Until last spring, it seemed as if Iran and the United States were moving toward a discreet dialogue designed to defuse more than two decades of antagonism. Now, however, with the release of fresh evidence that Iran may be pursuing nuclear weapons, tensions between the old adversaries have reached a new high.
Ask any official in Tehran and you will hear the same thing: Iran does not plan to manufacture nuclear weapons but wants to reserve the right to do so. This is almost word for word what the late shah told a group of scientists and officials in Tehran in 1970, shortly after Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. A few weeks later, the Iranian Atomic Agency was reorganized into a major government department headed by a deputy prime minister.
At the time, the shah's goal was to build 20 nuclear power stations over a ten-year period, producing a total of 30,000 megawatts of atomic energy. The reason was that Iran's energy consumption was expected to triple by the year 2000. At that rate, Iran would have been forced to use practically all of its oil output to generate electricity for domestic consumption, thus losing its single-largest source of foreign currency. The shah also invested in a new company, Eurodif, to find and market uranium in partnership with France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Gabon. (It was not until the late 1970s that uranium deposits were found in Iran itself, and thus Tehran initially looked to West Africa as a source of supply.)
By 1976, work on the first of the projected nuclear power stations had started at Bushehr, a peninsula on the Persian Gulf. The station was slated for completion in 1980. In 1977, research began at another nuclear power station at Dar-Khuywayyen, near Ahvaz, in the oil-rich province of Khuzistan. But in 1979, the shah's regime collapsed as Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini seized power in Tehran.
One of Khomeini's first acts was to scrap the entirety of the shah's grandiose modernization program — including the nuclear project. In 1983, a squadron of French heavy bombers attacked the Bushehr nuclear power station, damaging its abandoned infrastructure. The planes, painted in Iraqi colors, had been "lent" to Saddam Hussein by the French government and were flown by retired French and Belgian pilots. The raid was presented by then-president Saddam Hussein as retaliation for the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear power station at Osirak in 1981, though everyone knew that Osirak had been knocked out by Israeli Phantom jets painted in Iranian colors.
After Khomeini's death in 1989, his successors decided to revive the late shah's modernization programs. An inspection team dispatched in 1990 by the German company Siemens, which had started building the Bushehr plant before the revolution, reported that it could be revived and completed: Apparently the French pilots had not done as good a job at Bushehr as the Israelis had at Osirak.
Under pressure from Washington, however, the Germans quickly withdrew their offer to complete Bushehr. For almost three years, Iran shopped around, looking for partners to help finish the project. Russia agreed to help, in exchange for an $800 million contract. And so, by the year 2000, Bushehr was a bustling construction site. Nuclear power from Bushehr is scheduled to enter the nation's electrical network by March 2004.
The U.S. has alleged for some time that Iran has already begun manufacturing atomic bombs and may have up to ten such bombs by 2005. Until recently, international opinion was prepared to give Iran the benefit of the doubt, seeing Washington's position as "typical American bullying." A series of incidents has changed that view. Last March, satellite photos were released showing secret facilities linked to Iran's nuclear program. At one location near Natanz, close to the central Iranian desert, stands a sophisticated facility that produces high-speed centrifuges needed for enriching uranium. To produce a Hiroshima-sized bomb, it takes a maximum of 25 kilos of enriched uranium — for which 1,000 centrifuges are needed. It is estimated that the Natanz facility, when completed, will have the capacity to produce up to 5,000 centrifuges every year.
Even more interestingly, it appears that Iran wants to expand its nuclear options, limited currently to enriched uranium, to include the capacity to produce plutonium — a revival of the two-track strategy devised in the 1970s. To do this, Iran would need to produce heavy water. And the latest satellite photos and other intelligence material show that Iran has built a heavy-water facility at Arak, west of Tehran.
Both the Natanz and Arak facilities represent upper links in a chain of nuclear technology. The first link of that chain is raw uranium, which Iran discovered in the late 1970s in large quantities at Sarcheshmeh, near Kerman, and Magas, in Baluchestan. According to some estimates, Iran has one of the world's largest uranium deposits — large enough to satisfy the country's energy needs and to sustain any weapons programs it might wish to undertake for up to 200 years.
The middle link of the chain consists of nuclear stations like Bushehr, which — using uranium to produce electricity — also manufacture spent nuclear fuel, the raw material for enriched uranium. The highest link, of course, is a bomb-making factory, which Iran may or may not already have. One theory is that Iran will not build such a facility until it has accumulated enough enriched uranium and plutonium for a substantial number of nuclear warheads. Some experts believe that the go-ahead could be given as early as 2005. Others suggest slightly later dates, such as 2010.
As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is obliged to undergo inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Last summer, Iran's credibility was badly shaken when IAEA inspectors found traces of enriched uranium at one of the sites they visited. The Iranians could not explain the presence of special-grade enriched uranium in a country that does not wish to manufacture nuclear warheads. Things worsened when the IAEA was confronted with evidence of the existence of the Natanz and Arak facilities. The question had to be asked: If Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons, why all the secrecy? Consider Arak. Heavy water has well-known civilian uses: If the production at Arak was entirely innocent, why did Iran choose to conceal its existence? IAEA director Mohamed El-Baradei asked Iran to explain the latest findings.
El-Baradei's plea was followed by a letter signed by the British, French, and German foreign ministers calling on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and to sign an additional protocol to the NPT allowing impromptu inspections of all suspected sites. The European Union also intervened, promising Iran financial and technological aid for its energy project in exchange for an immediate end to all military-related nuclear programs. Failing that, the EU could employ economic and diplomatic sanctions. Ironically, Washington adopted a softer position: The Bush administration said it would be satisfied if Iran signed the additional protocol to the NPT.
Faced with the EU's surprisingly tough stance, the Iranian leadership met with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany in Tehran on October 21. The result was an announcement by Hasan Rowhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, that Iran would sign the additional protocol allowing unlimited access to inspectors. Furthermore, Rowhani announced that Iran would, for an "interim period," suspend uranium enrichment "to express its goodwill and create a new atmosphere of trust."
Whether the regime is prepared to alter its long-term nuclear strategy is still an open question. In nuclear policy, the Iranian leadership is facing its toughest dilemma in more than 20 years. On one hand, there is a strong desire to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons as a national deterrent: Iran is located in a rough neighborhood that includes at least five states with nuclear weapons. On the other hand, pursuing a nuclear program will isolate Iran, lead to new sanctions, and give the United States a pretext not only to destroy Iran's nuclear centers, but even to use a mixture of military and political pressure to topple the regime itself.
That fear is well grounded: Reports suggest that covert action could be used against Iran's nuclear installations. The U.S. has already recruited a number of Mujahedin Khalq elements in Iraq and won a pledge from their leader, Massoud Rajavi, to help with sabotage attacks inside Iran if necessary. If the U.S. and/or Israel were to strike areas in Iran, Tehran would be unable to retaliate except through Lebanese and Palestinian radical groups. The regime would appear weak and vulnerable, thus encouraging domestic opponents who dream of its overthrow.
Imagined as the ultimate weapon to ensure the safety of the mullahs' regime, Tehran's nuclear program is fast developing into a serious threat to the Islamic Republic itself.
Mr. Taheri is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He was executive editor of Kayhan, Iran's main daily newspaper, from 1972 to 1979