By James Phillips
What is unknown and where are we now?
Fact #4: Iran rejected a nuclear deal that would have advanced its civilian nuclear efforts, belying its claims that civilian purposes are its only motivation
Tehran has walked away from an offer brokered by the IAEA to enrich Iranian uranium in facilities outside Iran to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor. On October 1, 2009, Iran reached an “agreement in principle” at the Geneva talks that would have sent roughly 80 per cent of Iran’s LEU stockpile to Russia for processing and then to France for fabrication into fuel rods. The uranium would then be returned to Iran to power its research reactor, which will run out of fuel at the end of 2010. This deal would have benefited Iran by extending the operational life of its Tehran Research Reactor and aiding hundreds of thousands of medical patients. It would also have temporarily defused the nuclear standoff by reducing Iran’s steadily growing LEU stockpile and postponing Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon.
After reaching the agreement in principle, the Iranian regime backpedalled and made an unacceptable counter-proposal in mid-December that would have greatly reduced the amount of uranium that would leave Iran. American officials say that Mr Ahmadinejad initially accepted the deal, but was rebuked by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and pulled back from it. On November 3, Ayatollah Khamenei warned Iranian political leaders to be wary of dealings with the US, which could not be trusted, and said that negotiating with the US was “naïve and perverted”.
The Iranian regime’s initial acceptance and subsequent rejection of the nuclear deal is consistent with its long-established pattern of cheat, retreat, and delay on nuclear issues. When caught cheating on its nuclear safeguards obligations, Tehran has repeatedly promised to cooperate with the IAEA to defuse the situation and to halt the momentum for imposing further sanctions. Then, after the crisis is averted, it reneges on its promises and stonewalls IAEA requests for more information. These delaying tactics consume valuable time, which Iran has used to press ahead with its nuclear weapons research.
What Is Unknown
Many important things about Iran’s nuclear programme are simply not known because of Iran’s systematic efforts to conceal and lie about its activities.
Unknown #1: How close is Iran to attaining a nuclear weapon?
It is not known when Iran will take the final steps to build a nuclear weapon. The uranium enrichment facility at Natanz is producing LEU at a rate that will give Tehran enough LEU by the end of July to build one nuclear device if the LEU is enriched further to weapons-grade levels. Tehran could then finish the enrichment process and amass enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon by the end of the year. Natanz subsequently could produce enough LEU to permit construction of two bombs per year. Iran is also constructing a research reactor at Arak, which could begin producing weapons-grade plutonium as early as 2013.
Vice-President Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear programme, said on December 18 that Iran has been testing more advanced centrifuge models that will be installed in early 2011. These new models will be faster and more efficient than the old centrifuges, allowing Iran to accelerate the pace of its nuclear programme. Mr Salehi claimed that more than 6,000 centrifuges were enriching uranium, which is 2,000 more than the IAEA’s November report indicated.
Some, including the US intelligence community, believe that the Iranian leadership has not yet made the strategic decision to pursue nuclear weapons. This position has always been controversial given Iran’s huge economic investment in the nuclear programme, longstanding willingness to defy sanctions, and well-established pattern of confrontational behaviour. It is now nearly impossible to defend this proposition after Press reports of Iranian work on neutron initiators, the revelation of the clandestine Qom enrichment facility, and the IAEA’s recent finding that Iran was working on a nuclear warhead for a missile.
Unknown #2: How extensive is Iranian-North Korean nuclear cooperation?
North Korea and Iran share a common hostility to the US and have a long history of military and economic cooperation. Iran's ballistic missile force, the largest in the Middle East, is largely based on transferred North Korean missiles and weapon designs. North Korea has also sold Iran conventional weapons, including rocket launchers, small arms, and mini-submarines. The two countries are known to have close intelligence ties and to exchange intelligence regularly.
The extent of North Korean cooperation with Iran on nuclear issues remains unknown. However, both are known to have received help from AQ Khan’s proliferation network. Iran helped to finance North Korea’s nuclear programme in exchange for nuclear technology and equipment, according to CIA sources cited in a 1993 Economist Foreign Report. Increased visits to Iran by North Korean nuclear specialists in 2003 reportedly led to a North Korea-Iran agreement for North Korea either to initiate or to accelerate work with Iranians to develop nuclear warheads that could be fitted on the North Korean No-Dong missiles, which North Korea and Iran were developing jointly.
North Korea has also threatened to transfer a nuclear weapon. According to Mr Michael Green, former Senior Director for Asia at the National Security Council, the head of the North Korean delegation to the nuclear talks confirmed in March 2003 that North Korea had a “nuclear deterrent” and threatened that North Korea would “expand”, “demonstrate”, and “transfer” the deterrent if the US did not end its hostile policy. Senior US officials warned the North Koreans that transfer would cross a red line, but Pyongyang evidently brushed aside the warning and cooperated extensively with Syria in building a nuclear reactor, which could have advanced a nuclear weapons programme.
Iran has relentlessly made steady progress on its nuclear weapons programme and soon could acquire nuclear weapons. It continues to violate its IAEA safeguards agreement, refuses to comply with five UN Security Council Resolutions on the nuclear issue, and has repeatedly been caught red-handed building secret nuclear facilities and violating UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit supplying arms to Hezbullah, its terrorist client group in Lebanon. Meanwhile, it has periodically tested missiles to trumpet its defiance, while systematically repressing and intimidating its own people after they objected to the fraudulent presidential elections in June.
On November 27, 2009, the IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution demanding that Iran stop construction of the newly exposed uranium enrichment facility near Qom and referred the issue to the UN Security Council. This paves the way for expanded UN sanctions. Iran responded not only by refusing to halt enrichment efforts, but also by proclaiming its intention to undertake a massive expansion of its enrichment facilities. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled plans to build 10 more enrichment plants at a Cabinet meeting on November 29. Mr Ali Larijani, the Speaker of Iran’s Parliament who formerly led Iran’s nuclear negotiations, warned that Iran may decide to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran has consistently concealed and lied about its nuclear programme and cannot be trusted to abide by any agreements it signs. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband complained that “Instead of engaging with us, Iran chooses to provoke and dissemble.” On December 14, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked:
“We have reached out. We have offered the opportunity to engage in meaningful, serious discussions with our Iranian counterparts. We have joined fully in the P-5+1 process. We have been at the table. But I don’t think anyone can doubt that our outreach has produced very little in terms of any kind of positive response from the Iranians.”
Mr Ahmadinejad’s regime has made a mockery of the Obama Administration’s engagement policy, which was based on the assumption that Iran’s ruthless regime sought better relations with the US and the West. Yet Iran’s rulers fear Washington’s friendship more than they fear its enmity. Their power and legitimacy is based on resistance to the US (‘the Great Satan’) and enforcing Ayatollah Khamenei’s harsh vision of god’s will, not carrying out the will of their own people.
The Obama Administration’s nuclear engagement strategy was also based on the assumption that Iran’s unscrupulous Islamist regime could be trusted to come clean on the nuclear issue. This expectation was shattered on September 25, 2009, when US President Barack Obama announced in a joint Press conference with British and French leaders that Western intelligence agencies had discovered another secret Iranian nuclear facility hidden inside a mountain near Qom.
“Crippling Sanctions.” The Obama Administration needs to make good on its promise to ratchet up international pressure to dissuade Iran from continuing to pursue its goal of acquiring nuclear weapons. If Tehran builds a nuclear weapon, it will not only increase Iran’s ability to threaten its neighbours and US interests, but also trigger a destabilising nuclear arms race in the already volatile West Asia. Since 2006, 15 other West Asian states have announced their intentions to begin or expand civilian nuclear energy programmes, possible precursors to nuclear weapons programmes.
Yet the Obama Administration has resisted congressional efforts to provide it with more sanctions leverage over Tehran. On December 11, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg wrote a letter to Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requesting that the committee postpone consideration of sanctions legislation against Iran. Steinberg asked for the delay “so as not to undermine the Administration’s diplomacy at this critical juncture.”
Despite this request to the Senate, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act passed the House (HR 2194) on December 15, 2009, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 412 to 12. On March 11, 2010, the Senate passed the Bill by unanimous consent after amending it. This Bill would penalise companies that help Iran to import gasoline and other refined petroleum products by denying them access to US markets. The Senate passed its own Iran sanctions legislation (S 2799) on January 28, which would impose similar penalties on companies that export gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran, add sanctions on leading officials of the ruling regime, and tighten export controls. It is difficult to understand why the Administration now opposes the kind of “crippling sanctions” that it promised to impose and that Mr Obama promised as a presidential candidate if Iran continued to drag its feet on the nuclear issue.
The US cannot afford to rely solely on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran. Russia and China have repeatedly weakened and delayed any action there. Therefore, Washington should push for the strongest possible sanctions that it can squeeze out of the Security Council, but press its allies and other countries to impose even stronger sanctions outside the UN framework, such as freezing foreign investment in Iran, banning gasoline exports to Iran, banning the travel by Iranian officials abroad, and generally raising the price that the regime must pay to continue its nuclear programme.
Fixing the NIE
The Obama Administration should also update and correct the flawed 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear programme. In 2009, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair reaffirmed the 2007 NIE’s finding that Tehran had shut down its nuclear weapons and covert uranium enrichment activities in the fall of 2003. Since then, more evidence has come to light, indicating that Iran has continued its nuclear weapons efforts or restarted them.The Governments of Britain, France, Israel, and Germany have publicly disagreed with the 2007 NIE’s assessment.
A new look at the controversial NIE is long overdue. Representative Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), the Ranking Member on the House Intelligence Committee, has called for the establishment of a “red team” of non-Government experts to review intelligence on Iran’s nuclear programme and issue an independent report. Representative Hoekstra is right.
Hide and lie
Iran’s strategy remains clear: To hide and lie about its nuclear programme, feign cooperation with the IAEA to delay any sanctions, depend on its Russian and Chinese friends to block any effective sanctions in the Security Council, and eventually present the world with a nuclear fait accompli.
Regrettably, the Obama Administration remains wedded to its engagement policy, which unrealistically seeks to strike a deal with the implacably hostile regime whose self-defined ideological legitimacy is unceasing antagonism to the US. Even if a diplomatic agreement could be reached on the nuclear issue, it would be foolhardy to expect Iran’s unscrupulous dictatorship to permanently abide by such an agreement. Yet the Administration continues to seek such a deal over the bloodied heads of Iranian opposition forces.
Iran is the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism and cannot be allowed to obtain the ultimate terrorist weapon: An atomic bomb. Yet Mr Ahmadinejad’s nuclear train rumbles onward. Unless the Obama Administration alters its Iran strategy and moves rapidly to mobilise support for effective sanctions, there will eventually be a nuclear train wreck.(Concluded)
The writer is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
Source: The Daily Pioneer, New Delhi