Iran’s enriched uranium and satellites

Feb 25, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

February 25, 2009
Number 02/09 #08

As readers may have seen, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report says Iran probably now has enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb, if it were further processed. Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, Iran launched a small satellite, indicating improvement in its ballistic missile technology, which can also be used for delivering nuclear weapons. This Update looks at both developments.

First up, American strategic expert Mark Clark interprets what the latest IAEA results actually say and mean, as well as the implications of the satellite launch. In particular, he points out that the two together seem to constitute a methodical march to nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Moreover, he points out that contrary to claims that the IAEA will detect it if the Iranians start taking their low-enriched uranium and making it into highly enriched bomb cores, the Iranians are refusing to allow the IAEA in to see what they are doing while they make the uranium into “fuel rods”. For this summary of where things currently stand, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, in view of the above, Financial Times commentator Gideon Raichman says the policy crisis on Iran has now come for the Obama Administration, much earlier than it had hoped. More on this comes in an analysis from BICOM. Making a similar point is American commentator and former CIA agent William Katz, who also had an interesting piece recentlydisputing the frequently heard contention that an Iranian bomb would not be a big deal because Iran would be deterrable.

Next up, Dr. Uzi Rubin, Israel’s foremost expert on missile and anti-missile technology, looks at the significance of the Iranian satellite launch.  He is critical of those who dismiss the launch as “purely symbolic”. He says the launch, and particularly the rocket used, the Safir, shows a mastery of key aspects of missile technology, much of it obtained in defiance of the international Missile Technology Control Regime. He says while it is true that the Safir is not a full-fledged Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), it is now only a matter of time before Iran can build them. For Dr. Rubin’s complete discussion, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on the satellite launch, as well as Iran’s vulnerability at the moment, given low oil prices and popular discontent, is American scholar Michael Ledeen.  Meanwhile, Dr. Rubin also has an excellent piece (downloadable as a pdf) on Israel’s efforts to cope with Hamas and Hezbollah rockets, and the development of defences to cope with this problem.

Finally, another Rubin, Dr. Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute, enters into the debate about “engagement” with Iran. He looks at the history of such efforts and says, contrary to popular belief, every US administration since Carter has attempted to engage in diplomacy with Iran, often blaming past administrations for failing to do so. Moreover, he argues, in certain ways, the Bush Administration did the most in this regard. He says that, despite this, the Iran problem remains as intractable as ever, and if the Obama  Administration does not recognise this history, it too is likely to get burned. For Rubin’s full argument about the history of US-Iranian engagement, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post urges the Obama Administration to develop a “Plan B” in case engagement with Iran fails.

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Iran’s methodical march

From Mark T. Clark

Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH)
, Feb 21, 2009

Iran is already posing new challenges to the Obama administration. Two recent developments in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs are worth mentioning.

First, The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a recent report on Iranian nuclear activities. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington-based think tank, analyzed the IAEA report. Three important findings emerge:

  • Iran has dramatically increased its installation of centrifuges to some 5,400;
  • Iran is manufacturing fuel rods for the Arak heavy water reactor and continues to refuse IAEA inspection; and
  • Iran has accumulated more than 1,000 kilograms of low enriched uranium (LEU) in the form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6).

Iran maintains some 4,000 centrifuges enriching uranium, but has added another 1,400 centrifuges, totaling some 5,400. Iran has yet to use the new centrifuges to enrich uranium, but could do so quickly. More importantly, Iran has produced about 209 kilograms (30 percent) more low-enriched uranium in the form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) than would have been expected based on the November 2008 IAEA report. This amount equals approximately 700 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, enough for the production of weapon-grade uranium for a single nuclear weapon. As the ISIS report shows, Iran has achieved “breakout capability,” although it would have to make a decision to further enrich its LEU stockpile.

Second, on February 2, Iran successfully launched a small satellite into low-earth orbit. The satellite is very small, weighing approximately 27 kilograms or 60 pounds. The highly elliptical orbit of the satellite allowed it to pass over the United States a number of times transmitting radio signals. While some analysts downplayed the military significance of this achievement, there remains cause for concern for states outside the range of Iran’s Shahab series rockets. As noted in this report:

An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) accelerates a warhead to velocities of approximately 7km/sec. By comparison, a space launch vehicle must accelerate a satellite to around 8km/sec. For a given payload, it would require more thrust to put an object into orbit than to deliver it over intercontinental distance, but it is slightly easier to put a very small object into low earth orbit than it is to accelerate a larger payload to a slightly lower velocity. The weight of the Iranian satellite (some 27kg) is considerably less than that of a nuclear warhead or other weapon of mass destruction. Iran therefore likely has some improvements to make before demonstrating true ICBM capability.

Iran continues methodically marching towards nuclear-armed missile capabilities that can threaten states in its region with nuclear weapons, and perhaps beyond. These events have occurred just as the Obama administration has made diplomatic overtures to the Iranian leadership. It seems that Iran may not give Obama time for diplomacy to work.

Mark T. Clark is professor of political science and director of the National Security Studies program at California State University, San Bernardino.

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Yes, We Should Worry About Iran’s Satellite

The mullahs have shown mastery of ballistic missile technologies.


Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2009

When Iran successfully orbited its Omid satellite earlier this month, many in the U.S. responded with indifference. David Albright, a noted analyst of nuclear proliferation, downplayed the Iranian space launcher as “not that sophisticated” and the satellite itself as “Sputnik technology, a little metal ball that goes ‘beep beep beep.'” Unnamed U.S. officials concurred, stating that “There are no alarm bells ringing because of this launch,” calling the event “largely symbolic.”

But such equanimity is entirely unwarranted.

Let’s first look at the Omid satellite. The Iranians concede its limited capabilities. Its main payload is a simple transmitter/receiver, and it has a short lifetime limited by the capacity of its small internal batteries. At 60 pounds it is minute compared to modern military and civilian satellites. Yet as a first satellite for a novice space-faring nation, it compares well with the rudimentary Sputnik and even more so with the tiny Explorer 1, America’s first venture into space. Those modest machines ushered in today’s giant military and commercial satellites girdling the earth. When the first Iranian spy satellite starts transmitting high resolution photographs of U.S. installations in the Middle East and elsewhere to Tehran, the true significance of the Omid will become evident.

But it is the Safir space launch vehicle that calls for even closer scrutiny. The strong synergy between ballistic missiles and space launchers has existed since the early days of the space age when the Soviet Union’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R7, was used to orbit Sputnik 1. The U.S.’s first intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Redstone, was used to orbit the Explorer 1. Iran has followed the same route, as is evident from the Safir first stage, which is almost indistinguishable from the Shahab 3 ballistic missile. True, its propulsion technology hails back to the Scud missiles of the 1950s. But in the missile business old is not necessarily obsolete. Witness for example the Soviet R7 rocket that lofted Sputnik 1 half a century ago and is still going strong today as the first stage of the very reliable Soyuz launcher. Similarly, the Safir’s rocket technology will continue to be used for ballistic missiles in the foreseeable future.

The real sophistication of the Safir lies in its second stage, with its elegant configuration and lightweight design. Its propulsion is based on the more modern technology of storable liquid propellants that can be kept almost indefinitely inside the missile, making it launch-ready at any moment — a significant advantage for military missiles. The U.S. used this technology in the past and so do some of Russia’s contemporary ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

A cleverly designed clamshell nose fairing (a protective cover), evidently made of composite materials, shields the Omid satellite during the Safir’s liftoff. Such fairings are key elements not only in space launchers but also in multiple-warhead ballistic missiles.

The Safir ground support system is also remarkable. The missile is transported by and fired from a Shahab ballistic missile mobile launcher, while a hinged service tower provides access for the ground crews.

Contrary to statements such as David Albright’s, the Safir demonstrates a fair amount of sophistication for an initial launcher. The question remains whether this sophistication is indigenous and what features, if any, have been imported from abroad. Some of the Safir’s features bear the telltale signs of previous space launching experience, implying outside help. Such help could come from any country that possesses Soviet-era missile and space technology. Yet the Safir is far more advanced than North Korea’s space launcher. This fact — and the magnitude of the entire Iranian space enterprise — indicates that much of the success is homegrown.

The magnitude of the Safir launch becomes more apparent when we consider it alongside the much less advertised launch of the Sajeel two-stage solid-propellant ballistic missile that preceded it in November 2008. Within the space of four short months the Iranians demonstrated a mastery of three different rocket propulsion technologies (liquid, storable liquid, and large diameter solid), three different thrust vectoring technologies (graphite jet vanes, tungsten jet vanes, gimbaled rocket motors), two systems of stage separation, and an embryonic multiple-warhead nose fairing. All the above are proscribed technologies whose international transfers are controlled by the Missile Technology Control Regime and by the national legislations of its subscribing countries. By rights, none of those technologies should have been available to Iran. This is a significant setback to international nonproliferation efforts and an encouragement to future proliferators.

To argue that the Safir is too puny to be used as an ICBM is to miss the big picture. It is the technology and talent behind the Safir that is cause for trepidation. Taken in context, the Safir demonstrates scientific and engineering proficiency coupled with global-range missile technology in the hands of a radical regime and a nuclear wannabe. Iran’s disclosed road map to space includes more capable, heavier and higher orbiting satellites. This will require heftier space launchers, the construction of which would enrich Iran’s rocket-team experience and whose building blocks could easily be used for ICBMs in due time.

Trivializing Iran’s first space launch as “largely symbolic” demonstrates a lack of appreciation of what it really symbolizes: That Iran is now poised to project power globally. If alarm bells aren’t yet ringing for the Obama administration, they should be.

Mr. Rubin, head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization from 1991 to 1999, won the Israel Defense Prize in 1996 and 2003.

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An Opening to Iran?

They’ve sold us this rug before.

by Michael Rubin

Weekly Standard, 02/16/2009, Volume 014, Issue 21

During the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama promised to meet the leaders of Iran “without preconditions.” He appears a man of his word. Within days of his election, the State Department began drafting a letter to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intended to pave the way for face-to-face talks. Then, less than a week after taking office, Obama told al-Arabiya’s satellite network, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” The president dispatched former Defense Secretary William Perry to engage a high-level Iranian delegation led by a senior Ahmadinejad adviser.

The pundits and journalists may applaud, but their adulation for Obama’s new approach is based more on myth than reality. “Not since before the 1979 Iranian revolution are U.S. officials believed to have conducted wide-ranging direct diplomacy with Iranian officials,” the Associated Press reported. But Washington and Tehran have never stopped talking; indeed, many of Obama’s supposedly bold initiatives have been tried before, often with disastrous results.

In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini’s return gave an urgency to U.S.-Iran diplomacy. Many in Washington had been happy to see the shah go, and sought a new beginning with the “moderate, progressive individuals”–according to then Princeton professor (now a U.N. official) Richard Falk–surrounding Khomeini. The State Department announced that it would maintain relations with the new government. Diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Tehran worked overtime to decipher the Islamic Republic’s volatile political scene.

On November 1, 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser and now, ironically, an Obama adviser on Iranian affairs, met in Algiers with Iranian prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi to discuss normalization amidst continued uncertainty about the future of bilateral relations. Iranian students, outraged at the possibility, stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days.

But the hostage seizure did not end the dialogue. For five months, even as captors paraded blindfolded hostages on television, Carter kept Iran’s embassy in Washington open, hoping for talks.

Should Obama send a letter to Iran’s leaders, he would follow a path worn by Carter. Just days after the hostage seizure, Carter dispatched Ramsey Clark, a Kennedy-era attorney general who had championed Khomeini after meeting him in exile in France, and William Miller, a retired Foreign Service officer critical of U.S. policy under the shah, to deliver a letter to Khomeini. After word of their mission leaked, the Iranian leadership refused to receive them. After cooling their heels in Istanbul for a week, the two returned in failure. Shining a spotlight on private correspondence may score points in Washington, but it kills rather than creates opportunities.

Obama’s inattention to timing and target replicates Carter’s failure. His outreach to Ahmadinejad comes amidst Iran’s most contentious election campaign since the revolution. Allowing Ahmadinejad to slap a U.S. president’s outstretched hand is an Iranian populists’ dream come true. Alas, this too was a lesson Obama might have learned from Carter. Three decades ago, desperate to engage, Carter grasped at any straw, believing, according to his secretary of state, that even a tenuous partner beat no partner at all. Each partner–first foreign minister Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and then his successor Sadeq Qotbzadeh–added demands to bolster his own revolutionary credentials, pushing diplomacy backward rather than forward. Thirty years later, the same pattern is back. Ahmadinejad’s aides respond to every feeler Obama and his proxies at Track II talks send with new and more intrusive demands.

Once out of office, Carter aides sought to secure history’s first draft with a flood of memoirs praising their own efforts. Kissinger aide Peter Rodman noted wryly in a 1981 essay, however, that pressure brought to bear by Iraq’s invasion of Iran did more to break the negotiations impasse than Carter’s pleading with a revolving door of Iranian officials.

Carter is not alone in his failed efforts to talk to Tehran. While the Iran-Contra affair is remembered today largely for the Reagan administration’s desire to bypass a congressional prohibition on funding Nicaragua’s anti-Communist insurgents, the scheme began as an attempt to engage Iran. On August 31, 1984, national security adviser Robert McFarlane ordered a review to determine what influence Washington might have in Tehran when the aging Khomeini passed away. Both the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency responded that they lacked influential contacts in Iran. Because weapons were the only incentive in which the war-weary ayatollahs had interest, McFarlane decided to ship arms both to cultivate contacts and win the goodwill necessary to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon. He failed. Not only did the Iranian leadership stand McFarlane up during his trip to Tehran, but the incentive package also backfired: Hezbollah seized more hostages for Tehran to trade.

The stars seemed to align for George H.W. Bush, however. Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, and, two months later, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose pragmatism realists like Secretary of State James Baker applauded, assumed Iran’s presidency. In his first address, Rafsanjani suggested an end to the Lebanon hostage crisis might be possible. Like Obama, Bush spoke of a new era of “hope.” State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler described Iran as “genuinely engaged.” Alas, as Rafsanjani spoke publicly of pragmatism, he privately ordered both the revival of Iran’s covert nuclear program and the murder of dissidents in Europe.

In his first term, Clinton signed three executive orders limiting trade with Iran and approved the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. He and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright changed tack in their second term. Both apologized for past U.S. policies. The State Department encouraged U.S. businessmen to visit Iran, until Iranian vigilantes attacked a busload of American visitors in 1998. Not discouraged, and lest U.S. rhetoric offend, Albright even ordered U.S. officials to cease referring to Iran as a rogue regime, and instead as a “state of concern.” Rather than spark rapprochement, however, it was during this time that, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Tehran sought to develop a nuclear warhead.

While the press paints George W. Bush as hostile to diplomacy and applauds the return of Bill Clinton’s diplomatic team under his wife’s leadership, it is ironic that the outgoing administration engaged Iran more than any U.S. presidency since Carter–directing senior diplomats to hold more than two dozen meetings with their Iranian counterparts. Yet, after 30 years, Iran remains as intractable a problem as ever. Every new U.S. president has sought a new beginning with Iran, but whenever a president assumes the fault for our poor relationship lies with his predecessor more than with authorities in Tehran, the United States gets burned.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was an Iran country director at the Pentagon between September 2002 and April 2004.

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