Iran’s top nuclear official announced his country’s intention to build several new nuclear reactors this week, challenging the Obama administration’s declaration that Tehran may be willing to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.
The Washington Free Beacon reported that the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian media that the government had designated 34 potential sites for future nuclear power plants, aiming for “enough atomic reactors to generate a total of 20,000 megawatts of electricity by 2020.”
Many Western nations are concerned Iran’s nuclear power program is a cover for its quest to enrich enough uranium to produce one or more nuclear weapons. Both the United States and Israel have threatened military strikes, although the U.S. has backed off as negotiations have progressed.
The statement comes as the Obama administration attempts to stop a congressional push for tighter sanctions on the Islamic theocracy, fearful that punishing the mullahs further could derail the fragile thaw in US-Iranian relations.
Formal talks last week between Iran, the United States and other global powers reportedly went much better than expected, with the two sides issuing a joint statement calling the meeting “substantive” and “forward-looking.” Iran’s foreign minister told reporters the conference had been “fruitful” and that it would “hopefully be the beginning of a new phase in our relationship.”
But the upbeat statements were contradicted by a high-ranking Iranian general on Tuesday, who claimed Iranian diplomats “will never be blackmailed by the cruel West.”
Some experts believe the United States was fooled into negotiating with a regime that has no intention of cooperating.
“What we’re seeing with Iran is exactly what we’ve seen with North Korea,” said Michael Auslin, a foreign policy scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Auslin argued that the Obama administration rushed into negotiations without knowing whether Iranian priorities had changed, then inflated progress reports and offered to ease sanctions in order to move the talks forward. Like North Korea, Iran initially played along, only to later turn around and redouble their nuclear efforts.
“It’s a classic strategy for them to tie us down for as long as they need to start building these sites and getting them up and running,” he explained, noting that an attack on so many sites would constitute a “major war.”
“[Iranian leaders] have taken the pulse of a war-weary nation and a war-weary president,” Auslin said, “and they’re saying ‘There’s no way you’re going to double down on your threat now that we’ve announced what the scale and scope of our plans are.’”
But Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, calls the Iranian announcement “pie-in-the-sky,” claiming that the planned reactor sites are a stunt designed for domestic consumption.
“The Iranians have one barely-functioning civilian nuclear reactor,” she said in an interview with TheDCNF. “This is a public relations effort to show that Iran is determined to have a civilian nuclear power infrastructure… a way to give the impression to the Iranian domestic audience that Iran is not giving in, is not relinquishing the crown jewels.”
“It’s not in any way worrisome or disconcerting,” she added, noting that Iran is nowhere near the capabilities required to build a vast network of reactors.
Slavin believes that President Rouhani, the new Iranian leader hailed by many in the West as a moderate, is serious about conceding parts of his nation’s nuclear program in exchange for a reduction in sanctions. “[The announcement] won’t have any effects on the talks whatsoever,” she said.
Auslin disagrees. “It beggars belief that Rouhani is some sort of peacenik that somehow made his way into the presidency,” he said. “Whether he wants to remove tensions to some degree or not, I think we are always overestimating the split between the mullahs and the leadership.”
A new report from the Institute for Science and International Security says Iran may be able to produce enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb in a month, significantly less than Obama administration’s claim that the process would take about a year.
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