore
    One Iran watcher, Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the Iranians were resuming the assembly of centrifuges for their Natanz facility.

    One other report says they have removed seals which were fixed by IAEA inspectors. Mr Samore said that Iran was also restarting the production of the gas made of uranium ore and was expected to start inserting this into centrifuges experimentally soon.

    "Last year the Iranians felt insecure after the invasion of Iraq and were ready to agree restrictions. Now they feel more confident. The US is bogged down in Iraq, the conservatives control the Iranian parliament and Iran does not feel that sanctions are likely. So it has reneged on a key part of the E3 agreement," Mr Samore said.

    As for reporting Iran to the Security Council, he felt that this was unlikely to happen in September: "There may be another warning to Iran. The United States policy is drifting because of the election but by December, the date of the next IAEA meeting, there will be a new administration able to take a position."

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    10 Mar 04 |  Middle East

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