Iran nuke program is not the issue, nuke capability is - experts
VIENNA (AFP) Nov 13, 2003
Proliferation experts say Iran could be developing the capability to produce a bomb, even without a classic atomic weapons program.

Their comments came as the United States berated the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), this week for saying it has found no evidence Iran is pursuing atomic weapons despite issuing a report accusing Tehran of two decades of covert nuclear activities, including making plutonium and enriched uranium.

Gary Samore, a non-proliferation expert and and former US official who negotiated with Iran, told AFP: "All of the technologies involved in enrichment and processing (of nuclear fuel) are dual use," for both peaceful and military purposes.

"It's a question of intent. I think Iran's intent was to create the option for nuclear weapons," rather than actually making them, said Samore, who is a director at London's International Institute for Strategic Studiesthink tank.

Andrew Koch, the Washington bureau chief for the specialized military magazine Jane's Defense Weekly, said the amounts of uranium and plutonium Iran has produced are tiny.

He said it takes from five to seven kilograms of plutonium or from 10 to 15 kilograms of highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb.

"The amounts we're talking about in Iran's case are gram quantities," he said. "That doesn't tell me that they have a bomb program.

"I personally don't believe that Iran has made the decision to get the bomb," Koch said.

But "they made the decision to have the capability to make the bomb, so that if there's a crisis they can withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and make the bomb within a matter of months," he said.

This distinction is apparently the basis of the clash between the IAEA and Washington, Koch said.

He said Washington's "key concern is that they don't want Iran to have the ability to produce nuclear weapons in the future" while the IAEA's mission is to determine whether Iran is honoring the NPT.

The problem is that nations can honor the NPT, a 1970 treaty designed to avoid the spread of nuclear weapons, and still develop the ability to make nuclear weapons.

IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei outlined this paradox in an essay in The Economist magazine on October 16 when he said that uranium enrichment and plutonium separation technology are "not proscribed under the NPT" since both processes can produce fuel for nuclear, electricity-generating reactors.

"Under the current regime, therefore, there is nothing illicit in a non-nuclear weapons state having enrichment or reprocessing technology, or possessing weapon-grade material," ElBaradei said.

"Should a state with a fully developed fuel-cycle capability decide, for whatever reason, to break away from its non-proliferation commitments, most experts believe it could produce a nuclear weapons within a matter of months," he added.

Koch said "the United States is arguing for something that legally Iran is not obliged to abide by."

He said this was hypocritical since American ally Japan, for instance, has the technology "to produce nuclear weapons within weeks" but is not drawing international ire.

Iran has had nuclear ambitions since the Shah in the 1970s. The fundamentalist leaders who toppled him continued a uranium enrichment program in the mid-1980s, Samore said.

Iran sees itself as "the dominant power in the Persian gulf and a nuclear capability is necessary to assert that identify," Samore said, adding that the United States had won a huge victory with the IAEA crackdown on Iran, as Tehran has temporarily frozen its enrichment program.

"But it's not clear whether America can capitalize on this victory to make the freeze permanent."

He said Iran's strategy may be to avoid being cited for non-compliance and having the issue taken to the United Nations when the IAEA board of governors meets next week in Vienna, and then to resume its enrichment program.