The Next Nuclear Power: Iran?

Even though the Russian nuclear industry is showing promising signs of growth, one issue continues to dog it: involvement in Iran's nuclear program. Ever since Russian companies, led by Atomstroiexport, signed an $800 million contract in 1996 to build Iran's only nuclear reactor, a 1,000-megawatt plant at Bushehr on the country's Persian Gulf coast, the U.S. government has feared that the facility could be used to help Iran develop a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

It now seems that Tehran is dramatically closer to being able to produce atomic bombs than even Washington suspected -- although the Bushehr reactor and the Russians may actually play a marginal role. Early this year, Iran admitted that it had secretly built a sophisticated uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, north of the central Iranian city of Isphahan. Experts say that when the plant is completed in 2005, Iran would be able to produce several uranium-based bombs each year. The existence of the Natanz facility, along with that of a heavy-water plant at Arak in northwest Iran, was revealed by an Iranian opposition group last August and later confirmed by satellite reconnaissance. Iran later verified the information. "This is the elephant in the room that everybody is starting to notice," says Patrick Clawson, an Iran specialist and deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

The revelations, for one, could fray relations between the U.S. and other key nations, already under strain over the war in Iraq. The sophisticated centrifuges at the Natanz plant -- 160 are operational and 1,000 more are to come onstream in the next 18 months -- are believed to be based on Pakistani technology. And China has admitted to supplying the facility with uranium hexafluoride, a gas that is key in producing the fissile uranium 235 isotope. "We told China not to cooperate with Iran," says a senior Bush Administration official in Washington. Others -- the Russians, along with several European states -- may also be involved: "We're out there banging on people's heads."

Europeans, however, have always rejected Washington's hard-line policy toward Tehran -- a member of the so-called axis of evil -- and may react negatively to new saber-rattling over the Iranian nuclear program. They still largely back reform-minded President Mohammed Khatami.

It could get worse. If Iran has already enriched any uranium, it would be in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, which it signed in 1970. Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, made an emergency visit to Natanz in late February and is now quietly negotiating with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to persuade it to sign on to a tougher inspection regime. So far, Tehran is balking. ElBaradei will report on the matter to the IAEA's board in June.

So is the world faced with a potentially more serious, Middle East version of the showdown over North Korea's nuclear weapons program? Akbar Etemad, the former head of Iran's atomic energy program, thinks so. "A nuclear weapons program in Iran? I would be surprised if there were none," he says. "They have seen North Korea and the fact that nuclear weapons make you more respected and make people talk to you." One of the world's most unstable regions may be about to become more dangerous still.

By John Rossant in Paris

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