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Iran's nuclear ambitions

September 14, 2004 By Jim Giles This article courtesy of Nature News.

Western powers are struggling to decide how to react to Iran's fledgling nuclear programme. Take a hard line, and the Iranian people may side with the hawks in their government, who want to develop nuclear weapons. But if diplomats go easy, the country wi

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Is Iran developing nuclear weapons?

There is no concrete evidence, but there are plenty of worrying signs. Iran has huge oil and gas reserves, but in 2002 it announced plans to build six nuclear power stations. It wants to use plutonium and highly enriched uranium in these reactors; these elements can also be used to build bombs. Perhaps most worryingly, Iran attempted to conceal its centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, from international nuclear inspectors. Many analysts believe the power programme is a front for developing the technology to create a bomb, although opinion is divided on whether the government would actually build such a weapon.

Do Iran's plans break international law?

Not unless Iran clearly breaches the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Under NPT rules, Iran can buy and operate centrifuges and other equipment needed for bombs as long as it only uses the devices for nuclear power programmes. The rules state that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must be allowed into Iranian labs to verify this. The IAEA said on 13 September that its officials were being allowed good access to nuclear facilities, but added that some details of Iran's uranium enrichment programme remain unclear.

What are Europe and the United States trying to do?

The West is divided. Europe's three main players in the debate, Britain, France and Germany, are trying to call Iran's bluff. They say that they are happy to help Iran develop nuclear power. In return, they want its government to allow IAEA officials to keep tabs on the technology, to ensure that it is not militarized. The United States, by contrast, wants to report Iran to the UN Security Council if it does not reveal all the details of its enrichment programme to the IAEA. The council would have the power to allow sanctions or even military action.

When will the West make a decision?

Diplomats are this week thrashing out a resolution at the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna and early signs are that the United States could come out on top. Iran's case was not helped by a 13 September statement that it would resume uranium enrichment work. "The Europeans are moving to the US position out of frustration with Iran," says Nigel Chamberlain, a nuclear analyst at the British American Security Information Council in London.

How will Iran react to a tough stance from Europe and the United States?

Badly, caution some analysts. Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy in London says that forcing the issue will build political support for hardliners in the Iranian government, who want to withdraw from the NPT and develop nuclear weapons. Such factions cite the situation in Israel and Pakistan, neighbouring countries that already have nuclear capabilities. Iran would be refused access to nuclear equipment from current suppliers in Europe and Russia if it quit the NPT, but Johnson says it could find what it needs on the black market.

What is happening in North and South Korea?

Iran is not the only country causing a headache for the IAEA. South Korea admitted last week that it had run secret uranium enrichment experiments in the 1980s, prompting the IAEA to plan an official investigation. A report is due in November. North Korea has recently been accused of running a nuclear test, but experts say the large explosion that occurred in a rural area of the country on 9 September was not caused by a nuclear device (see Nuclear treaty 'would improve detection of rogue tests').

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