Foreign Policy reports: America’s top negotiator in the Iran nuclear talks offered a surprisingly detailed assessment of Tehran’s existing nuclear capabilities on Monday as she warned that failing to secure a final deal with the longtime adversary would seriously threaten American national security.
The remarks by Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, come at a pivotal juncture in U.S. politics as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill wrangle over provisions in a new bill allowing Congress to review a final agreement.
Sherman, speaking at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, said that failing to reach an agreement would leave Tehran closer than ever to acquiring a bomb.
Without a deal, Sherman said, Iran would expand its nuclear enrichment program to 100,000 centrifuges in the next few years instead of shrinking that figure to 5,000 as agreed in the framework agreement brokered in Lausanne, Switzerland on April 2.
She also said Iran could produce enough weapons grade plutonium to produce two bombs each year. And in terms of uranium enrichment, the country could expand its already significant stockpile of 10 tons of enriched uranium.
In dealing with both of the emerging pathways to a bomb, she said an agreement would result in Iran having “zero weapons grade plutonium” and a stockpile of enriched uranium that is reduced by 98 percent. She added that if the U.S. backs out of a deal widely viewed as fair, international support for sanctions will whither away. [Continue reading…]
James E. Cartwright and Vladimir Dvorkin write: We find ourselves in an increasingly risky strategic environment. The Ukrainian crisis has threatened the stability of relations between Russia and the West, including the nuclear dimension — as became apparent last month when it was reported that Russian defense officials had advised President Vladimir V. Putin to consider placing Russia’s nuclear arsenal on alert during last year’s crisis in Crimea.
Diplomatic efforts have done little to ease the new nuclear tension. This makes it all the more critical for Russia and the United States to talk, to relieve the pressures to “use or lose” nuclear forces during a crisis and minimize the risk of a mistaken launch.
The fact is that we are still living with the nuclear-strike doctrine of the Cold War, which dictated three strategic options: first strike, launch on warning and post-attack retaliation. There is no reason to believe that Russia and the United States have discarded these options, as long as the architecture of “mutually assured destruction” remains intact.
For either side, the decision to launch on warning — in an attempt to fire one’s nuclear missiles before they are destroyed — would be made on the basis of information from early-warning satellites and ground radar. Given the 15- to 30-minute flight times of strategic missiles, a decision to launch after an alert of an apparent attack must be made in minutes. [Continue reading…]
Avner Cohen and William Burr write: For decades, the world has known that the massive Israeli facility near Dimona, in the Negev Desert, was the key to its secret nuclear project. Yet, for decades, the world — and Israel — knew that Israel had once misleadingly referred to it as a “textile factory.” Until now, though, we’ve never known how that myth began — and how quickly the United States saw through it. The answers, as it turns out, are part of a fascinating tale that played out in the closing weeks of the Eisenhower administration—a story that begins with the father of Secretary of State John Kerry and a familiar charge that the U.S. intelligence community failed to “connect the dots.”
In its final months, even as the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race captivated the country, the Eisenhower administration faced a series of crises involving Cuba and Laos. Yet, as the fall of 1960 progressed, President Dwight D. Eisenhower encountered a significant and unexpected problem of a new kind — U.S. diplomats learned and U.S. intelligence soon confirmed that Israel was building, with French aid, a secret nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert. Soon concluding that the Israelis were likely seeking an eventual nuclear weapons capability, the administration saw a threat to strategic stability in the Middle East and a nuclear proliferation threat. Adding fuel to the fire was the perception that Israel was deceitful, or had not “come clean,” as CIA director Allen Dulles put it. Once the Americans started asking questions about Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear complex, the Israelis gave evasive and implausible cover stories.
A little anecdote about an occurrence sometime in September 1960 sheds light on the development of U.S. perceptions that Israel was being less than honest about Dimona. That month, Addy Cohen, then the young director of the Foreign Aid Office at the Israeli Finance Ministry, hosted U.S. ambassador to Israel Ogden Reid and some of his senior staff for a tour of the Dead Sea Works — a large Israeli potash plant in Sdom, on the Dead Sea coast of Israel. The Israeli Air Force provided a Sikorsky S-58 helicopter to fly the American group from Tel Aviv to Sdom. As they were returning on the helicopter, near the new town of Dimona, Reid pointed to a huge industrial site under heavy construction and asked what it was. [Continue reading…]
The Times reports: The Ukraine crisis has brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any point for a generation, according to an account of a secret meeting between Russian and American military and intelligence figures.
As President Putin celebrated the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea on March 18 with an appearance at a concert outside the Kremlin, a group of retired Russian generals sat down in Torgau, Germany, with a group of their American counterparts. The assembled Russians once ran the interior ministry, the military directorate in charge of nuclear weapons, the GRU (Russian military intelligence) and the FSB (the main successor agency to the KGB). The American individuals present had similar backgrounds in the military, CIA and Defence Intelligence Agency.
Behind closed doors, over two days, the Russians delivered a series of blunt warnings from Moscow that reveal just how precarious Europe’s security has become over the past year, and how broad the gulf between the Kremlin and the West now is.
The US party at the Elbe Group talks appears to have been surprised to discover that Russian security experts believe that the US is bent on destroying their country — and that Russia is both entitled and fully prepared to use nuclear force to defend itself. That point of view reflects both Mr Putin’s assessment of Russia’s vulnerability and the KGB background shared by him and his closest advisers, according to Kremlin insiders.
Swaggering nuclear rhetoric has increasingly permeated Russian life. In a recent documentary, Mr Putin said that when he gave the instruction to annex Crimea, he also ordered that Russia’s nuclear forces be placed on full alert.
He has referred to Russia’s nuclear might many times since the Ukraine crisis began, including in remarks to a group of schoolchildren in August, when he reminded them that “Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers”, and “it’s best not to mess with us”. [Continue reading…]
Micah Zenko writes: The April 24, 1984, edition of the British defense publication Jane’s Defence Weekly informed its readers: “Iran is engaged in the production of an atomic bomb, likely to be ready within two years, according to press reports in the Persian Gulf last week.” Subsequent warnings from U.S. and foreign sources about Iran’s imminent acquisition of a nuclear weapon have been offered over the past four decades. These false guesses are worth bearing in mind as news from the nuclear negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland emerges.
More technical “breakout” estimates — the time it would take Iran to compile enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel one nuclear weapon — continue to be published, with slightly varying timelines. Setting aside logic, wisdom, and a huge range of assumptions, if you average these five estimates, Iran would require 89.8 days, or three months, if it made a hypothetical rush for one bombs-worth of HEU.
• 1.9-2.2 months (Institute for Science and International Security, October 24, 2013)
• 6 months (Arms Control, September 29, 2014)
• 1.7 months (Iran Watch, February 24, 2015)
• 45-87 days (Bipartisan Policy Center February 23, 2015)
• 3 months (Washington Institute, March 28, 2015)
It is essential to recognize that Iran does not currently have a nuclear-weapons program, nor does it possess a nuclear weapon. On February 26, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, ended his country’s nuclear weapons program in 2003 and “as far as we know, he’s not made the decision to go for a nuclear weapon.” This repeats the “high-confidence” judgment of the U.S. intelligence community (IC) that was first made in November 2007. Clapper added that Iran “wants to preserve options across the capabilities it would take to build [a nuclear weapon], but right now they don’t have one, and have not made that decision.”
To repeat: Iran does not currently have a nuclear-weapons program, nor does it possess a nuclear weapon. So when a politician, analyst, or pundit mentions an Iranian “nuclear-weapons program,” they are referring to a program that the intelligence community is not aware of. If possible, tell that person to contact the Central Intelligence Agency through its “report threats” website to let the agency’s nonproliferation analysts know about whatever secret information he or she is basing his or her judgment upon. [Continue reading…]
Gary Sick writes: As the nuclear talks with Iran enter the final stretch, and as the media coverage reaches the point of hysteria, it is useful to step back a bit and offer a few observations about how to approach the kinds of revelations and arguments that we might expect in the coming days or weeks.
Here are five things to watch out for.
First, pay attention to definitions. People in a hurry–or people with an agenda–tend to speak in shorthand. If you don’t pay attention, that can be misleading.
For example, what is “breakout?” Put simply, for purposes of this agreement, “breakout” exists when Iran masses enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for one nuclear device. Note that “breakout” does not mean Iran will have a nuclear device. It is the starting point to build a nuclear device, which most experts agree would require roughly a year for Iran to do–and probably another two or more years to create a device that could be fit into a workable missile warhead. Plus every other country that has ever built a nuclear weapon considered it essential to run a test before actually using their design. There goes bomb No. 1.
So when officials, pundits, and interested parties talk about a one-year breakout time for Iran, what they are really saying is that if Iran decides to break its word and go for a bomb, it will take approximately one year to accumulate 27 kilograms of HEU. The hard part follows. [Continue reading…]
Ian Black writes: Arab governments are watching the endgame of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme with barely-concealed alarm, fearing that the US is bent on a rapprochement with Tehran, not so much at any price, but certainly at the expense of its long-standing Gulf allies.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, has made clear its unhappiness with the emerging deal. Still, unlike Israel, which flatly opposes any agreement, Saudi Arabia has adopted a more subtle approach. Adel Jubeir, its ambassador to the US, pledged to wait to see the outcome before criticising it. Jubair also conspicuously refused to rule out the kingdom seeking its own nuclear weapons — a pointed reminder to Barack Obama of the nuclear proliferation risks if his Iran strategy does not succeed.
The Saudis have hinted for years that they would turn to Pakistan if they felt threatened by a nuclear Iran. Last year they displayed their Chinese-made intermediate-range ballistic missiles — capable of reaching Tehran — at a parade attended by the general who controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It was, said the Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Riedel, “ a very calculated signal”. [Continue reading…]
Scott C. Johnson writes: Beginning in the early 1960s, investigators from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the agency that regulated U.S. nuclear facilities at the time, began to question how large amounts of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium had gone missing from NUMEC [the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation in Apollo, Pennsylvania]. Any nuclear site had a certain amount of loss, from seepage into walls and floors, for instance. In fact, between 1952 and 1968, lax standards at 20 of the country’s commercial nuclear sites resulted in an apparent loss of 995 kilograms (2,194 pounds) of uranium-235. But investigators found that at NUMEC, hundreds of pounds went missing, more than at any other plant.
NUMEC’s founder, Zalman Shapiro, an accomplished American chemist, addressed the concern in 1978, telling Arizona Congressman Morris Udall that the uranium simply escaped through the facility’s air ducts, cement, and wastewater. Others, such as the late Glenn Seaborg, the AEC’s chairman in the 1960s — who had previously helped discover plutonium and made key contributions to the Manhattan Project — have suggested that the sloppy accounting and government regulations of the mid-20th century meant that keeping track of losses in America’s newborn nuclear industry was well near impossible. Today, some people in Apollo think that at least a portion of the uranium might be buried in Parks [Township], contaminating the earth and, ultimately, human beings.
But a number of nuclear experts and intelligence officials propose another theory straight out of an espionage thriller: that the uranium was diverted — stolen by spies working for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. In the 1960s, to secure nuclear technology and materials, Israel mounted covert operations around the world, including at least one alleged open-ocean transfer of hundreds of pounds of uranium. Some experts have also raised questions about Shapiro himself. He had contacts deep within Israel’s defense and intelligence establishments when he ran NUMEC; several of them even turned up at his facility over time and concealed their professional identities while there.
Fifty years after investigations began — they have involved, at various times, the AEC and its successors, Congress, the FBI, the CIA, and other government agencies — NUMEC remains one of the most confounding puzzles of the nuclear era. [Continue reading…]
Jeremy Bernstein writes: The Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran was founded in 1929 as a school of engineering. It became a general technological institute in 1972. It now has more than a dozen departments with thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Few if any American universities have a more complete list of undergraduate physics courses. Looking at the faculty reveals an interesting split. The senior professors all did much of their degree work abroad. One of them for example was an undergraduate at Columbia. The junior faculty, including one woman, all did their degree work in Iran. In another generation, it may be that all of Iran’s physicists will have been educated in Iran. No other country in the Middle East would show a demographic like this. Taken in the large this means that Iran has a serious scientific infrastructure, which must be taken into account in any negotiations over its nuclear programme. The notion that the country can be negotiated into a scientific stone age is nonsense.
I am going to take a quick detour to Libya. In 1968, King Idris made the country a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. When Colonel Gaddafi took over the following year he did not change this treaty status. Indeed Libya began a modest development in peaceful nuclear activities. This did not last long; on a state visit to China in 1970 Gaddafi made an unsuccessful attempt to buy nuclear weapons. He then tried both India and Pakistan and had a go at enriching uranium. What characterised the Libyan programme throughout was the lack of a real scientific infrastructure. In the 1980s, the Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan began selling nuclear secrets. In the late 1990s Gaddafi bought the package which included plans and parts to build centrifuges. When he decided to give the programme up in 2003, even with the aid of foreign scientists the Libyans had succeeded in building only one centrifuge. [Continue reading…]
Quartz reports: The information superhighway got diverted last week when a Ukrainian internet service provider hijacked routes used by data heading for websites in the United Kingdom, according to a company that monitors and optimizes internet performance. The action could be a mere glitch — or something more sinister in an era of geopolitical cyber conflicts.
The issue at hand is the way disparate computer networks merge into the internet. The networks announce to one another which internet users — more technically, which IP addresses — they serve so that data can be routed accordingly; a US internet service provider might tell the world it can give you access to the Library of Congress, while one in Germany would say that it can reach BMW’s main website.
Dyn, the company that noted the incident, keeps an eye on network traffic patterns. Doug Madory, the company’s director of internet analysis, spotted something strange: Vega, a Ukranian internet service provider, had announced it was serving numerous IP addresses in the United Kingdom. Advertising the wrong addresses is called “route hijacking,” and it is often a quickly-corrected mistake — for instance, an employee of an internet service provider makes a typo while typing into a router. In this case, the affected addresses included those operated by defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Thales, the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, and the Royal Mail. [Continue reading…]
The Economist: In January 2007 Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn — two Republican secretaries of state, a Democratic defence secretary and a Democratic head of the Senate Armed Services Committee — called for a global effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.
The ultimate goal, they wrote in the Wall Street Journal, should be to remove the threat such weapons pose completely.
The article generated an astonishing response. Long seen as drippily Utopian, the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons was suddenly taken on by think-tankers, academics and all sorts of very serious people in the nuclear-policy business.
The next year a pressure group, Global Zero, was set up to campaign for complete nuclear disarmament. Its aims were endorsed by scores of government leaders, present and past, and hundreds of thousands of citizens.
In April 2009 Barack Obama, speaking in Prague, promised to put weapons reduction back on the table and, by dealing peacefully but firmly with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to give new momentum to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Processes could now be set in train, he said, that would lead to the worldwide renunciation of nuclear weapons within a generation. This speech, along with his ability not to be George W. Bush, was a key factor in landing Mr Obama the Nobel peace prize a few months later.
The following year he returned to Prague to sign an arms agreement with Russia, New START, which capped the number of deployed strategic warheads allowed to each side at 1,550. His co-signatory, Russia’s then president, Dmitry Medvedev, had endorsed Global Zero’s aims. A month later the NPT’s quinquennial review conference agreed a 64-point plan intended to reinforce the treaty’s three mutually supportive legs: the promise that all countries can share in the non-military benefits of nuclear technology; the agreement by non-weapons states not to become weapons states; and the commitment of the weapons states to pursue nuclear disarmament. There were hopes that, when the parties to the NPT met again in May 2015, there would be substantial progress to report.
Alas, no. Mr Obama’s agreement with Iran remains possible, even likely — but it will hardly be one that energises the cause of a nuclear-free world. [Continue reading…]
The Center for Public Integrity reports: Shortly after midnight on a cold Thursday morning, four armed men sliced through the chain-link fence surrounding this storage site for nuclear explosives on the banks of the Crocodile River, west of the administrative capital, Pretoria.
The raiders slipped under an array of high-voltage wires in the fence, then shut off the electricity and some alarms, stormed the Emergency Operations Center at the 118-acre complex, held a gun to the head of one of the employees there and shot another.
Around the same time, a second group of intruders breached another section of the fence. But both teams wound up fleeing after they unexpectedly stumbled on a fireman at the emergency center who fought them and asked a colleague to summon help.
Whatever the raiders were after that night in November 2007, they didn’t get it. All they left with was a cellphone from one of their victims, which they quickly discarded. Ever since, the government of South Africa has dismissed the incident as a routine burglary by inept thieves who tried but failed to steal computers or civilian nuclear technology.
Many U.S. officials in Washington reached a different view — more closely matching the conclusions of an unpublicized, independent investigation ordered by the chief of the state corporation that manages Pelindaba. That probe produced an alarming report that has never been released — or even acknowledged — in South Africa but was obtained by foreign intelligence agencies and described to the Center for Public Integrity by multiple people familiar with its contents. [Continue reading…]
Five years ago, a CNN opinion poll of adult Americans asked:
Do you think Iran currently has nuclear weapons, or not?
71% of the respondents answered “Yes.” Only 3% expressed no opinion, which is to say, acknowledged that they didn’t know.
In the intervening period, as news of ongoing negotiations between Iran and the U.S. (and the rest of the P5+1) has occasionally captured the headlines, I guess a number of those who believed that Iran already has nuclear weapons have since deduced that there would be no negotiations taking place if indeed Iran was already nuclear armed.
The results of a poll released earlier this month indicated that a majority of Americans (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) now “support an agreement that would limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and impose additional intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions.”
And yet, another recent poll shows that an even larger majority of Americans believe a nuclear deal with Iran would make little difference in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Perhaps that’s because there are still a lot of Americans who believe Iran already possesses nuclear weapons.
As much as anything, the information opinion polls gather says as much about the questions as the answers.
If I was a pollster, I’d be tempted to ask questions like this:
Have you tried the new energy drink, P5+1?
Do you think it tastes better than P5?
I’d also present a questionnaire to all members of Congress, asking:
What does the “P” in P5+1 refer to?
e) Don’t know
And who is the 1?
b) North Korea
d) United States
e) Don’t know
But seriously, the professional pollsters could provide a valuable public service if they simply prefaced every attempt to gather public opinion by underlining the value of answering, “don’t know,” when that’s really the truth.
With some gentle coaxing, we might find that Americans are not as delusional as they often appear. They’re simply afraid of revealing how little they know.
If people were less embarrassed about intentionally exposing their ignorance, then polls might more than anything else highlight the degree to the United States is a dysfunctional democracy in which the media, political, and educational systems are failing to sustain an informed citizenry.
After the end of the Cold War, the political movement striving for nuclear disarmament lost most of its momentum. Supposedly, even though enough missiles remained armed that life as we know it could be destroyed in minutes, the threat of Armageddon had fallen away because there was no plausible reason why the two largest remaining nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, should risk mutual destruction.
Because of this nuclear complacency, the opportunity provided by the 1990s, when giant strides towards disarmament could have been made, was wasted.
As animosity between the United States and Russia is once again on the rise, it’s worth being reminded of exactly what would happen if, for instance, a single 800-kiloton intercontinental ballistic missile (of which Russia possesses 700 such warheads) were to be detonated over Manhattan.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists describes the effects: The warhead would probably be detonated slightly more than a mile above the city, to maximize the damage created by its blast wave. Within a few tenths of millionths of a second after detonation, the center of the warhead would reach a temperature of roughly 200 million degrees Fahrenheit (about 100 million degrees Celsius), or about four to five times the temperature at the center of the sun.
A ball of superheated air would form, initially expanding outward at millions of miles per hour. It would act like a fast-moving piston on the surrounding air, compressing it at the edge of the fireball and creating a shockwave of vast size and power.
After one second, the fireball would be roughly a mile in diameter. It would have cooled from its initial temperature of many millions of degrees to about 16,000 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly 4,000 degrees hotter than the surface of the sun.
On a clear day with average weather conditions, the enormous heat and light from the fireball would almost instantly ignite fires over a total area of about 100 square miles. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Binyamin Netanyahu’s dramatic declaration to world leaders in 2012 that Iran was about a year away from making a nuclear bomb was contradicted by his own secret service, according to a top-secret Mossad document.
It is part of a cache of hundreds of dossiers, files and cables from the world’s major intelligence services – one of the biggest spy leaks in recent times.
Brandishing a cartoon of a bomb with a red line to illustrate his point, the Israeli prime minister warned the UN in New York that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons the following year and called for action to halt the process.
But in a secret report shared with South Africa a few weeks later, Israel’s intelligence agency concluded that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”. The report highlights the gulf between the public claims and rhetoric of top Israeli politicians and the assessments of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment. [Continue reading…]
A leak of hundreds of secret intelligence papers from agencies all over the world, offering a glimpse into the murky world of espionage.
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, in collaboration with The Guardian newspaper, is publishing an array of articles, analyses exploring the stories contained within the documents.
The Spy Cables include papers written by intelligence agencies the world over, including: Israel’s Mossad, Britain’s MI6, Russia’s FSB, Australia’s ASIO and South Africa’s SSA.
The Wall Street Journal reports: Iran’s paramount political figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has responded to overtures from President Barack Obama seeking better relations by sending secret communications of his own to the White House.
The Iranian cleric wrote to Mr. Obama in recent weeks in response to an October presidential letter that raised the possibility of U.S.-Iranian cooperation in fighting Islamic State if a nuclear deal is secured, according to an Iranian diplomat. The supreme leader’s response was “respectful” but noncommittal, the diplomat said.
A senior White House official declined to confirm the existence of that letter. But it comes as the first details emerge about another letter Mr. Khamenei sent to the president early in his first term. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that he’s seeking the removal of all sanctions against his country during negotiations with world powers on a nuclear deal.
“We want an agreement that protects our dignity and respect,” Rouhani said in Tehran, as he addressed a few thousand people at a rally to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that deposed the U.S.-backed shah.
The speed at which sanctions are rolled back under a possible deal emerged as one of the main sticking points in earlier rounds of talks. The restrictions on trade and access to financial markets have slashed Iran’s oil exports, the backbone of the country’s economy.
Christian Science Monitor: German news magazine Der Spiegel alleges that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is operating a secret nuclear facility close to the Lebanese border.
Der Spiegel claimed on Saturday, citing the opinion of unnamed “western intelligence agencies,” that the Assad regime continues, with Iranian assistance, to seek a nuclear weapon more than seven years after Israel destroyed a covert Syrian nuclear reactor in the north-east of the country.
Nuclear weapons experts have voiced doubts about the claim. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif dismissed the report as “ridiculous.”
The new alleged nuclear facility is located in a narrow valley, nine miles west of the town of Qusayr and only a few hundred yards north of the border with Lebanon, according to Der Spiegel.