Questions in Iran about NPT, as nuclear program set to expand

Iran says the 10 new nuclear sites are for energy, not weapons, but sent mixed messages on whether it will remain in a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA/REUTERS
Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko (l.) and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, attend a news conference after visiting the Russian-built nuclear reactor in Bushehr, Iran, Monday.

One day after announcing plans for 10 new nuclear sites, Iran is sending mixed messages about its membership in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran insists that the new facilities, which would increase Iran's capacity for enriching uranium more than 50-fold, are for purely peaceful purposes. But any degree of withdrawal from the NPT would curtail UN inspections or safeguards and boost Western concerns that Iran is secretly pursuing a nuclear weapon – a claim Tehran has always denied.

"Our spiritual leader says that to obtain nuclear weapons is a sin – if we wanted to obtain nuclear weapons we would leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty," Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told Reuters. "We do not want to leave the NPT."

That came just hours after Iran's speaker of parliament and former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, seemed to cast doubt on sticking with the NPT, after Iran was censured by the UN watchdog agency last week.

"I believe that [Western] moves are harming the NPT most ... now whether you are a member of the NPT or pull out of it has no difference," Larijani told a press conference.

Such sentiments were also underscored by Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, who argued in Monday's edition for Iran to leave the NPT.

"After seven years of hasty behavior by the agency and [world powers], isn't it time for Iran to pull out of the NPT?" wrote Shariatmadari, an official representative of Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei. "This is a serious question and needs a logical answer."

500,000 new centrifuges

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cabinet said on Sunday that work would begin immediately on five of the 10 sites, which together would house more than half a million centrifuges – a dramatic increase from the 8,700 now in operation, and one that experts say is unrealistic given Iran's demonstrated capabilities.

"I think there are serious technical questions about Iran's capacity to carry out this threat," says Natalie Goldring, a nonproliferation expert at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies in Washington.

The hurdles have prompted analysts to interpret the move as diplomatic bluster. Iran itself emphasized that the decision to expand was a direct response to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)'s resolution on Friday that censured Iran over its nuclear activities.

Tehran's planned enrichment expansion, which would violate current United Nations Security Council resolutions against Iran, brought a chorus of criticism from Washington and other Western capitals. Last week, outgoing IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said that efforts to clear up outstanding issues with Iran had reached a "dead end."

"This is an act of bullying," said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, referring to the resolution. "Such measures will destroy the very foundation of the UN Security Council and the IAEA."

Iran has stated repeatedly that it will stay within the NPT – which legally permits uranium enrichment for nuclear energy – but complains that it has been singled out for scrutiny for past failures to declare all its programs, while nuclear-weapon nations such as Israel, Pakistan, and India are not members of the IAEA and have no international oversight.

'Serious technical questions'

The cabinet decision calls for 10 more enrichment facilities like the one at Natanz, which is designed for more than 50,000 spinning centrifuges, but after nearly a decade has installed less than 8,700 – with less than half of those working in early November.

Analysts say Iran, already under three sets of UN sanctions, would face a number of hurdles acquiring the materials necessary to build so many new centrifuges, never mind the necessary uranium feedstock they would require.

"They have had a lot of difficulty with Natanz; they are nowhere near where they intended to be by this time," says Dr. Goldring. "Claiming they are going to produce another 10 facilities of similar and larger type I think strains credulity."

Just digging 10 more vast underground sites protected by mountains, as officials have said they plan to do to protect against military strikes, would be a challenge for Iran's weak economy. Iran says the sole purpose of its program is to create nuclear power, though its Russian-built reactor at Bushehr – for which Russia is to supply the fuel – has yet to begin operations.

More freedom to operate

Iran has been engaged in talks with the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany, a group known as P5+1, to ship the bulk of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and then France, which together would turn it into higher-enriched fuel it needs for a medical reactor in Tehran.

Iran has all but rejected the deal, saying it does not trust the West, and says it might consider a simultaneous swap instead.

"I think the Obama Administration has been willing to carry out serious negotiations with the Iranians," says Goldring. "Unfortunately, the Iranians make it look as though the diplomatic and political options aren't necessarily feasible."

Goldring adds that while stepping away from the NPT would give Iran more leeway regarding nuclear activities, it would also take away the diplomatic and political protection such a regime offers – with its safeguards and inspectors, and more support from allies.

"They give themselves more freedom to operate. But they give their adversaries more freedom to operate as well," she says.

Diplomatic game of chicken?

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said the decision to expand Iran's enrichment was a direct reaction to the IAEA resolution against Iran on Nov. 27 – the first in nearly four years, approved by an overwhelming majority that included key Iranian business partners Russia and China. The resolution, passed by a 25-3 margin with six abstensions, rebuked Iran for not declaring until September the existence of a small enrichment facility near Qom that was in an advanced stage of construction. The IAEA demanded Iran stop work at that site, and declare any other undeclared nuclear facilities.

"We had no intention of building many facilities like the Natanz site, but apparently the West doesn't want to understand Iran's peaceful message," said Mr. Salehi. "The action by 5+1 at the IAEA prompted the [Iranian] government to approve" the 10 new sites.

Thus, analysts suggest the announced nuclear expansion plans are more about diplomacy than making mountains of nuclear fuel Iran can't yet use.

"At a minimum, this is a project that would require Iran to mobilize all of its resources in a national effort over many years," writes Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University who was the principal White House aide during Iran's 1979 revolution and subsequent hostage crisis.

"In my view, this is a classic Ahmadinejad blustery response to the recent IAEA resolution [and is] the kind of ante-raising that one might expect in a negotiating game of 'chicken,'" Sick wrote in his blog on Sunday.

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