Nipping Iran's nuclear bud

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 March, 2006, 12:00am

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog will meet on Monday to try to increase the diplomatic pressure on Iran to halt its programme to enrich uranium and master other sensitive nuclear technologies.

Uranium can be partially enriched to make fuel for nuclear reactors that generate electricity; or it can be further purified to make the fissile cores of atomic bombs. Tehran has told the watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that its aim is peaceful. But the agency and many of its member states, including China and the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council, worry that Iran may end up with nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the United States is using some tougher methods to prevent Iran from exploiting the murky world of trade in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related materials. Washington has recently ratcheted up the pressure on Iran by imposing sanctions on companies suspected of aiding its plans to build WMD and the missiles to deliver them.

The first round of penalties, in December, was aimed at nine foreign firms - including six from China and two from India. The second round, in January, targeted two companies inside Iran.

The December sanctions were imposed under the Iran Non-Proliferation Act - passed by the US Congress in 2000 and now known as the Iran and Syria Non-Proliferation Act - for transfers of materials with 'the potential to make a material contribution to the development of' Iran's WMD or missile programmes.

Three of the Chinese firms sanctioned - China North Industries Corporation, Limmt Metallurgy and Minerals, and Zibo Chemet Equipment - had been sanctioned previously by the US, most recently in December 2004. The January sanctions were against two Iranian firms - Novin Energy and Mesbah Energy - for their alleged involvement in Iran's nuclear programme. Both have ties to the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), which the US government designated last year as an entity involved in WMD proliferation.

The actions against Novin and Mesbah were taken under Executive Order 13382. It gives the US president power to impose financial sanctions against WMD proliferators, as well as individuals and entities providing support or services to them. Novin, which is a subsidiary of AEOI and has the same address as the parent company, has allegedly transferred millions of dollars on behalf of AEOI to entities associated with Iran's nuclear programme. According to the US Treasury Department, state-owned Mesbah has procured products for Iran's heavy-water project. Heavy water can be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. But Iran's civilian nuclear-energy programme is based on light-water reactors and does not require heavy water.

Russia is committed to supply all the uranium needed for the only Iranian reactor currently being built to generate electricity. Moscow has also offered to form a joint venture with Iran to enrich uranium in Russia - provided Tehran halts enrichment activities.

Tehran has so far refused. Indeed, the UN nuclear watchdog this week said that Iran was pressing ahead with its own uranium enrichment. The watchdog inspectors also said that while they had not seen any diversion of Iranian nuclear material for military purposes, they could not guarantee that Iran was not secretly developing nuclear weapons.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment