Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is pressing the agency's board of governors to make one last effort to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions before sending the case to the United N ations Security Council for possible sanctions. A decision to refer Iran to the Security Council could come as early as November 24, when the IAEA's board meets to discuss "new information" discovered by inspectors on the ground.
Thanks to the IAEA's in spectors, we now have a fairly detailed picture of Iran's nuclear archipelago - at least those facilities that the Iranian government has been forced to open. We know that Iran has discovered, mined, and milled natural uranium, the basic building block of any enrichment program, without telling the IAEA. We know that Iran built a uranium conversion facility in Isfahan to convert uranium yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6), the feedstock for uranium enrichment, without the required prior notific ations to the IAEA.
We also know that Iran built an underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, hardened it against missile attack, and erected dummy buildings on the surface to conceal it from overhead surveillance. The authorities agreed to open t his facility to the IAEA only after its existence was confirmed by commercial satellite imagery, and they appear to have swept the underground halls of whatever equipment was installed before the inspectors arrived. Once fully operational, these facilities will give Iran mastery of the entire nuclear fuel cycle.
For 18 years, Iran's government concealed these activities from the IAEA, in clear violation of its safeguards agreement. For this reason alone, the IAEA's board must refer Iran to the Security Council for further actions, as required by the agency's charter.
Non-nuclear nations that sign the IAEA's charter, as Iran has, pledge to abandon all efforts to develop nuclear weapons. In exchange, they are given access to nuclear technologies. But th at pledge requires complete, transparent cooperation with the IAEA. Instead, Iran has been playing cheat and retreat.
"WITH IRAN, we realized that mastery of the fuel cycle makes you a virtual nuclear weapons state," a top aide to ElBaradei told me. "Th at was a wake-up call for all of us."
But a wake-up call that allows the IAEA's board to go back to sleep is useless. For two and a half years, the European Union has made every effort to get Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA and come clean about its nuclear activities, to no avail.
When the IAEA announced it wanted to inspect a suspected enrichment cascade within the Revolutionary Guards complex at Lavizan-Shian, Iran's government stalled for months until it could raze the site. When it asked to visit a suspect lab within the Parchin defense production plant, the Iranians stalled. When they finally allowed a small team in, they limited their movements, in violation of Iran's commitments.
ElBaradei has stated that the IAEA has found "no evidence" of a weapons program in Iran - a statement that Iranian leaders have since cited as proof of their peaceful intentions. But the IAEA has no authority to determine whether or not a country has a nuclear weapons program. That is up to the UN Security Coun cil. The IAEA's job is to determine whether a nation has violated its safeguards agreement, and ElBaradei has made it abundantly clear that Iran has.
Understanding the intentions of Iran's leaders is not as difficult or as ambiguous as some believe. Eig hteen years of concealment constitutes a powerful track record. So do Iranian leaders' own statements.
For example, in 1986, then-president Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a pep talk at the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. "Our nation has always been threatened from outside," he said. "The least we can do to face this danger is to let our enemies know that we can defend ourselves."
In 1988, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani - the supposed "moderate" candidate in Iran's recent presidential election - spelled out what that meant in an address to the Revolutionary Guards Corps. "We should fully equip ourselves both in the offensive and defensive use of chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapons," urging the audience to "make use of the opportunity and perform this task."
At a Jerusalem Day rally at Teheran University in December 2001, he uttered one of the regime's most sinister threats. "The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely, while [the same] ag ainst the world of Islam only would cause damage."
Iran's regime has only grown bolder since then. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi declared in June 2004 that Iran "won't accept any new obligations," and must "be recognized by the international community as a member of the nuclear club." Similarly, in March 2005, Rafsanjani reiterated Iran's refusal to dismantle its nuclear fuel cycle facilities, as the EU and the IAEA had demanded, insisting that "we can't stop our nuclear program and won't stop it."
In these circumstances, the risk entailed by doing nothing far outweighs the costs of referring Iran to the Security Council. Indeed, Iran may already be enriching uranium secretly. If it used the centrifuges that it purchased from Pakistan's nuclear impr esario A.Q. Khan, it could have enough fissile material to produce 20 bombs. With Iran continuing to shelter top al-Qaida leaders, this raises an even graver threat: that terrorists get hold of nuclear weapons.
The dangers of allowing Iran to go nuclear ought to be obvious. Even to ElBaradei.
The writer, author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran, is president of the Middle East Data Project.
- Project Syndicated