Iran Seeks IAEA Help with Plans for Nuclear Reactor

Iran recently asked the International Atomic Energy Agency for technical assistance with a new reactor the country is building. The controversial reactor could be used to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons. The U.S. is opposed to the aid.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, you heard Peter mention one nation that's influential in Lebanon: Iran. Iran's influence is one of many reasons the international community watches Iran closely. Another reason is Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. and other nations want to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. And it's in the middle of that situation that the International Atomic Energy Agency faces an awkward situation. Iran has asked it for technical help with building a controversial nuclear reactor.

Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER: Most of the controversy in recent years over Iran's nuclear activities has focused on plans to enrich uranium, potentially one of the key elements used to fashion a nuclear weapon. But there is another route to nuclear weapons - the plutonium route. Iran is now constructing what is known as a heavy water reactor at Arak - not a power reactor, Iran's leaders say.

This reactor is for the production of radioactive isotopes used in medicine, agriculture and industry. But this kind of reactor can also produce plutonium. In fact, reactors quite similar in size and design have been used to produce weapons-grade plutonium in India, Pakistan and Israel. It is for this reason that the Bush administration opposes any IAEA support for this project.

Robert Einhorn, an expert on nuclear issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agrees.

Mr. ROBERT EINHORN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Why would you build such a large research reactor when much, much smaller reactors can perform the mission of producing isotopes very well? This is precisely the kind of reactor that's raised alarms when countries interested in nuclear weapons have tried to procure them.

SHUSTER: Iran is asking for help in maintaining the safety of this reactor, which in any event, will not be completed for at least three years. But when the IAEA's Board of Governing Nations meets in Vienna tomorrow, it appears likely it will not grant the Iranian request.

That is only part of the current story on pressuring Iran to stop its potentially dangerous nuclear activities. Since last June, the U.S. and the Europeans have been trying to engage Iran in negotiations, but only if it suspends current uranium enrichment. Iranians have not agreed. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns insists the U.S. has tried hard to make room for Iran at the negotiating table without success.

Undersecretary NICHOLAS BURNS (State Department): It appears that the internal divisions within the Iranian government have made that impossible. The Iranians did not accept the offer. They didn't even come back to us with an adequate response. And so we've had no recourse but to turn in the other direction, and that is to raise the cost to the Iranian government for its actions by imposing sanctions on it.

SHUSTER: But the U.S. has also failed to find agreement in the U.N. Security Council to impose economic sanctions on Iran. Russia, with its veto as a permanent Council member, has stood in the way. So it's fair to say that the diplomacy on Iran is paralyzed for the moment.

The stalemate isn't likely to last for long. One factor that may make things shift is the falling price of oil. Abbas Milani - director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford University - says as the price of oil falls, Iran becomes more vulnerable to any sort of trade embargo.

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director, Iran Democracy Project, Stanford University): I don't think they want an embargo. The economic problems are piling on, becoming more serious by the day. And if the price of oil continues on a downward trend, they are in serious economic trouble.

SHUSTER: Another factor is Iraq. A few weeks ago, Iran's foreign ministry reopened the possibility of talks with the U.S. over the increasing chaos in Iraq. So far, the U.S. has not responded, but it is widely believed that when the Iraq Study Group under James Baker and Lee Hamilton makes its recommendations in early December, it is likely to call for a wider diplomatic effort to solve Iraq's problems that would involve Iran and Syria.

Abbas Milani believes that may be the reason Iran this week invited the presidents of Syria and Iraq to Tehran, to discuss Iraq without the United States.

Prof. MILANI: They knew that if they wait for the Baker/Hamilton to come out with their proposal, they would be put in a hard place - following what America wants them to follow. If Baker Commissions ask them to do that, they will have already put this machinery in place. If the White House decides to ignore the Baker Commission, then the mullahs will have created facts on the ground that will be hard to ignore.

SHUSTER: All of this suggests that despite the current stalemate, there could very well be talks between the U.S. and Iran sometime after the new year.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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