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IRAN'S NUCLEAR & MISSILE QUEST: AN EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Paper No. 3                                24.12.1998

 

by B.Raman 

Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Chemical Weapons Convention. 

Its nuclear and missile policies were explained by the then President AIi Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as follows in an interview to the newspaper "Asharq AI Awsat" on December 23,1996: (a).Iran was determined to seek nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. This was a right which it would not abandon. (b). It had no intention of military nuclearisation. Its nuclear facilities were open to inspection by anyone. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had been regularly inspecting its nuclear facilities twice a year and declaring Iran free of any nuclear weapons programme. (c). Iran would pursue a missile development programme to strengthen its defence capability. 

Despite Iran's repeated assurances that it had no clandestine military nuclearisation programme, the USA, without producing any evidence so far, has been insisting that Iran has one and trying to prevent Iran from acquiring even a civilian nuclear capability for peaceful purposes on the ground that such a capability could be easily converted into a military one. 

When the Shah of Iran launched a civilian nuclear programme in the 1970s, the US and other Western countries did not see it as a potential threat to world peace and stability, but once the Shah was overthrown and the Islamic Revolution succeeded in 1979, they started projecting it as a threat and spared no efforts and no strategems to prevent Iran from acquiring even a civilian capability for peaceful purposes and to prevent Iranian scientists, technicians and students from gaining admission to foreign universities and research establishments for higher studies in scientific subjects having a bearing on nuclear and missile development. 

The Shah had awarded a contract to the Siemens AG of the then West Germany for the construction of two nuclear power reactors with a capacity of 1,000 MW each at Bushehr, 750 kms south of Tehran, and lent US $ one billion to France to finance the construction of the Eurodif uranium enrichment plant at Drone in southern France in return for a commitment that fuel from this plant would be available for Iran's nuclear power stations. Both these agreements were violated by Germany and France after the Islamic Revolution succeeded. 

Siemens AG, which started the construction in 1975, abandoned the project in 1979 and withdrew all its staff from the site. Not only that. It allegedly took away all the technical documents of the project for which Iran had already paid in full before 1979.The partly-completed reactors were damaged by Iraqi air strikes during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Since the end of the war, Siemens AG, under pressure from the German Government, has refused to either resume the construction or return the technical documents which are the property of the Government of Iran. 

France, while declining to assist Iran, has at least agreed to return with interest the amount lent by the Shah for the Eurodif plant. 

It was under these circumstances that Iran turned to China and Russia. China agreed in 1990 to help Iran in the construction of a small research reactor and in 1992 in the construction of a power reactor with a capacity of 300 MW. However, in its anxiety to obtain the latest nuclear power technology from the US, China is reported to have since agreed to suspend any further assistance to Iran in the nuclear field. The fate of this nuclear power station is, therefore, uncertain. 

Russia agreed to help Iran to complete the construction of the two reactors abandoned by the Siemens AG in 1979 and to construct one more power reactor at the same site. The contract for the first reactor was signed in January, 1995, and an agreement in principle in respect of the other two was reached on March 6, 1998.In addition, Russia had also agreed in 1996 to help Iran in the construction of a small research reactor.

To pre-empt US allegations that these reactors would help Iran in military nuclearisation, Russia and Iran have announced the following safeguards: (a). The reactors would be subject to IAEA inspections. (b). The reactors would be water-cooled and water-moderated, similar to the one which the US has agreed to give to North Korea.(c). The reactors would produce plutonium not easily useable for weaponisation. Moreover, the spent fuel would be returned to Russia. 

Despite these safeguards, the US has been relentlessly pressuring Russia to cancel these contracts, to which Russia has not so far agreed. Simultaneously, the US has been resorting to a number of strategems to indefinitely delay the construction. It has allegedly pressured Siemens AG not to return the technical documents to Iran without which the Russians could have difficulty in repairing and completing the two reactors started by Siemens. It has pressured the Government of Ukraine not to supply turbines for the Bushehr reactors. In the past, an Ukrainian company had been producing turbines for Russia's power stations. Since the contracts involve cash down payments by Iran after the completion of each stage by Russia, the US has been trying to add to Iran's cash crunch by pressuring the German and Japanese Governments not to agree to a re-scheduling of Iran's past debts to them. 

As a result of these, the completion of the first reactor, which was originally scheduled for 1999, has already been delayed till 2001. lt is uncertain whether it would be completed even in 201. Russia has told Iran that it would take up the other two reactors only after the completion of the first one. 

The US seems to be on more solid ground on the question ofIran's missile programme. There is substantial evidence to believe that Iran has been in receipt of assistance in the form of transfer of technology from North Korea, Russia and even China. The North Korean assistance has been in return for an Iranian financial contribution to the former's missile programme just as the North Korean assistance to Pakistan was in return for Pakistan's supply of badly-needed wheat plus cash. Pakistan diverted part of its own wheat production to meet North Korea's needs and imported wheat from the US to make up the resulting shortfall for its own population. Thus, US wheat has indirectly and unwittingly financed the development of North Korean missiles capable of hitting Alaska and Hawaii. 

There has been considerable leakage of missile technology to Iran from Russia too, possibly from individual companies and research establishments without the knowledge of the political leadership. Could there have been a similar leakage of military nuclear technology too without the knowledge of the Russian political leadership? This is possible, but evidence in support is not yet forthcoming. 

The various pressures and strategems employed by the US to prevent Russia from helping Iran have a lesson for India too since similar methods could be employed to make Russia tone down its co-operation with India in the military, nuclear and space fields. Under US pressure, Russia agreed last year to the setting up of a joint study team to examine all reports regarding Iran's nuclear and missile quest and take appropriate follow-up action. 

The US representative on this team is Frank Wisner, former US Ambassador to India. He has been designated as President Clinton’s special envoy to deal with this subject. 

His publicly-stated task is to persuade Russia to discontinue its assistance to Iran. One cannot rule out the possibility that an unstated task of his could be to persuade the Russian leadership to tone down its co-operation with India in the military, nuclear and space fields. 

(Former Additional Secretary,Cabinet Secretariat and presently Director, Institute for Topical Studies)

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