Even as international inspectors continue to uncover and assess the full and frightening dimensions of Iraq’s nuclear weapons development program, the silhouette of a new nuclear player has appeared ominously on the horizon.
Iran appears to be pursuing a serious nuclear weapons effort, facilitated by foreign suppliers. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon told a Senate subcommittee this week that Washington suspects China has been involved in transferring nuclear technology to Iran. Specifically, Beijing is believed to have provided the Iranians with a calutron, a machine for separating isotopes. Calutrons are used in civilian nuclear energy programs but also to produce the highly enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons. Solomon told the subcommittee, “I suspect we’ll find . . . there are quite a few countries involved, not just China.” Iraq, too, found willing nuclear equipment suppliers in many countries.
This disclosure, perhaps by no coincidence, came on the eve of Chinese President Yang Shangkun’s state visit to Iran. Tehran had earlier indicated its interest in expanding scientific cooperation with China. It has also been open about its nuclear ambitions. The Ayatollah Mohajerani, Iraq’s deputy president, recently told Iran’s news agency that “because the enemy has nuclear facilities, the Muslim states too should be equipped with the same capacity.” The “enemy,” since 1979’s Islamic revolution, has been the West generally and the United States and Israel in particular.
No one is suggesting that Iran is on the edge of becoming a nuclear power, or that its accomplishments put it in Iraq’s league. But it clearly is an aspirant, and U.S. officials believe that it is getting the kind of foreign help that could allow it to realize its goal. That is something for the whole world to worry about. But even without nuclear weapons, Iran’s unrestrained radicalism is properly a cause for alarm.
The latest chilling examples of Iran’s approach to geopolitics were prompted by the Middle East peace conference that opened this week in Madrid. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader, has denounced the talks as “treason” against Islam, and warned that all taking part in them will be punished. In Iran’s national assembly the hard-liner Ali Akbar Mohtashemi proclaims that the Madrid talks are “a declaration of war on Islam” and that all who are participating in the conference “must face the death sentence.” Some might be tempted to dismiss these threats as meaningless rantings. Others, like the novelist Salman Rushdie, in hiding from an Iran-imposed death sentence for alleged blasphemy, know better.
Nothing can be done to stop Iran’s threats against Madrid conference participants. But its nuclear weapons goals are another matter. Here, international cooperation can control the flow of nuclear technology and know-how to a regime whose aggressive and punitive ideology identify it as an international menace. U.S. officials say they expect China to honor its previous assurances that it won’t help spread nuclear weapons. Other countries must also be emphatically reminded of their grave responsibilities not to encourage proliferation, least of all to a state whose rulers grotesquely view a regional peace conference as a mortal threat to their interests.