Sunday, August 14, 2005

Telegraph - By breaking the seals at Isfahan, the Iranian president has deliberately set up a showdown with the West

Telegraph | News | By breaking the seals at Isfahan, the Iranian president has deliberately set up a showdown with t

By Con Coughlin
(Filed: 14/08/2005)

They smuggle arms to kill our troops, they encourage Shi'ite Muslim clerics in Iraq to set up their own independent state, and now they want to build an atom bomb.

More than 25 years after the ayatollahs first seized power in Teheran, the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to pose a grave threat to Western security.

Just as the West's impotence was exposed when Iran's Revolutionary Guards seized control of the American Embassy in Teheran in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, so Western diplomats have been deeply embarrassed to discover that they are rapidly running out of options to prevent Iran from pushing ahead with its plans to build its own nuclear weapons arsenal.

Certainly that is the calculation being made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new Iranian president, after he authorised his nuclear scientists last week to unseal a key uranium conversion plant at Isfahan that had been mothballed by United Nations weapons inspectors at the end of last year over fears that it was being used as part of a bomb-making programme.

Uranium conversion is a key process in producing weapons-grade material for a nuclear bomb. By ordering work to resume at Isfahan, Mr Ahmadinejad has deliberately set the scene for a showdown with the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The Iranians, of course, have always insisted that their "national nuclear industry", as they refer to it, is for purely peaceful purposes. This is despite the fact that, with known oil reserves in excess of 90 billion barrels, the country has more than enough energy reserves to last it until well into the next century.

Suspicions have been steadily growing about Iran's true intentions since the summer of 2002 when the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revealed the existence of a top-secret underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Teheran is obliged to disclose all aspects of its nuclear programme to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

Even though the Natanz complex covers 250,000 acres and employs 1,000 personnel, the Iranians somehow managed not to inform the IAEA about it. Only when the NCRI provided evidence did the Iranians own up to its existence.

When UN nuclear experts were eventually allowed to inspect the site, they were amazed to find a massive underground complex, including two large halls designed to carry out uranium enrichment sunk 25ft deep with an 8ft thick concrete shell to protect them from air strikes. Once inside the complex, officials found 1,000 gas centrifuges, used for enriching uranium, and components for the manufacture of up to another 50,000 centrifuges.

None of this had been disclosed to the UN inspectors. But the most damning discoveries were the traces of enriched uranium found in soil samples taken from the site. Enriched uranium is a key component of a nuclear bomb, and when questioned on its provenance Iranian officials came up with the somewhat lame excuse that the particles has been "inadvertently" imported into the country in equipment purchased from abroad.

That country is most likely to have been Pakistan, which managed to develop and test its own nuclear weapons arsenal without the outside world knowing about it until it was too late.

British intelligence suspects that A Q Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, sold key nuclear technology to Iran to fund his own research programme.

In return, the Iranians sold technology from their Shahab 3 ballistic missile to Islamabad, which might explain Pakistan's successful launch of its own cruise missile - the Hatf VII Batr - at the end of last week.

Nor was the Natanz complex the Iranians' only embarrassing omission. Questions were also asked about the development of a secret heavy water plant at Arak. If the sole purpose of Iran's nuclear research were to develop an alternative fuel supply, it would have no use for a facility to make heavy water, another key component in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Iran's controversial Busheyr nuclear power complex, which is nearing completion on the Gulf coast, is designed to run a light water nuclear reactor.

Faced with what, by any test, was pretty damning proof of Iran's duplicity with regard to its nuclear programme, the so-called EU3 - Britain, France and Germany - have spent the past two years in a wearisome game of diplomatic cat-and-mouse, trying to cajole Teheran into giving up the more sinister elements in its nuclear programme.

In return they have indicated that they would allow the Iranians to continue developing an indigenous nuclear power industry.


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