West turns on Iran

16 December 2007

The latest US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran’s “nuclear intentions and capabilities” released in December concludes that there has been no ongoing nuclear weapons development since 2003. This, coming hard on the heels of a relatively positive report on Iran’s nuclear programme in November by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed ElBaradei, has fundamentally changed the tone of the debate. Washington and its allies are now having to undergo all sorts of contortions to maintain their previous uncompromising approach.

The NIE’s authors describe their reports as “the intelligence community’s most authoritative written judgements on national security issues.” In a very long introduction – longer than the report itself – they explain how procedures for compiling their reports has been “improved” over the past two years and note that the latest NIE on Iran is “an extensive re-examination of the issues in the May 2005 assessment,” which stated categorically that Iran was working on nuclear weapons. However, they offer no details of the new data which caused the complete about-face in conclusions.

Iranian nuclear threat

ElBaradei said he received the new NIE “with great interest.” He noted that its conclusions were in line with the IAEA’s consistent statements over the last few years that, although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, there is no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons programme or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran. The report in effect admits that until recently American experts had overestimated the Iranian nuclear threat. “Tehran’s decision to suspend its programme aimed at creating nuclear weapons shows that it is intent on developing such weapons to a lesser degree than we assumed since 2005,” it says.

According to ElBaradei, this should help to defuse the current crisis and should also prompt Iran to work actively with the IAEA to clarify outstanding issues and implement an additional protocol. An IAEA statement says this would allow the agency to provide the required assurances regarding the nature of the programme. ElBaradei urged all interested parties to enter without delay into negotiations to build confidence about the future direction of Iran’s nuclear programme and bring about a comprehensive and durable solution that would normalise the relationship between Iran and the international community.

Iran’s government, for its part, said the NIE assertion that the country ever had a nuclear weapons programme was “baseless’’. Iran “didn’t have the activity for it to be stopped in 2003,’’ foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told Iranian state television. Sources close to the IAEA also, noting that the US assessment had stated with certainty that Iran had a nuclear weapons programme in the past, said this was a conclusion the agency had never formally reached.

ElBaradei’s report, presented to the IAEA board of governors in November, said the agency had been able to verify that no declared nuclear material in Iran had been diverted from peaceful use. However, since early 2006 Iran had not released information as it would have done under the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which meant the “IAEA’s knowledge of Iran’s current nuclear programme is diminishing.” Iran suspended its voluntary implementation of the protocol after the IAEA, under US pressure, referred Iran’s case to the UN Security Council – a move that has resulted in two sets of sanctions being imposed on Iran.

The key issue still remains Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, which it insists is being developed entirely to make possible fuel production for its planned nuclear power plants, and which is being carried out under IAEA safeguards and inspections. The USA, supported by key European states, however, said it suspects that the programme is geared to weapons production, and has continued to demand its closure. Iran suspended the programme for an extended period of time while an earlier series of talks was conducted with the European Union (EU), hoping to ascertain what kinds of guarantees it needed to put in place to reassure the West. However, the talks collapsed when it became clear that the EU was interested in nothing less than closure of the programme, and Iran then resumed enrichment.

A new set of talks between Iran and the EU broke up just before release of the NIE, again with no positive outcome, for the same reasons. The talks between EU negotiator Javier Solana and Saeed Jalili, Iran’s new senior nuclear negotiator, were a re-run of the earlier ones. Iranian officials had indicated that they had new proposals for the talks and sources close to Iran indicated that these included offers to allow a significant degree of Western involvement and participation in Iran’s enrichment activities. However, as before, the EU was only interested in closure of the programme – something Iran has consistently insisted it will not contemplate despite UN resolutions demanding the programme’s suspension.

ElBaradei’s report said Iran is now using 2952 centrifuge machines to enrich uranium, and is continuing to construct its IR-40 heavy water research reactor at Arak. Eighteen cascades of 164 uranium enrichment centrifuges are in operation at Natanz, which have been fed with 1240kg of uranium hexafluoride and have achieved confirmed enrichment levels of 4.0% uranium-235. Iranian scientists claim they have achieved 4.8%. Seven surprise inspections have been carried out at Natanz since March this year.

On cooperation the report said Iran had “provided sufficient access to individuals and responded in a timely manner to questions,” although this had been reactive rather than proactive. ElBaradei said: “Iran’s active cooperation and full transparency are indispensable for full and prompt implementation of the [IAEA’s] work plan.” Under the plan, agreed in August, Iran undertook to provide answers to all outstanding questions on its nuclear programme before the end of 2007.

Investigating issues

As a result of the work programme, two major issues relating to the programme have now been closed. These include information on the P-1 and P-2 centrifuges being used in Iran and a document relating to uranium metal. The November report said Iran had provided “consistent” answers clarifying past centrifuge development work, although the answers were still then being checked for completeness. ElBaradei, summarising his report to the agency’s board, said Iran was now making “good progress” towards resolving long outstanding questions by the end of 2007.

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All the previous sanctions had achieved was Iran's decision to stop implementing the Additional Protocol

The IAEA is now looking into two other outstanding issues – questions about particles of arms-grade enriched uranium found by IAEA inspectors at Tehran’s Technical University, and Western intelligence reports suggesting links between uranium processing, explosives tests and a missile warhead design. Iran has repeatedly denied this but has now agreed to examine evidence that was given to the IAEA.

Sources close to the agency said Washington had tried to influence the report and had presented 10 pages of additional questions to ElBaradei on the eve of its publication. Addressing a press conference in Vienna on the last day of the board meeting, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said he expected Iran’s case to soon be just a “routine” matter. “Four years is enough – enough is enough,” he said, recalling that before every board meeting (they take place every three months), the USA has managed to raise new issues on the Iranian case to prevent its resolution. “The whole matter should have been settled three years ago,” he said.

His impatience is reflected by Russia. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov noted: “The continuing refusal to acknowledge the positive steps that Iran is making in its relations with the IAEA will only distance [Iran] and work towards its estrangement. The greater the estrangement, the less chance there is to clarify any matters directly.” The key to settling the matter “lies in involving [Iran] in the talks and the involvement must certainly be professional and not politicised.”

Pressing for sanctions

Despite its own intelligence estimate and the overall positive tone of the latest IAEA report, Washington and its allies are still pressing for further sanctions on Iran, albeit with less conviction than before. The UN Security Council first imposed sanctions in December 2006, ordering all countries to stop supplying Iran with materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear and missile programmes, and freeze assets of 10 key Iranian companies and 12 individuals. In March, the council tightened these sanctions, banning Iranian arms exports and freezing the assets of 28 more people and groups.

US calls for a third round of sanctions appeared to have the support of France, UK and Germany, although informed sources suggested they were taking that position – even though they did not believe the sanctions would work – in the hope of preventing possible American military strikes against Iran, which they believed would be economically disastrous. Russia and China have both registered their opposition to any further sanctions on Iran, which they believe will damage any chances of progress or compromise. Soltanieh gave the same message in Vienna, noting that all the previous sanctions had achieved was Iran’s decision to stop implementing the Additional Protocol.

There has been a collective sigh of relief in Europe at the reduction in tension over Iran, not least because sanctions can bite back. Germany, for instance, has traditionally been one of Tehran’s major trade partners and last year exported goods worth approximately €4.1 billion ($6 billion) to Iran. However this was a 5.7% decrease in turnover and in the first six months of 2007, it fell by another 17.9%. German machinery manufacturers account for the largest part of the trade with a third of all the machines imported by Iran coming from Germany. German Engineering Federation manager Hannes Hesse believes that exports will not exceed €800 million by the end of the year. And of course other countries benefit. Last year, China’s trade with Iran increased by 44% and today China is Iran’s major trade partner.

But for the time being Europe continues to pay lip service to the call for sanctions in support of the US position. Iran, meanwhile is getting on with developing its nuclear programme. The head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, announced in November that Iran has produced the first nuclear fuel pellets for use in its IR-40 heavy water research reactor being built at Arak. He noted that the fuel manufacturing plant at Isfahan will be able to supply the Arak reactor with fuel by September 2008. Tubes for the fuel assemblies will be produced at the zirconium production plant, also in Isfahan. The Arak reactor, which has been under construction since 2004, is due for completion in 2009. The incomplete plant was “inaugurated” in August 2006. The reactor, to replace the old Teheran research reactor, will be fuelled by natural uranium. In July, the IAEA said it had reached a deal with Iran to allow an inspection of the Arak reactor.

And progress continues, albeit at a reduced pace, at the Bushehr nuclear power plant where differences appear to have been resolved between Iran and Atomstroyexport, the Russian company building the plant. Inspection of nuclear fuel fabricated for the nuclear power plant being built by Russia for Iran at Bushehr was completed recently at the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant (NCCP) in Siberia. A group of IAEA inspectors jointly with representatives of the Russia’s federal atomic energy agency, Iranian representatives and NCCP staff, inspected the fuel and sealed the containers using the IAEA’s special numbered metal seals. The assemblies contain less than 5% enriched uranium-235. NCCP head Konstantin Grabelnikov said the fuel will be delivered to Bushehr “when there is the technological need for it on the site and relevant directives have been received”. Russia had announced previously that it will be transferred six month before the plant’s startup. The date for this, though – “the end of 2008” – is being left conveniently vague and distant.

Still it is clear that US pressure for tougher sanctions and an end to enrichment in Iran is not going to abate in the immediate future, the argument now being that it would give Iran the capability to produce weapons in the future. The NIE noted: “We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely,” the report says. A more likely time frame for that production is between 2010 and 2015, it concludes. Iran insists its nuclear programme is strictly aimed at producing electricity.

US President George Bush has urged America’s allies to keep the pressure on Iran despite the NIE. “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” Bush told a press conference in Washington. “The best way to ensure that the world is peaceful in the future is for the international community to continue to work together to say to the Iranians: ‘We are going to isolate you’.”

However, this is in many ways an empty threat, because if there is one thing Iran has learned to cope with over the past 25 years, it is isolation.


Author Info:

Judith Perera is Editor of McCloskey’s Nuclear Business

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