Saturday, October 24, 2009

Nuclear deal with Iran faces crucial test tomorrow

Iran's effort to forestall tightening international economic sanctions over its nuclear program faces its first major test tomorrow when UN inspectors are scheduled to enter its formerly secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Nobody except the Iranians even knows if the experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency will actually be admitted to the site, even though Iran agreed to that in Geneva last month under pressure from Western nations, according to the Washington Post. The meeting was noteworthy for several developments, including the first public announcement of the existence of the enrichment plant and the highest-level official contact between Iran and the United States since 1979. Iran acknowledged the plant's existence in a letter to the IAEA last month, just before the Geneva conference. Tehran insists it has no designs on nuclear weapons but is merely developing nuclear power for electricity, which it insists it has a right to. But the plant, still under construction on the side of a mountain at a military base yet apparently known about for years by intelligence agencies worldwide, only is suitable for weapons development, the Post said. Iran plans to place only 3,000 centrifuges at the site, which is not enough to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear plant, the Post said citing expert sources. Analysts say it would take Qom's centrifuges at least 20 years to produce enough uranium to power a 1,000- megawatt nuclear power reactor for a year. But the equipment could produce enough enriched uranium to build three nuclear bombs annually, the Times said. "There is no Iranian document saying the facility is designed for a military program, but what else can it be good for?" a senior Middle East-based intelligence official who studies Iran told the Times. In fact, the Qom plant has forced the United States to reconsider the 2007 conclusion of its intelligence agencies that Iran had halted nuclear weapons research in 2003. "Qom changed a lot of people's thinking, especially about the possibility of secret military enrichment" of uranium, another former officials told the Times. The revised assessments are classified, the Times said. But the public revelations about the plant do raise obvious questions about Iran's intentions, despite its protestations to the contrary. Of course, it never made sense that Iran needed to pursue civilian nuclear energy when it sits atop a sixth of worldwide oil reserves. If Russia and China are sufficiently alarmed, Qom could be the catalyst for further tightening of worldwide economic sanctions, just when it seemed Iran wanted to rejoin the nations trying to figure out how to live in peace.

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