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Slap Iran With Stiff Inspections

Its nuclear programs prove it can't be trusted, so strong action is needed now.

October 24, 2003|Richard G. Lugar | Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Iran's steady march toward the bomb took an apparent detour this week when Tehran announced that it would submit to new nuclear inspections and temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment program, which would have the capacity to produce nuclear weapons material. This step is welcome, but it should not lead us to a false sense of security about the Iranian proliferation threat or unwarranted confidence in current nonproliferation measures under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, which Iran signed in 1970.

Iran took these measures under prodding from France, Britain and Germany and because it faced an Oct. 31 deadline set by the International Atomic Energy Agency to agree to them after Tehran's clandestine drive to acquire nuclear bomb material had been exposed by an Iranian opposition group and confirmed by the IAEA. Iran was secretly building a uranium enrichment facility, as well as a heavy-water plant, which could be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Inspectors found weapons-grade uranium at two Iranian sites.

All are violations of Iran's NPT commitments, under which it pledged to forgo nuclear weapons. Tehran has admitted to secretly importing uranium from China in the 1990s and has been caught repeatedly lying about its nuclear activities to the IAEA, the U.N. watchdog agency.

Iran denies it is working to build a bomb and claims that the enrichment facilities, which can make either fuel for nuclear power reactors or material for weapons, are for a large nuclear electricity system. Given that Iran, rich in oil and gas, has only a single, still-unfinished Russian-built reactor and little of its own uranium ore, these claims are not credible. Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently that the IAEA "has found conclusively" that Iran is trying to produce material that can be used in nuclear weapons.

In short, Iran has been caught red-handed trying to build nuclear weapons through several methods over a sustained period in violation of its treaty obligations. Given the clarity of this case, one might have expected the international community to act immediately and unequivocally to stop the proliferation.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. The IAEA dithered for months while trying to coax Iran back into the nonproliferation treaty. The additional protocol to the treaty that Iran this week agreed to sign would provide for enhanced inspections. However, it is far from clear that these inspections will be enough to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear capability because they rely on Tehran telling the truth. Inspectors still must rely on Tehran's account of where the nuclear sites are and its cooperation in gaining access to them.

In such extreme cases, history has taught us to be skeptical about assurances of future compliance. Further, the games played by Iraq and North Korea demonstrate the limitations of the NPT's verification measures when dealing with a determined and egregious violator. Given Iran's pattern of deception, denial and delay, the international community should be prepared to take more effective action.

This depends less on the legal mechanisms of the NPT than it does on the will of the international community. When confronted with a case as blatant as Iran, the U.S. and like-minded allies must use the U.N. Security Council to demand that the violator cease all illegal weapons activities, dismantle weapons-related facilities and submit to "super inspections," even tougher than those imposed on Iraq. Elements should include unfettered freedom for inspectors, unsupervised interviews of nuclear scientists and engineers (out of the country with their families, if necessary) and unrestrained aerial surveillance.

Iran would object that such intrusive inspections impinge on its sovereignty, but this is the price Tehran should pay to convince outsiders that, for once, it is keeping its word under the treaty. By demanding that Iran prove that it is living up to the NPT, the Security Council would strengthen the treaty.

Some will object that such strong action may force Iran's ruling mullahs to quit the treaty. But keeping Iran in it should not be an end in itself. The NPT is useful only to the extent that its provisions are enforced to prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons.

If the international community were persuaded to work together, it would have substantial leverage over Iran. An Iranian withdrawal from the NPT would halt the Russian reactor deal and cooperation with other nuclear suppliers, expose Iran's naked nuclear ambitions for all to see and stiffen international resolve for tough economic sanctions.

In the short run, our European allies will be inclined to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt, partly to avoid a confrontation and partly to preserve commercial opportunities in Iran. But the U.S. should begin laying the groundwork now for a decisive international response to any additional violations.

Failure to act, if Iran is caught violating its international obligations, would threaten the entire nuclear nonproliferation regime, destroy the international community's credibility and reduce the chances that severe proliferation threats can be dealt with through nonmilitary means.

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