Iran’s dirty little secret: hidden nuclear site spurs fears

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 12 | Nov. 26 – Dec. 3, 2009

With the recent discovery of a uranium-enrichment facility hidden in Fordo, near the holy city of Qom in Iran, the nuclear weapons issue has reappeared on the world stage.

Iran has long claimed that its nuclear program is for electricity generation, but the United States and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have expressed concerns that the country’s nuclear program will easily translate into weapons production. These fears have resurged upon the IAEA’s report of a secret nuclear site, which was in an advanced stage of construction and scheduled to start up in 2011. Despite the fact that construction began at least two years ago, Iran had failed to inform the IAEA about the site until September 2009.

The Guardian reports that the facility would have been capable of producing roughly a ton of enriched uranium annually, enough for a small warhead. The IAEA has expressed concern that Iran may have other secret nuclear facilities.

In response to these revelations, the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany have claimed that Iran has breached its international treaty obligations by hiding the Fordo site. This may damage prospects for a potential peace deal between Iran and the U.S., as well as contribute to instability in the region by scaling up the mutual animosity and suspicion between Iran and Israel. Israel has previously threatened military strikes against Iran’s facilities in order to prevent its attaining nuclear weapons capability. According to the IAEA, it was concerns about such strikes that led Iran to construct the Fordo site inside the mountain. Iran wrote the IAEA in October: “As a result of the augmentation of the threats of military attacks against Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran decided to establish contingency centres for various organizations and activities.”

“Iran is likely to be a nuclear power,” said Dr. Nilgün Önder, a political science professor and program coordinator for international studies at the University of Regina. “If Iran becomes a nuclear power, it will definitely become a more formidable regional power, and be a bigger influence in the world community.” The issue is also one of pride from the Iranian perspective; it is generally understood that Israel holds a nuclear arsenal, although this is not officially acknowledged by the Israelis. According to Önder, the West’s desire to keep Iran from joining the nuclear club is “hypocrisy from Iran’s perspective.”

Önder argues that Iran has little to lose in pursuing nuclear weapons capability. While Iran is currently subject to some economic sanctions, such measures will likely remain ineffective unless the U.N. Security Council takes a harder line. Önder also pointed out that domestic opposition is fragmented since the election protests earlier this summer: “[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is firmly in power.”

When asked if Israel really would strike against Iran in order to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, Önder was hesitant. “Israel did that with respect to Syria and Iraq, but Iran is much more powerful,” she said. “Iran would definitely mobilize its military forces against Israel [in that event].” Israel is in a tense situation, since Iran’s nuclear weapons acquisition “will have wide-ranging repercussions. It will make it much more difficult to resolve the Israeli conflict [with Palestine] … However, Israel is reining in its instincts at the advice of the U.S.”

Önder retains some hope for the future, and argues that Canada can play a stabilizing role. While Canada is relatively small on the diplomatic stage among the big powers, Canada’s resources and reputation would allow for a positive role. “Canada should express discontent with Iran, but can also play a role in supplying uranium … Canada doesn’t have the stigma attached to the United States and can be seen more favourably, even compared to some European countries.”

As is often the case in Middle Eastern politics, however, nothing is certain.

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