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

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Israel may lack capability for effective strike on Iran nuclear facilities

Bloomberg reports: Concern that a new report on Iran’s nuclear program might spur an Israeli military strike ignores a central factor: Experts say the odds such an assault could succeed are slim.

“The Israelis actually have limited means of attacking Iran’s nuclear program,” said Richard Russell, a professor at the U.S. National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington and a consultant to the U.S. command for the region. “This is a very, very difficult problem for the Israelis, and it’s getting more and more acute.”

The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency yesterday reported on Iran’s efforts to develop a bomb small enough to put on a missile with enough range to hit Israel. Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities, outlined anew in the report, are dispersed over a broad area 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) and multiple countries to the east of Tel Aviv. Some are underground.

Iran has repeatedly asserted that its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian goals, such as power generation.

“The Israeli Air Force is capable of launching an attack on Iran and causing damage,” said Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It is far from capable of disabling the Iran nuclear program. That would take at least a month of sustained bombing. That’s not something Israel can carry out alone.”

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IAEA’s “Soviet nuclear scientist” never worked on weapons

Gareth Porter reports: The report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published by a Washington think tank Tuesday repeated the sensational claim previously reported by news media all over the world that a former Soviet nuclear weapons scientist had helped Iran construct a detonation system that could be used for a nuclear weapon.

But it turns out that the foreign expert, who is not named in the IAEA report but was identified in news reports as Vyacheslav Danilenko, is not a nuclear weapons scientist but one of the top specialists in the world in the production of nanodiamonds by explosives.

In fact, Danilenko, a Ukrainian, has worked solely on nanodiamonds from the beginning of his research career and is considered one of the pioneers in the development of nanodiamond technology, as published scientific papers confirm.

It now appears that the IAEA and David Albright, the director of the International Institute for Science and Security in Washington, who was the source of the news reports about Danilenko, never bothered to check the accuracy of the original claim by an unnamed “Member State” on which the IAEA based its assertion about his nuclear weapons background.

Albright gave a “private briefing” for “intelligence professionals” last week, in which he named Danilenko as the foreign expert who had been contracted by Iran’s Physics Research Centre in the mid-1990s and identified him as a “former Soviet nuclear scientist”, according to a story by Joby Warrick of the Washington Post on Nov. 5.

The Danilenko story then went worldwide.

The IAEA report says the agency has “strong indications” that Iran’s development of a “high explosions initiation system”, which it has described as an “implosion system” for a nuclear weapon, was “assisted by the work of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable on these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career in the nuclear weapon program of the country of his origin.”

The report offers no other evidence of Danilenko’s involvement in the development of an initiation system.

The member state obviously learned that Danilenko had worked during the Soviet period at the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics in Snezhinsk, Russia, which was well known for its work on development of nuclear warheads and simply assumed that he had been involved in that work.

However, further research would have revealed that Danilenko worked from the beginning of his career in a part of the Institute that specialised in the synthesis of diamonds. Danilenko wrote in an account of the early work in the field published in 2006 that he was among the scientists in the “gas dynamics group” at the Institute who were “the first to start studies on diamond synthesis in 1960”.

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Why are we being readied for war with Iran?

If you want to start a war with Iran, apparently the lesson from Iraq is not that war is a dumb idea; it’s that the war charge cannot be led by the U.S. administration or a ragtag band of expatriates.

The pretext for war needs to be presented by an international body that is perceived as independent and objective. So, if you want to start a war with Iran, who could present a more compelling justification for war than the International Atomic Energy Agency?

But can the U.S. government rely on the IAEA to fulfill its covertly designated role?

Now that the irritatingly independent Mohamed ElBaradei is out of the way, we know — thanks to Wikileaks — that Washington is much more comfortable with the agency’s new director general, Yukiya Amano, who is “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”

The Obama administration, as well as being able to rely on the IAEA to align itself with U.S. goals, can of course always rely on the New York Times to fulfill its role as an informal ministry of information. Just as Izvestia functioned as the “delivered message” of the Soviet government, reporters like David Sanger gladly parrot their administration sources rather than question what they are being told.

[T]he Obama administration, acutely aware of how what happened in Iraq undercut American credibility, is deliberately taking a back seat, eager to make the conclusions entirely the I.A.E.A.’s, even as it continues to press for more international sanctions against Iran. When the director of the agency, Yukia Amano, came to the White House 11 days ago to meet top officials of the National Security Council about the coming report, the administration declined to even confirm he had ever walked into the building.

The final touches are still being put on the report and its critical annex, where some of the investigative details will be laid out, which may be released as early as Wednesday. But already Russia and China have sent a diplomatic protest to Mr. Amano, urging him to not to make details of the evidence public.

“Russia and China are of the opinion that such kind of report will only drive Iran into a corner,” they wrote in the note, which was obtained by The New York Times and is a rare instance of those countries commenting jointly.

Obtained by the New York Times — but from who?

Knowing how a piece of information enters the public domain can be as important as the information itself. If these reporters gave some indication about where the note came from, they would thereby provide a clearer indication about whose agenda is being served by its revelation.

Sources do of course often need to be concealed and over at Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis obliges “an observer” by allowing him to remain nameless. Regular readers of ACW will know, however, that this is a blog not only with stellar contributors but also a highly informed readership. This observer writes:

For some reason, everyone and his cousin are suddenly seized the idea that there must be an urgent need to (at a minimum) contemplate whether to bomb Iran. No one can quite say why now, though. As Ari Shavit writes in Ha’aretz, with an impressive combination of eloquence and lack of substance:

For the past decade it has been clear that we are facing an Iranian deadline. Time after time the deadline has been put off. But it is real and it is imminent. Unless an international miracle, or an interior-Iranian miracle takes place, we will reach the crossroads.

‘When we stand at the crossroads we will have two options – prevention or deterrence. To launch a military offensive or to emerge from nuclear ambiguity. One way or another, all chaos will break loose in the Middle East. One way or another, all chaos will break loose in Israel. What was will be no more. A new era will begin.’

But just what technical or political fact has brought the deadline to the crossroads?

Why, exactly, is there an insistence that Iran is racing up to some undefined sharply defined point where its adversaries, Israel included, must either strike preventively or accept an uneasy relationship of mutual (nuclear) deterrence? If Iran is racing, so were Achilles and the Tortoise. It’s more like tiptoeing.

Shavit is now the umpty-teenth commentator, Israeli or otherwise, who apparently cannot imagine that nuclear opacity or ambiguity could apply to states other than Israel.

The drumbeat for war against Iran suggests that not only do Iran’s enemies regard the Islamic state’s acquisition of nuclear weapons as intolerable, but Tehran must be punished simply for its lack of transparency.

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Israel’s diplomatic bankruptcy

An editorial in The Observer says: Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is seen as a threat for reasons partly of Israel’s own making – foremost its absolute reliance on a policy of military supremacy and deterrence to underpin security. A nuclear-armed Iran would hole that policy below the waterline, making it far more difficult, for instance, to launch the kind of war it waged against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

Israel’s recent posturing ahead of the IAEA meeting, which included testing a new long-range missile and launching a long-range air strike exercise, is a doubly dangerous game. For while some senior Israeli air force officers are understood to support Netanyahu’s desire to strike Iran sooner rather than later, other independent analysis is far more sceptical of Israel’s ability to cause lasting damage on Iran’s nuclear programme, suggesting that it might require up to a fifth of the country’s operational aircraft to inflict serious harm, which could still fall short of Israel’s desired outcome. Some experts have estimated that even a successful raid on Iran would buy Israel only four years at best while encouraging Iran to redouble its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

If that is the short-term analysis, then in the medium term the risks for Israel perhaps would be greater still. With its regional alliances with friendly states quickly unravelling in the fall-out from the Arab Spring, from Israel’s botched attack on the Turkish-flagged MV Mavi Marmara and from its war against Gaza, an attack on the scale required to halt Iran’s nuclear programme is unlikely to improve either its relations with its neighbours or Israel’s security environment.

All of which leads to the question – if the consequences carry such risk for so little benefit, why are Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, pushing the plan?

One possibility is that Netanyahu is determined to impose the terms of the debate about the issues raised by the IAEA report at a time when it is clear that both Russia and China are lukewarm on the prospect of further sanctions against Tehran. If that is Netanyahu’s aim – to use the threat of war to leverage diplomatic effect – it is the behaviour of a tinpot state, not the mature democracy Israel claims to be.

Far more worrying is the notion that Netanyahu, who has long chafed against President Obama’s strictures on settlement building and the peace process, and is said to be obsessed with the issue of Iran, is contemplating an attack having calculated he has sufficient friends in Congress to defy the White House.

Whatever Netanyahu is thinking, he is playing a high-risk game for even higher stakes, betting Israel’s security and international prestige against an uncertain outcome, even by allowing it to be suggested that Israel might strike. After Israel’s failure to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, its failure to break Hamas in Gaza in 2009 – and with the international opprobrium that followed that operation – Israel risks talking itself into a corner where it appears weak if it doesn’t act and perhaps weaker if it does, a country increasingly bereft of any notion of how to manage relations with its neighbours except through the threat of aggression.

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Iran says U.S. plot suspect is anti-Tehran militant

Reuters reports: Iran has complained to the United Nations about a U.S. accusation it tried to assassinate a Saudi diplomat, saying one of the alleged plotters Washington calls an Iranian military official is really a member of an anti-Tehran rebel group.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Saturday the plot was part of a multi-pronged U.S. strategy to smear Tehran, a process he said would continue next week when the U.N. nuclear agency publishes a report western diplomats say will contain new evidence about Iran’s nuclear program.

The complaint to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon turned the U.S. accusation that Tehran supports terrorism back onto Washington, Salehi said.

“This letter contains our complaint about the plots of the United States, reliable information that we have of the U.S. involvement in those plots,” he said in a news conference broadcast live on the English language channel Press TV.

On its website, Press TV reported the letter said a suspect who U.S. prosecutors have identified as an Iranian military official is actually a member of the exiled Iranian rebel group Mujahideen Khalq Organization (MKO).

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Fresh or refreshed fears about a nuclear Iran?

Tony Karon writes: President Obama’s point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, had written before joining the Administration that if governments reluctant to impose harsh measures on Iran believed the alternative was Israel starting a war, they would be more inclined to back new sanctions. And there’s certain a new sanctions push in the works, right now. The “intelligence” being cited by the Guardian’s sources to suggest a new urgency is hardly new — it’s material collected some time ago by Western agencies that purports to show that Iran has been doing theoretical work on designs for a nuclear warhead. What’s new is the fact that the U.S. has been pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to include those allegations in its latest report on Iran, scheduled for release later this month. The IAEA has questioned Iran’s intent and raised questions about many of is activities, but it has not until now accused Iran of running an active nuclear weapons program. A Western official told the Guardian that revelations about bomb-design work will be a “game-changer” that forces Russia and China to get on board with U.S. sanctions efforts.

It’s not clear, though, whether those charges will make it into the IAEA report — China and Russia are lobbying against what they see as an attempt to enlist the nuclear watchdog in the service of a U.S. agenda — but even if they’re in the report, Moscow and Beijing are unlikely to join the sanctions push. It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. had assumed that some new ‘gotcha’ piece of intelligence would change the game, only to be disappointed.

Indeed, former Bush Administration national security staffer Michael Singh argued in Foreign Policy this week that the only way to change China’s position on sanctions would be to prepare for a military attack, which, if it went ahead, would disrupt China’s energy supplies. A familiar argument, that one.

As to the claim by the Guardian’s sources that Iran had lately adopted a more belligerent posture, the evidence offered was the bizarre Saudi embassy bombing plot, which much of the international community remains to be convinced was actually an official Iranian effort.

For the rest, there’s not much new: Iran is restoring its uranium enrichment capability damaged by the Stuxnet computer worm and protecting it in hardened facilities. But none of that provides anything close to a casus belli that might be deemed credible by most of the international community. The chances of getting legal authorization for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities from the U.N. Security Council right now are slender, at best.

The Guardian piece, in fact, deflates its own alarmist premise when a government source notes that there has been “no acceleration toward military action by the U.S. but that could change.” Well, yes, although it’s hard to imagine why a government source would require anonymity for sharing a truism. There’s no obvious reason for the urgency of the timetables suggested by the officials briefing the Guardian — they suggested Obama would have to make a fateful decision next spring — other than the fact that the Iranians haven’t changed tack, despite four rounds of U.N. sanctions plus a raft of additional measures adopted unilaterally by Western powers, and considerable saber rattling by the Israelis. The urgency would need to be politically generated, however, because of the assumption that Iran wins the long game absent some dramatic game-changing action on the part of its adversaries. And then there’s the fact that the U.S. is entering an election year.

In a companion piece to its UK preparations for military action story, the Guardian notes that despite Obama’s reluctance to drag the U.S. into another Middle East war with potentially disastrous consequences, he enters his reelection year under pressure from Israel over Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu could even force Obama’s hand by initiating an attack on Iran that the U.S. might feel compelled to join in order to ensure its success. (The Israeli leader has certainly shown a willingness to defy Obama on issues where he believes he has the support of Capitol Hill, and attacking Iran would certainly be one of those.) Obama is no closer to persuading or pressuring Iran into backing down on its nuclear program than when he ran for office four years ago, promising the engagement he said had been missing from the Bush approach. Washington hawks say engagement was tried and failed, and it’s time to ratchet up the pressure. Doves argue that engagement wasn’t given a serious go or was disrupted by Iran’s internal power struggle, and should be resumed.

Electoral calculations, however, would more likely prompt Obama to toughen up his stance. The problem, of course, is that a harder line appears no more likely to persuade Iran to back down than a softer one, but more bellicose rhetoric from Obama could have the unintended effect of narrowing his options. A U.S. military strike on Iran would not mark the first time in history that a country had found itself marching to war without having really intended to do so.

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To isolate Iran, U.S. presses inspectors on nuclear data

The New York Times reports: President Obama is pressing United Nations nuclear inspectors to release classified intelligence information showing that Iran is designing and experimenting with nuclear weapons technology. The president’s push is part of a larger American effort to further isolate and increase pressure on Iran after accusing it of a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States.

If the United Nations’ watchdog group agrees to publicize the evidence, including new data from recent months, it would almost certainly revive a debate that has been dormant during the Arab Spring about how aggressively the United States and its allies, including Israel, should move to halt Iran’s suspected weapons program.

Over the longer term, several senior Obama administration officials said in interviews, they are mulling a ban on financial transactions with Iran’s central bank — a move that has been opposed by China and other Asian nations. Also being considered is an expansion of the ban on the purchase of petroleum products sold by companies controlled by the country’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The Revolutionary Guards are also believed to oversee the military side of the nuclear program, and they are the parent of the Quds Force, which Washington has accused of directing the assassination plot.

The proposed sanctions come as administration officials confront skepticism around the world about their allegations that Iran was behind the plot and limited options about what they can do — as well as growing pressure from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress to take tougher action against Iran, with the central bank and the oil industry high on lawmakers’ lists.

All of the proposed sanctions carry with them considerable political and economic risks. Yukiya Amano, the cautious director general of the United Nations group, the International Atomic Energy Agency, talked publicly in September about publishing some of the most delicate data suggesting Iran worked on nuclear triggers and warheads. But officials who have spoken with him say he is concerned that his inspectors could be ejected from Iran, shutting the best, though narrow, window into its nuclear activities.

Similarly, China and Russia, among other major Iranian trading partners, have resisted further oil and financial sanctions, saying the goal of isolating Iran is a poor strategy. Even inside the Obama administration, some officials say they fear any crackdown on Iranian oil exports could drive up oil prices when the United States and European economies are weak. As one senior official put it, “You don’t want to tip the U.S. into a downturn just to punish the Iranians.”

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Do we have Ahmadinejad all wrong?

Reza Aslan writes:

Is it possible that Iran’s blustering president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, long thought to be a leading force behind some of Iran’s most hard-line and repressive policies, is actually a reformer whose attempts to liberalize, secularize, and even “Persianize” Iran have been repeatedly stymied by the country’s more conservative factions? That is the surprising impression one gets reading the latest WikiLeaks revelations, which portray Ahmadinejad as open to making concessions on Iran’s nuclear program and far more accommodating to Iranians’ demands for greater freedoms than anyone would have thought. Two episodes in particular deserve special scrutiny not only for what they reveal about Ahmadinejad but for the light they shed on the question of who really calls the shots in Iran.

In October 2009, Ahamdinejad’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, worked out a compromise with world power representatives in Geneva on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. But the deal, in which Iran agreed to ship nearly its entire stockpile of low enriched uranium to Russia and France for processing, collapsed when it failed to garner enough support in Iran’s parliament, the Majles.

According to a U.S. diplomatic cable recently published by WikiLeaks, Ahmadinejad, despite all of his tough talk and heated speeches about Iran’s right to a nuclear program, fervently supported the Geneva arrangement, which would have left Iran without enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. But, inside the often opaque Tehran government, he was thwarted from pursuing the deal by politicians on both the right and the left who saw the agreement as a “defeat” for the country and who viewed Ahmadinejad as, in the words of Ali Larijani, the conservative Speaker of the Majles, “fooled by the Westerners.”

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Stuxnet could cause Bushehr meltdown

On the eve of the release of a new IAEA report on Iran, officials linked to the UN nuclear oversight agency have added to speculation on the possible impact that the Stuxnet malware may have had on Iran’s nuclear program — including the possibility that it could lead to the meltdown of the reactor in the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

The Associated Press reports:

Iran’s nuclear program has suffered a recent setback, with major technical problems forcing the temporary shutdown of thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium, diplomats told The Associated Press on Monday.

The diplomats said they had no specifics on the nature of the problem that in recent months led Iranian experts to briefly power down the machines they use for enrichment — a nuclear technology that has both civilian and military uses.

But suspicions focused on the Stuxnet worm, the computer virus thought to be aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, which experts last week identified as being calibrated to destroy centrifuges by sending them spinning out of control.
[…]
Tehran has taken hundreds of centrifuges off line over the past 18 months, prompting speculation of technical problems.

A U.N official close to the IAEA said a complete stop in Iran’s centrifuge operation would be unprecedented to his knowledge but declined to discuss specifics.
[…]
Separately, another official from an IAEA member country suggested the worm could cause further damage to Iran’s nuclear program.

The official also asked for anonymity because his information was privileged. He cited a Western intelligence report suggesting that Stuxnet had infected the control system of Iran’s Bushehr reactor and would be activated once the Russian-built reactor goes on line in a few months.

Stuxnet would interfere with control of “basic parameters” such as temperature and pressure control and neutron flow, that could result in the meltdown of the reactor, raising the specter of a possible explosion, he said.

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Turkey’s diplomatic persistence with Iran may pay off

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Iran has pledged to stop enriching uranium to the higher grade needed for a medical research reactor if world powers agree to a fuel-swap deal it outlined earlier this year with Turkey and Brazil, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Wednesday.

The offer marks the latest in an international tug-of-war over the nuclear ambitions of Iran, which denies international allegations that it is pursuing nuclear weaponry. U.S. and European diplomats say Iran’s offer suggests it has felt the pinch of a rash of economic sanctions imposed on Tehran since June.

The United Nations imposed sanctions in part because Iran insisted it would continue enriching nuclear fuel to 20%, a level Tehran said was necessary to fuel a medical-research reactor and that the U.S. and others feared was a step toward creating nuclear weapons.

Mr. Davutoglu said Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki offered to change Tehran’s position on continuing enrichment when the two men met in Istanbul on Sunday. Mr. Mottaki had said “there will be no need for Iran to continue 20% enrichment if the Tehran Agreement was realized and the country gets the fuel it needs,” Mr. Davutoglu told a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Wednesday.

The Obama administration is said to be “studying” the discussions. I would hope that behind the scenes they are sending unambiguous positive signals to Turkey. The issue of continued enrichment was the supposedly the reason for earlier rejecting the Turkish-Brazilian brokered deal with Iran. If Turkey can now deliver on the administration’s key demands, we will get to find out whether Washington is operating in good faith. Let’s see.

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Is Obama’s word worth anything?

President Obama is either a liar or he has lost control of his own administration.

In a letter he sent to the president of Brazil in late April, Obama spelled out the terms on which the US would support a diplomatic initiative by Brazil and Turkey who hoped to revive a nuclear swap agreement that Iran had rejected last fall. Obama expressed his skepticism that Iran would make the necessary concessions. He was proved wrong, but then instead of welcoming Lula and Erdogan’s diplomatic accomplishment, Secretary Clinton dismissed it out of hand. If she did so with Obama’s consent, he has shown his word is worthless. If she did so on her own initiative, this president has lost his authority as chief executive.

This is what Obama wrote to Lula on April 20, 2010 (emphasis added):

His Excellency
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
President of the Federative Republic of Brazil
Brasilia
Dear Mr. President:

I want to thank you for our meeting with Turkish PrinIe Miuister Erdogan during the Nuclear Security Summit. We spent some time focused on Iran, the issue of the provision of nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), and the intent of Brazil and Turkey to work toward finding an acceptable solution. I promised to respond in detail to your ideas. I have carefully considered our discussion, and I would like to offer a detailed explanation of my perspective and suggest a way ahead.

I agree with you that the TRR is an opportunity to pave the way for a broader dialogue in dealing with the more fundamental concerns of the intemational community regarding Iran’s overall nuclear program. From the beginning, I have viewed Iran’ s request as a clear and tangible opportunity to begin to build mutual trust and confidence, and thereby create time and space for a constructive diplomatic process. That is why the United States so strongly supported the proposal put forth by former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General EIBaradei.

The IAEA’s proposal was crafted to be fair and balanced, and for both sides to gain trust and confidence. For us, Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile. I want to underscore that this element is of fundamental importance for the United States. For Iran, it would receive the nuclear fuel requested to ensure continued operation of the TRR to produce needed medical isotopes and, by using its own material, Iran would begin to demonstrate peaceful nuclear intent. Notwithstanding Iran’s continuing defiance of five United Nations Security Council resolutions mandating that it cease its enrichment of uranium, we were prepared to support and facilitate action on a proposal that would provide Iran nuclear fuel using uranium enriched by Iran — a demonstration of our willingness to be creative in pursuing a way to build mutual confidence.

During the course of the consultations, we also recognized Iran’s desire for assurances. As a result, my team focused on ensuring that the lAEA’s proposal contained several built-in measures, including a U.S. national declaration of support, to send a clear signal from my government of our willingness to become a direct signatory and potentially even play a more direct role in the fuel production process, a central role for Russia, and the IAEA’s assumption of full custody of the nuclear material throughout the fuel production process. In effect, the IAEA’s proposal offered Iran significant and substantial assurances and commitments from the IAEA, the United States, and Russia. Dr. EI Baradei stated publicly last year that the United States would be assuming the vast majority of the risk in the IAEA’s proposal.

As we discussed, Iran appears to be pursuing a strategy that is designed to create the impression of flexibility without agreeing to actions that can begin to build mutual trust and confidence. We have observed Iran convey hints of flexibility to you and others, but formally reiterate an unacceptable position through official channels to the IAEA. Iran has continued to reject the IAEA’s proposal and insist that Iran retain its low-enriched uranium on its territory until delivery of nuclear fuel. This is the position that Iran formally conveyed to the IABA in January 2010 and again in February.

We understand from you, Turkey and others that Iran continues to propose that Iran would retain its LEU on its territory until there is a simultaneous exchange of its LEU for nuclear fuel. As General Jones noted during our meeting, it will require one year for any amount of nuclear fuel to be produced. Thus, the confidence-building strength of the IAEA’s proposal would be completely eliminated for the United States and several risks would emerge. First, Iran would be able to continue to stockpile LEU throughout this time, which would enable them to acquire an LEU stockpile equivalent to the amount needed for two or three nuclear weapons in a year’ s time. Second, there would be no guarantee that Iran would ultimately agree to the final exchange. Third, IAEA “custody” of lran’s LEU inside of Iran would provide us no measurable improvement over the current situation, and the IAEA cannot prevent Iran from re-assuming control of its uranium at any time.

There is a potentially important compromise that has already been offered. Last November, the IAEA conveyed to Iran our offer to allow Iran to ship its 1,200 kg of LEU to a third country — specifically Turkey — at the outset of the process to be held “in escrow” as a guarantee during the fuel production process that Iran would get back its uranium if we failed to deliver the fuel. Iran has never pursued the “escrow” compromise and has provided no credible explanation for its rejection. I believe that this raises real questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions, if Iran is unwilling to accept an offer to demonstrate that its LEU is for peaceful, civilian purposes. I would urge Brazil to impress upon Iran the opportunity presented by this offer to “escrow” its uranium in Turkey while the nuclear fuel is being produced.

Throughout this process, instead of building confidence Iran has undermined confidence in the way it has approached this opportunity. That is why I question whether Iran is prepared to engage Brazil in good faith, and why I cautioned you during our meeting. To begin a constructive diplomatic process, Iran has to convey to the IAEA a constructive commitment to engagement through official channels — something it has failed to do. Meanwhile, we will pursue sanctions on the timeline that I have outlined. I have also made clear that I will leave the door open to engagement with Iran. As you know, Iran has thus far failed to accept my offer of comprehensive and unconditional dialogue.

I look forward to the next opportunity to see you and discuss these issues as we consider the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program to the security of the international community, including in the U.N. Security Council.

Sincerely,
Barack Obama

So what did Brazil and Turkey accomplish? An agreement by Iran to do exactly what Obama claimed he was seeking: that Iran would transfer 1200kg of LEU to be held in escrow by Turkey and in return for which, one year later, Iran would receive fuel rods for the TRR.

The US response? Secretary Clinton claimed there were “discrepancies” in the offer. These included that:

There is a recognition on the part of the international community that the agreement that was reached in Tehran a week ago between Iran and Brazil and Turkey only occurred because the Security Council was on the brink of publicly releasing the text of the resolution that we have been negotiating for many weeks. It was a transparent ploy to avoid Security Council action.

That is a truly Kafkaesque statement!

The US and its allies have been mounting diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to force it to make concessions on the nuclear issue. As soon as Iran makes concessions, the US turns around and says the concessions are a “ploy” to avoid sanctions.

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IAEA set to focus on Israel

The Associated Press reports:

Israel’s secretive nuclear activities may undergo unprecedented scrutiny next month, with a key meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency tentatively set to focus on the topic for the first time, according to documents shared Friday with The Associated Press.

A copy of the restricted provisional agenda of the IAEA’s June 7 board meeting lists “Israeli nuclear capabilities” as the eighth item — the first time that that the agency’s decision-making body is being asked to deal with the issue in its 52 years of existence.

The agenda can still undergo changes in the month before the start of the meeting and a senior diplomat from a board member nation said the item, included on Arab request, could be struck if the U.S. and other Israeli allies mount strong opposition. He asked for anonymity for discussing a confidential matter.

Even if dropped from the final agenda, however, its inclusion in the May 7 draft made available to The AP is significant, reflecting the success of Islamic nations in giving concerns about Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal increased prominence.

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US lifting the veil on Israel’s nuclear status

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The U.S. is negotiating with Egypt a proposal to make the Middle East a region free of nuclear weapons, as the U.S. seeks to prevent Iran from derailing a monthlong U.N. conference on nuclear nonproliferation that begins Monday.

U.S. officials familiar with the move call it an important step in assuring countries that Washington—criticized by some for its silence about Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal—will equitably address weapons proliferation across the region, as Iran seeks to shift focus away from its own nuclear program.

But here’s the catch: before Washington applies any pressure on Israel, there must be significant progress in the peace process.

Still, there is one element here that should have been worthy of a headline of its own but doesn’t even get a mention in the article: the Obama administration seems to effectively be ending US complicity in Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity.

Another important part of this story that the WSJ article glides over without clarification is the reason the US is negotiating specifically with Egypt.

Washington is pushing for revisions to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to close some of its loopholes but for these to pass in the 189-nation conference, the US needs the support of the 118-non-aligned states led by Egypt. That support will not be forthcoming without some kind of agreement on a nuclear-free Middle East.

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Atomic agency views Iran’s stepped-up enrichment of uranium as a violation

The New York Times reported:

Iran’s surprise move this week to begin enriching its uranium to a level closer to weapons-grade violated an agreement with atomic inspectors in Vienna, diplomats said, very likely providing the United States with another piece of evidence that Iran is not living up to its international commitments on its nuclear program.

The breach involved Iran’s starting the enrichment process in the absence of atomic inspectors — something that the International Atomic Energy Agency had specifically asked Iran not to do. Narrowly, the violation was viewed as technical in nature. But it caused resentment at the atomic agency’s headquarters in Vienna because Iran had acted so quickly and with such apparent contempt of the agreement.

“There’s a feeling of pique and annoyance,” said a European diplomat who works with the agency and spoke on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak with reporters.

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Iran hails nuclear advance on Revolution Day

Australia’s ABC News reported:

Hundreds of thousands of people have rallied across Iran to make the anniversary of the country’s Islamic revolution.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used a massive pro-government rally in Tehran to boast that the Islamic republic is now a nuclear state and on the brink of having the means to produce weapons grade uranium.

He was addressing a crowd of tens of thousands of government supporters who turned out in the capital’s Freedom Square to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

“By God’s grace it was reported that the first consignment of 20 per cent enriched uranium was produced and was put at the disposal of the scientists”, Mr Ahmadinejad told the crowd.

The Associated Press reported:

Iran expects to produce its first batch of higher enriched uranium within a few days but its effort is modest, using only a small amount of feedstock and a fraction of its capacities, according to a confidential document shared with The Associated Press.

The internal International Atomic Energy Agency document was significant in being the first glimpse at Iran’s plan to enrich uranium to 20 percent that did not rely on statements from Iranian officials.

Iran says it wants to enrich only up to 20 percent – substantially below the 90 percent plus level used in the fissile core of nuclear warheads – as a part of a plan to fuel its research reactor that provides medical isotopes to hundreds of thousands of Iranians undergoing cancer treatment.

But the West says Tehran is not capable of turning the material into the fuel rods needed by the reactor. Instead it fears that Iran wants to enrich the uranium to make nuclear weapons.

The IAEA confidential document (made public by Arms Control Wonk) states:

1. Further to the Director General’s report of 8 February 2010 (GOV/INF/2010/1), the Agency received on 8 February 2010 a separate letter from Iran, dated 8 February 2010, informing the Agency that the operator of the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) intended to transfer a small amount (about 10 kg) of low enriched uranium (LEU) produced at FEP from a large container into a smaller container for feeding into PFEP, and that these activities were to be performed on 9 February 2010. Iran requested that the Agency be present on the site on that date.

2. In a letter dated 8 February 2010, the Agency sought clarification from Iran regarding the timetable for the production process (including the starting date and the expected duration of the campaign), along with other technical details. In light of Article 45 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement, the Agency requested that no LEU be fed into the process at PFEP before the Agency was able to adjust its existing safeguards procedures at that facility.

3. After the arrival of Agency inspectors at FEP on 9 February 2010, Iran transferred the LEU into the smaller container and moved the material from FEP to the feeding autoclave at PFEP. On 10 February 2010, when the Agency inspectors arrived at PFEP, they were informed that Iran had begun to feed the LEU into one cascade at PFEP the previous evening for purposes of passivation. They were also told that it was expected that the facility would begin to produce up to 20% enriched UF6 within a few days. It should be noted that there is currently only one cascade installed in PFEP that is capable of enriching the LEU up to 20%.

Arms Control Wonk provides this explanation of what “passivation” means:

One of the preparatory processes that is required before using a centrifuge component for the first time is “passivation” – which basically involves bathing any UF6 exposed bits in UF6 so that anything with a remaining potential to react will react in a controllable environment rather than in the vacuum system.

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Iran plans to get one small step away from producing weapons-grade nuclear fuel

Iran’s formal notification on Monday to the IAEA that it is going to start producing 20 percent enriched uranium in order to supply its research reactor that produces medical isotopes, means that it will be taking a major stride towards producing weapons-grade fuel.

The Washington Post reports:

…enriching uranium under the guise of medical needs will get Tehran much closer to possessing weapons-grade material. Iran insists it has no interest in nuclear weapons. But Albright said 70 percent of the work toward reaching weapons-grade uranium took place when Iran enriched uranium gas to 3.5 percent. Enriching it further to the 19.75 percent needed for the reactor is an additional “15 to 20 percent of the way there.”

Once the uranium is enriched above 20 percent, it is considered highly enriched uranium. The uranium would need to be enriched further, to 60 percent and then to 90 percent, before it could be used for a weapon. “The last two steps are not that big a deal,” Albright said. They could be accomplished, he said, at a relatively small facility within months.

Jeffrey Lewis provides a more detailed explanation of why 20 percent HEU is much closer to 90 percent than 3.5 percent LEU is to 20 percent.

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Gates scoffs at Iran nuclear claim

The New York Times reports:

As Iran’s foreign minister met with the chief of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency here, the United States and Germany rejected Iran’s assertion that it was close to accepting an international compromise on its nuclear program.

Western officials expressed deep skepticism toward Tehran’s contention that a deal was close for having uranium enriched abroad for Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, said that the Iranians presented no new proposal or counterproposal during a meeting on the sidelines of a security conference here Saturday.

“Dialogue is continuing,” Mr. Amano said. “It should be accelerated. That’s the point.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that actions by Iranian leaders did not back up their conciliatory public statements. “Based on the information that I have, I don’t have the sense we are close to an agreement,” he said at the conclusion of talks with Turkish leaders in Ankara.

Julian Borger adds:

The Tehran government has a gift for the theatrical. The arrival of the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, at the Munich Security Conference was confirmed at the very last moment, and since he got here, Mottaki has held it in the palm of his hand. On Friday night he claimed a deal on Iran’s uranium was close, but then added that it was up to Iran to decide how much of its enriched uranium would be included in the deal. Jam tomorrow, but perhaps not very much.

Today, Mottaki elaborated on his theme at some length, without saying a whole lot more. Asked whether Iran was still willing to export the 1200 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU) provisionally agreed in Geneva last October, he slipped into the opaque language of the bazaar.

It is very common in business, for the buyer to talk about the quantity, while the seller only offers the price. We determine the quantity on the basis of our needs, and we will inform the [international] bodies about our requirements. Maybe it is less than this quantity you have already mentioned [1200kg] or maybe a little more than that quantity that we may need for our reactor.

Mottaki also said that Iran’s nuclear experts had studied the time interval it would take to turn Iranian LEU into 20% enriched uranium in the form of fuel rods, and endorsed that interval. The talk in Geneva was that this would take a year. A few days ago in a television interview, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talked of four to five months. Mottaki did not make it clear which time-scale he was talking about.

The Jerusalem Post reports:

An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program will neither completely stop Teheran’s nuclear march, nor bring down the ayatollahs’ regime, according to former Swiss ambassador to Iran Tim Guldimann.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of this week’s Herzliya Conference, Guldimann, who knows the Iranian way of thinking well, expressed – as a personal opinion – his deep concern about the military option against Iran.

Guldimann was Swiss ambassador to Iran and Afghanistan from 1999 to 2004. As ambassador to Teheran, Guldimann – now senior adviser and head of the Middle East Project at the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, Geneva – represented US interests in Iran, acting as a go-between. He gained notoriety for a memorandum he transmitted to the US in 2003, which posited an alleged Iranian proposal for a broad dialogue with the US, with everything on the table – including full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian armed groups. The proposal was rejected by the Bush administration.

According to Guldimann, the position that unless the international community stops Iran’s nuclear program, Israel would have to do it alone is based on the unproven assumption that Iran will actually go down the road of having a nuclear weapon at its disposal.

“My understanding is that they will not go as far as that. If you say that there is [in Iran] a clear policy of achieving a nuclear capability, I would fully agree. You can define that as a breakout period. But will they make a political decision to produce a bomb? Such a breakout is an absolutely different question,” he says.

The Washington Post says:

China on Thursday threw a roadblock in the path of a U.S.-led push for sanctions against Iran, saying that it is important to continue negotiations as long as Iran appears willing to consider a deal to give up some of its enriched uranium.

“To talk about sanctions at the moment will complicate the situation and might stand in the way of finding a diplomatic solution,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said at a conference in Paris.

The Guardian reports:

Iran has launched a ­research rocket carrying a mouse, two turtles and worms into space – showing that the country can defeat the west in the battle of technology and that it will soon send its own astronauts, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saidtoday.

Iranian state television broadcast images of officials placing the animals inside a capsule in the Kavoshgar 3 (explorer in Farsi) rocket before blast-off, although it did not report where or when the launch took place. The Iranian Students News Agency said the capsule had successfully returned to Earth with its “passengers”.

Western powers fear the technology used by Iran’s space programme to launch satellites and research capsules could also be used to build long-range intercontinental missiles. A US defence expert said the launch underlined the closeness of Iran’s space and military programmes.

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