Tuesday, November 22, 2005

More Time for Diplomacy

From Vienna comes the disturbing news that the U.S. and its European allies have decided against referring Iran (and its nuclear development program) to the U.N. Security Council, at least for now.

According to the Associated Press, the decision is intended to give Russia more time for diplomatic efforts, aimed at getting Tehran to abandon its efforts to build nuclear weapons. Under the a Moscow-backed proposal, Iran's uranium enrichment program would be moved to Russia, theoretically denying Tehran the opportunity to develop weapons-grade nuclear material.

There are obvious problems with this concept. First, there's no guarantee that uranium enriched in Russia couldn't find its way back to Iran, and into a weapons program. Secondly, the proposal has no mechanism for dealing with a covert Iranian enrichment program that could be easily concealed, while the "official" enrichment efforts are staged in Russia. And finally, there appears to be nothing to prevent Iran from pursuing other options for developing a bomb, namely the production of plutonium through its heavy-water facility near Khondab.

Why would the U.S. agree to such a proposal? At this point, we have little choice. With the on-going conflict in Iraq, military force isn't a viable option. Additionally, any referral to the Security Council would require the backing of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board, which has no enthusiasm for such action. That leaves the U.S. with no real alternative but to support Russian diplomacy (at least for now), while trying to build a consensus within the IAEA. Don't hold your breath.

Meanwhile, Iranian opposition leaders--who have provided accurate information on Tehran's nuclear activities in the past--are now reporting that Iran is expanding a network of underground tunnels, which may be used to hide medium-range missiles, or other weapons-related functions. According to one opposition source, some of the tunnels are located in the Parchin area, a region long associated with the Iranian missile program.

I've heard similar reports about suspicious tunnels, including one adjacent to the Iranian nuclear complex at Esfahan. The Iranians have claimed the Esfahan tunnel is designed for storage, but most experts--including the U.N.--have their doubts. Given its large size, the Esfahan complex could be used for missile or weapons storage, or provide concealment and protection for weapons production activities.

Iran's work on these tunnels suggests a country intent on producing nuclear weapons. That's why the Russian diplomatic effort is almost certain to fail, and a big reason that Iran's nuclear program will wind up in the security council in the not-too-distant future. Unfortunately, the odds of the U.N. dealing effectively with the problem are equally dim.

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