Iran asks the world to nuclear partyVIENNA - As it becomes increasingly cornered over its nuclear program, Iran has come out fighting, issuing an open invitation to countries to participate in the construction of its nuclear-powered plants.
"Not only do we invite you, we also welcome whole-heartedly countries to invest in our nuclear program for civilian purposes," Mohammad Hossein Mousavian, the secretary of the political department of Iran's Supreme Council on National Security (SCNS), told Asia Times Online.
Mousavian, the right-hand man of Hasan Rohani, the powerful secretary of the SCNS and Iran's top nuclear negotiator with both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the European Union's so-called Big 3 (Germany, France and the United Kingdom), described the offer as "an exceptional and historical occasion" that is open to France and Germany in particular, as well as Britain and the United States if they wish to invest in Iran.
Iran has a stated aim of having 7,000 megawatts of nuclear power online by 2020, accounting for 10% of the country's power-generation capacity at that point. To achieve this, it plans to build at least six more plants besides the one under construction in the port of Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf, with assistance from Russia. This plant will consist of a 1,000MW pressurized-light-water reactor and is scheduled to go online in 2005.
However, Iran's determination to act on what it calls its "legal right" to produce fissile uranium for nuclear energy has put it at odds with much of the world community, especially the US, which suspects that the country is determined to develop a nuclear bomb.
Iran's call for countries to invest in huge, multibillion-dollar nuclear projects goes first to France and Germany because these two nations are already familiar with Iran's nuclear market, as Germany was almost finished building Iran's first nuclear-powered plant and France had started building two others in the oil-rich province of Khouzistan when the Islamic Revolution of 1979 halted them.
Speaking to Asia Times Online in Vienna on the sidelines of the latest meeting of the IAEA's board of directors on the question of Iranian nuclear programs, Mousavian said that besides inviting the West's main exporters of nuclear plants to take a "substantial part" in Iran's nuclear projects, Tehran is also ready to offer them a "golden package" that would include full cooperation in fighting international terrorism and restoring peace and security in the region, as well as in trade and investment.
Analysts say that should the West, mostly Europe, not respond to Iran's offer, the likelihood is that Russia will consolidate its position in the country, adding to the $1 billion deal it already has at the Bushehr plant.
"Obviously, the Iranians are not very happy with Russian nuclear technology, which they consider aging and dangerous. At the same time, they are determined to go ahead with the project - they are looking to diversify their sources of energy through nuclear plants for electricity. Hence their call to France and Germany to take the opportunity," an Iranian analyst explained to Asia Times Online on condition of not being named.
According to Mousavian, a career diplomat, a country that has such an extremely important nuclear project cannot depend on foreign countries for the fuel needed for its atomic reactors. Hence Iran's determination to master the full cycle of enriching uranium, which is an essential step in the production of nuclear fuel.
But for the Iranian analyst, "the matter is of high importance for Iran because once this technology is fully mastered, it changes its stature in the region, particularly facing the Arabs and the Turks".
But what about Israel, which already has the bomb?
"Israel is a political enemy with which we don't have a border. But Arabs don't like us. See what they write in their papers," he explained, referring to a recent article in the Saudi English-language Arab News in which veteran journalist Abdul Rahman al-Rashid alleged that Iran's efforts to become a nuclear power were aimed at the Arabs, not Israelis:
Iran does not share borders with Israel and has had no hostile contact with it. It is only supporting forces that fight Israel. Its developed weapons cannot be sent to these parties to fight Israel. Then who are the targets of these sophisticated weapons? There is only one logical answer: neighboring countries. And they are already paying the cost. They are the ones scared by Iran's race to build weapons. They don't scare Israel.On Tuesday, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami warned the international community that Iran is ready to end its cooperation with the IAEA if the United Nations nuclear watchdog refuses it access to nuclear technology for civilian purposes.
"The international community has to acknowledge our natural and legal right and open the path for understanding ... so we can accept comprehensive international supervision and we can continue our path to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes," the president said, warning that "otherwise we will continue on this path even if the result is the cutting off of international supervision".
He was referring to the latest resolution passed on the weekend by the 35 members of the Vienna-based IAEA calling on Iran to stop all its uranium-enriching activities and ratify the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
However, the resolution, approved unanimously but without vote-taking after days of intense, behind-closed-doors debates between delegates from the UK, France and Germany and members of the Non-Aligned Movement on the one hand and the United States on the other, did not mention US proposals for giving Iran an October 31 deadline and a "trigger mechanism" aimed at the issue being referred automatically to the UN Security Council for strong economic sanctions.
Addressing a parade marking the beginning of "Sacred Defense Week" for the anniversary of the outbreak of war with Iraq in 1980, Khatami said, "We have made our choice and it is now the turn of others to choose," a reference to the IAEA, which gave Iran until November to come clean on its nuclear intentions and ratify the Additional Protocol, which allows for a more aggressive IAEA inspection regime. A clause in the NPT permits any country to withdraw on three months' notice. North Korea withdrew in 2001, allowing it to proceed with the separation of plutonium from spent uranium and presumably the development of a nuclear bomb.
However, Khatami assured that Iran was not after making nuclear weapons. "If we are under supervision or not, we will in no way try to acquire nuclear weapons because it is against our religion and culture. We are opposed to nuclear weapons," he said.
Analysts said that while the president's warnings on the IAEA might be for domestic consumption, it was the declaration of vice president and head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh, that sent alarm bells ringing in Washington, Israel, the EU and the IAEA.
"Some of the amount of the 37 tons has been used," Aqazadeh told journalists before the IAEA meeting, referring to a quantity of yellowcake, or uranium oxide, which Iran had earlier indicated it planned to convert into uranium hexafluoride gas, the feedstock for enriched uranium. This uranium gas is enriched by being fed into supersonic centrifuges, a process that Iran says it has begun in defiance of IAEA warnings.
"The tests have been successful but these tests have to be continued using the rest of the material," Aqazadeh said, adding that although Iran does not accept the latest resolution of the agency's directors, it will continue to be fully open to inspections.
In a brief edict issued eight years ago to the Revolutionary Guards, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in his capacity as the leader of the Islamic Republic is also the overall commander of the Iranian armed forces, banned the use of mass destruction weapons, most particularly the chemical and biological arms that Iraq had deployed extensively against Iranian soldiers during the 1980-88 war.
Highly informed Iranian experts canvassed by Asia Times Online say that contrary to some Western and Israeli science and intelligence sources that put Iran two to five years from the atomic bomb, it would take the country about 10 years to make its first nuclear weapon. "To produce an atomic bomb, one needs more than 64,000 modern centrifuges running together with much other equipment 24 hours a day, but to our knowledge, Iran has but 164 pilot centrifuges," one expert said, speaking on condition of not being named.
Nevertheless, the Americans and Israelis, in particular, insist that the ruling ayatollahs' main goal is to divert their nuclear technology to developing an atomic bomb for use against the Jewish state. Some years ago, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who is still the second-most influential man in Iran's clerical-ruled republic after Khamenei, proposed that Muslim nations drop an atomic bomb over Israel.
More recently, Hoseyn Shariatmadari, a high-ranking intelligence officer appointed as the editor of the evening daily Keyhan, threatened Israel with trained suicide squads, which he described as "Iran's most devastating weapon". "Israel knows well that in case it makes the slightest mistake, it would face a catastrophe the likes of which it has never seen in its short life," said Shariatmadari, adding, "They [Israelis] have not yet faced our volunteers to martyrdom, a force that is much more devastating than anything one can imagine."
In an interview this month with the Qatari television station Aljazeera, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the Iranian defense minister, quoted high-ranking officers as suggesting preemptive strikes against Israel and US forces in the Persian Gulf. "We will not sit [with arms folded] to wait for what others will do to us. Some military commanders in Iran are convinced that preventive operations, which the Americans talk about, are not their [US] monopoly," Shamkhani warned in the interview when asked about the possibility of a US or Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
A day before, acting Revolutionary Guards commander General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr stated that in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel's nuclear site would be next. "If Israel fires one missile at the Bushehr atomic power plant it should permanently forget about the Dimona nuclear center, where it produces and keeps its nuclear weapons, and Israel would be responsible for the terrifying consequence of this move."
A banner at Tuesday's military parade stating "Israel must be wiped off the map" was draped on the side of a Shahab-2 missile, while a banner saying "We will crush America under our feet" was on the side of a trailer carrying the latest Shahab-3 missile, correspondents reported from the Iranian capital, Tehran. The Shahab-2 missile, whose name means "meteor" or "shooting star" in Farsi, is thought to be capable of carrying a one-tonne warhead at least 1,300 kilometers, well within range of Israel. "The Shahab-3 missiles, with different ranges, enable us to destroy the most distant targets," said an official commentary accompanying the parade, which was carried live on state television.
Against this background, the Israeli liberal newspaper Ha'aretz reported on Tuesday that Israel is to buy some 500 "bunker buster" bombs from the US in a deal worth $139 million. Though Ha'aretz said Israel has similar weapons already, which it has used against Palestinian extremists in Gaza, the British news agency Reuters quoted unnamed official sources as saying the bombs could be used to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. "This is not the sort of ordnance needed for the Palestinian front. Bunker busters could serve Israel against Iran or possibly Syria," Reuters quoted official sources as saying.
Known by the military designations GBU-27 or GBU-28, bunker busters are guided by lasers or satellites and can penetrate up to 10 meters of earth and concrete. Israel may already have some of the bombs for its US-supplied F-15 fighter jets. The Pentagon told Congress that the bombs were meant to maintain Israel's qualitative advantage, and advance US strategic and tactical interests.
Israel regards Iran as its greatest strategic enemy and has issued thinly veiled threats of military action to try to stop Tehran's nuclear program if diplomatic efforts fail. According to US experts, Israel can and is planning to repeat against Iran's nuclear facilities the early 1981 operation of its air force that destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, which was under construction by French companies.
But many experts and intelligence agencies, including Israel's Mossad, have their doubts on the feasibility of such a strike. With Osirak in mind, the Iranians have dispersed their facilities throughout the country. "The fact is that in that case [Osirak], Israel had all the plans and benefited from the ongoing Iran-Iraq war. But the revolution of 1979 ended the American and Israeli presence in Iran, and today one can assume for sure that the American and Israeli intelligence on Iran is next to zero," Reuters quoted the source as saying.
To assure that Iran has no hostile intentions with its nuclear projects, Mousavian, a former ambassador to Germany, proposed that the IAEA install sophisticated equipment in Iran that keeps uranium-enriching activities at a "soft" 3.5%.  "The agency has this material and we invite it to install it at all our facilities and keep them under their constant inspection," Mousavian said.
(1) Most present-day reactors (light-water reactors) use enriched uranium where the proportion of the U-235 isotope has been increased from 0.7% to about 3% or up to 5%. For comparison, uranium used for nuclear weapons would have to be enriched in plants specially designed to produce at least 90% U-235.
Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.