Evidence points to continued existence of Syrian nuclear program

Der Spiegel reports: According to intelligence agency analysis, construction of the facility began back in 2009. The work, their findings suggest, was disguised from the very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how deeply they were digging. Furthermore, the entrances to the facility were guarded by the military, which turned out to be a necessary precaution. In the spring of 2013, the region around Qusayr saw heavy fighting. But the area surrounding the project in the mines was held, despite heavy losses suffered by elite Hezbollah units stationed there.

The most recent satellite images show six structures: a guard house and five sheds, three of which conceal entrances to the facility below. The site also has special access to the power grid, connected to the nearby city of Blosah. A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well which connects the facility with Zaita Lake, four kilometers away. Such a connection is unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but it is essential for a nuclear facility.

But the clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the “atomic factory” and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

The Hezbollah functionary mostly uses a codename for the facility: “Zamzam,” a word that almost all Muslims know. According to tradition, Zamzam is the well God created in the desert for Abraham’s wife and their son Ishmael. The well can be found in Mecca and is one of the sites visited by pilgrims making the Hajj. Those who don’t revere Zamzam are not considered to be true Muslims.

Work performed at the site by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is also mentioned in the intercepted conversations. The Revolutionary Guard is a paramilitary organization under the direct control of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It controls a large part of the Iranian economy and also plays a significant role in Iran’s own nuclear activities. Not all of its missions abroad are cleared with the government of moderate President Hassan Rohani. The Revolutionary Guard is a state within a state.

Experts are also convinced that North Korea is involved in Zamzam as well. Already during the construction of the Kibar facility, Ibrahim Othman worked closely together with Chou Ji Bu, an engineer who built the nuclear reactor Yongbyon in North Korea.

Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus. According to the theory, Othman never lost contact with his shady acquaintance. And experts believe that the new nuclear facility could never have been built without North Korean know-how. The workmanship exhibited by the fuel rods likewise hints at North Korean involvement.

What approach will now be taken to Zamzam? How will the West, Assad and Syria’s neighbors react to the revelations?

The discovery of the presumed nuclear facility will not likely be welcomed by any of the political actors. It is an embarrassment for everybody. [Continue reading…]


IAEA statement on seized nuclear material in Iraq

Following reports that ISIS seized nuclear material used for scientific research at Mosul University, the IAEA issued the following statement:

The IAEA is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details. On the basis of the initial information we believe the material involved is low-grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk. Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.


Iran cuts nuke weapons ability

The Associated Press reports: The United Nations will release a report this week certifying that Iran’s ability to make a nuclear bomb has been greatly reduced because it has diluted half of its material that can be turned most quickly into weapons-grade uranium, diplomats said Tuesday.

The move is part of Iran’s commitments under a deal with six world powers in effect since January that mandates some nuclear concessions on the part of Tehran in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions crippling its economy.

A key concern for the six was Iran’s stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium, which is only a technical step away from the 90-percent grade used to arm nuclear weapons. By late last year, Iran had already amassed almost enough of the 20-percent grade for one nuclear bomb, with further enrichment.

Under the agreement, Iran agreed to halt its 20-percent enrichment program and to turn half of its nearly 200-kilogram (440-pound) stockpile into oxide for reactor fuel. As well, it pledged to dilute the other half into low-enriched uranium. [Continue reading…]


Iran — the next stage

David Ignatius writes: Now that the Obama administration has won its breakthrough first-step nuclear deal with Iran, officials are planning strategy for the decisive second round that, over the next six months, will seek a broader and tougher comprehensive agreement.

This “end state” negotiation, as officials describe it, promises to be more difficult because the United States and its negotiating partners will seek to dismantle parts of the Iranian program, rather than simply freeze them. Another complication is that negotiators will be fending off even more brickbats from hard-liners in Israel, Congress and Tehran.

If the interim deal was reached largely in secret, through a back channel provided by Oman, this one will have to be negotiated in the diplomatic equivalent of a circus ring, with hoots and catcalls from bystanders.

As administration strategists seek a comprehensive deal, they have several priorities. All will be harder to negotiate than was the limited six-month freeze on the Iranian program agreed to last weekend. Given the arduous bargaining ahead, the United States will need the leverage of the sanctions still in place after the release of $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets — and the threat of more sanctions if negotiations break down.

The negotiators’ agenda: [Continue reading…]


Iran invites inspectors to nuclear site

The New York Times reports: Five days after Iran struck a landmark accord with world powers on its nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced on Thursday that Tehran had invited its inspectors to visit a heavy water production plant linked to the deal — the first tangible step since the agreement was concluded.

In a speech in Vienna, the director general of the agency, Yukiya Amano, said the invitation was for inspectors to travel to the plant in Arak, in central Iran, on Dec. 8. Mr. Amano told reporters that it was “for sure” that inspectors would accept the offer.

The invitation was limited to the heavy water production facility on the same site as a reactor under construction to which international inspectors have had some access, Mr. Amano said. The facility producing heavy water, used in some types of reactors to control nuclear activity, has been off limits to inspectors for more than two years.

Part of the deal in Geneva specifically provided for Iran not to produce fuel for the Arak plant, install additional reactor components there or put the plant into operation. If it became fully operational, the reactor would produce plutonium that could be used in a nuclear weapon.

In return for that and other curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program, the powers promised a limited easing of the international economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

The speed with which Tehran offered access to Arak was taken by some analysts as a sign that Iran’s leaders wanted to press ahead with the deal, which is intended as an interim accord lasting six months during which negotiators are to discuss a comprehensive settlement. [Continue reading…]


Has Iran outwitted Netanyahu?

Rajan Menon writes: The much-anticipated breakthrough in the negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons has yet to materialize. But Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who believes that a wily Iran is outwitting its gullible interlocutors, isn’t breathing any easier; instead, he’s breathing fire. The statements from those involved in the talks (Iran and the P5+1) indicating that the obstacles to an interim accord are being overcome have incensed Netanyahu. And he has made his displeasure known — publicly and without pulling punches — even though the first-step agreement with Iran couldn’t be reached in the end.

As the upbeat reports streamed in last week, Netanyahu declared that a compromise with Iran would be a betrayal of Israel as well as a strategic blunder that would eventually bring grief to other states as well. He continues to insist that Israel will neither be bound by any deal, short of one that ensures denuclearization, that the P5+1 reaches with Iran nor rule out any response (read: a military strike) it deems necessary to defend its interests.

What are those Israeli interests? While Iranian leadership remains adamant about retaining an independent nuclear fuel cycle, which it regards as its right under the terms of the NPT, Israel has made it just as plain that Iran’s acquisition of that capability is unacceptable — period. That’s because the Israeli leadership is convinced that any accord that permits Iran to enrich uranium to a level needed for generating electricity, even under strict verification, enables it to gain, and pretty quickly, the capacity to dash across the nuclear threshold when it wishes to do so.

While this perspective explains Netanyahu’s scorn for the negotiations, he risks becoming isolated should the dealmakers eventually start viewing him as an obstreperous maximalist who is heedless of the risk of war. Moreover, he doesn’t have sure-fire options for dismantling Iran nuclear complex, which consists of many facilities, widely dispersed and well protected. [Continue reading…]


Iran slows nuclear advances in possible goodwill gesture

Barbara Slavin reports: Although Iran and the international community failed to achieve a breakthrough in Geneva last week, Iran has slowed its nuclear program in what could be a goodwill gesture intended to show that it will abide by a nuclear agreement.

According to the latest quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has added only four rudimentary centrifuges to its main uranium enrichment plant at Natanz since August, for a total of 15,240 — of which about 10,000 are operating. In the previous reporting period of May to August, Iran put more than 1,800 new centrifuges into Natanz.

The Iranians continued to enrich uranium and now have a stockpile of more than 7,000 kilograms of uranium enriched to 5% U-235. But its stockpile of 20% uranium — perilously close to weapons grade — remains largely in a form difficult to further enrich, according to the IAEA. Iran added only 10 kilograms to its stockpile of greatest concern, for a total of 196 kilograms – still below the Israeli “red line” of 240 kilograms sufficient, if further processed, to make a nuclear weapon.

The report comes at an extremely sensitive time, with negotiations due to resume in Geneva next week between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) on an agreement that would pause much of the Iranian program and roll back some of it in return for moderate sanctions relief. The Barack Obama administration is trying to convince the US Senate not to approve more sanctions while the negotiations continue; this IAEA report could help its case. [Continue reading…]


Iran says it will allow IAEA to inspect Arak reactor

UPI reports: Iran says it will permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to start inspecting a heavy-water reactor in Arak and a uranium mine, officials said.

An agreement to inspect the facilities was signed in Tehran Monday by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, and Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.

Iranian officials said the agreement opened the way for inspections at the reactor and the Gachin uranium mine. It was described as “the Iranian government’s new approach” on the nuclear issue, the report said.


Nuclear scientists are not terrorists

In an op-ed for the New Scientist, Debora MacKenzie writes: Attempts to derail a country’s nuclear programme by killing its scientists “are products of desperation”, says [William] Tobey [of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University] – citing a US effort to kill legendary physicist Werner Heisenberg during the second world war, abandoned at the last minute only when the would-be assassin decided Heisenberg was not involved in a Nazi nuclear effort after all.

“Nuclear scientists are not terrorists,” says Tobey in the BAS this week. Killing them at best delays bomb development, by removing key people and perhaps deterring young scientists from careers in nuclear science. But it will not stop bomb development.

These slim advantages are far outweighed, Tobey says, by the downsides: possible retaliation, reduced chances for diplomacy, tighter security around nuclear installations and a pretext for Iran to hamper IAEA monitoring.

Iran has already accused the IAEA of abetting the assassinations by publicising confidential Iranian lists of key nuclear scientists and engineers.

The IAEA needs such information, as talks with nuclear personnel are considered essential for verifying safeguards against diverting uranium to bombs, says Tobey. Making this process harder only makes sense if the people behind the assassinations think it is too late for safeguards and that slowing bomb R&D by killing scientists is therefore more expedient.

The Israeli columnist Ron Ben-Yishai writes: The most curious question in the face of these incidents is why Iran, which does not shy away from threatening the world with closure of the Hormuz Straits, has failed to retaliate for the painful blows to its nuclear and missile program? After all, the Revolutionary Guards have a special arm, Quds, whose aim (among others) is to carry out terror attacks and secret assassinations against enemies of the regime overseas.

Moreover, if the Iranians do not wish to directly target Western or Israeli interests, they can prompt their agents, that is, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and other groups, to do the job. In the past, Iran did not shy away from carrying out terror attacks in Europe (in Paris and Berlin) and in South America (in Buenos Aires,) so why is it showing restraint now?

The reason is apparently Iran’s fear of Western retaliation. Any terror attack against Israel or another Western target – whether it is carried out directly by the Quds force or by Hezbollah – may prompt a Western response. Under such circumstances, Israel or a Western coalition (or both) will have an excellent pretext to strike and destroy Iran’s nuclear and missile sites.

This sounds like a confirmation that Israel is indeed wanting to provoke Iran in order to start a war.

But here’s the paradox: if Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons then it has ever incentive to continue keeping its powder dry. Why should it jeopardize its nuclear program by succumbing to provocation?

On the other hand if Israel’s covert war does indeed succeed in triggering a full-scale war, this may be an indication that Iran never intended to go further than develop a nuclear break-out capacity.

At the same time, the idea that Iran can only strike back through some form of violence, ignores the economic and psychological levers that it can pull much more easily.

The question may not be how much provocation Iran can withstand but rather how high can the price for oil rise before the global economy buckles?


Former IAEA Inspector: Misleading Iran report proves nothing


The Iranian-American game of chicken

Reza Marashi writes: Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi made headlines recently when he said the Islamic Republic would like to have friendly relations with the United States—but not under the current conditions. He added that while U.S. officials express a desire for discussions, U.S. actions don’t always conform to that expression. In the meantime, “negotiations will certainly not have any meaning.”

For their part, American officials accuse the Iranians of a similar inconsistency. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently to BBC Persian, “We are prepared to engage, if there is willingness on the other side, and we use sanctions—and the international community supports the use of sanctions—to try to create enough pressure on the regime that they do have to think differently about what they are doing.”

In an increasingly dangerous region where adversaries repeatedly provoke one another, it is important to dig beyond the rhetoric of this increasingly intense confrontation to better understand how the Iranian government views its own geopolitical standing. The thirty-two year absence of direct communication channels between America and Iran has fostered a dangerous cycle of miscalculation, misunderstanding and escalation. Salehi’s remarks reflect an Iranian view—based largely on these misperceptions and miscalculations—that time is on Tehran’s side.

Contrary to popular assumptions in Washington, the Iranian government’s skepticism regarding negotiations is not rooted in an ideological opposition to improving relations with the United States. Rather, Tehran perceives political constraints—both foreign and domestic—that limit Washington’s ability to engage in substantive diplomacy. Therefore, Iranian decision makers appear willing to wait and try again when events seem more propitious.

It is important to understand that Iran does not see itself as weakened by bilateral tensions and regional flux. Thus, hard-liners in Tehran grow more confident from perceived U.S. missteps and strongly oppose any relations with America that would require Iranian acquiescence to the status quo regional order and undermine Tehran’s perceived independence.

Iran’s long-term security calculation sees no downside in rejecting any engagement with Washington that places Iran in the role of compliant U.S. ally. Iranian decision makers see no example in the Middle East of relations with the U.S. based on equal footing. Patron-client relations are the norm, a norm Iran rejects for itself.


Russia promotes a “step by step” diplomatic initiative with Iran

Zvi Bar’el reports: It appears that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can rest easy for now, as voices coming from the European Union suggest a military operation is not in the offing. Not only do Syria and China reject such an attack, but on Monday, Germany, France and Turkey added their voices to those objecting to a military option. The United States also does not seem thrilled at the prospect of launching another war in the region.

The European and American plan to impose another dose of sanctions on Iran may be worrisome, but it likely isn’t threatening as long as China, Russia and several of the Gulf states continue regular trade relations with Iran.

The effort to impose restrictions on the export of gasoline to Iran, which can only supply 60 percent of its own demand, is unlikely to come to fruition, as some fear the restrictions would only harm the citizenry and not the regime. Furthermore, the efficacy of such a plan remains doubtful. Iran recently declared that it is capable of producing more gasoline; with a strict rationing program it might well be able to overcome the entire shortage. This would not necessarily mean that Iran could successfully supply its demand for gasoline over the long term, but it would certainly be able to significantly reduce its dependence on foreign imports.

The more ambitious aim of obtaining a UN Security Council resolution to impose international sanctions will have to wait, especially given Russia’s efforts to promote – together with Iran – a new diplomatic plan that is being dubbed “Step by Step.” Under the plan, Iran will begin to respond to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s demands. In exchange for every satisfactory response, the international community would gradually roll back the existing sanctions on Iran.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister visited Moscow last week to discuss this idea with his Russian counterpart, and on Sunday the Russian deputy foreign minister for Middle Eastern affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov, went to Tehran to discuss the joint diplomatic effort with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

Meanwhile, Iran is adopting a new line of public diplomacy aimed both at Europe and the United States. Yesterday Salehi declared, “Strengthening the ties between Europe and Iran will be very helpful to Europe, since if Turkey joins the European Union, Iran will be a close neighbor of Europe’s.”

Over the weekend Ahmadinejad also said that “The Iranians are a nation of culture and logic, and are not warmongers.” The remarks, made at an event marking the unveiling of ancient artifacts returned by Britain to Iran, received big headlines in the Iranian press.

It is not clear what Ahmadinejad meant by “logic,” yet it notably was Ahmadinejad who initiated the 2010 agreement to deposit Iranian uranium in Turkey. Ahmadinejad is also believed to lead a certain school of thought that maintains it is better to come to an agreement with the West now, as opposed to the views of much of the radical religious leadership, which objects to any agreement.

In the end, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will be the one to decide whether to promote any new diplomatic options. But the assessment that he still hasn’t given the green light for the production of nuclear weapons seemingly leaves the window of diplomatic opportunity open.

Ahmadinejad also can rest easy about his domestic situation. Yesterday he got some unexpected support from Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former president, who is considered the leader of the Iranian opposition, and who until now never failed to criticize his rival. Khatami declared that if there were an attack on Iran, all groups – those that want reform and those that don’t – would unite to rebuff the attack.

Khatami defined the Israeli threat as “psychological warfare and a bluff,” but expressed concern that such psychological warfare could persuade the international community that an attack on Iran was possible.

Iranian opposition sources say that the debate over a possible attack on Iran plays directly into Ahmadinejad’s hands, since it boosts his political position not only vis a vis the opposition, but also vis a vis the supreme leader, Khamenei, whose confidants see Ahmadinejad as a political threat.


Nuke report unlikely to break the stalemate, could Iran be the new Cuba?

Tony Karon writes: Game changer? Hardly. As the dust settles on this week’s release of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran, it’s become clear that pre-release hype from Western officials that it would produce a dramatic shift in the international standoff over that country’s nuclear program appears to be wishful thinking. There’s nothing about the report’s contents — all of which had been known to the key players for the past five years — or the fact of its publication that appears likely to shift any of their positions. Instead, it appears to be triggering another round of business as usual: The U.S. and its key Western allies are pressing for new sanctions, unilateral and via the U.N.; Israel is rattling its saber; Russia and China are telling everyone to calm down and resisting any new sanctions; and Iran is keeping its uranium enrichment centrifuges spinning.

Experts parsing with the material say the IAEA’s finding don’t differ substantially with those of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded, to the chagrin of the Israelis and other Iran hawks, that Tehran had halted most of its research into weaponization of nuclear material in 2003. The new report does assert — on the basis of a narrower set of sources — that some lower-level apparent weapons research work did, in fact, continue after 2003. But what it calls a “structured program” of weapons research appears to have been mostly halted in 2003.

Still, there’s little question that Iran has used its nuclear program to bring the capability to build nuclear weapons within closer reach. The IAEA has now formally rejected Tehran’s insistence that all of its nuclear work has been for civilian energy production, and has demanded that it account for research work that appears to have no purpose outside of warhead design. But it has hardly confirmed the notion that Iran is racing hell for leather to build nuclear weapons.

A senior Administration official conceded Tuesday that “the IAEA does not assert that Iran has resumed a full-scale nuclear weapons program”, nor does it spell out how much progress has been made in the research effort.


How to set the Middle East aflame

Karim Sadjadpour writes: The International Atomic Energy Agency’s new report [PDF] on Iran’s nuclear program asserts that Tehran “has carried out … activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” and that the agency sees “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” In other words, the IAEA has finally reached the same conclusions that Israel first reached in 1995. So should we really be worried about an Israeli strike now?

Historically, there has been an inverse correlation between Israeli saber rattling and military action, but senior Obama administration officials consistently confirm in private meetings that they take “very seriously” the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Think of it like this: In one way — and one way only — the potential of an Israeli military strike on Iran is akin to a Herman Cain presidency. Its likelihood is slim, but the potential consequences are too dramatic to ignore.

Although the precise strategy Israel would employ to carry out such an operation is debatable, its objective — to avert a nuclear-armed Tehran — is crystal clear. What’s less clear is how Tehran would react and with what aim. Would the Iranian regime be strengthened or weakened internally? Would it respond with fury or restraint?

To probe these questions, the Brookings Institution in late 2009 assembled two dozen former senior U.S. government officials and Middle East specialists for a daylong simulation of the political and military consequences [PDF] that would result from an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

The simulation was conducted as a three-move game, with Israeli, U.S., and Iranian teams, each representing their government’s top national security officials. The members of the U.S. team had all served in senior positions in the U.S. government; the Israeli team was composed of a half-dozen experts on Israel, including former senior U.S. officials with close ties to senior Israeli decision-makers; the Iranian team was composed of a half-dozen specialists, including people who had either lived in Tehran or served as U.S. officials with responsibility for Iran.

I had the unenviable task of trying to channel Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The simulation was premised on a surprise Israeli military strike — absent U.S. knowledge or consent — on Iran’s nuclear facilities, motivated by the breakdown of nuclear negotiations, the ineffectiveness of sanctions, and newfound intelligence of secret Iranian weapons activity. In other words, pretty close to what we have before us now.

Arguably, the strongest argument against an attack on Iran is a question of simple mathematics. According to Israeli estimates, a strike would, at best, set back Tehran’s nuclear clock by just two to three years — but it would likely resuscitate the fortunes of a deeply unpopular, ideologically bankrupt Iranian regime, prolonging its shelf life by another decade or generation. As one Iranian democracy activist once told me, Israel and the United States should “focus less on the gun and more on the bandit trying to obtain the gun.” Bombing Iran, he said, would strengthen the bandit, not weaken it — and only increase his desire to get the gun.

Iran’s nuclear sites are purposely built close to population centers, but in the simulation, the Israeli strike managed to cause only a small number of civilian casualties. Nonetheless, one of my immediate reactions was to order Iranian state television to show graphic images of the “hundreds of innocent martyrs” — focusing on the women and children — in order to incite outrage against Israel and attempt to convert Iranian nationalism into solidarity with the regime.

To further that goal, we then invited the symbolic leadership of the opposition — Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi (both of whom are now under house arrest), as well as former President Mohammad Khatami — onto state television to furiously condemn Israel and pledge allegiance to the government. Instead of widening Iran’s deep internal fractures — both between political elites and between the people and the regime — the Israeli military strike helped repair them.

I asked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario. He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “10 times worse” — in terms of eliciting popular anger — than a U.S. strike and agreed that it would likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with the government, strengthening the state’s capacity to respond.

And respond we did. I went into the exercise believing that the Iranian regime’s response to an Israeli military strike — despite many predictions otherwise — would be relatively subdued, given the regime’s fears of inviting massive reprisals. The opposite turned out to be true. Once our nuclear sites were effectively destroyed, we calculated that we had no choice but to escalate and retaliate in order to save face and project power to our own population and neighbors, deter future attacks, and inflict a heavy political cost on Israel.


Al Jazeera talks to Joe Cirncione about Iran’s nuclear potential