Under a nuclear cloud

2007-11-19 00:00

Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defence minister, is not a fan of Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, he wants him fired. “The policies followed by ElBaradei endanger world peace. His attitude of sticking his head in the sand over Iran's nuclear programme should lead to his impeachment,” Mofaz said during a visit to Washington in early November.

Mofaz was getting his retaliation in first. As he foresaw, the IAEA director's report on Iran's uranium enrichment programme, released on November 14, said that Tehran was years away from an ability to make nuclear weapons.

Not only that, but he said that Iran is complying with a work plan agreed with the IAEA last August to clear up the remaining questions about a project that the Iranians insist was only ever about making fuel for civilian nuclear power stations. How can you bomb a country, or even impose serious sanctions on it, if the head of the IAEA won't accuse it of seeking nuclear weapons?

Well, you can if you really want to. It was the same Mohammed ElBaradei who reported to the United Nations Security Council on February 14, 2003, that “we have, to date, found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq”. The United States and Britain insisted that their intelligence said otherwise, Iraq was duly invaded and nobody even apologised when no “prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities” were found.

ElBaradei must feel a strong sense of déjà vu as his reports on Iran four years later get the same treatment in the major Western countries. French Defence Minister Herve Morin responded that “Our information, which is backed up by other countries, is contrary [to Mr ElBaradei's comments]” - as if Western intelligence agencies had a strong record in this field.

For the simple-minded, White House spokesperson Dana Perino offered an even clearer proof of Iran's wickedness. Iran, she said, is “enriching and reprocessing uranium, and the reason that one does that is to lead towards a nuclear weapon”. Case closed.

Apart from the eight nuclear weapons powers (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel), four other countries already have plants on their territory for “enriching and reprocessing uranium” under IAEA safeguards: Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Brazil.

Argentina, Australia and South Africa are also building or actively considering uranium enrichment facilities, again under IAEA safeguards. So there was some rapid back-pedalling at the White House when a journalist inquired if all these countries are also seeking nuclear weapons.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe was wheeled out to “clarify” Dana Perino's statement. “Each country is different, but obviously Dana was asked and was talking about Iran,” he explained. In other words, the real proof that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons lies in the fact that we know in our hearts that it is evil.

It really is as simple as that. Iran's goal by its own account is precisely the same as that of Argentina, Australia or South Africa: to acquire the ability to enrich uranium for nuclear power generation under full IAEA safeguards. This is perfectly legal, and indeed is the “inalienable right” of every signatory under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Iran has signed).

The problem is that this same ability to enrich uranium for nuclear power generation also confers the ability to enrich it much more for use in nuclear weapons. So long as the IAEA safeguards are in place that won't happen, but if a country later quits the NPT and expels the IAEA (as North Korea did in 2003), it doesn't take long to start making bombs. It's really a question of trust. Nobody thinks Argentina will do that; lots of people fear that Iran would.

That is why the issue was taken away from the IAEA two years ago and transferred to the UN Security Council, where the Western great powers can simply declare that Iran is a threat to the peace and impose sanctions on it - if they can get the Russians and the Chinese to go along with them.

Moscow and Beijing have complied on two occasions, but they seem unlikely to assent to the harsher sanctions that the U.S. is now seeking. In which case the next step for the United States - “all the options are on the table” - may be a unilateral attack on Iran. Most Iranians don't believe that even the Bush administration could be that foolish, but recent history is not on their side.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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