Monday, November 28, 2005

In Russia We Trust?

The Wall Street Journal:
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported last week that Iran possesses detailed drawings showing ways to "cast and machine enriched natural and depleted uranium into hemispherical forms," which is another way of saying the inner core of a nuclear bomb.

So what is the IAEA's Governing Board, including the U.S., doing about it? It has decided not to refer Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council, agreeing instead to allow another round of negotiations, this time with Russia, to run its course. If the mullahs weren't laughing at the IAEA's fecklessness, we'd be tempted to laugh at it ourselves. READ MORE

Let's recap. It's been more than two years since the world learned that Iran had built secret uranium conversion and enrichment facilities without first notifying the IAEA. This was a violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty's "safeguards agreement" that, by the terms of the IAEA charter, ought to have led automatically to a Security Council referral.

Instead, Britain, France and Germany interceded with Tehran to negotiate a compromise. Those negotiations collapsed after 18 months, despite European offers to Tehran of civilian nuclear technology, commercial deals and security guarantees, and despite an American offer to drop its objections to Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization.

In September, the IAEA, with Russia and China abstaining, voted to express an "absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes." Since then, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and on Saturday he denounced the West for pressuring Iran to curb its nuclear program. Iranian negotiators have threatened to resume conversion and enrichment processes if the IAEA votes for referral.

The latest brainstorm is to see if the mullahs can be persuaded to allow Russia -- which currently is building a nuclear plant for oil-rich Iran at the port city of Bushehr -- to enrich Iran's uranium at sites in Russia. The idea here is that Russian monitors would ensure that uranium would be enriched only to levels suitable for civilian energy use, and not to highly enriched, bomb-grade levels.

So far, Iran has rejected the idea out of hand, demanding domestic control of all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. But what if Tehran relents? Europe, the State Department and the rest of the "international community," including most of the media, would surely celebrate a diplomatic triumph, and the sense of urgency that now surrounds Iran's nuclear ambitions would soon dissipate.

Yet this would by no means diminish the threat posed by Iran's nuclear programs. The Russian proposal deals only with Iran's declared (or acknowledged) nuclear activities. However, there is mounting evidence that Iran continues to pursue a parallel, covert nuclear program hidden from IAEA inspectors. Last year, for example, Iran razed a suspected nuclear site in the Lavizan-Shian neighborhood of Tehran after the IAEA declared an interest in inspecting it.

Nor are we confident that the Iranians might not find ways to corrupt Russian officials responsible for monitoring the enrichment. The relevant template here is the Oil for Food program, through which Saddam Hussein was able to bribe foreign officials who then helped to do his diplomatic and public-relations bidding.

Paul Volcker's inquiry found that Russia was by far the greatest beneficiary of Saddam's largesse, taking in $19.3 billion in Iraqi oil deals and doing $3.8 billion in so-called humanitarian assistance, much of it diverted to military purposes. (By comparison, the French did a mere $4.4 billion in oil deals and $3 billion in humanitarian assistance.)

Mr. Volcker also found that Saddam steered millions of dollars worth of oil allocations to well-connected Russian officials and institutions. Among them were the Russian Communist Party, Vladimir Zhironovsky's Peace and Unity Party, the deputy prime minister of Russia, the son of Russia's ambassador in Iraq, the president and prime minister of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, the Russian Political Science Academy and the Russian Ministry of Emergencies.

Also apparently on the take: Russia's presidential office, which was allocated 21,350,000 barrels of oil, according to Iraqi records. In the end, Oil for Food became a bubbling revenue stream the Kremlin steered to its preferred domestic clients while using its veto powers at the U.N. Security Council to advocate on Saddam's behalf. It's possible that more reliable mechanisms could be found to ensure the transparency of a prospective Iranian-Russian arrangement. But the Oil for Food story suggests that Russia isn't the fittest country in the world to monitor and administer Iran's enrichment programs.

Surely no American policy maker wants to allow vital U.S. and international interests to be compromised by the bad faith and avarice of a few foreign governments, in the way they were prior to the Iraq war. It's enough to have one deadly farce at the IAEA without creating a second one in Russia.