Now it Gets Sticky
It is no longer a threat; it is now a promise. Iran has told Britain, France and Germany, the three countries trying to talk it out of producing uranium and plutonium that could be used to fuel nuclear power reactors or misused to make bombs, that it will soon end the suspension of uranium-related work that it agreed to six months ago in Paris. Since that suspension was the Europeans' condition for talking in the first place, hopes that diplomacy might avert a confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions are also at the point of collapse. READ MORE
Iran's first step, it says, will be to resume work at its uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan, where natural uranium (yellowcake) is turned into a gas that can then be spun in centrifuge machines to produce more usable uranium. If the Iranians go ahead, the Europeans will call an emergency meeting of the 35-member board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear guardian. A very different diplomatic process will then be under way, one that could soon see Iran referred to the UN Security Council.
Undeterred, Iranian officials say that work could also resume later this year at a pilot centrifuge plant at Natanz. That would cause even greater alarm, since mastering the techniques involved in enriching uranium (so far Iran claims to have done only experimental work) is also one of the biggest hurdles to bomb-building.
Iran insists that its nuclear programme is peaceful. Its foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, told the five-yearly review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty last week that his country had a right under the NPT to all such technologies and was determined to use them. Yet Iran has a 20-year record of lies, cover-ups and evasions (which it shrugs off as “discrepancies”) in its dealings with IAEA inspectors. With the NPT spotlight already on its transgressions, why provoke a showdown now?
Both Iran and the Europeans said their aim was to agree on “objective guarantees” that Iran would not be doing any military dabbling. This, Iran said, could be achieved through inspections, while it got on with enriching uranium, first using tens of machines, then thousands. The Europeans argue that, given Iran's record of breaching safeguards, the only objective guarantee would be a permanent halt to all uranium and plutonium work.
They offered inducements, including trade and other less proliferation-prone nuclear technologies. Earlier this year, they persuaded America's president, George Bush, to support them too. He agreed that Iran could open talks on membership of the World Trade Organisation and import spare parts for its ageing fleet of civilian aircraft. Iran's response, however, was to back away from these talks.
America's involvement, the Europeans had hoped, would keep Iran at the table at least until after the country's presidential election next month. But politics could complicate things. This week Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, officially launched his bid to reclaim the job. Some observers speculate that Mr Rafsanjani's supporters might have engineered the current crisis, so he could take credit for resolving it. Others suspect that, on the contrary, his harder-line rivals are hoping to escalate matters so that even he, Iran's arch deal-maker, cannot find a solution. No outsider really knows what Iran's leaders are up to.
Although inspectors have uncovered a string of nuclear activities that make little civilian sense, no direct evidence of bomb-making has turned up. Instead there are questions: about the different uranium traces found in the country; about whether Iran just filed away designs for more advanced centrifuges, as it claims; about how much plutonium it produced, and when. Inspectors are still investigating orders for a site at Lavizan, which Iran had bulldozed, carting away all the topsoil, before they got there. After one quick look, they have been barred from poking about at a site at Parchin where there are suspicions of high-explosive work (needed to perfect triggers for nuclear bombs).
Pakistan has not allowed any outsiders to question Abdul Qadeer Khan, its former nuclear chief who masterminded an illicit nuclear supply network that was tapped by Iran, among others. Earlier this year inspectors gleaned more details of Iran's nuclear imports from Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, Mr Khan's former right-hand man, who is under arrest in Malaysia. That prompted Iran reluctantly to produce more documents. But now Mr Tahir is off-limits too.
America's intelligence on Iran's programme is limited. However, it is increasingly confident that a cache of computer files that came into its possession, and were said to be from Iran's missile programme, are genuine. These show design work on cones for missiles built around an unexplained object that it is thought could represent a relatively compact nuclear warhead. Whether Iran has, or is working on, such a device is not known, however.
If Iran is indeed intent on building a bomb, then diplomacy never stood a chance. Either way, it may calculate that its best tactic is to return to enriching, while offering to stay under inspection in the NPT and hope it can get away with pursuing what Iranians call the “Japan model” (though Japan has never been accused of nuclear cheating). This would involve building up sizeable legitimate stocks of uranium and plutonium to have on hand when needed. Yet this would also leave Iran the option of a quick break-out from the NPT at a time of its own choosing.
So far the IAEA's board has been united in calling on Iran to come clean about its nuclear programmes and co-operate with inspectors. Yet if the Europeans press for stronger action, including referral to the UN Security Council, that consensus may fray. Several countries, including South Africa and Brazil, are loth to set precedents that could curtail their nuclear-fuel plans.
Russia, for its part, hoping to protect its legitimate trade with Iran in reactor-building and fuel services, has indicated it will not stand in the Europeans' way. If Iran refuses to reconsider, a simple majority can refer the matter to the Security Council. But it will be hard to keep up the pressure there. Sanctions are unpopular and often ineffective. Iran is counting on that.