Reining the Rogue: Problems of Containing Iran’s Nuclear Dream

Niraj Kumar

The proliferation of nuclear weapons has emerged as an issue demanding greater attention from international community that engaged in devising methods to fight the scourge of international terrorism. Recent disclosure by Iran that it was about to start processing 37 tonnes of raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride gas has alarmed the US and its allies in the Middle East and Europe for obvious reason. Dealing with this situation would be difficult for international community and particularly for the US considering its ‘occupation’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, but any failure to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons would make world increasingly unsafe.

The Iranian nuclear programme came under close scrutiny of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in September 2003 after IAEA inspectors found traces of highly enriched uranium at the nuclear facility in Nantaz. Experts believed that the enriched uranium could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons. Defending itself, Iran had argued that the centrifuge was contaminated by its earlier owner. However, the recent Iranian decision to produce uranium hexafluoride, has cleared all doubts regarding the intention and trajectory of Iranian nuclear programme.

Realizing the gravity of the situation and determined to deprive Iran of any such technology useful for developing nuclear weapons, the United States, Europe and Israel came forward with different proposals. Reacting on Iranian move, the US Undersecretary of State, John Bolton said, “Iran’s announcements are further strong evidence of the compelling need to take Iran’s nuclear programme to the Security Council”. This move of the US was aimed at imposing sanctions on Iran by Security Council if it does not come clean on it nuclear programme. However, many inside the US believe that it is too late to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and in such a case there are only two alternatives left. First, look for ways to make sure that the trigger of these bombs does not fall into the hands of the Mullahs. It is possible through regime change in Tehran and extracting a promise from the new regime that it would renounce any nuclear ambition. Considering the American debacle in Iraq, regime change through military intervention will be hard to sell within the US and outside, without a credible evidence on the presence of WMD in Iran. Second, air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities of Bushehr and Parchin.

To carry forward such an air strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities the US has an experienced ally in the form of Israel. In 1981, Israeli air force successfully destroyed the Iraqi nuclear facilities at Osirak. Israel for long has regarded Iran as the most powerful threat to it in Middle East and this Iranian move has certainly raised eyebrows within Israel. It has threatened of unilateral pre-emptive attack against Iran similar to that of Iraq in 1981. But doubts have been raised regarding the Israeli ability to carry such an attack since Iranian facilities are at far edge of the combat range of the Israeli aircrafts, widely dispersed and deeply underground. In its efforts to maintain qualitative advantage and overcome some of the above limitations, Israel is procuring the 500 bunker buster bombs from the US, which can penetrate the deepest of Iranian nuclear sites. Fearing a pre-emptive strike, Iran has threatened to position ‘Human Shields’ around its nuclear facilities at Bushehr.

However, Britain, France and Germany do not approve of such a tough stand, which they feel would close all doors for negotiations. They want to give Iran one last chance to dispel doubts about its nuclear programme and for this purpose have asked Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities. The European powers have requested the IAEA Chief to deliver a comprehensive verdict on Iran’s nuclear activities by November 2004. As a result of their efforts, the IAEA meeting on September 18 adopted a resolution setting a November 25 deadline for a full review of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme.

Hasan Rawhani, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, while boasting that Iran had advanced its nuclear know how despite international attempts to rein it, was careful enough to say that his country would voluntary suspend the ‘actual enrichment’. He also added that the production, assembly and testing of the centrifuges would continue. On the issue of sanctions by Security Council, he said that Iran would follow North Korea and pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty.

If Iran decides to follow the North Korea, which would mean discontinuation of the monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities by the IAEA officials, the US and the other members of the Security Council would be left with limited options. Military intervention or air strike is an option, but considering the US experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the requirement is a mixture of hard bargaining and coercive diplomacy to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threat because Iran is no South Africa to abandon its long nurtured nuclear dream voluntarily.

Author Note
Niraj Kumar, Research Associate, SSPC, New Delhi