Update from AIJAC
As readers are probably aware, as expected for several weeks, this week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had breached the 300kg limit on stocks of enriched uranium it is allowed to hold under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear plan. Following this, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced on Wednesday that Iran will no longer observe the 3.67% JCPOA limit on levels of enrichment and would immediately begin enriching uranium to any level it requires.
This Update deals with the significance and implications of these events.
We lead with Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar Simon Henderson, who provides both technical background and policy analysis. Henderson explores issues like what enriched uranium is, how it is made, how much enriched uranium is needed for a nuclear bomb, and what Iran is apparently doing. He also looks at what the world can and should be doing about Iran’s violations of the JCPOA deal, using past experience with North Korea as his key example. For this important basic backgrounder from Henderson, CLICK HERE.
Next up is Israeli academic proliferation expert Dr. Emily Landau – who focuses more on why the Iranians have taken these steps, and the implications of this. In essence, she argues that the Iranian steps are a sign that US sanctions and its policy of maximum pressure are working, forcing Iran to leave the deal even though it serves Teheran’s interests. She then argues that, given this reality and the severe flaws of the JCPOA, it is now up to Europeans to, rather than dismissing Iran’s JCPOA violations as minor, join the US in pressuring Iran, which looks likely to force Teheran to agree to negotiate a better agreement. For all of her argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Israel Kasnet has collated the comments on the Iranian situation from a variety of top Israeli and international experts who assembled this week for the important annual Herzliya conference. Notable was some rare public comment by Yossi Cohen, the head of Israel’s secretive Mossad intelligence agency, on both Iran’s tanker attacks in the Persian Gulf and the state of the JCPOA. Also featured is a panel discussion including former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, top American expert Mark Dubowitz, and Jean-David Levitte, former senior adviser to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. For what all these experts had to say, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- A Wall Street Journal editorial on Iran’s JCPOA violations, plus more comment on the Iran situation from US columnist Jonathan Tobin. Plus an interview on the Iranian situation from US expert and recent visitor to Australia Mike Doran.
- Two comments on the effects on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei of new personal sanctions on him – from Mark Dubowitz and Saeed Ghasseminejad of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and from Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute.
- Reports Iraq appears to be trying to rein in Iranian-backed militias, – military expert Michael Knights discusses this effort and its prospects.
- A report pointing out the international community does not know the location of 8.5 tons of enriched uranium ostensibly shipped out of Iran in 2015.
- A Hamas leader details the long history of Iranian political and financial support for his group.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Oved Lobel on Hamas’ international footprint.
- Ahron Shapiro on Sky News’ “Outsiders” program discusses last week’s controversial episode of “Body Hack” from Gaza on Channel 10.
- Ahron also assembled some new evidence illustrating how the latest generation Lebanese Palestinian “refugees” are demanding normal lives.
- Colin Rubenstein defended PM Scott Morrison’s stance on the issue of Jerusalem in The Australian online and also praised Morrison in the Australian Jewish News for Australian support for the US on its Iran measures.
Iran steps over the line on nukes — what’s the next step for Trump?
BY SIMON HENDERSON
The Hill, 07/02/19
Just what is enriched uranium? Iran said Monday it has exceeded a key limitation on its stockpile, to which it had agreed in 2015 as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). A fierce policy debate on what to do about Tehran’s behavior is in prospect.
To understand at least some of the technical issues, the following is a layperson’s guide:
The nuclear physics: Natural uranium combines two slightly different types, known as isotopes. For every thousand atoms, 993 of those are uranium-238 and the other seven are uranium-235, a slightly smaller-sized particle. Enriching uranium means increasing the proportion of uranium-235 by getting rid of uranium-238 atoms.
Starting from the proportion of 993-to-7, when the ratio becomes 190-to-7 the material is said to 3.67 percent enriched. This uranium is suitable for many power reactors and is, or at least has been, one of the limits to which Iran agreed under the JCPOA.
An Iranian atomic bomb design diagram from the captured Iranian nuclear archives released by Israeli PM Netanyahu last year.
The engineering: The most efficient way to enrich is by using high-speed centrifuges. Think of a top-loading washing machine, although perhaps only nine inches in diameter and much taller, around six feet. Water is squeezed out of the laundry by spinning. In a centrifuge, the slight difference in weight of the uranium isotopes causes them to separate during the spinning. Repeated multiple times, through groups of machines known as cascades running 24/7, enrichment is achieved.
Making an atomic bomb: Simply put, the greater the time spent spinning, the greater the enrichment. A rule of thumb is that 5,000 centrifuges of the basic type used by Iran, known as IR-1, will produce enough enriched uranium for one bomb in six months. Enrichment level for a bomb is 90 percent — meaning the ratio of uranium-238 to uranium-235 has switched from 993:7 to 1:7.
How much uranium-235 is needed for one bomb? The answer is about 55 pounds, the size of a large grapefruit. But the more interesting question is: How much natural uranium is needed to produce this amount of enriched uranium? That answer is about 10,500 pounds. Iran has its own reserves of natural uranium, which can be mined, so acquiring this is not a particular problem for Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the news agency ISNA that the country has gone beyond an agreed limit of 660 pounds (300 kilograms) of low enriched uranium, a figure that includes uranium compounds such as uranium hexafluoride, which in gaseous form is used as feedstock in centrifuges.
Also in prospect is an Iranian announcement to enrich to 20 percent, a ratio of the uranium isotopes of 35:7 — disturbingly close to the level needed for a nuclear weapon.
Yet another possibility is that Iran may withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which it signed up to during the shah’s era, which entitles it to peaceful nuclear technology in return for forsaking nuclear weapons. (Tehran officially claims, implausibly, that it has never had a nuclear bomb project. Withdrawing from the NPT does not, as such, contradict this position, but it does free Iran from the treaty’s constrictions.)
How can Washington respond? The Obama administration, ridiculed now by the Trump White House for agreeing to the JCPOA, at one point worked with the Israelis to sabotage Iranian centrifuges using the Stuxnet computer program. This had an effect similar to one turning off and on a washing machine in mid-cycle. But that merely delayed, rather than stopped, Iranian engineers.
The International Atomic Energy Agency needs to the pressed to monitor Iranian sites more closely, Henderson argues.
At the very least, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, should be pressured to conduct closer inspections of Iranian sites. (I was once given a tour of an enrichment plant; it could fit in a building the size of many U.S. neighborhood supermarkets.) Also, the IAEA should monitor more closely the Iranian capacity to produce plutonium, technically superior to highly enriched uranium as a nuclear explosive but more challenging to obtain.
President Trump appears to be putting his faith in sanctions, rather than military action. The battleground for the immediate future may turn out to be Twittersphere, with Iranian pronouncements vying with presidential tweets to win public support.
The latest surprise ingredient perhaps is President Trump’s weekend meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The North Koreans have a far more advanced nuclear program than Iran’s, having mastered both uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, tested weapons several times, and developed missiles capable of carrying such warheads as far as the continental U.S.
These are all skills that the U.S. tried but failed to stop Pyongyang from acquiring. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran may be hoping that his country can persevere through sanctions and other pressures to win a similar level of achievement. It is doubtful, though, whether he wants to develop a Kim-style personal relationship with Trump.
Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Iran Under Pressure: Why America’s Sanctions Strategy Will Work
Tehran has been signaling through its behavior over the past year that it does not want to leave the JCPOA because any other option will be worse from its point of view.
by Emily B. Landau
The National Interest, July 3, 2019
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announcing Iran will begin taking steps to enrich uranium to levels beyond the limit set in the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal.
Iran announced on July 1 that it had crossed the threshold of a three-hundred-kilogram stockpile of low enriched uranium that it is allowed under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed later in the afternoon that this was indeed the situation.
While the reason that Iran is lashing out has to do with the fact that it is suffering the effects of the sanctions that the United States has put in place as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran’s message in the nuclear realm is directed primarily to the Europeans. In line with its long-time tactic of “divide and conquer” with regard to the Americans and Europeans, Iran wants to get the Europeans to blame the United States for Iran’s provocations (accepting that Iran “had no choice but to lash out”). It wants to finally secure a financial mechanism that will circumvent U.S. sanctions, and allow economic deals to flourish between Iran and European companies.
In contrast to those who say that current tensions with Iran are rooted in the fact that the United States exited the nuclear deal last year, the reality is that the problems are grounded in the flawed provisions of the JCPOA itself. The inability to fix the deal in early 2018 was the background to Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA. Indeed, Iran’s very ability to provoke regarding uranium enrichment is a direct result of one of the major flaws in the JCPOA. The nuclear deal allowed Iran to continue to enrich and work on an entire line of advanced centrifuges that would spin many times faster than those currently in use. As such, rather than strengthening the message that uranium enrichment is unacceptable for a state with a record of lying and cheating in the nuclear realm, the deal unwisely granted legitimacy to Iran’s uranium enrichment program. And so today Iran can turn up enrichment—by either increasing its stockpile or the level of enrichment—at will.
While Iran has been signaling through its behavior over the past year that it does not want to leave the JCPOA—because any other option will be worse from its point of view—the regime has limited options for communicating its distress. Rather than returning to the table, it is currently pursuing two pressure tracks of its own. It is committing direct provocations against American interests in the Gulf and it has been threatening to gradually end its commitments according to the JCPOA. On both fronts the regime has so far been treading carefully. In the Gulf region it risks a U.S. military response, especially if it kills U.S. servicemen; in the nuclear realm, the Europeans could return to the sanctions route in light of Iran’s breaches.
So far, the Europeans have not reacted strongly to Iran crossing the uranium enrichment threshold and are treating the current violation as a minor infraction. For the Europeans to continue to attempt to relieve pressure on Iran by circumventing U.S. sanctions would be a grave mistake at this point, and counterproductive to the strategy that the United States is pursuing: maximum pressure on Iran so that it will come back to the table for a better deal. And no strategy has a better chance of achieving that goal than pressure.
Indeed, the onus is currently on the Europeans to stand firmly behind their commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and to send a much stronger political message of unity with the United States as far as the unacceptability of Iran violating its JCPOA commitments, even if deemed minor. Iran cannot be allowed to hold international actors hostage, and to be the one calling the shots. If Iran senses that it is up against a firm bloc, then it will be more likely to be wary of taking further steps. For its part, the United States should bolster its deterrent stance in the Gulf, but on the nuclear front its current options are limited as the president has made his position clear that Iran is playing with fire, and sanctions are being ratcheted up in any case.
If the Europeans need a reminder about the nature of the Iranian regime, then they got it yesterday when the Iranians announced that Iran can destroy Israel in half an hour if it is attacked by the United States. A regime that makes such threats must be tightly held in check, and it certainly cannot be allowed to cross the nuclear threshold.
Dr. Emily Landau is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv Unversity and head of its Arms Control and Regional Security Program.
Increasingly belligerent Iran poses dilemma for Israel
“The maximum pressure campaign is working,” says Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s always good to weaken your enemy – not strengthen them.” The question is whether Tehran will test that theory.
by Israel Kasnett
JNS.org, 2019-07-04 09:59
Mossad director Yossi Cohen address the Herzliya conference in Israel: “Iran is trying to say to the world – a world that is afraid of escalation – that if the sanctions are not lifted, it will cause serious damage to the world oil economy”
It’s not every day that the head of the Mossad intelligence agency gives a public address, so when he does, people listen. His remarks come on the heels of Iran having officially breached the limit of its enriched uranium stockpile set in the 2015 deal and just hours after Israel reportedly struck several targets across Syria, including the capital of Damascus and the central city of Homs, killing at least 15 people.
Speaking at the annual Herzliya Conference, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen offered his professional assessment that Iran is to blame for much of the region’s troubles. Referring to the attack on two oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, he said, “The debate over who is responsible for the attack is vital, and I can tell you with certainty, from the best Israeli and Western sources, that Iran is definitely behind these attacks.”
Cohen also emphasized that “Iran is the main sponsor of terrorist organizations in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.” He said that “Iran has transferred more than $100 million to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, most of which was dedicated to the military buildup in both organizations.”
He further warned of the dangers of complacency in facing Iran.
“Through these attacks, Iran is trying to say to the world – a world that is afraid of escalation – that if the sanctions are not lifted, it will cause serious damage to the world oil economy,” said Cohen. “This is an irresponsible Iranian policy that could ignite a fire in the region.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged European countries to stand by their word and take action over Iran’s announcement that it violated its limit on nuclear enrichment, which was confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. “On this day, I also call on all European countries to stand behind their commitments. You committed to act the moment Iran violates the nuclear agreement, you committed to activate the mechanism for automatic sanctions that was set in the [UN] Security Council,” he said. “Do it. Just do it.”
‘Set the table for negotiations’
At the conference, in a panel titled “Putting the genie back in the bottle” and moderated by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, experts weighed in on the nature of the conflict between Iran and Israel, and where it may be heading.
The Herzliya conference this year featured a panel of top Israeli and international experts discussing the current crisis regarding Iran.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, supported the Trump administration’s policy to use all instruments of American power against the Iranian regime.
“The maximum pressure campaign is working,” he said. “It’s always good to weaken your enemy – not strengthen them.”
“Do we want to confront a weakened Iran or a stronger Iran?” he asked rhetorically. “Confrontation with this regime is inevitable. Indeed, they have been confronting the US for 40 years, and we have been doing very little in response.”
In terms of where the United States and Iran are heading on the diplomatic track, he said, “we are heading toward, at least in the short term, a negotiation. The Iranians know they won’t win a military conflict with the United States, so they are starting to set the table for negotiations by increasing their own leverage. If they believe [US President] Donald Trump is going to be re-elected, and that’s a big if, they are going to want to trap this president in negotiations the way they’ve trapped previous presidents in negotiations because they think they can win.”
Jean-David Levitte, former senior adviser to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said Iran is in a weak position and wants to demonstrate its capability to do harm. Levitte said his understanding is that Iran wants to negotiate. “Our duty is to help bring the negotiations back on track and maybe bring the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or 2015 nuclear deal] back on track.”
Sima Shine, a senior research fellow in the Institute for National Security Studies and former deputy director general of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, responsible, inter alia, for the Iranian file, said she agrees that “at the end of the day, both sides will reach a new agreement. I do not think it will happen in the near future since the Iranians do not trust Trump.”
She expressed concern that there is no “Plan B” if the pressure doesn’t work: “I think this is the main problem with the current situation. There is no good Plan B.”
Ariel Levite, a nonresident senior associate in the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former principal deputy director general of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, said the JCPOA is not what people thought it was. People have in their minds “some kind of deal that was reached in 2015. The JCPOA is far less perfect than that.”
“Most importantly,” he added, “there is no way to go back to the JCPOA. That being said, the JPOA [Joint Plan of Action] – the diplomatic agreement that paved the way for the JCPOA – is a list of principles which could and should be the basis of future negotiations.”
Levite noted that “there is no strategy for escalation, and there is no strategy for negotiations.”
“I think this is the main problem with the current situation. There is no good Plan B.”
He pointed to the Oslo process as proof that everyone thought that it would “generate positive dynamics. It did not,” he insisted. “There was an illusion that the JCPOA would pave the way for positive dynamics with Iran. It has done exactly the opposite.”
Levite said the limitations of the JCPOA, together with the negative dynamics, create the need to go back to the basics. “In the haste to get an agreement in 2015, very serious shortcuts were made, which ultimately produced a very problematic agreement and a very flawed implementation of it thereafter,” he said.
Bergman asked fellow participant Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, former security adviser to Netanyahu, whether Israel should prepare for a strike on Iran.
Top Israeli security analyst Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror: “Israel cannot be in a situation in which Iranians will absorb the ability to manufacture nuclear military capability, and Israel cannot stop it.”
Amidror replied, “The clear answer, ‘yes.’ Israel cannot be in a situation in which Iranians will absorb the ability to manufacture nuclear military capability, and Israel cannot stop it.”
He complained that the world has given a free pass to Iran and failed to prevent the Iranians from importing and building 130,000 rockets in Lebanon. He also fumed that the world “is so anxious to stop the Americans today,” but has done nothing to stop Iran from acting on its threats to annihilate Israel.
Amidror also insisted that Iran wants to build a barrier in Syria that Israel will face when it comes to the decision of how to stop the Iranian military nuclear program, and emphasized the importance of Israel relying only on itself to guarantee its security.
“We cannot put our future in the hands of any other state. ‘Israel defends itself by itself’ is not just a slogan. It is something that we should pay for,” he said. “At the end of the day, if the Iranians cross the red line and we are in a situation in which tomorrow will be too late, we will have to act.”
Amidror said Israel must focus on two issues: One is to contain the Iranians and not let them build forward bases in Syria; the other is to prepare the Israeli Air Force to bomb Iran, saying “we should not let any other issues to disturb us or stop us from preparing ourselves for this critical day that might come.”
Shine disagreed with Amidror that Israel must be prepared to contain Iran by itself, insisting that it’s a global problem. “The international community should deal with it. I don’t think Israel can take upon itself the solution,” he said.
“But can Israel trust the world?” Bergman asked.
Amidror stressed that if the world doesn’t act to neutralize the Iranians, the question is what Israel intends to do. “What do we do if they don’t? The answer to that question should be very clear. We should not let Iran go nuclear.”
He added that “for decision-makers, it is not an academic argument over who is better to do it. The question is if they don’t. Israel should be in the position to do the job… Israel should prepare itself for the situation if all the good people in the world will not do it. … We should do it.”
‘Iranians want to wait out Trump’
Levite said Israel needs a four-prong strategy to confront Iran, including economic pressure, pushback against Iranian belligerence in the region, an Israeli strategy to confront Iran if it escalates on the nuclear front or regional aggression, and finally, Israel must be prepared to negotiate and, if necessary and after having exhausted the option of diplomacy, escalate militarily.
“What do we want to accomplish in the negotiations?” he asked. “That is where the Obama administration, in the late stage of the negotiations, lost its marbles. They actually were so eager to get the deal that when moving from the JPOA, which they negotiated skillfully, to the JCPOA, they made a lot of concessions, and they made further concessions after the agreement was concluded!”
But if Iran does obtain nuclear weapons, can Israel depend on mutual deterrence?
Levite said, “Israel should do everything it can to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even if it means operating alone.”
“What do we want to accomplish in the negotiations?”
“We won’t give Iran the pleasure to believe that by having nuclear weapons, they can eliminate Israel,” he said.
He noted that Iran already appears comfortable with acting aggressive and confrontational – and that’s without a nuclear umbrella. Imagine what they would do if they have the nuclear umbrella, he posed.
In assessing the near future, each panelist offered their prediction.
“The Iranians want to wait out Trump,” stated Dubowitz.
He said they are watching the Democratic debates “very carefully” and will take small, incremental escalatory steps to avoid any major American or European response. “They are building up negotiating leverage,” he said, while hoping that the Democrats will undermine Trump politically and defeat him. This way, Iran gets a better deal, receives sanctions relief and the nuclear restrictions “start to sunset.”
Said Amidror: “It depends on the Iranians. In the long run, I do not know.”
Levite predicted that a breakthrough with North Korea could influence the Iranians to negotiate with Trump, saying “if they see he walked down a fair amount, they will actually negotiate.”