Dubious Source for New Iran Charges

NEW DELHI – As Iran promised to meet Monday’s deadline for suspending a uranium enrichment process that could be used for making nuclear weapons – a freeze that could spare it UN Security Council sanctions – questions still remain unanswered.

Does Iran already possess blueprints for a nuclear bomb and a certain quantity of enriched uranium, which were transferred to it by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan as part of his global black market in atomic materials?

Or is this claim, made by a dissident Iranian group in exile, timed primarily to sabotage a deal that has just been worked out between Tehran and three European Union states to suspend all uranium enrichment in Iran in return for certain incentives?

Equally important, will an investigation into this allegation lead to the further interrogation of Khan and fuller disclosures of the truth about his clandestine network?

"One way or another the Pakistan establishment has a lot to answer for," said leading peace activist and independent physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy.

"The Pakistan state gave Dr. Khan a free run of the nuclear program. He was turned into a national hero. He had huge funds at his disposal and was answerable to no one. The public has a right to know more so that the Pakistani establishment is made accountable," Hoodbhoy, who is on a visit to the Indian capital, told IPS in an interview.

Hoodbhoy, who teaches physics at Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University, thinks that coming clean is "part of the agenda of democratization."

It was largely because of U.S. pressure that Pakistan acted against Khan and put him under house arrest. But much of his activity has been hushed up.

The new questions on Iran’s program are posed just days before a crucial meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) on Nov. 25. Washington has been at the forefront of moves to persuade the IAEA to refer the country to the UN Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions. But other permanent Security Council members and the EU are resisting this U.S. move.

Iran emphatically denies that the alleged clandestine nuclear facility exists, and says it will cooperate with the IAEA if a request is made. Iran has already submitted a 1,030-page report, " in which we declared all our nuclear sites and all our nuclear activities."

On Monday, the head of Iran’s nuclear energy organization said work would stop at two nuclear facilities in the central cities of Isfahan and Natanz.

The head of Iran’s nuclear agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, said enrichment activities would stop as agreed with the IAEA’s Monday deadline.

"I believe Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization has carried out whatever measures are required for confidence-building," he told reporters in the Iranian capital Tehran.

On Nov. 17, a senior official for the National Council for Resistance in Iran (NCRI) said Teheran had black-market blueprints for a nuclear bomb and was deceiving the United Nations by secretly continuing activities meant to give it atomic arms by next year.

Farid Soleimani, of the opposition group, said the bomb diagrams – along with an unspecified amount of weapons-grade uranium – was provided by Khan, the Pakistani head of the nuclear network linked to both Iran and Libya.

"He gave them the same weapons design he gave the Libyans as well as more in terms of weapons design," Soleimani told reporters in Vienna.

The startling allegations were made at two separate press conferences by the NCRI, which is the political front of the People’s Mujahedin – a group classified as "terrorist organization" by Washington.

Since then, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that he has seen reports that Iran has been trying to develop systems to deliver a nuclear weapon, and match its existing missiles to possible nuclear warheads.

Some of the NCRI’s past disclosures have proved true. For instance, in 2002, it disclosed that Iran had two secret nuclear installations, including a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz town.

However, the timing of its new claim raises intriguing questions. Why were they made two days after Iran signed an agreement with Britain, Germany, and France under which it suspends all uranium enrichment, including for peaceful purposes, in return for a package of economic, political, and technological incentives, including a nuclear power reactor?

There is a probability that the disclosure was meant to derail Iran’s agreement with the EU states so that the People’s Mujahedin does not face a ban and other restrictions in Western Europe. As it is, the People’s Mujahedin is put on a par with al-Qaeda as a "terrorist organization."

Experts who have followed Iran’s nuclear activities are divided in assessing the claims made by the NCRI’s senior spokesperson Soleimani. For instance, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington NGO, says the NCRI’s information is usually accurate when identifying locations of suspect sites, but not about the activities taking place there.

He told The New York Times that the NCRI’s allegation that Pakistan transferred highly enriched uranium to Iran in 2001 "seems preposterous, given the fact that was the year when the United States was really cracking down on Pakistan’s nuclear export activities."

However, Paul Leventhal, president of another Washington NGO, Nuclear Control Institute, defends the NCRI.

"It has proven to be correct with regard to major disclosures about the Iranian nuclear program that were not known to the IAEA and perhaps not known to intelligence services either," he said.

It is only right to be skeptical of unsubstantiated claims in Iran’s polarized situation, especially when hawks in Washington are pressing for a tough stance vis-à-vis the "Axis of Evil" state. Besides, Soleimani himself says that he "would doubt" if the quantity of highly enriched uranium given by Pakistan was "enough for a weapon."

The IAEA has evidence, going back to 1995, that Pakistan provided Iran with designs for gas centrifuges with which to spin uranium at high speeds and enrich it. Highly enriched uranium can be used as fuel in a nuclear weapon.

But it is far from clear that Iran successfully implemented the designs by fabricating centrifuges, which are high-speed devices that rotate at enormous speeds like 600 revolutions per second, without special materials and extremely fine machined and balanced components.

Khan is also known to have passed outdated or unworkable centrifuge designs to some governments, which had no way of telling the genuine article from fakes.

Of all the states with which Khan’s "Nuclear Wal-Mart" did business, North Korea was the closest collaborator. There is strong suggestive evidence that North Korea transferred missile blueprints and components, if not whole assemblies, to Pakistan, in exchange for uranium enrichment technology.

The Pakistan-Iran collaboration is unlikely to have been as close as that between Pakistan and North Korea given the lack of such a strong strategic barter arrangement. Besides, Iran is predominantly Shia, whereas Pakistan is Sunni. The two are not strategic allies and have backed rival groups in Afghanistan.

The NCRI claim about secret nuclear transfers does not appear highly credible, but must not be dismissed. It demands an independent, thorough investigation by the IAEA, which in turn, must make its report public, unlike its usual practice of sharing "sensitive information" only with governments.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.