Tuesday, November 9, 2004

President Bush, who has said that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, is likely to come under intense pressure in the coming days to agree to support some kind of nuclear deal reached by the European Union and rogue regime in Tehran. But there is good reason to be skeptical that such an agreement will actually end Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

If recent history is any indication, a more likely outcome of the EU-Iranian talks would be some arrangement that won’t prevent Iran from gaining such weapons but will provide a diplomatic fig leaf enabling the International Atomic Energy Agency at its Nov. 25 board meeting to postpone referring the issue to the U.N. Security Council. Mr. Bush should stand firm against such a flawed deal.

The Washington Post on Monday quoted unnamed American, European and Iranian officials as stating that the EU 3 (Britain, France and Germany), which have been trying for more than a year to persuade Iran to jettison its nuclear program, could produce an agreement within days. The deal would call for Iran to agree to a full suspension of its nuclear-related work. In exchange, the EU (in a move reminiscent of the Clinton administration’s failed 1994 nuclear accord with North Korea) has reportedly promised Tehran a package of economic and diplomatic incentives along with a guarantee that it will not be referred to the Security Council.

But Iran has been demanding an exemption for part of the uranium conversion process which could move it closer to production of bomb-grade uranium. Such an arrangement would make it “too easy for Iran to conduct the next conversion step in secret,” said physicist David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Yet even if Iran were to agree to a full suspension, recent history suggests that it would likely violate such a deal anyway. Over the past year, the IAEA has issued at least three reports documenting Iranian cheating. One such report, issued last November, showed that Iran has been deceiving the international community about its efforts to develop nuclear weapons for almost 20 years. In June, two months after Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear program, the IAEA issued a report suggesting that Iran continued to produce items that can be used to build nuclear weapons. In April, that report noted, Iran promised to suspend production of centrifuge parts. Two months later, while the centrifuge production had been halted at three state-run facilities, it continued at three private companies, the IAEA reported.

One should not completely discount the possibility that Iran could eventually decide, like Libya, to abandon its nuclear program. But the evidence available thus far — and in particular, its repeated violations of promises made to the EU 3 over the past year — suggests that Tehran continues to behave more like North Korea.

The Bush administration needs to carefully scrutinize any arrangement the EU reaches with Iran and be prepared to say no if it doesn’t pass muster.

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