Sunday, September 04, 2005

Iran, Europe and True Intentions

Chicago Tribune:
It appears that at least one key piece of evidence thought to prove that Iran was making highly enriched uranium, suitable for bombs, is in doubt. A recent Washington Post report quoted unnamed American and foreign officials who said traces of enriched uranium found on equipment in Iran--which the U.S. thought would prove that Iran was intent on building a bomb--actually came from contaminated Pakistani equipment.

"The biggest smoking gun that everyone was waving is now eliminated with these conclusions," a senior official told the Post.

Iran's leaders hailed this as a complete vindication. "Given the fact that Iran has been cleared of the accusations and that its statements have been approved, there is no justification for Western countries not to trust Iran," said Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

Nonsense. Iran hasn't been vindicated.

There is still a long list of questions that international inspectors must get answered before Iran can get a clean bill of health from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. Even then, inspectors can only pass judgment on what they are allowed to see. What they can't inspect--what Iran may still be hiding--also rightly worries many U.S. officials.

The case against Iran has been, and remains, largely circumstantial. But it remains powerful.

Let's recap: READ MORE

Iran concealed and lied about its massive efforts to develop a nuclear capability over almost two decades. When discovered, Iran's leaders claimed they needed the nukes to generate power. This, in a country awash in oil and natural gas. That story wasn't convincing then and still isn't.

The U.S. and many nuclear experts concluded that Iran had only one goal: to make a nuclear weapon. The IAEA, hamstrung by diplomacy and rules, has been plodding along in its investigation since 2002.

Along the way, the Iranians promised to suspend all operations until the IAEA could resolve all the issues and determine whether any undeclared nuclear materials or facilities were being used in Iran. Suspension, said IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, would be a "confidence-building measure" to convince the world that Iran wasn't hiding anything. Three European countries, meanwhile, bargained with Iran for a permanent shutdown of its nuclear activities in exchange for a rich list of benefits, including the prospect of civilian nuclear power.

In recent weeks Iran turned the Europeans down flat and broke its agreement with the IAEA by resuming some nuclear activity.

So much for confidence building.

Iran's behavior, past and present, still strongly suggests a country intent not on peaceful nuclear energy, but on building a bomb. It's building not only uranium enrichment capabilities, but also the capability to produce plutonium, another way to make a bomb.

There are many issues on which Iranian assurances remain unconvincing, to say the least. One example: Iran got designs from the notorious Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan for advanced centrifuges, called P-2s, used to enrich uranium. That was around 1995. Tehran has claimed it did nothing with those designs for seven years, until 2002. Then, after building some P-2 components, Tehran told the IAEA, it shut down the secret operation. "That doesn't entirely make sense to us," says an IAEA spokesman.

Khan led Pakistan's nuclear program before he was caught selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Iran may have received a complete bomb design from Khan, since he made much the same deal with Libya.

ElBaradei is due to report to the IAEA board on Iran by Saturday. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is angling for more countries to join France, Germany and Britain in the stalled talks, apparently hoping for a more sympathetic audience. So far, the Europeans haven't taken the bait.

This is Europe's moment.

France and Germany have argued that such dangerous situations should be resolved through patient negotiation, not military force. So far, though, the negotiations between Iran and the Europeans have gained nothing--except more time for Iran. Iran's chief nuclear affairs negotiator recently boasted about turning a European "50-day ultimatum" into a year, allowing Iran's scientists valuable time to complete work on a uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.

French President Jacques Chirac issued an ultimatum to Iran on Monday, warning that it would face censure by the UN Security Council if it did not resume its freeze on nuclear activities.

That sounded like tough talk. But Europe has to enforce its demands--or be dismissed once and for all as masters of appeasement.