Throughout the spring and summer, the Iranian government has vociferously denied any desire to develop nuclear weapons. Recent evidence subverting this denial has grown so solid, though, that policymakers should consider a different challenge. The question before diplomats and strategists is not whether Iran seeks nuclear arms. It is what the United States should do about Iran's efforts to become a nuclear power. The available evidence in the current international context suggests that the answer lies with deterrence.
Evidence is accumulating that makes Iran's nuclear ambitions very hard to deny. When Iran refused to sign the International Atomic Energy Association's Additional Protocol in June, barring United Nations experts from making unannounced inspections of nuclear sites, it weakened its good name as a signer of the Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran's intransigence also lent credence to claims by opposition groups that Tehran had underreported its stocks of nuclear material. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Indeed, in June Iran forbade IAEA officials to inspect even a declared nuclear facility, and startled many by refusing to agree to the return of spent fuel to Russia from the nuclear power plant Moscow is building in Bushehr. On August 7, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seemed to put the world on notice in a radio broadcast. "Iran is among the ten countries which have been able to produce the nuclear-fuel cycle," the transcript of his speech reads. "This is not a small matter."
Seen in this light, other revelations seem to bury doubt. On August 4, the Los Angeles Times published a detailed investigative report exposing dramatic hints of a nuclear-weapons agenda. According to the report, Iran purchased 1.8 tons of uranium from China in 1991 and processed some of it in secret. The article also posited that Pakistani, Russian and North Korean scientists had variously assisted and examined Iran's nuclear development projects, and that United Nations inspectors had found trace amounts of uranium that could be consistent with weapons development at a facility south of Tehran in June. Hamid-Reza Asefi, a spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, reportedly denied the claims about international collaboration on August 7 and called the entire article misleading.
Khamenei was more oblique. "Of course, it is only natural that when there is such success they should make a commotion about it," he said in his August 7 radio address. "They say
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.