The latest troubling news on Iran's burgeoning nuclear program should finally be enough to persuade the international community that it's time to rein in the authoritarian regime's ambitions before it acquires the capacity to deploy horrifying weapons in an already volatile region. A new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reveals that Iran stated its intention in June to process more than 40 tonnes of raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride, which, when sufficiently enriched, would produce enough nuclear fuel for up to half a dozen nuclear weapons.
At a lower level of enrichment, it can also be used to produce power, which Iran insists is its only purpose. That would be more believable if Tehran had not consistently flouted international rules and reneged on previous promises. Or if the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, had not also discovered that the Iranians were buying the designs for advanced centrifuges needed to make weapons-grade fuel nearly a decade ago. Although the report doesn't name the supplier, it turns out that it was none other than Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program and a busy entrepreneur who counted North Korea and Libya among the eventual recipients of his illegal technology exports.
When it emerged two years ago that Iran had been concealing its nuclear activities for nearly two decades, in defiance of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the matter should have gone straight to the United Nations Security Council, which is supposed to police such cheating and has the authority to impose sanctions. But despite pressure from the Bush administration, the IAEA has yet to make the necessary referral.
The European governments and Russia have been extremely reluctant to confront Iran, partly because they don't want to jeopardize lucrative business ties and partly because of what happened in Iraq. The failure to find any nuclear, biological or chemical weapons in Iraq has had the unfortunate fallout of making the international community extremely skittish about calling Iran to account. With Iraq in mind, Britain, France and Germany struck a compromise. They would defer calling in the Security Council if Iran stopped enriching uranium and started co-operating fully with international inspectors.
The watchdog agency says the Iranians have been more co-operative, even to the point of providing advance warning that they were removing the agency's seals on equipment used to make centrifuges at three nuclear plants, in violation of an earlier commitment. Tehran continues full speed ahead on the enrichment front, secure in the belief that it can escape penalties by making promises it doesn't intend to keep and offering up the occasional bone, such as improved access for inspectors.
Through all this, Iran continues to insist that its program is designed only for the purpose of producing nuclear power. But its track record makes it tough to accept this on faith. If, for instance, Tehran's only goal is developing another source of electricity so it can export more of its oil, why did it reject a European proposal to provide sufficient nuclear fuel to run the country's reactors and to remove all the waste, in exchange for an undertaking to abandon nuclear development? And why, for that matter, did Tehran recently test a missile with a range of 1,300 kilometres?
Taking all this into account, the IAEA's board should stop stalling and refer the matter to the Security Council when it meets Sept. 13. The rift over Iraq must be set aside, business considerations must be ignored and Iran's militant theocracy must be put on notice that the international community will not stand by as it develops the capacity to wreak havoc in the Middle East and endanger the rest of the world.