Iran's nuclear ambitions. Up in arms?
Date: 23-11-2004
Author: Luciano Pitzalis
It is suggested that the world has become more complex and dangerous in the past years and that countries are trying to safeguard their national security within their nation state borders with pre-emptive policies that reach beyond those borders. It is suggested that Iran and North Korea, branded as part of the 'axis of evil', stepped up their efforts to acquire nuclear arms as a deterrent against such policies and to improve their position vis-à-vis regional counterparts. But what is fact and what is suspicion?




The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty  (NPT) (pdf) was signed by 187 states between 1968 and 2000. These countries agreed not to develop nuclear weapons and countries that already had these capabilities (China, US, France, Great Britain and Russia) agreed to eventually eliminate their nuclear weapons. The NPT has led to a decline in arms in absolute terms and a decline in the number of countries with weapons or considering research programs from 22 countries in 1968 to 6 in 1995 (including Israel). As of early 2000, all countries had signed the NPT with the exception of India, Pakistan, Cuba and Israel.


The countries that did not sign the NPT and events after 1995 suggest its failure. Those events included the development of nuclear arms by India and Pakistan in May 1998, both non-signatories to the NPT. Then, the attack on 9/11/01 prompted the possibility that the proliferation of nuclear arms could lead to nuclear threats or acts by non-state actors. Also, news of countries such as Libya, North Korea and Iran buying nuclear bomb designs and equipment suitable for producing nuclear weapons, made it clear the NPT was less than perfect or even inadequate.


Countries can sign the NPT on a voluntary basis but they can also leave the treaty without a penalty, rendering the treaty less effective and not so all encompassing as envisaged in 1968. Also, the treaty deals with the conduct of states and does not cover the actions of non-state actors, and is therefore out of date. It also doesn't wholly cover the conduct of private parties, subject to state parties Lastly, three countries have been able to acquire nuclear arms (Israel, India and Pakistan) without breaking the Treaty, simply because they are or were not signatories at the time they acquired them.


With regard to the five countries that possessed nuclear arms in 1968, it can be said that there are fewer nuclear arms, but that they didn't keep their part of the bargain (elimination of their nuclear arms). On the contrary, the US has embarked on the development of small, tactical nuclear arms and the other countries with veto power in the UN Security Council are rethinking their earlier commitments or at least not rushing to fulfil them.


The biggest danger lies in the transfer of available highly enriched uranium and plutonium. These cornerstones of nuclear arms became more available to states and non-state actors after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the poor security in this and other countries. There is no confirmed instance of State Party governmental transfers of nuclear weapon technology or un-safeguarded nuclear materials to any non-nuclear-weapon state. However, some non-nuclear-weapon states, such as Iraq, were able to obtain sensitive technology and/or equipment from private parties in states that are States Parties to the NPT. It is therefore not surprising that most efforts, like the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) now focus on disrupting the illegal transfer of weapons and materials. Under the PSI program, a shipment of uranium enrichment equipment bound for Libya was intercepted in October 2003.


The Agency, responsible for controlling that signatories adhere to the NPT is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Under the original NPT the IAEA was able to control only those sites that were reported by the state parties themselves. Since this left room for concealed programs, the Additional Protocol of the NPT was introduced, which entitles the IAEA to inspect all sites without restrictions.




Iran signed the NPT in 1968, but had not signed the Additional Protocol. It came under scrutiny when opposition forces in Iran divulged in August 2002 that Iran had a secret program to enrich uranium and to produce heavy water. The IAEA confirmed that this was a violation of the NPT and that Iran should have reported its program. Iran responded by saying that it would have reported the facilities as soon as they would have started production, but traces of enriched uranium were found during a subsequent inspection of the site, suggesting that the site was already operational. The IAEA, urged by the US, was not satisfied by the explanations offered by Iran and demanded full disclosure and access to all sites not later than November 1, 2002. Iran risked international sanctions through the UN Security Council if it would not comply.


On October 21st, 2003, Iran promised to sign an additional protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, allowing the IAEA to inspect all sites in Iran without restrictions. Iran also promised to suspend all uranium enrichment activities on a voluntary basis. These promises were the outcome of diplomatic efforts by the foreign ministers of France, Great Britain and Germany, using the soft power politics of technological carrots and economic sticks.


Shortly after November 1, 2003, a secret IAEA report stated that it had found no evidence that Iran was developing nuclear arms, adding that it could also not exclude the possibility. It reported that Iran had handed over detailed information, that it had admitted to the violation of the NPT and that it had also confirmed in writing the promises made to the three European foreign ministers.


Conservative forces within Iran reacted furiously against the defeat and the concessions to the West, but Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, appeared to have chosen a pragmatic approach instead of risking further international isolation. On December 18, 2003, the additional protocol was signed by Iran.


Iran then went into internal political turmoil on January 20, 2004, when the Council of Keepers excluded 80 reformist parliamentarians from the elections on February 20, 2004. Despite their protests and the resignation of several ministers, the elections went ahead excluding these reformists, resulting in a conservative majority in parliament. Turnout for these elections was less than 30%, instead of 67% in 2001, suggesting that the Iranian people responded to the reformists' call to boycott the elections.


On March 10, 2004, the IAEA drafted a resolution in which it acknowledged Iran's willingness to cooperate, but at the same time criticised Iran because its admissions in October 2003 had proven to be incomplete. The IAEA had discovered that Iran possessed designs of modern equipment and that it also produced a quantity, albeit small, of polonium, which can be used to make a nuclear weapon.


In its next report, discussed in the IAEA council on June 14, 2004, the IAEA states that Iran had still not given full disclosure of its nuclear programs, that it had given statements that were probably untrue and that it had placed orders for ultra modern equipment with foreign private parties. Nonetheless, the IAEA still decided against putting the matter before the UN Security Council because Iran was still cooperating and allowing inspections according to the NPT and the Additional Protocol, which it had signed in December 2003, but still begged ratification by the Iranian parliament.


On June 26, 2004, shortly after the IAEA decision to not put the matter before the UN Security Council, and probably in response to the latest IAEA report that criticised Iran in diplomatic terms for its lack of cooperation, Iran reported that it would resume its program to enrich uranium. Technically, the enrichment of uranium itself does not fall under the NPT, which deals primarily with non-proliferation and not so much with production itself.


Iran also repeated its claim that its uranium enrichment program was for peaceful applications only. But (unconfirmed) reports of Iran building more modern ‘P-2’ centrifuges, producing U6 gas, suitable for producing nuclear warheads and purchasing deuterium on the Russian market cast doubts on this claim.


Nonetheless , the IAEA stated in its 6th report on September 1, 2004 (pdf) that there was still no proof that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, but that it was not possible to give an end verdict, because there were still some open questions about how and when Iran acquired the design for the P-2 centrifuges. Iran stated it had bought these back in 1995, but that it hadn’t started developing these until 2002. The IAEA remained sceptical on this issue.


This scepticism led to the IAEA next report on September 18, 2004 (pdf) in which it calls on Iran to freeze all uranium enrichment programs and to re-assess its decision to build a heavy water production plant as a necessary step to restore trust. The report concludes with the statement that the Board of Governors, at their next meeting in November 2004, would discuss appropriate steps. Remarkable in this last report is the absence of a deadline or clear sanctions in case Iran would not act according to the IAEA report.


Iran reacted to the resolution by stating that it would only negotiate through political discussions and not through resolutions and that it could terminate its cooperation to the Additional Protocol if the IAEA would ever put the matter before the UN Security Council. It added that, if the UN were to impose sanctions, Iran would consider leaving the NPT altogether.


After the rhetoric of September 18 and 20, 2004 another effort was made by France, Germany and Great Britain to yet again persuade Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities by a package of technological carrots and economic sticks. It has been rumoured that on offer was the possibility to join the WTO, the availability of fissile material and more trade agreements with the EU.


Although Kamal Khazari, Iran’s foreign minister made a statement on October 18, 2004 that Iran would ‘never give up its right to enrichment’, talks were underway. If no arrangement could be reached, the next meeting of the IAEA on November 22, 2004 would most likely lead to developments the three European countries did not prefer.


Just a day before the next IAEA meeting on November 15, 2004 a deal was struck. Iran agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment program, cease building more centrifuges and completely seal off certain production plants. Iran confirmed its decision to the IAEA in the hope to restore international trust in Iran’s claim to only aspire to peaceful nuclear activities. But comments by Hamed Reza Asefi, spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry, and Hassan Rohani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, made it also clear that the suspension was only a political decision and not a legal obligation and that it would not last until Iran had concluded its negotiations with Europe with a more ‘durable’ solution. The Iran – EU deal made it unlikely that the US would be able to persuade the IAEA Board of Governors to put the matter before the UN Security Council.


The IAEA report of November 15, 2004 (pdf) concluded that Iran had not used the materials, which had been reported to the IAEA, to develop nuclear arms. At the same time, the IAEA added that it could not exclude the existence of nuclear materials or activities that had not been reported by Iran. Lastly, the IAEA stated that it would continue to investigate and search for illegal nuclear activities but that in the future it would only put out reports of IAEA activities in Iran if necessary, which is considered as a victory for Iran, which has been trying to get the IAEA to terminate all its investigations altogether.




A workshop on this issue will take place during the Dutch Social Forum at the ‘Beurs van Berlage’ in Amsterdam on Saturday 27, 2004. Speakers are mr. Bijan Moshaver (Iran Future Foundation) and mr. Karel Koster (weapons expert). The workshop will take place in the ‘Portiersloge’ and start at 14:30 pm.



Luciano Pitzalis

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