IAEA: Iran “continuing” work on a bomb
Nov 10, 2011
November 10, 2011
Number 11/10 #02
As readers may be aware, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Tuesday released a report into Iran’s nuclear program which is being described by diplomats as “the most damning report ever published by the IAEA.” The report itself is available in full here – the key extracts are collected here and here.
We lead with a summary of the report’s key findings from Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert Simon Henderson. He pays particular attention to the report’s revelations concerning where Iran obtained its nuclear technology – from Pakistan mainly, but also possibly from Russia. He concludes that the key now is for the IAEA report to lead to a shift in the debate away from whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons to what to do about it. For the rest of his discussion, CLICK HERE. More analysis on the IAEA report and the history of Iran’s nuclear program comes from academic expert on Iran Jamsheed K. Choksy.
Next up, Stephen Rademaker and Blaise Misztal, policy analysts at the Bipartisan Policy Center thinktank in Washington, talk about the nuclear trendlines in Iran that the IAEA report is only one element in clarifying. They note that these trendlines makes clear that, contrary to some recent claims being made, it is not true that there is more time than previously thought to prevent Iran going nuclear, despite the Stuxnet virus and other measures intended to slow Iran down. They note calculations that show that, given Iran’s current uranium stockpiles and technology, Iran can have fuel for a nuclear bomb in 62 days from the moment it decides to start enriching uranium to the necessary levels. For this alarming but important analysis, CLICK HERE. More details on the covert war again the Iranian nuclear program, including Stuxnet, as well as what might be next in those shadowy efforts comes from David Sanger of the New York Times.
Finally, we republish a good primer from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) on the intense debate in Israel over the Iranian nuclear issue and the possibility of a pre-emptive military effort. It focuses not only on how Israelis perceive the Iranian nuclear threats, but also on why the issue is resurfacing so dramatically now, including the regional situation, and the possibility that Iran may soon be moving most of its nuclear production to facilities which would be much harder to target militarily. The backgrounder notes that above all, Israelis are disappointed and worrried by the loss of international focus on Iran in recent months, and their decision on Iran will be partly shaped by how the international community reacts to the IAEA report. For this BICOM backgrounder in full, CLICK HERE. This report notes that while Israeli experts are hopeful the IAEA report will increase the pressure on Iran, they are also sceptical that it will do so enough.
Readers may also be interested in:
- In terms of the Israeli debate about taking military action to prevent a nuclear Iran, Israeli academic Prof. Yehezkial Dror has pointed out that the debate is at best highly constrained because the public does not and cannot have access to the intelligence which is essential to making a decision in this matter. Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner sums up this point well in a couple of paragraphs.
- A look at Iran’s Parchin military base, which is 30 kilometres from Teheran, and is believed to be where most of the nuclear weapons research is carried out.
- European scholar Emmanuel Ottolenghi, who writes extensively about the Iranian nuclear crisis, discusses what this IAEA report tells us about the performance of the IAEA under previous head Mohammed ElBaradei.
- A number of knowledgeable authors have suggested that it is wrong to rule out the possibility that the US Obama Administration will take military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including noted journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, and noted foreign policy experts Walter Russell Mead and David Rothkopf.
- Some suggestions about what the US Administration could be doing now about Iran in the wake of the IAEA report from Seth Mandell.
- Some policy recommendations for dealing with the ongoing lethal government repression of the protest movement in Syria from two leading Washington thinktanks.
- Mideast expert Michael Rubin discusses new revelations from Libya that Gaddafi had hidden chemical weapons stores which he never declared when he supposedly gave up his WMD a few years ago.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Even more on the Iranian nuclear revelations and policy implications.
- Some comment on the fact the Palestinian leadership are now admitting that their bid for UN recognition is going to largely fail.
- The problems with Pakistan, and especially that unstable country’s potentially dangerously insecure nuclear weapons.
- A post on how academic anti-Zionists end up endorsing antisemitism.
- Our latest “Media Week”, focussing on Sydney University’s Orwellian “Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.”
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By Simon Henderson
Policy Alert, November 8, 2011
The much-anticipated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran has been released with a damning indictment: “The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme” and that credible information “indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device…and that some activities may still be continuing” (read a PDF of the report).
Of equal concern is the IAEA’s judgment that Iran’s work on its Shahab-3 missile “concluded that any payload option other than nuclear…could be ruled out.” The report notes that when Iran was challenged on this, it dismissed the evidence as being “an animation game.” Tehran has consistently denied that its nuclear program is intended for military purposes. The report should help Washington, using diplomatic and economic sanctions, to force Iran to fully explain its nuclear program and to curtail its military dimensions.
In the past, IAEA reports on Iran have tackled concerns about possible Iranian weapon developments in the course of a few sentences. This time, the chronological and organizational history of Iran’s nuclear weapons program is laid out in a fourteen-page annex to the regular update on Iran’s supposedly civil nuclear activities. The report notes that it received information about Iran’s suspected activities from ten countries.
The annex dates Iran’s undeclared nuclear work with possible military dimensions to the late 1970s and early 1980s. (The Islamic revolution, which overthrew the Shah of Iran, took place in February 1979.) It doesn’t name other countries that may have helped Iran but does refer to “a clandestine nuclear supply network” that is assumed to be the group of foreign businessmen who helped supply the Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan. A member of this network admitted to the IAEA that Iran had been provided with design information for nuclear explosives.
Khan built Pakistan’s uranium enrichment facilities, designed its first atomic bomb from plans supplied by China, and designed its 700-mile-range Ghauri missile, like Iran’s Shahab a version of the North Korean Nodong missile. In correspondence with this writer, Khan has explained how nuclear ties began between the two countries after then president Ali Khamenei visited Pakistan in 1986 and that Khan personally delivered centrifuge plans and parts to an intermediary who handed them over to the Iranian embassy in Islamabad.
The Pakistani contribution to Iran’s nuclear project has long been evident. Initially, Tehran referred to its centrifuge types as the P1 and P2 models, the same designation as Pakistan’s centrifuges, but claiming that the “P” stood for “Persian” rather “Pakistan.” (It now calls them IR-1 and IR-2.) Like Pakistan, Iran is thought to be working on an implosion-type device, using highly enriched uranium as an explosive. The IAEA annex notes, without comment, that Iran’s initial work came under a body entitled the Education Research Institute (ERI). Khan’s organization in Islamabad was founded as the Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL).
More help for Iran came from other countries, according to the IAEA. A “foreign expert” identified in the media as Russian, who “worked for much of his career…in the nuclear weapons program of the country of his origin” was in Iran from 1996 to 2002, ostensibly to lecture on how the same explosive techniques used to set off implosion-type atomic bombs could be used in the diamond industry.
Despite its scientific language, the IAEA report should serve to shift the public debate from whether Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, to how to stop it. This will require diplomatic leadership to ensure a strong statement at the next IAEA board meeting in Vienna on November 17. Washington should build a consensus with the ten countries that contributed to the report and seek to add more. But the report also shows how close Iran has come to developing deliverable nuclear weapons, including installing centrifuges in a facility hidden inside a mountain. This is a disappointing commentary on the success of action so far.
Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.
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By Stephen Rademaker and Blaise Misztal
Washington Post, November 8
When the computers that control Iran’s centrifuges were attacked by the Stuxnet worm beginning in 2009, the assault was widely ascribed to intelligence services intent on setting back Iran’s nuclear program. More significant than the damage to Iran, however, has been the damage to Western resolve, as the United States and other countries have become more complacent about the Iranian threat.
Combined with attacks targeting Iranian nuclear scientists and reports of shortages of key materials needed for centrifuges, Stuxnet has given rise to an increasingly accepted narrative that we have more time to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions than was previously thought.
There’s just one problem with this narrative: It is divorced from reality.
This week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Is expected to report new details on Iran’s efforts to design a nuclear device. This is worrying enough, but the true measure of Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons capability is the rate at which it is producing enriched uranium. By this measure, Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear weapon and its nuclear enrichment program has not been slowed but, rather, continues to accelerate.
The last IAEA inspection report, issued in September, found almost 6,000 centrifuges spinning at Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz — more than ever before — and these centrifuges were enriching faster than ever. IAEA data indicate that in the first half of 2011, Iran was able to produce an average of almost 105 kilograms of low-enriched uranium per month. While this monthly rate fell slightly in August, even that was nearly twice Iran’s pre-Stuxnet production rate in 2009 — 56 kilograms per month — and 20 percent higher than its 2010 production rate of 86 kilograms per month. The trend line is clear.
Iran has produced more than 3,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium and is accumulating more every day. Of course, Tehran would have to enrich this material further to have the highly enriched uranium necessary for a bomb. The fastest route for producing this material will require about 1,850 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to yield the roughly 20 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent that is required for a bomb. Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium is already about 11 / 2 times that amount.
More troubling still has been Iran’s foray into progressively highly levels of uranium enrichment.
Last year Iran began converting uranium it had previously enriched to 3.5 percent to almost 20 percent, ostensibly to fuel a reactor that produces medical isotopes. That reactor annually uses just 7 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, and IAEA reports indicate that Iran has accumulated almost 50 kilograms of this. In other words, over the past year and a half Iran has produced enough of this material to run its medical reactor for seven years. Nevertheless, Iran declared in June that it intends to triple the rate at which it is producing this material and began transferring this work to a previously secret underground facility at Qom that is carved into the side of a mountain.
In a series of reports, the Bipartisan Policy Center has been tracking the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. We calculate that, if it chooses, Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear device in just 62 days using its existing stockpiles and current enrichment capability. And international inspectors examine Iranian facilities only about once every two months. This means that Tehran is approaching the ability to produce a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium before the international community realizes it has happened.
This timeline will contract substantially if Iran continues on its current course. Because enrichment from 3.5 percent to 20 percent requires about four-fifths of the effort to enrich from 3.5 percent to 90 percent, Tehran’s continued production of uranium enriched to 20 percent will dramatically decrease the time it would need to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. Once Iran acquires more than 150 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent — which could happen by early 2013 if Iran’s announced plans are realized — it would need only 12 days to produce enough fissile material for a bomb.
Now, none of this denies that the Stuxnet worm might have kept Iran’s program from accelerating even more quickly. It appears, for example, that Stuxnet may have caused about 1,000 Iranian centrifuges to fail. According to IAEA data, in May 2009, right before the first known Stuxnet infection, Iran was operating 4,920 centrifuges at Natanz. By January 2010, only 3,772 centrifuges were spinning there. It is also plausible that sanctions have impeded Iran’s ability to purchase materials for new centrifuges.
But these developments are of little comfort if, as IAEA reports demonstrate, Iran’s production of enriched uranium continues to accelerate. Accordingly, there is no basis for concluding that the threat posed by Iran’s program has been diminished. To the contrary, it continues to grow at an alarming rate.
Stephen Rademaker is a principal at the Podesta Group and adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Blaise Misztal is associate director of foreign policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
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Nov. 8, 2011
- Iran’s nuclear programme represents a serious threat to the interests of the West and its Arab allies in the Gulf. A forthcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report is expected to reveal evidence that Iran has acquired the technology for a nuclear bomb.
- Given Iran’s vocal opposition to Israel’s existence and its active support for armed groups on Israel’s borders, Iran’s nuclear programme present a major threat to Israeli security. Whether Israel should resort to military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities is one of the most difficult dilemmas faced by Israeli policymakers in Israel’s history. An Israeli military strike would have uncertain impact and could trigger a wider conflict.
- The debate in Israel has intensified in recent days, following press speculation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are preparing for an Israeli military strike. Iran is expected to soon move part of its enrichment capacity to a new underground facility that would make it harder to destroy from the air.
- That Israel is considering military action is a consequence of the failure of the international community to act with sufficient determination on this issue. The new IAEA report provides an important opportunity to refocus international efforts on this issue.
Why is the international community refocusing on Iran’s nuclear programme?
The threat posed by the Iranian nuclear programme has resurfaced at the top of the international agenda in recent days, ahead of a new report by the IAEA to be published this week. According to reports, IAEA officials have concluded that Iran now has the technology to produce a nuclear bomb.
The Guardian reported on 2 November that according to British officials, the UK was stepping up its preparations to support the US in a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on 3 November that a nuclear-armed Iran ‘would be a very, very bad thing for peace and security in our world,’ and stated that ‘we take no options off the table.’ Speaking at the G20 summit in Cannes on 3 November, US President Barack Obama stressed ‘the need to maintain the unprecedented pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.’
The IAEA for several years has referred to evidence of Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons technology. The IAEA’s September 2011 reportexpressed concerns about ‘activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency continues to receive new information.’ Despite the faltering performance of Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz and the harm caused by the Stuxnet computer virus and sanctions,experts assess that Iran’s programme remains capable of producing weapons-grade enriched uranium. If further enriched, Iran’s growing stockpile is already enough for two to four bombs. According to reports, this week’s IAEA revelations include evidence that Iran has developed technology to trigger a nuclear explosion, with the assistance of former Soviet nuclear weapons experts.
The US and Europe are concerned that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons could spark a nuclear arms race among its Arab neighbours. They are also concerned about the impact that Iranian nuclear weapons would have on the balance of power in the Gulf. Both the US and the UK have close defence and trade relationships with Gulf states, whose stability and cooperation is vital to oil supply and the prevention of terrorism. As Ash Jain, a former member of the US State Department’s planning staff, described in arecent paper, Iran’s aim is to pressure its neighbours to end cooperation with the US and to join an Iran-led regional defence framework.
There are already four UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. However, until now, the US and major EU states, hindered to some extent by the reluctance of China and Russia, have failed to bring about sanctions of sufficient severity to force Iran to change course. Additional measures that have not yet been taken are sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank, and against its trade in oil and petroleum.
The extensive leaks of the new IAEA report and the increased rhetoric of Western officials appear calculated to increase international pressure and prepare the ground for new and tougher measures against Iran.
Why is Israel particularly concerned about Iran?
There is a broad consensus in Israeli policy circles that Iran’s nuclear programme represents Israel’s most serious security threat. Iran is a theocratic regime ideologically opposed to Israel’s existence, whose leaders have repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction, and which provides arms and finance to terrorist groups on Israel’s borders.
The worst-case scenario for Israel is that Iran may use a nuclear weapon against Israel. However, even if a direct nuclear strike is unlikely, given that Israel is widely believed to have its own nuclear deterrent, Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would be a major security threat. Of particular concern is that Iran may be further emboldened in its supply of weapons and support to its allies on Israel’s borders, including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israel’s ability to act against these groups could be curtailed if Iran extends a nuclear umbrella to them, or if it threatens to pass on nuclear materials. Overall, the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran poses a considerable challenge to Israeli national morale.
The calculation for Israel is not as straightforward as stopping Iran before it ‘gets the bomb’. Iran has avoided overt steps that would indicate that it has started to actually construct a weapon, which would immediately justify a military strike against it, or trigger its Arab neighbours to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Instead, it has gradually developed its programme so that the time it needs to construct a bomb has decreased and the number of weapons it could build has increased. Israel’s concern is to hinder Iran’s progress with regard to the ‘breakout’ capability to build a nuclear arsenal at short notice, if and when it chooses to do so.
How is the debate about Iran intensifying in Israel?
Whilst Israel has always preferred that the Iranian nuclear programme be curtailed through international pressure, there has long been a debate about whether Israel should ultimately be willing to take military action. Israel has acted in the past to prevent other states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and, in an operation that was never formally acknowledged, bombed a secret Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Israel has almost certainly been involved in covert action to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme. However, nobody in Israel is enthusiastic about military action against Iran’s nuclear programme, which involves far greater technical challenges and strategic risks. The debate is about whether at some point, the risks would be justified given the scale of the threat.
The frequent statements by Israeli leaders that ‘all options remain on the table’ have certainly been motivated in part to galavanise the international community to take action. However, evidence has mounted in the past year that Israel has not been bluffing. In January 2011, recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan came out forcefully against the idea of bombing Iran. The fact that he felt the need to do so was a sign of the very real debate taking place behind the scenes among Israel’s political and policy elite.
The debate in Israel about the pros and cons of a military strike peaked in the last week, following the publication of an article by leading Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea on 28 October. He wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth that PM Netanyahu and Defence Minister Barak appeared to be pushing for action against Iran, despite concerns among senior military and intelligence officers. On 2 November, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu and Barak were working to muster the support for the proposal in the Israeli cabinet. The sudden exposure of the internal policy debate to the public has alarmed Israeli cabinet ministers, who have criticised Dagan and others for bringing this most sensitive of security issues into the public arena.
Those in Israel who believe a military strike may be necessary could cite several reasons why the time is ripe. The first is the continuing development of the Iranian programme itself. Aside from increasing its uranium stockpile and developing its weapons technology, Iran is preparing within months to move part of its enrichment capacity to an underground facility at Fordow. This would make it much harder to destroy from the air.
Regional developments may also play a role. The uprising within Syria may have reduced the risk that the Assad regime would become involved in any retaliation against Israel, and have put Hamas and Hezbollah somewhat on the back foot. Meanwhile, regional criticism may be muted given theincreasing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, following recent allegations of an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US. The forthcoming US withdrawal from Iraq may be another consideration. Israel may prefer to act after the US withdrawal, to minimise the exposure of the US to Iranian retaliation. It is also reported that after the end of the year, the US will no longer be obliged to stop aircraft from crossing Iraqi airspace, removing a potential obstacle for the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to reach Iran.
However, there are many influential voices in Israel’s policy and security establishment who continue to argue that Israeli military action would be too risky and with limited benefits. Many question the capacity of the IAF to do an effective job so far from its borders. There is the risk that Israeli pilots could be shot down and captured, and a strike may only set back the Iranian programme temporarily. Military action could also lead Iran to withdraw from the NPT, allowing it to resume its programme without international scrutiny.
Then there are concerns about the immediate aftermath. Perhaps most alarming for Israel is that Iran’s allies on Israel’s borders – Hezbollah in south Lebanon, the Syrian regime, and Hamas and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip – may retaliate by firing thousands of missiles at Israeli cities and towns, plunging Israel into a multi-front war. Iran also has a legacy of retaliating against Israel by targeting Jewish communities around the world, as in the case of its bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Jewish community centre there in 1994.
Conclusion: pressure on the West to act
Israeli policymakers are grappling with an acute dilemma, as they perceive a closing window of opportunity to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could be grave, but so could the consequences of failing to act. That Israel is considering taking unilateral military action is a result of the failure of the international community to act with sufficient determination on this issue. International attention has drifted in the last 18 months, as global economic problems and the drama of the Arab Spring have taken centre stage. The forthcoming IAEA report provides a welcome opportunity to refocus on the pre-eminence of the Iranian nuclear threat, and to bring about a more determined international response. How the international community responds may well impact Israeli decision-making in the months ahead.