The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 33.0°F | Overcast

U.S. Intervention Blocks Nuclear Transfer to Iran

By Steve Coll
The Washington Post

VIENNA, Austria

Iran was on the verge earlier this year of obtaining equipment from China and Argentina that would have allowed it to begin its own nuclear manufacturing, but quiet intervention by the United States has blocked the transfers at least for now, according to officials involved in the negotiations.

U.S. officials describe Iran's contracts with Argentina for nuclear-fuel fabrication equipment and with China for a large research reactor as part of what one called a "suspicious procurement pattern" in the nuclear area that has led Washington to accuse Tehran of undertaking clandestine efforts to build nuclear weapons. CIA director Robert Gates testified earlier this year that Iran was seeking a nuclear bomb and could have one by the year 2000 if the West does not prevent it.

In response to these concerns, the United States has stepped up satellite reconnaissance of Iran's nuclear-related facilities, has passed on intelligence to inspectors at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency who visit Iran, and is attempting to closely monitor Iranian nuclear procurement, Western officials said.

Iranian officials say that in the Argentine and Chinese deals, as well as in others, they have gone out of their way to submit to full international nuclear safeguards and to invite extra inspections in order to prove that their nuclear program is peaceful and mainly for civilian electricity generation. They accuse the United States of ignoring, in Iran's case, nuclear safeguards agreements that it otherwise promotes and of waging a propaganda campaign to destabilize Iran's government.

Among other things, the cat-and-mouse negotiations over Iran's deals with Argentina and China illustrate some of the predicaments Washington faces as it attempts to control sensitive technology transfers to Iran, which is in the midst of a large-scale economic and military rebuilding program constructed largely with Western investment and bank lending.

The United States has issued public and private warnings to fellow members of the IAEA to keep a tight lid on Iran's nuclear ambitions or risk repeating mistakes made with Iraq several years ago. In that case, IAEA inspectors discovered after the Persian Gulf War that despite declaring peaceful intentions and submitting to international safeguards, Iraq had in fact been engaged for years in a secret program to acquire nuclear weapons by smuggling components from the West and that the weapons program was far more extensive than previously believed.

Washington suspects Iran of having a similar clandestine nuclear weapons program but so far has produced "no smoking gun," as one official put it, to prove its suspicions. U.S. officials have said Washington's estimate of Iran's nuclear intentions is based in part on information derived from highly sensitive sources, which they cannot disclose publicly or share in detail with other governments.

European officials say, however, that while Iran may be dabbling with a nuclear weapons program, there is no sign of an ambitious, secret effort like Iraq's. Nonetheless, the United States is warning its Western allies and other IAEA members not to turn a blind eye to even small doubts about Iran's nuclear procurement. In the cases of the Argentine and Chinese deals this year, the United States succeeded.

U.S. officials were sufficiently alarmed by the proposed sale of Argentine equipment -- which would have enabled Iran to convert natural uranium into precursor forms of highly enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons -- that they undertook what one called a "long and tough" lobbying campaign in Europe and Argentina to stop the shipment, which officials said was packed and ready to go to Iran around the first of this year.

In the end, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, Richard T. Kennedy, succeeded in persuading Argentina in part because he agreed to help the affected state-owned Argentine company Investigaciones Aplicadas find alternative nuclear business in the United States to compensate for the loss of the Iran sale, officials involved said. In March, Investigaciones Aplicadas signed a memo of understanding to develop future business with General Atomics Inc. of San Diego, although officials of the two companies said they have yet to come up with any deals together.

The Argentine government, which has been moving steadily toward improved relations with the United States, was also persuaded because their export equipment could be linked by Iran to supplies from China, a nuclear weapons state involved in the past in sensitive exports to such nuclear threshold countries as Algeria and Pakistan, one official closely involved said.

Meanwhile, State Department officials lobbied heavily with the Beijing government to prevent the sale to Iran of a large nuclear research reactor, rated at more than 20 megawatts, that would have included a supply of enriched fuel and would have allowed Iran to conduct a variety of work related to the nuclear fuel cycle, officials and diplomats said.

J. Stapleton Roy, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, visited a Chinese nuclear facility outside the capital in March and inspected a model of the reactor bound for Iran, according to a Western diplomat in Beijing. On that occasion and others, U.S. diplomats lobbied senior Chinese officials to block the transfer.

Western sources said the Chinese never directly answered the U.S. protests, or promised that they would not sell reactors to Iran. But National Nuclear Corp. official Xuehong Liu told the trade journal Nucleonics Week on Sept. 23 that China "could not supply" the research reactor to Iran for "technical reasons."

U.S. officials worry because inspectors have not yet been able to identify the sources of Iraq's secret nuclear procurement in the West.