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Iran's Nuclear Plans Worry U.S. Officials

January 27, 1991|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — If U.S. military officials are correct, Iraq's nuclear facilities now lie in ruins, hopelessly damaged by a relentless barrage of American bombs and missiles. But that doesn't eliminate the danger that a nuclear-armed nation may come to dominate the Persian Gulf.

Over the last few weeks, some Bush Administration officials and independent nuclear specialists here have grown increasingly worried about new signs that Iran may be starting down the same path as Iraq, its Persian Gulf rival, with secret efforts to buy nuclear technology and build nuclear weapons.

"It looks like there's a really active program in Iran," said Leonard S. Spector, a nuclear specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It picked up over the past eight or 10 months, after they saw and read about what was going on in Iraq."

Now, the Bush Administration and its allies are quietly launching a new international effort aimed at making it more difficult for such countries as Iraq and Iran to buy the high-tech items needed to develop nuclear weapons.

Representatives of the United States, its European allies and Japan plan to meet in The Hague a few weeks from now to work out new international restrictions on the export of so-called "dual-use" goods--items that, while they have other legitimate uses, are also important components for a program to develop nuclear weapons.

The objective is to find some way to keep Third World leaders from trying to develop nuclear weapons the way Iraq did and accomplish that goal short of going to war and trying to destroy such facilities with bombs and missiles.

The new international effort was prompted in part by the well-coordinated efforts of Saddam Hussein's agents to secretly buy, piece by piece, many of the high-tech items needed to make weapons-grade nuclear fuel. These items included special steel, vacuum pumps and machinery used to enrich uranium in centrifuges.

"We saw Iraq finding ways to get through the loopholes in the system and buy centrifuge-enrichment technology," one U.S. official said. "There were broad Iraqi efforts aimed at obtaining these dual-use items."

Bush Administration officials acknowledge that moves to impose new international restrictions on high-tech exports are also prompted by a new phenomenon--an unintended side effect of the ending of the Cold War.

Last July, the United States, West European countries and Japan lifted many longstanding controls on the sale of high-tech goods to Eastern Europe. That inadvertently made it easier for countries such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea to buy, through East European intermediaries, many of the dual-use items needed for nuclear weapons.

"A country like Czechoslovakia has lots of other things on its mind," said a congressional specialist on nuclear weapons proliferation. "Enforcing export controls is way down on their priority list right now."

In the 1970s, during the reign of the shah, Iran had a fledgling nuclear program. But some of its top scientists left after the Islamic revolution, and two West German-supplied reactors installed at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf were damaged by Iraqi warplanes in 1987.

Until recently, analysts such as Spector believed that Iran's nuclear research and development program was moving very slowly. Recently, these experts have begun to revise their estimates.

They note that some Iranian scientists seem to be conducting nuclear research at Tehran University and that another nuclear research and development program has opened in Isfahan.

"It's fair to say that Iran's scientists are conducting research on enrichment and reprocessing for nuclear weapons programs," a State Department official concludes. "I wouldn't be surprised if they also have agents in Europe scouring the market for the technology they need."

In September, an Iranian News Agency report upbraided Germany for rebuffing Iran's requests to help rebuild the Bushehr plant. Last week, a congressional investigator said he believes that a subsidiary or licensee of the German firm Siemens has just agreed to get the Bushehr nuclear reactors operating again.

Siemens officials deny the report. "That was something the Iranians may have considered, but we never considered it--not with a subsidiary, not with anyone else," a Siemens spokesman asserted last week. He was unable to say for sure, however, whether or not some independent company that licenses Siemens' nuclear technology might be arranging to rebuild Iran's nuclear reactors.

Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president, tried two months ago to reassure the world that his country will abide by nuclear safeguards. "It will be impossible to control nuclear weapons if even a single country is equipped with such arms," he said.

U.S. officials remain skeptical. "We're concerned that the Iranians, in the future, will try to do what the Iraqis did, that is, set up a separate, secret nuclear enrichment facility not subject to international safeguards," a Bush Administration official said.

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