Sanctions, Sabotage, Inspections: Tools for Stopping Iranian Nuke
Jul 20, 2010
July 20, 2010
Number 07/10 #06
Today’s Update looks at the efficacy of various diplomatic and intelligence tools for attempting to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
First up are Ephraim Asculai and Emily Landau, top proliferation experts from Tel Aviv University, who discuss the new UN and unilateral sanctions, and growing signs of international seriousness in dealing with Iran. They look at examples from the US, Russia, the Arab world and Europe, as well as apparent concessions from Iran that the sanctions may be starting to effect their nuclear progress. However, Asculai and Landau caution that the chances of sanctions actually succeeding in halting Iran’s nuclear progress appear slim, and that the most likely scenario is that Iran will continue to enrich uranium and achieve nuclear weapons capabilities, unless sanctions really begin to bite or military action is taken. For their full argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up is David Kay, the former UN chief weapons inspector in Iraq, arguing that a solution to the Iranian nuclear program which relies mainly on weapons inspectors cannot succeed. Kay details the various ways in which a government determined to do so can successfully impede inspections, and the inability of inspectors to overcome such obstacles – as well as the history of IAEA leadership and UN refusing to accept the findings of inspectors when politically inconvenient. He cautions that a solution in Iran which relies too heavily on IAEA inspections risks “further disasters.”For this important reality check from an impeccably knowledgeable source, CLICK HERE. More on increasingly forthright Russian demands directed at Iran is here.
Finally, Eli Lake of the New Republic reveals what is publicly known about a hidden side of the Iranian nuclear crisis – the alleged clandestine efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear progress by intelligence agencies. Looking at the history of similar sabotage efforts during World War II and the Cold War, Lake cites a number of sources to the effect that similar operations are clearly being directed at Iran’s nuclear program and form an important part of Western policy efforts. However, he also cites various experts pointing out that such sabotage may be helpful, but it does not do more than delay matters, and is thus not a substitute for other policies to change Iranian behaviour. For this important look inside a significant but shadowy aspect of the Iranian nuclear debate, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- American analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht, who featured in the last Update, makes the case for an Israeli military strike on Iran to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. Barry Rubin disagrees, arguing Israel should refrain from acting unless it has specific intelligence about a planned Iranian attack.
- American foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead argues that a last resort American military strike remains likelier than many people realise under the current US Administration. US reporter Joe Klein of Time agrees that the Pentagon and White House now appear more open to this possibility.
- A call for greater external oversight of intelligence on Iran, given past intelligence mistakes in the region.
- Der Speigel on the Arab-Israeli axis against Iran which has quietly formed.
- More news on the strike by Iran’s Bazaari (merchant) class mentioned in the Updates last week.
- An editorial on the plight of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a poor Iranian women sentenced to be stoned to death under dubious circumstances.
- Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid comments on Iran’s role in causing the suffering of Palestinians.
- A report that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – who just hosted both Israeli and Palestinian leaders – may have terminal cancer. Also, a story about how the Egyptian state deals with Muslims who convert to Christianity.
- New revelations about the possible involvement of British Petroleum (unpopular for different reasons at the moment) in last year’s release from prison on ostensibly “compassionate grounds” of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. Commenting on this is an editorial from the Wall Street Journal.
- Leading Israeli journalist and Middle East expert Ehud Yaari, currently visiting Australia, talks about Middle East peace prospects to the ABC’s Geraldine Doogue.
Asculai, Ephraim and Landau, Emily
INSS Insight No. 193, July 18, 2010
The pattern of international efforts to confront Iran’s nuclear program has become all too familiar. The West – first the EU-3, and later the US – leads “diplomatic processes” to nowhere; Russia and China go back and forth between Iran and the West, reluctant to take too harsh a stance against Iran’s ongoing defiance, and agreeing only to belated and weak UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions; and the IAEA continues to pose questions to Iran about the military dimensions of its nuclear program that Iran avoids answering, while at the same time it continues to install and run additional uranium enrichment cascades. The Iranians are successfully playing for time, and time is on their side. All sides are hesitant to firmly pronounce the Iranian nuclear program as weapons-oriented, and Iran senses that its target is almost in sight.
But in recent weeks there are indications of a change, as the international community begins to take a more realistic look at the Iranian nuclear program. The facts of Iran’s progress speak for themselves: Iran has mastered the uranium enrichment process and accumulated enough 3.5% enriched uranium towards the potential to produce military-grade uranium (90%) for at least two nuclear explosive devices. In addition, in February it began producing 20% enriched uranium, which is the next step towards the 90%, bringing it very close to this target. Iran has reported that it has accumulated about 20 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium, which while not enough for one bomb demonstrates that it has mastered the process. The reasons cited by Iran for this enrichment are not relevant since the entire enrichment program runs counter to Security Council resolutions.
These Iranian advances are beginning to elicit some stronger international reactions. On June 27 Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta said in Washington, that Iran probably has enough low-enriched uranium for two nuclear weapons, but that it likely would take two years to build the bombs if it wanted to. Around the same time, US Under-Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns, in a statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that US policy on Iran is “straightforward”: “We must prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. We must counter its other destabilizing actions in the region and beyond.” This was followed by President Obama’s statement at the signing of the US Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, on July 1: “There should be no doubt – the United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” On July 12, in an unusually strong statement, President Medvedev of Russia said that Iran is getting closer to having the potential to build a nuclear weapon. In light of the expressed Russian doubts until very recently about whether Iran did have military intentions – noting that they had seen no evidence of this – the newly expressed Russian concern is particularly noteworthy. Medvedev said that Iran must explain the military components of its nuclear program.
This escalation in the rhetoric comes with a message of stronger than ever support for sanctions from many directions, with some hints even of a possible appetite for military action against Iran. Whereas six months ago the clearly emerging trend in Western media commentary was talk of how a nuclear Iran might be contained, now more and more pundits are focusing on the scenario of possible war. Some are already setting the stage for blaming Israel for pushing the US to take military action. The message that “an Iranian bomb is worse than bombing Iran” is starting to crop up in statements that have been attributed to officials in some of the Arab Gulf states as well. While later denied, recent reports tell of Saudi willingness to turn a blind eye to Israel’s use of their airspace for a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the ambassador of the UAE to the US is quoted as having said they cannot live with an Iranian bomb, and therefore military action to stop this is preferable to Iran gaining a military nuclear capability.
Iran’s reaction to the fourth round of sanctions has been stronger than in the past. On July 7, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi went so far as to say that the new international sanctions “can slow down” but not stop Iran’s nuclear program, . Whether this was a statement of fact or intended as a political move in order to convince the West that the sanctions are finally working, and that no more action is needed, is almost immaterial. In any case, the Iranians have most of the setup needed for going on with their enrichment program, and it’s not clear to what degree the sanctions can cause direct damage in this regard.
The question is whether the new evidence of concern from the international community will lead to further concrete and effective measures. Beyond the rhetoric, much hinges on the action that Obama is willing to take on the basis of his assessment of the situation. At present it looks like his next move will be to continue in September (a date determined by the Iranians, not by him), a P5+1-led attempt to conduct dialogue with Iran. Absent indications of a clever negotiations and bargaining strategy on the part of the US, it is doubtful whether anything useful will be achieved in these talks. As strange as it may seem, in a sense Obama is also playing for time, and although there is increasing evidence of war talk in the media, there are no indications as of yet that Obama himself is any closer to a decision to destroy Iran’s nuclear and missile installations.
And what of Iran’s future plans? Although the following is speculation, it gives a sense of Iranian options. If there are no further sanctions resolutions, and the present sanctions do not have a truly crippling effect, Iran will go on enriching uranium in ever-growing quantities, but will not feel the pressure to break-out and enrich uranium to military-grade levels. Iran will continue to play for time, safe in the knowledge that the US president is not seriously contemplating military action. If, however, something happens that causes Iran to feel significantly more heat, it would have several options for moving forward, either separately or in parallel: it could announce that it does not consider itself bound by international obligations; it could make a (facetious) request to change its NPT status to that of a Nuclear Weapons State; it could withdraw from the NPT; it could expel all inspectors on whatever grounds; and it could carry out an underground nuclear test from material produced through clandestine activities.
The prospects for Iranian acquiescence to the international demand that it at least suspend its enrichment activities are very slim. Whether the US is closer to military action is still a matter of speculation. An overall assessment of the situation and its dynamics leads in the direction that the present stage of the game – that has been ongoing since 2002 – is nearing its end.
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Hostile regimes have too many ways to hide their clandestine nuclear programs.
By DAVID KAY
Wall Street Journal, JULY 17, 2010
Tehran’s belligerent rhetoric about its nuclear program ratchets up daily, while the international community continues to push for tougher sanctions. The hope is that economic pressure can force Iran to the bargaining table, where it will agree to abandon its weapons capabilities—and that such disarmament will be verified by inspections. As a former weapons inspector, I have very bad news: A weapons-inspection regime in Iran will not work.
Inspection and verification are often viewed as ways to prevent a country from developing nuclear weapons. This is well beyond the capabilities of any conceivable inspection regime, especially given Iran’s status as an almost-nuclear-capable state. The fact that inspectors must let Tehran carry out its civilian-nuclear effort while policing the military program makes the task largely unachievable.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would need access to all of the infrastructure that could possibly aid in fashioning a nuclear weapon and potential delivery systems. They also would need a full and complete declaration of all Tehran’s nuclear components, all of its uranium enrichment, all of its plutonium-related activities, and all missile testing, production and deployment sites.
This is just not plausible when inspectors confront a hostile regime. Tehran has kept hidden its nuclear activities and support networks, domestic and foreign. It has refused repeated IAEA requests for interviews with the scientists and engineers responsible for large areas of its secret atomic work, and it has refused to disclose the details of its involvement with North Korea and with Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network.
The result is that Iran now has a broad capability in all aspects of the complex nuclear-weapons process—from converting natural uranium into enriched uranium using gas centrifuges, to designing and testing the components of a nuclear weapon, to working on the construction of a missile-deliverable warhead, to building and testing missiles capable of delivering that nuclear warhead over significant distances.
Imagine the following scenario: Inspectors are roaming around Iran trying to find a clandestine centrifuge plant. They have information that it is hidden in an Iranian military base, but that’s all they know. Which base and where in that base is unknown. The inspectors would like to descend on various sites without advance notice, with equipment capable of searching underground as well as above ground, and conduct environmental sampling. They would also insist on interviewing personnel and looking over anything entering or leaving the base during their time in situ.
This is exactly how inspection regimes have fallen apart in the past. The realities on the ground are too complex for inspectors to ever be able to promise even a 50% guarantee of success. Access to facilities, personnel, communications and documents is often delayed—if not entirely denied—by a hostile regime such as Iran’s.
There’s also the question of manpower. The IAEA would need a large body of adequately trained, equipped, supported and financed inspectors, but the only countries capable of supplying them are the United States, the United Kingdom and France—countries that would obviously be viewed with great distrust by Iran. On the other hand, Russian and Chinese personnel would clearly be suspected of bias in favor of the Islamic Republic. Israel, Pakistan and India have qualified scientists, but hardly seem an appropriate source of inspectors. So, creating a technically qualified group of people that is both acceptable to Iran and independent would be a huge hurdle. Arms-control inspections are easier for political leaders to support in the abstract than in actual operation.
We have seen the failures time and again. Individual IAEA inspectors in the 1980s raised serious questions about the extent and direction of Iraq’s nuclear program. These suspicions were buried, and the inspectors moved to other jobs. Even after the 1991 Gulf War, the IAEA leadership at first rejected inspection findings that showed massive violations by Iraq.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the IAEA leadership gave Iran a public “clean bill of health” on living up to its safeguard obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the face of questions from inspectors. Even after Iran’s 20-year-long clandestine program started to be revealed, the IAEA inspectors have had a hard time getting United Nations authority to confront the Islamic Republic. It is easier to temporize and delay than to confront violations.
The net result is that violators become emboldened and inspectors become demoralized, learning to look the other way when transgressions are discovered.
The blunt truth is that weapons inspections simply cannot prevent a government in charge of a large country from developing nuclear weapons, when that government has decided to breach its obligations not to. The international community must use inspectors when possible to aid their efforts, but it needs to face up to the fact that these people are not the answer to the problem at hand. If they fail to see the limits of the IAEA or any other inspection team, only further disaster awaits.
Mr. Kay led the U.N. inspections after the Persian Gulf War that uncovered the Iraqi nuclear program. He later led the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, which determined there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at the time of the 2003 invasion. A longer version of this op-ed appeared in the March/April issue of The National Interest.
Our secret war against Iran.
The New Republic, July 14, 2010 | 12:00 am
Our efforts to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon seem to be in tatters. President Obama spent his first year in office trying to resolve the matter through détente. He offered negotiations, sent a conciliatory letter to Iran’s supreme leader, and was slow to publicly support the demonstrations that followed the June 2009 elections. Last fall, the United States sponsored an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deal through which Tehran would have been able to swap out its dangerous spent fuel for uranium suitable to be used in power generation. But this outreach was spurned, and Iran’s nuclear program continued.
Next, the Obama team shifted to a tougher approach—namely sanctions, which were passed by the U.N. Security Council earlier this month. But Tehran has been under international sanctions for a long time now; and, as anyone who has watched Iran policy over the last ten years can tell you, U.N. sanctions are only as good as the enforcement provided by individual countries. How Russia—which has aided Iran in acquiring ballistic missiles and a nuclear reactor—will enforce these latest sanctions is anyone’s guess. Moreover, even if the sanctions are faithfully carried out, there is no guarantee they will have their intended effect. Far more crippling sanctions in the 1990s failed to force Saddam Hussein to fully cooperate with U.N. weapons inspections. Does anyone really doubt that the men in charge of Iran would let their citizenry endure economic pain in order to build a nuclear weapon?
There is, of course, the possibility that the United States or Israel will bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. But this option risks an all-out regional war. And, with Iran’s nuclear facilities scattered and buried deep underground, there is no guarantee that a strike would damage the program enough to be worth the steep geopolitical costs.
And so, the most commonly discussed options on the table range from ineffective to problematic. Yet there is one more possibility for forestalling an Iranian nuke—something that is almost never talked about publicly but that has in fact been central to our Iran policy for years. One Jewish organization leader who has frequent contact with the administration describes the line from the White House and State Department as follows: “You know we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. There are all sorts of means at our disposal that we cannot talk about.” “The clear inference,” this person explains, “is that they are talking about black ops stuff to screw up the Iranian program.”
Sabotage has always been a staple of modern warfare. In World War I, for example, the Germans rigged U.S. and Canadian weapons to explode in New Jersey. But a more complicated genre of technological sabotage dates to the first term of the Reagan administration. A special KGB unit known as Directorate T and its operations wing called Line X had—through dummy corporations and a network of black-market smugglers—managed to obtain computers, airplane parts, and sophisticated machine equipment the Soviet command economy was incapable of producing itself. Luckily for the West, however, a KGB colonel named Vladimir Vetrov was working for French intelligence—and, in thousands of pages of photographed documents that came to be known as the “Farewell Dossier,” he provided detailed information on Line X.
Starting in the early ’80s, the CIA—with the cooperation of the FBI and military—launched a massive operation to feed Line X equipment that was modified to sabotage Soviet industrial and military operations. In 1996, former National Security Council official Gus Weiss published an account of the program, which he had helped conceive, in Studies in Intelligence. “American industry helped in the preparation of items to be ‘marketed’ to Line X,” he wrote. “Contrived computer chips found their way into Soviet military equipment, flawed turbines were installed on a gas pipeline, and defective plans disrupted the output of chemical plants and a tractor factory.”
Ever since the late ’90s—a few years after Western intelligence services became aware of a Chinese sale of yellowcake uranium to Iran—these kinds of operations have been a mainstay of Washington’s policies toward Tehran. The operations are state secrets, not just a “secret” like the use of drones in Pakistan to kill Al Qaeda leaders, something that Obama joked about in his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Indeed, the government takes these secrets so seriously that it is threatening New York Times reporter James Risen with jail time if he doesn’t reveal his sources for a chapter of his 2006 book, State of War. That chapter disclosed a U.S. intelligence plan from 2000 that sent a Russian nuclear scientist on the CIA payroll to Vienna to hand over flawed bomb design plans to the Iranians.
But, while such sabotage efforts don’t get much public attention, almost everyone familiar with counterproliferation says that these schemes are being directed at Iran’s nuclear program. In New York Times reporter David Sanger’s book The Inheritance, published at the end of the Bush administration, he wrote about sabotage efforts targeting Iran. David Kay, who led the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq between 1991 and 1992, as well as the U.S. effort to find those weapons after the 2003 invasion, says he is positive that such sabotage is taking place. “I am certain based on the history of other programs against Iraq and other possible proliferators that activities to make it more difficult to obtain and to operate items crucial to their nuclear weapons program are ongoing,” he explains. “The Israelis have been doing this for years and so have the British.” Michael Adler, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, put it this way: “It seems to be clear that there is an active and imaginative sabotage program from several Western nations as well as Israel involving booby-trapping equipment which the Iranians are procuring, tricking black-market smugglers, cyber-operations, and recruiting scientists.” Three current U.S. government officials confirmed that sabotage operations have been a key part of American plans to slow down the Iranian program—and that they are continuing under Obama.
Iran, apparently, has several entities that would be the equivalent of the old Soviet Line X. There are special units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that are devoted to purchasing illicit technology for Iran’s missile program, for example. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization also has special bureaus that focus on procurement. And Iran has front companies such as the Kalaye Electric Company, which has been sanctioned by the Treasury Department for attempting to purchase specialized magnets needed for centrifuge operations.
Efforts to steer defective products toward Iran have taken a number of forms. For instance, according to a former Mossad operations officer who goes by the alias Michael Ross, in 1998, the Mossad and the CIA developed a plan to sell a supposedly helpful chemical substance—which would, in fact, gum up centrifuges over time—to Iran on the black market.
Then, there was the odd case of the Tinners, a Swiss family of engineers long believed to be a cog in the network of nuclear proliferators organized by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. In 2008, Urs Tinner admitted that he had been a CIA asset. And it turns out that he may have played a crucial role in an effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. According to The New York Times and other sources, the Tinners sold high-quality vacuum pumps to the Iranians and Libyans. The pumps are crucial for uranium enrichment because centrifuges must operate inside a vacuum seal. David Albright—the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and the author of a new history of Iran’s illicit procurement of nuclear technology, Peddling Peril—explains that, while the pumps that ended up in Iran and Libya were produced in Germany, they were also worked on by the Oak Ridge and Los Alamos laboratories. These labs, he says, modified the pumps “to bug them or to make them break down under operational conditions. If you can break the vacuum in a centrifuge cascade, you can destroy hundreds of centrifuges or thousands if you are really lucky.” (A senior intelligence official confirmed Albright’s information to me. It should be noted that not everyone agrees that the Tinners were the ones who sold these pumps to the Iranians and Libyans; Albright, for one, isn’t sure.)
Sometimes, these operations do not end well. Ali Ashtari, a high-tech electronics vendor, was hung by Iran in 2008 after he confessed to bugging the equipment of senior Revolutionary Guard figures with viruses and GPS units provided to him by Israel. Ronen Bergman, the top intelligence reporter for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, believes that Ashtari was an “example of how someone— the Iranians claim it’s the Israeli Mossad—tried to sabotage the Iranian nuclear project by covert means, rather than an air strike.” Adds Bergman, “Ashtari was executed, but other entities continue to sabotage the project.”
But do sabotage efforts work? In late 2008 and early 2009, the iaea began to see a drop in the amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) being produced at Natanz, the facility that lies at the center of Iran’s known nuclear weapons program. In the fall of 2008, its centrifuges were producing 90 kilograms a month of LEU. By the end of the year, however, the same centrifuges were producing 70 kilograms of LEU. To be sure, that number was back up to 85 kilograms per month at the close of 2009, and it has been climbing since, to around 120 kilograms a month; but those increases came after the installation of more centrifuges—all of which suggests that at least some of the machines were less efficient than they should be.
Ivan Oelrich, a nuclear scientist and the vice president of the strategic security program at the Federation of American Scientists, estimated in a study this year that the centrifuges are operating at 20 percent efficiency. “We know the average efficiency of the centrifuges is dismal. We don’t know whether it is because of the quality of the individual centrifuges or how they are linked together,” he explains. “We can’t rule out sabotage as one factor leading to these inefficiencies.” Greg Jones, a nuclear analyst at the Rand Corporation, says the Iranians “are operating just under four thousand machines, but they have installed about eight thousand five hundred. Those nonoperating machines have been installed for many months. Why they are not operating is not clear.”
Among people I spoke to, there seemed to be a broad consensus that sabotage was, at the very least, slowing Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. A senior administration official told me that there was evidence the Iranians are experiencing delays due to “a combination of reasons—some inherent to the nature of the infeasibility of the design and the machines themselves, and some because of actions by the United States and its allies.” Explains David Kay, “History says that these things have done more to slow programs than any sanctions regime has or is likely to do.”
However, the biggest payoff from these efforts may not come from the sabotage itself, but from the psychological effect it could have on Iran’s government. At the most general level, there are probably benefits to keeping Iranian intelligence officials paranoid and off-balance, simply because it can cause them to waste valuable time and resources. This appears to be happening. In 2007, for example, Iran’s state-run news service reported that the national police had arrested a cell of spy squirrels. The next year, Iran reportedly arrested a group of spy pigeons.
But the specific benefit of sabotage is that it makes countries wary of purchasing crucial materials on the black market. In 1982, when Gus Weiss proposed the modified-equipment operation to then–CIA Director William Casey, he said his plan was a rare espionage endeavor that would succeed even if compromised. “If some double agent told the KGB the Americans were alert to Line X and were interfering with their collection by subverting, if not sabotaging, the effort, I believed the United States still could not lose,” Weiss wrote. “The Soviets, being a suspicious lot, would be likely to question and reject everything Line X collected.” The same principle now holds with Iran. According to the senior administration official, sabotage “forces the Iranians to make machine parts themselves.” And that, in turn, can slow down the process of producing a nuclear weapon.
In the end, however, there are almost certainly limits to how much the West’s sabotage campaign against Iran can accomplish. “These programs are enough to cause the Iranians some problems, but they don’t imperil the Iranian drive to enrich uranium,” says the Wilson Center’s Adler. Indeed, Adler thinks the inefficiencies at the Natanz plant could be chalked up to the inexperience of the scientists or the poor quality of the design, rather than sabotage.
The view among most officials and observers seems to be that sabotage is helpful but not, on its own, the answer. Uzi Dayan, a retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces and a former national security adviser to both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, put it this way: “At the end of the day, this approach can delay the program and slow it down. It can put obstacles in the way. But it cannot prevent Iran from achieving their goal.” “Every president since Clinton has tried covert operations to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Bush did it, Obama is doing it. The problem is, it’s not a substitute for sound policy,” says Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “It is a holding action. What they are not facing is that you have to somehow usher this group of rulers off the stage of history. It is a tough thing to do, it’s not clear how you do it, and they have chosen not to try.”
Eli Lake is a contributing editor of The New Republic.