Monday, April 17, 2006

BBC Persian language interview on Iran nukes

A recent program on the Persian language service of BBC includes comments (in Farsi) by British academic analyst Elahe Mohtasham regarding past attempts by nuclear club members to discourage new memberships. What I found particulary interesting is the resistance France met with during her early attempts to join the nuclear club. To listen to this interview Scroll down to the 12th link on the page where it says Sohbate ahle Nazar.

Last year Ms. Mohtasham accepted an invitation by the Iranian government to visit Isfahan’s nuclear uranium conversion facility. Below is the article she wrote for the Sunday Times last May.
Sunday Times: May 1, 2005 (World News: page 1.21)

Revealed: Iran's nuclear factory

Elahe Mohtasham was given unique access to a plant that brought her face to face with Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

RENOWNED for its towering Emam mosque and magnificent 11th century bridge over the Zayandeh Rud river, the city of Esfahan is a peaceful place, even at the peak of the tourist season. But on the edge of the eastern outskirts is a cluster of modern buildings that has become the focus of growing international friction. Visitors here are few and far between.

Esfahan's Uranium Conversion Facility, one of the most sensitive parts of Iran's nuclear programme, is surrounded by anti-aircraft guns, razor wire and armed soldiers. Although I had seen satellite images, it was not until I arrived with my companion from the Centre for Strategic Studies, which advises President Muhammad Khatami on nuclear, defence and security issues, that I grasped the scale of the plant, built around a hill. The facility was completed in 1998. In March last year it made uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas for the first time. UF6 is needed to enrich uranium in gas centrifuges in another plant at Natanz, 90 miles to the northeast. It is Iran's recently acquired ability to enrich uranium ‹ which could then be used for either nuclear power or an atomic weapon ‹ that has caused so much tension. Last week I became the first independent western academic analyst to gain access to the building where the UF6 is produced.

My visit was the culmination of a journey that began last September when, as a representative of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, I went to several other institutions involved in Iran's nuclear programme. Iranian-born and fluent in Farsi, I accepted an invitation to return independently with the aim of seeing inside the Esfahan plant. This provided a unique opportunity to assess what was happening at the heart of the nuclear programme as officials from Iran, Britain, France and Germany were preparing for talks in London to resolve a looming diplomatic crisis.

What I found was that thoughts of nuclear warheads appear to be far from the minds of the energetic young scientists. However, work at Esfahan has advanced further than published reports suggest.

OUR 250-mile drive from Tehran, the Iranian capital, was hastened by a recently opened motorway and enlivened by dramatic vistas. Once we had passed the holy city of Qom, the sun glinted off rock faces rising sheer from the desert floor. In the valleys, the blue-tiled domes of abandoned mosques winked like tiny jewels.

After an overnight stay in Esfahan, we boarded an official minibus to the plant. Despite the armed patrols, we were waved through the security barrier without any checks ‹ not even a search of our bags. The director of the Esfahan centre greeted us warmly. At 35 years old, he seemed to typify the youth and vitality of his country's nuclear industry. Over tea and pulak, a local sweet, in his office, I explained my hopes for the visit: to obtain answers to technical, political and organisational questions that have perplexed outside observers. He responded eagerly.

Two hours later I was introduced to a group of his scientists. Most were young ‹ about 25 ‹ with a few over 55. Among them were several young women scientists. Although the plant has no formal policy of preventing women from working in radioactive areas, they are generally assigned in practice to posts related to safety and support. Nevertheless, it was pointed out that one of the women was primarily responsible for the development of electrical connections at the UF6 facility at a critical time when it was first being produced. The women scientists I met wore the traditional hijab, as required in any workplace in Iran. But it was fashionably pulled back over their hair and they wore make-up. These were modern women with an outlook to match.

All the scientists spoke in an open and transparent manner, replying to detailed technical questions without any reservations and discussing security and supply lines. They used a large map and a model of the whole site to explain the equipment used for the production of UF6. There was even a film in which several of the scientists with me were proudly shown generating supercooled liquid UF6. Iran is only the ninth country in the world to accomplish the conversion process after the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan ‹ all nuclear powers ‹ and Brazil.

At the end I asked how much UF6 had been made at Esfahan. The latest information published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors visit every three to four weeks, showed that 40-45kg had been produced by last June. "The IAEA has been informed that in October three tonnes of UF6 were made," said one of the scientists. The information was highly significant: it proved that Iran has the capacity to produce UF6 on an industrial scale. Would it be able to make enough to feed 50,000 centrifuges planned for the Natanz enrichment plant, I asked? "Yes," came the reply.

Iran says it would need enriched uranium from 50,000 centrifuges to sustain a domestic nuclear power industry and sell nuclear fuel commercially abroad. It has so far abided by a decision announced in October 2003 to suspend uranium enrichment at Natanz while negotiations over its programme continue with British, French and German officials. But having achieved the capability, it seems highly unlikely from what I heard that Iran will be prepared to give up its nuclear fuel cycle in exchange for the technological or economic benefits being offered.

Europeans and Americans alike fear the capability will be used by Iran to develop atomic weapons. Experts estimate that between 1,500 and 2,000 centrifuges could produce enough highly enriched uranium for one atomic device a year. According to IAEA reports, Iran had 1,140 centrifuge rotors by the spring of last year. By October the number had risen to 1,274. In a television broadcast in Farsi on February 8, Hassan Rohani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, suggested that further progress had been made since. "Last year when we were going through the suspension period, we did not have enough centrifuges," he said. "During the period of one year and several months we built and assembled all the centrifuges we needed." Other experts believe that if Iran decides to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and make atomic weapons, it would take at least a year for different sections of the centrifuges to be tested and assembled for enrichment. An extra few months would be needed to produce enough UF6 at Esfahan and transfer it to Natanz as the feed material for the enrichment process. For the moment, however, the production lines are idle as talks aimed at preventing Iran from enriching uranium go on.

Over lunch in the refectory ‹ a traditional ghormeh sabzi of lamb, herbs and red beans with rice ‹ the plant director told me sadly of scientists being laid off while there was no work for them to do. "Counselling sessions are being arranged for those in danger of losing their jobs," he said. "Others are taking up offers in the oil industry." Several scientists round the table were determined to stick it out. All appeared convinced that Esfahan would be up and running again soon. "What about the possibility of withdrawal from the NPT?" I asked tentatively, wondering how much the scientists knew about their obligation not to develop nuclear weapons. They were fully aware of the treaty's requirements and of Iran's obligations to the IAEA inspectors, they said. At the same time, they were prepared to accept any decision by their government, including a possible withdrawal from the treaty.

The subject turned to the threat of a military attack on the site. It had been evident from my discussions with Iranian officials and analysts in Tehran that a Sunday Times report in March disclosing Israeli preparations for possible airstrikes on sites such as Esfahan and Natanz had been widely read. The scientists said that although they had standard safety measures to guard against radiation leaks, they did not have protection against a military attack. Analysts believe airstrikes would destabilise the region. Iran would probably withdraw from the NPT and initiate a nuclear weapons programme. "How far would any radioactive material spread in the event of an attack?" I asked. The scientists estimated that an area of more than a mile around the plant would be contaminated. Some workers could escape through underground tunnels leading from sensitive to safe areas, according to one scientist. But the tunnels were small, he added. "Only one or two people could use them at a time."

THE diplomacy of the coming weeks and months could determine whether the dispute between Iran and the countries most suspicious of its intentions ‹ notably Israel and the United States ‹ will escalate to the point of armed conflict. Iran wants to resume uranium enrichment under an IAEA inspection regime that it says would reassure the world. It is also seeking guarantees that other countries will never attack it with nuclear weapons. The British and Germans are trying to secure Iran's agreement to abandon enrichment in return for benefits including a light water reactor for nuclear energy. France may be willing to support limited uranium enrichment ‹ a compromise that at the present time would be unacceptable to America. Should the tangled talks collapse, Europe will come under strong pressure to back the Americans in referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. Iran might well start up its enrichment programme again. British diplomats hope that such a polarisation ‹ and the risk of military action that may follow ‹ can be averted by keeping the talks going until Iran's presidential elections on June 17. They believe a pragmatic victor could open the way for an agreement. At Esfahan, the scientists' hope is for a deal that would prevent the dismantling of the Uranium Conversion Facility.

Our lunch resulted in permission for me to see the object of so much attention with my own eyes. In a changing area at the entrance to the facility, I was handed a green protective suit, along with mask and gloves. Tanks and pipes stretched to the ceiling 20ft above. Metal walkways and ladders offered views over the vast room where the UF6 gas is made. It is stored in tanks and could be moved to Natanz if the government defies the concerns of its negotiating partners.

I concluded my discussions with Iranian scientists, diplomats and government officials by pointing out that the worries of western governments could not be ignored. Anxieties associated with a clash of ideologies and civilisations could not be alleviated by objective guarantees or IAEA inspections, I emphasised. Not only would Iran have to demonstrate the transparency of any continuing programme; it would also have to address systematically and conscientiously concerns about Iran's associations with groups classified as terrorists in western Europe and America.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Under a monarchy Iran was well on its way to becoming a nuclear power, albeit a nuclear power within the orb of Western influence. That Iran has become a nuclear power as a theocracy is not so much reflective of the country’s political leadership, but of Iran’s tendency to be a major pillar of world politics. Out of the reaches of its history Iran has emerged in the 21st century to once again assume a weighty role in influencing world affairs. Even if Iran was not the guardian of one of the largest energy reserves of the world, the country might find other ways in which it would challenge the world, either ideologically or economically. When oil was not the strategic commodity it is today, Iran was either a superpower or at least a middle power. I refer you to an article posted on this website,