Archive for the ‘Nuclear program’ Category

The Perspective from Washington

April 9, 2009

US-IRAN MEETING… good/don’t expect movement soon

Washington, D.C.


SUMMARY: much punditry has already been expended arguing that while the Barack and Michelle Show was a huge ratings success with the Euro public and media, “not much was accomplished”.

Nonsense, we’d argue, if you take even a medium-term look at what happened.

Basically, Obama and the First Lady put “good will” money in the bank which, for the first time in years, gives the USG a chance to bring friends and allies along on difficult issues and decisions in ways which don’t alienate their voters at home.

And in his speech to the Turks, pointedly introduced by their president as Barack Hussein Obama, he declared in such a way as possibly to be believed, that the US is not at war with Islam.

If Obama carries out his expected, and much anticipated “home visit” to Indonesia later this year, he will get a chance to re-build several bridges, including to world Islam, to SE Asia, to ASEAN, et al.

News today of a related subject…Iran, its nuclear program, and what Obama’s policy/strategy will be, once the internal review is completed.

A “leading indicator”…Sec. St. Clinton’s announcement today the US “from now on” will join the UN’s “Perm-5+1” meetings with Iran.

It’s always difficult to parse the good cop/bad cop tactics used on Iran, given the possibility of Israel concluding it can wait for a deal no longer, and so must try to knock-out the nuclear program with bombs.

The Obama folks have been somewhat confusing on any US backing for such a risky move…Gen. Petraeus warning that Israel might have to, but VP Biden very clearly saying it would be “ill-advised” for new Prime Minister Netanyahu to do that.

Not un-related to the Iran conundrum, of course, is N. Korea, and we’ve been presenting useful OpEds all week. Tonight we hear from the Stanford Shorenstein Center’s Dan Sneider, summing up what we think is an emerging consensus…the missile test shows weakness, let the DPRK leadership come to us…stop trying to find the right bribe price to get what Kim and the boys are not going to give.


IRAN…as noted, the Obama policy review on Iran is almost completed, sources say, so don’t get too many hopes up just yet to Sec. State Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the US will, “from now on”, be full partners in the UN “Perm-5+1” negotiations with Iran.

President Bush authorized the occasional direct participation, starting last year, but today’s announcement clearly sets a new tone, and a commitment to a peaceful resolution which often was doubted, given the rumblings from VP Cheney, and his neo-con allies, about perhaps needing to bomb Iran soon.

UnderSec Bill Burns today joined a Perm-5+1 meeting to personally convey the shift in tactics, if not policy…that remains to be seen.

Even before the announcement, President Amadinejad, facing what may be increasing opposition to his re-election in June, said he welcomes an “honest…hand extended”…and said so on national TV.

Official word will apparently be conveyed via an invitation to resume talks delivered by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who added that his group welcomed what he called the “new direction” of the US, under Obama.

So things are looking great, right?


Experts point out that the Iranians detest Solana, so that’s a problem up front.

And recent “we have to bomb” statements by Israeli hard-liners, now on the ascendency with the return of arch hard-liner Bibi Netanyahu as Prime Minister, have re-opened concerns here that for reasons which are perfectly understandable, Israeli patience with Iran has a much, much shorter fuse than either the US or Europe.

For Israel, the chance that Iran is about to achieve actual, literal bomb-production capacity is strategically an intolerable risk, at least with the current Iranian regime and its posture on Israel.

CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus was trying, if unartfully, to convey that concern with his testimony to Senate Armed Services last week that Israel may indeed decide to attack.

Some experts say the debate within the Obama Administration (to the extent policy-makers are in place) has asked whether the Israeli threats give the US (and the Perm-5 process) useful “leverage” in future negotiations.

Perhaps, but with Iranian elections coming soon, any such talk (much less an attack!) is seen here as likely reinforcing Iranian hard-liners and support for the egregious Amadinejad.

Petraeus’ remarks were seen as “unartful”, rather than a pure expression of Obama policy, because he neglected (or forgot?) to add the required comment that the US either opposes Israeli airstrikes, or worries about the blow-back.

So it fell to VP Joe Biden to come out strongly against the idea, telling CNN last night “I don’t believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu would…[in fact] I think he would be ill-advised to do that.”

As Loyal Readers/experienced commentators Gary Porter and Jim Lobe note in their IPS filing today:

“His remarks suggested that any proposal to exploit the threat of an Israeli attack as part of a ‘good cop/bad cop’ tactic with Iran would run into stiff opposition within the Administration, since it would rest on the credibility that the threat was real and that the US would not actively oppose its being carried out.”

A sense of the “flavor” of the on-going Obama internal debate can be had, however, by noting Gary and Jim’s reminders that last Fall, Secretary Clinton’s newly minted special advisor on Iran, Dennis Ross, warned that “if the international community appears unable to stop Iran’s nuclear progress, Israel may decide to act unilaterally.

Please note, this is not Ross endorsing such a move, just pointing out the obvious. Still, it feeds the overall good cop/bad cop parsing game.

Similarly, Porter and Lobe remind, the new White House coordinator on WMD, Gary Samore, and the new Undersec/Def Ash Carter, told a Harvard forum last Fall that while the dangers of an Israeli action are clear, there may be utility in the US using that threat for negotiating leverage.

The point, again, is that these new Obama officials are NOT arguing to justify an Israel action…they ARE pointing out that at a certain point which Israel must define, not anyone else, Israel will face a possible life or death choice.

So…that’s the context within which the Hillary Clinton announcement today should be placed:

Obama has decided to directly and consistently engage Iran on nukes, in hopes of at the very least calming Israeli fears for the time being, while the “international community” works to come up with a deal acceptable to Tehran.


N. KOREA…we’ve been beating on this drum all week, and will simply repeat tonight our basic “message” that the Obama Administration’s policy review on DPRK policy faces a real series of conundrums:

China’s view of the DPRK strategic threat remains as out of sync now with the US as it did throughout the Bush Administration;

With the exception of some NGO’s and a handful tireless, hopeful “New York Connection” folks…almost no N. Korea experts now have any faith that a formula of inducements and agreements can be actually put into place which would produce real, full “denuclearization” by the regime of Kim Jong-il;

Kim’s recent stroke, and the uptick in hostile statements and actions, especially against S. Korea, would seem to indicate anxiety over his succession, and so the survival of his supporters, once he leaves the scene;

Almost no N. Korea experts feel that the Kim regime can long survive any genuine efforts at economic reform…the classic “revolution of rising expectations” is seen now, as in Eastern Europe nearly 20 years ago, as a wind which will blow them away;

Unfortunately, add all these contradictions up and what you get is a status-quo in which the Kim regime has an active nuclear weapons capacity, and a very active proliferation menace…see the nuclear plant bombed by Israel, and the missiles sold to Iran;

But if the US ever concedes such a nuclear-capable status quo, the strategic calculation of Japan and S. Korea, at a minimum, must undergo drastic revision in terms of discussion…policy outcomes to be determined;

If ANY real “leverage” exists with Beijing, that might be it.

To sum up in a non-policy way, we detect a big case of “DPRK Fatigue” setting in. TOO much “drama queen”, too LITTLE positive action.

OK, they dismantled Yongbyon, but…they had already extracted all the PU needed for a dozen weapons, and smack in the middle of the 6 Party process they sold a nuclear plant to Syria!

U.S. to attend group nuclear talks with Iran

April 8, 2009

— The Obama administration said Wednesday it will participate directly in group talks with Iran over its suspect nuclear program, marking another shift from former President George W. Bush’s policy. continue reading…

US may cede to Iran’s nuclear ambition

April 4, 2009

Financial Times

US officials are considering whether to accept Iran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment, which has been outlawed by the United Nations and remains at the heart of fears that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capability. Continue reading…

Consider the source

March 31, 2009

RELATED Going nuclear: Before and After

Iran’s Nuclear Program 101.

Los Angeles
Tehran Bureau | analysis

From 2001 to 2003, when the Bush administration was preparing the public for the invasion of Iraq, it supported its lies and exaggerations through front-page articles in The New York Times by Judith Miller, the now discredited reporter who left “the newspaper of record.” Many of her articles were co-authored by Michael R. Gordon, The Times’ chief military correspondent. In fact, from 1998 Miller had been serving as the chief of propaganda for Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, presenting in her articles, based on Mr. Chalabi’s fabrications, accounts of a terrifying Iraq with active programs for producing weapons of mass destruction, which were later proven to be nonexistent. Many internal memos from The Times leaked to the outside world indicated that Chalabi and the neocons were the only sources of Miller’s claims on Iraq.

A particularly glaring example of the lies that Gordon and Miller were propagating was in an article that they published on September 8, 2002, in which they claimed that Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase aluminum tubes for use in Iraq’s uranium enrichment program. The “evidence” was quickly challenged in an article by Joby Warrick of the Washington Post, but the lie was used by the neocons, and particularly Dick Cheney, as “proof” of Iraq’s nuclear program. It turned out later that the neocons had supplied the lies to Gordon and Miller, and then used their articles as the needed evidence for the “smoking gun.” The lie was used repeatedly for quite some time as the primary propaganda tool against Iraq.

Was Judith Miller that gullible and easy to fool? No, she was not. She was sympathetic to the neocons’ cause, despite being considered a liberal on many other issues. At the same time, she had to go along with what she was being told because otherwise she would have probably lost her sources in the administration.

A similar phenomenon is taking place with respect to Iran and its nuclear program. Lies, exaggerations and baseless speculations are rampant about how close Iran supposedly is to making a nuclear bomb. The last round of propaganda started after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on Iran on February 19, 2009. The report in fact reaffirmed, once again, that (i) Iran had not diverted its nuclear materials to non-peaceful purposes; (ii) there was no evidence of a secret nuclear weapons program or secret nuclear facility, and (iii) all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are monitored by the IAEA and its nuclear materials are safeguarded. The report also contained an important positive signal from Iran in that it stated that the Islamic Republic had not increased significantly the number of centrifuges that were producing low-enriched uranium (LEU). This was very likely a signal from Iran that it wished for a detente with the United States under the new administration of President Obama.

All the positive points in the report were however ignored by the usual anti-Iran crowd, because the IAEA also reported that it estimated, as of January 31, Iran had produced 1010 kg of the LEU with an enrichment level of 3.49%. Suddenly there were deafening screams about how Iran could enrich its stockpile of LEU to the level suitable for a single nuclear bomb; that is, to 90% purity. Even if Iran could miraculously do the enrichment and build a nuclear device, it would have to explode it in a test, hence finishing up its entire stockpile! Moreover, converting a nuclear device to a nuclear bomb is in itself a difficult task, and there is no evidence that Iran has such a capability.

But, the War Party has ignored all of this. In its tall tale, Iran’s one ton of LEU is the equivalent of Iraq’s “aluminum tubes.” Its allies in the latest round of propaganda are the usual crowd — the mainstream media, the Israel lobby, and the pundits who are apparently able to read the minds of the Iranian leaders better than the Iranian leaders can themselves.

That the War Party and the Israel Lobby should embark on this latest round of propaganda is expected. What is surprising however is the appearance of an entirely new source to “substantiate” that which cannot be substantiated: speculations, innuendos and skewed interpretations of what the IAEA actually reports, or what Iran may or may not have or do. This new source is David Albright and his Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).

One would think that Albright would use his command of nuclear issues, as recognized by the American Physical Society’s Joseph S. Burton Forum Award, for objective and impartial analysis of Iran’s nuclear program. But he and his Institute have been increasingly distancing themselves from such a position, and wittingly or unwittingly becoming a tool in the hands of the anti-Iran crowd. Let me explain.

Consider, first, the ISIS itself. It monitors the nuclear programs of India, Pakistan and Iran, among other nations. Unlike Iran, the first two have not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), and have developed nuclear arsenals. Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, restive population, political instability, and strong influence of Islamic fundamentalists in its military and intelligence services, is one of the most dangerous nations on Earth; yet the main focus of the ISIS in Iran.

The ISIS, which presents itself as a scientific — hence, presumably impartial — organization, does not analyze or monitor Brazil’s nuclear program, whose navy controls its uranium enrichment program and has restricted the IAEA access to Brazil’s uranium enrichment facilities, in violation of its NPT and Safeguards Agreement obligations. Just imagine what would happen if the IAEA were to declare that Iran’s military controls its uranium enrichment program.

Nor does the ISIS analyze or follow Israel’s program. This is the same nation that, (i) has at least 200 nuclear warheads; (ii) has three nuclear submarines that can attack any nation in the Middle East (one is usually in Iran’s vicinity); (iii) kidnapped its own citizen, Mordechai Vanunu, in Italy and took him to Israel, where he was jailed for 18 years because he revealed that Israel had a nuclear weapons program; (iv) has been threatening for a long time to attack Iran and its nuclear facilities, and (v) is the main reason for instability in the Middle East. But, the ISIS apparently believes that Israel and its nuclear program do not require monitoring or analysis.

On its Web site, the ISIS claims that it “works to create a world safe from the dangers posed by the spread of nuclear weapons to irresponsible governments…” (emphasis mine). Given its 41 years of occupation of the Palestinian lands, in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, its massacre of thousands of innocent people in the occupied territories and Lebanon, and the unimaginable destruction that it has caused there, Israel must be a “responsible” government. And Iran, which has not attacked any nation for at least 270 years, and has been the victim of numerous military attacks, invasions, and foreign-sponsored coups, is “irresponsible.”

Then there is the question of the sources of funding for the ISIS. It has a staff of five, and also lists two consultants and two interns. It uses the satellite imagery provided by DigitalGlobe, a private vendor of space imagery based in Colorado. All of this needs funding. On its Web site the ISIS states that, “the vast bulk of our funding comes from public and private foundations,” but I could not find the names of its benefactors. In an e-mail to the ISIS office I asked about the sources of their funding, but I received no response.

One must also consider ISIS’s sources of information. Consider, for example, the IAEA’s reports on Iran. When Mohamed ElBaradei, the Director General, submits his reports to the IAEA’s Board of Governors, their distribution is usually restricted. Yet, the ISIS posts the reports on its sites immediately after they are submitted. Often, even before the submission of the reports, the ISIS seems to know their contents, and numerous times has posted them at the same time that they are submitted.

That brings us to the ISIS President, David Albright, his analysis, and his sources at the IAEA. I am not going to repeat Scott Ritter’s criticism of Albright. Some interpreted Ritter’s expose as a personal attack, and Frank von Hippel of Princeton University wrote a response to his piece, defending Albright.

I leave it to the readers of Ritter’s article to gauge for themselves whether his arguments have any merit. I have never met Ritter, but have tremendous respect for him and his courageous stand regarding the illegal invasion of Iraq and what the Bush-Cheney cabal tried to do to Iran. At the same time, leading an extensive and active research program in physics and engineering has given me a degree of objectivity.

I believe that Albright has made many valuable contributions to the debates on nuclear arms, nuclear materials, etc. Albright relies, however, too heavily on baseless (not educated) speculations, and, quite often, nothing more that mere guesses. Moreover, he has been silent on important and sensitive issues that any experienced analyst and expert should be able to comment on. And he has published on the ISIS Web site analysis that seems to serve one and only one purpose — adding dangerous fuel to the debate over Iran’s nuclear program. These may not have been a problem by themselves, but we are talking about a serious international issue, namely Iran’s nuclear program and the fact that the War Party, the Israel lobby, and Israel itself are looking for any excuse to provoke and justify military attacks on Iran. In such a situation, anything other than solid, objective scientific analysis, backed by legitimate documents and credible sources is extremely dangerous. But, unfortunately, when it comes to Iran, Albright has increasingly distanced himself from being such an expert and analyst. Let me explain.

To begin with, let me point out that an analyst of Iran’s nuclear program, and the president of a supposedly impartial and scientific institution, cannot consort with AIPAC, the leading Israel lobby in the United States and an organization that is behind practically all the anti-Iran rhetoric that is coming out of Washington and, at the same time, present himself everywhere as an objective and impartial analyst. But, that is exactly what Albright did. On March 5, 2006, he spoke to AIPAC, making a presentation entitled, “Nuclear countdown: what can be done to stop Iran?” That, by itself, is very revealing, but Albright has not stopped there.

When it comes to talking about Iran’s nuclear program, Albright either sensationalizes the issue without putting much substance behind it, or tells half the story, leaving behind important details. As an example of the former, consider all the nonsense that he said about the Parchin site near Tehran in September 2004. This is an industrial complex in southeast Tehran that has been producing conventional ammunition, high explosives, and rockets for Iran’s armed forces for decades, going back to the 1950’s. In an article, Albright and Corey Hinderstein made all sorts of allegations about how Parchin was being used by Iran for nuclear-related work. But, the IAEA visited the site in January 2005, and reported no discovery of nuclear-related activities. What did Albright and Hinderstein do? Instead of retracting what they had written, they demanded further visits to the site!

More examples of how Albright is telling only half the story, consider the following. On the question of how much yellow cake (the uranium oxide that is converted to uranium hexafluoride for enrichment) Iran has, Albright has been saying recently that it is enough to make tens of bombs, but does not say that going from the yellow cake to the bomb is a long, tortuous process, fraught with all kinds of scientific difficulties, requiring advanced nuclear technologies, many of which Iran does not currently have, or at least there is no evidence that it does. When he is asked about Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, he responds that it is enough to make one nuclear bomb, but does not usually say that what Iran has is LEU, not highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that is needed for the bomb, and that so long as Iran’s enrichment facilities and stockpile are safeguarded by the IAEA, there is no way that Iran can obtain the HEU, even if it wants to (there is no evidence that it does), or has the facility for producing it (which it does not). It is clear that if Iran were ever to enrich its LEU to HEU, it would not do it at the well-known Natanz site. But, even if it were to do so, Iran must do extensive re-piping and some redesigning, which it would not be able to do under the watchful cameras of the IAEA.

In a recent interview, Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor at, said to Albright, “You’ve been following Iran’s nuclear activities for years. Could you provide an update on its progress so far?”

Here is his response:

Iran continues to move forward on developing its nuclear capabilities, and it is close to having what we would call a ‘nuclear breakout capability.’ That’s a problem because once Iran reaches that state then it could make a decision to get nuclear weapons pretty rapidly. In as quickly as a few months, Iran would be able to have enough weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons. And if a breakout occurred, they would not likely do so at the well-known Natanz enrichment plant. Rather, the Iranians would most likely take low-enriched uranium that’s produced at that plant and then divert it at a secret facility that we wouldn’t know anything about. And at this secret facility, the Iranians would produce this weapons-grade uranium. And so if you were in the camp that said, ‘Well, we’ll have to strike militarily,’ you won’t actually know where to strike because you won’t know where that secret facility is. Whatever camp you are in, the situation is bound to grow more tense. So for 2009, probably the big technical issue is when Iran establishes this breakout capability. It could be soon. They don’t need that much more low-enriched uranium before they reach the first level of breakout capability, namely enough low-enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon.

To the untrained eyes of a layman, the above paragraph seems very “innocent” and, at the same time, very “authoritative.” It is neither, however.

(1) Albright’s statement about the breakout capability is misleading, because he does not mention a lot of important details. A nation has that capability when it has enough LEU for conversion to HEU to make a bomb, and the facilities to do so. But as I discussed above, the process of converting LEU to HEU is long and tortuous. Even if Iran has everything in place, and everything works without any glitches or outside intervention, the breakout time — the time needed to convert the LEU stockpile to HEU — is 6 to 9 months, ample time for the international community to negotiate with Iran.

(2) But, that is not the most misleading part of Albright’s response. He knows that the Natanz facility is not currently equipped to enrich the LEU to HEU and, even if it were, Iran could not convert the LEU to HEU there. So, he says, with seeming 100% certainty, that the process of converting LEU to HEU will take place in a secret facility. That is, he is sure that such a facility already exists. The IAEA has certified time and again that there is no evidence of the existence of a parallel enrichment program in Iran. So, apparently Albright knows something that the rest of the world does not. I’ll come back to this point shortly. He also does not mention that Iran’s stockpile of the LEU is safeguarded by the IAEA. So, the only way for Iran to actually produce HEU from LEU is, (a) to leave the NPT and expel the IAEA’s inspectors from Iran, and (b) to take the LEU to the secret facility so quickly that all the satellites that are hovering over Iran, watching every move, would miss such a monumental event.

(3) All Albright is talking about is one nuclear bomb. So, assuming that Iran could fool the entire world, that it has everything that it needs, and with tremendous luck produce one nuclear bomb — after going through another difficult process (and there is no evidence that Iran does have the capability to do so), namely, converting a nuclear device to a nuclear bomb — it would have to explode it to test it. That would finish off Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium!

Still, Albright did not stop there. The ISIS recently posted an analysis in which it claimed that Iran was running out of yellow cake. When Albright was asked by Gwertzman about this issue, he responded by saying,

Iran has never really had the uranium resources to support an indigenous nuclear electricity program. So they are dependent on importing the fuel. If you consider the Bushehr reactor, that’s what they did. They bought the reactor from Russia, and they bought the fuel for at least ten years.

Assuming that the first part of Albright’s response is correct (which it is not), the second part is totally misleading. Iran bought the fuel for the Bushehr reactor because when it signed the agreement with Russia, it had no enrichment plant. In addition, Iran bought the fuel for ten years, because it would take that long (at the current pace) to set up an industrial-scale enrichment plant with 50,000 centrifuges.

Then, he continued,

From our point of view, the best thing they can do is work out a solution with the international community so they can proceed with the nuclear electricity and import the low-enriched uranium fuel that they need for those reactors.

Aside from suggesting that Iran should give up its rights under Article IV of the NPT, Albright makes one wonder whom he is talking about when he says our point of view. If he is talking about himself and the ISIS, that is all right. But, if he considers himself part and parcel of the U.S. government and more generally the West, then he should stop all pretense to leading an impartial scientific institution, interested only in objective analysis of solid facts.

Albright and the ISIS have continuously published analysis in which they insinuate preordained conclusions based on totally unrelated facts. An example is a recent analysis by him, Paul Brannan and Andrea Scheel entitled “Iranian Entities Illicit Military Procurement Networks.” They describe a network of companies that allegedly purchases items that cannot be exported to Iran. There is not a single item in the analysis that has anything to do Iran’s nuclear program. Even they do not make such a claim. In a second analysis, Albright et al. claimed Iran was illicitly procuring a vacuum pump for its uranium enrichment program. No shred of evidence, no matter how flimsy or indirect, was presented for the claim. Even a cursory check of the Wikipedia, indicates that there are at least 16 very different usages of such pumps (and, importantly, Wikipedia does not even list centrifuges as one of them). But Albright and company decided on their own that this purchase must have been for Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Any reasonable expert would object to such so-called analysis because, (i) they are utterly unscientific and based on sheer speculation. (ii) They have little to do with the stated mission of the ISIS. (iii) The time of their release is very suspicious, and (iv) therefore, they can have one and only one goal: to add dangerous fuel to an already heated debate over Iran’s nuclear program.

One of the most contentious issues between Iran and the IAEA is the laptop that was supposedly stolen in Iran and turned over to the United States, which allegedly has incriminating evidence of Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapon program. The IAEA has repeatedly called on the United States to provide Iran copies of the documents that were supposedly in the laptop. The Americans have refused. The computer has never been analyzed for its digital chain of custody to reveal the dates in which the documents were stored in the laptop. These are two crucial issues that go to the heart of the subject. Yet, Albright has been totally silent about them. Why? The answer brings us to last piece of the puzzle, namely, Albright’s source at the IAEA.

Albright’s current contact at the IAEA, with whom he is “extremely tight” (in the language of several sources), is Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s deputy director for safeguards, who is in charge of the current inspection in Iran. Heinonen, who tries to deceive people into believing that he is impartial by reminding them that he is from Finland, has been leading a crusade against Iran. Against the IAEA protocol for his high position, Heinonen constantly leaks sensitive information to the press, and spreads baseless or at least unproven allegations about Iran’s nuclear program.

As one example of Heinonen’s bias, consider the following: In February 2008, ElBaradei submitted a report to the Board of Governors of the IAEA in which he declared that Iran’s six minor breaches in its Safeguards Agreement have been addressed to the IAEA’s satisfaction and that, as a result of Iran’s cooperation, the IAEA had gained a better understanding of the history of Iran’s nuclear program. Right after that report, Heinonen made a provocative and tainted presentation to the Board of Governors, based entirely on the laptop. “Alarming,” he called it. This enabled the U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, who is a master at exaggerations and innuendos, to declare that
As today’s briefing showed us, there are strong reasons to suspect that Iran was working covertly and deceitfully, at least until recently, to build a bomb. Iran has refused to explain or even acknowledge past work on weaponization. This is particularly troubling when combined with Iran’s determined effort to master the technology to enrich uranium. Uranium enrichment is not necessary for Iran’s civil program but it is necessary to produce the fissile material that could be weaponized into a bomb.

In addition to Schulte’s utter arrogance in deciding that Iran does not need its own uranium enrichment, one must ask, how can Iran explain a document that has never seen? How can Iran acknowledge something that it has not done? It is really straightforward to confront Iran on this issue: Present copies of the documents to Iran, and analyze the laptop’s digital chain of custody.

What is Albright’s position regarding all of this? Silence! He probably knows that at least some of the documents were fabricated and inserted in the laptop and, therefore, an analysis of the laptop’s digital chain of custody would easily reveal that. He knows most definitively that given Iran’s history of having its scientists assassinated, its experts would not carelessly reveal the names of important personnel in a memo, which is supposedly in the laptop. But, Albright has kept silent because he is “tight” with Heinonen. Just like Judith Miller, if Albright says anything about this issue that Heinonen does not like, he will lose his source inside the IAEA, the same source who presumably gives him ElBaradei’s reports on Iran and other information that are not supposed to be distributed publicly.

Heinonen is “tight” with Albright because he realizes that leaking information to Albright and ISIS to present to the public gives it a veneer of legitimacy. It is better for a former UN weapon inspector and nuclear expert and his “scientific, non-profit” institution to spread unproven “facts,” than the deputy IAEA chief for inspection. Heinonen is a true heir to Pierre Goldschmidt, who served in the IAEA in the same capacity, and who has made many ridiculous statements regarding Iran since moving to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In addition to Albright and Heinonen being “tight,” there might be another factor at play. Many times in the past Albright claimed that Iran could not reach certain milestones in its nuclear program, because it just does not have the technological and scientific capabilities. Yet, time and again he was proven wrong. That is because he and other Western experts have a hard time accepting that Iran, a nation that has been under the most severe U.S. sanctions for more than two decades, has succeeded in setting up a complete indigenous cycle for producing nuclear fuel. As the author told William Broad and David Sanger of The New York Times in an article that was published in the Times on March 5, 2006,
We’ve made mistakes in underestimating the strength of science in Iran and the ingenuity they show in working with whatever crude design they get their hands on.

Some may point to Albright’s opposition to attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities as an indication that he is against war with Iran. But, if the article by Albright, Paul Brannan, and Jacqueline Shire, is studied carefully, one finds that it is not that they are against war per se, but that they do not think bombing will solve the “problem.” Instead, they advocate sanctions. But sanctions are low-intensity wars. Sanctions killed at least 500,000 Iraqi children in the 1990’s. The number of civilians killed as a result of invading and occupying Iraq ranges anywhere from 200,000 to 1 million, which is completely comparable with the number of the Iraqi children killed in the 1990’s.

It would be a pity if David Albright continues down this path and allows himself to be used as a tool like Judith Miller. He can still contribute usefully to the debate on Iran’s nuclear program, provided that he does not sacrifice objectivity for the sake of having a source at the IAEA — and a discredited and prejudiced one at that.

The Latest IAEA Report: Iran’s Peace Overture to the U.S.?

February 20, 2009

Photo by David Yaghoobi.

Los Angeles

Tehran Bureau | a⋅nal⋅y⋅sis

The International Atomic Energy Agency just released its latest report on Iran’s nuclear program. The most important aspect of IAEA’s latest report on the program, overlooked or ignored in the propaganda against Iran, is that Iran has slowed down increasing the number of centrifuges in Natanz that are operating to produce low-enriched uranium. According to the IAEA report, as of February 1, 2009, Iran had 3936 centrifuges that were being fed with uranium hexafluoride, 1476 centrifuges installed and under vacuum (in preparation for being fed), and 125 installed but not under vacuum, for a total 5537 centrifuges, a number somewhat smaller than around 6000 centrifuges that many experts had expected. But, most importantly, the number of operating and productive centrifuges has not increased dramatically over the past many months.

There are two plausible explanations for the slow down, which are in fact complimentary. One is that Iran is waiting to see how the Obama administration is going to approach the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program in particular, and U.S.-Iran relations in general. This is totally consistent with the conciliatory messages and signals that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has been sending since the election of Barack Obama in November 2008. Surely, in addition to their desire for improving Iran’s relations with the United States under the present devastating global recession, the prospects of negotiating with a U.S. president whose middle name is Hussein, the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and one of the most revered figures in Shi’ite Islam, is intriguing and enticing to the Iranian leaders.

The second explanation is that there are behind-the-scene negotiations between the United States and Iran, of which the public is unaware. Even if there are no such negotiations, the fact is that both sides have been sending positive signals, that it may be responsible for what Iran has done regarding its uranium-enrichment program.

Take, for example, the recent announcement that the U.S. State Department has declared PEJAK, a Kurdish rebel group that launches raids into Iran from the Kurdish region of Iraq, a terrorist organization. PEJAK (which stands for Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan) is, in fact, the Iranian branch of the Kurdish group PKK that has been fighting with Turkey for decades, and has been classified a terrorist organization by the United States. In addition, PEJAK forces have apparently been expelled from the region near the Iran-Iraq border. Given the close cooperation between the Kurdish forces in Iraq and the United States, it is difficult to imagine that this could have taken place without at least tacit U.S. consent and support. Thus, Iran may be returning the favor to the United States by not increasing the number of centrifuges that are actually producing low-enriched uranium.

In addition, the IAEA report states that all of Iran’s nuclear materials, research, and development are being monitored and safeguarded by the Agency. There has been no divergence of nuclear material, in line with Iran’s repeated contention that its nuclear program is peaceful. Thus, Iran has carried out its obligations under the provisions of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

The seemingly negative part of the report has to do with the IAEA’s requests to visit certain sites in Iran. Most of the requests by the IAEA to visit the sites in Iran, which have been turned down by Iran, are covered by the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement, which Iran is not currently implementing, (not with Iran’s Safeguards Agreement). There is a brief history behind Iran’s refusal.

In October 2003, the government of President Mohammad Khatami signed the Sa’dabad Agreement (named so after Iran’s presidential palace) with Britain, France, and Germany (EU3), that committed it to signing the Additional Protocol and carrying out its provision on a volunteer basis, until the Iranian parliament ratified the Agreement. In the Paris Agreement of November 2004, Iran reaffirmed its intentions. In return, the EU3 promised Iran that it would present a proposal that would address Iran’s aspirations for having access to advanced nuclear technology, as well as the EU3 concerns regarding the nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

However, the proposal that EU3 presented Iran in August 2005 was long in a list of demands and essentially nil on concessions to Iran. Among other things, the EU3 demanded that Iran abandon its uranium enrichment program, thus demanding elimination of major “facts on the ground,” namely, the enrichment and related facilities and all the R&D work, in return for some vague promises in the distant future. No sane nation would agree to that.

Thus, after some negotiations, Iran suspended its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol in February 2006. The United Nations Security Council does not have any legal rights to demand Iran to implement the provisions of the Additional Protocol, because the Iranian parliament has not ratified it, and it is Iran’s sovereign right to refuse implementing an agreement that it has not accepted.

Most of the visits requests stated by the IAEA in its latest report are covered by the Additional Protocol, toward which Iran has no obligations. However, the latest report by the IAEA also states that since March 2007, the Agency has carried out 21 unannounced visits to Iran’s nuclear sites.

Such intrusive and unannounced visits are an important part of the Additional Protocol. Therefore, Iran is still selectively and voluntarily carrying out some provisions of the Additional Protocol.

Regarding the Arak reactor and the IAEA request to visit the under-construction facility, such visits are covered by the modified text of the Subsidiary Arrangements (Code 3.1) of its Safeguards Agreement.

Iran had agreed to the modified text, part of which states that Iran must allow inspection of the under-construction sites. However, because the EU3 reneged on its promises, Iran suspended the implementation of the modified text in February 2006, and went back to its original Safeguards Agreement, signed in 1974. The original Subsidiary Arrangements states that only 180 days prior to the introduction of any nuclear material into a nuclear facility does Iran have the obligation to allow visits and inspection.

Thus, Iran has no legal obligations towards the Agency regarding the Arak reactor.

So overall, despite the propaganda and bogus alarms, the IAEA report actually indicates positive developments in the thorny issue of Iran’s nuclear program.

Who’s Telling the Truth About Iran’s Nuclear Program?

February 18, 2009

Los Angeles
Tehran Bureau | a⋅nal⋅y⋅sis

Since February 2003, Iran’s nuclear program has undergone what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) itself admits to be the most intrusive inspection in the agency’s history. After thousands of hours of inspections by some of the most experienced IAEA experts, the Agency has verified time and again that (1) there is no evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, and (2) all the declared nuclear materials have been accounted for; there has been no diversion of such materials to non-peaceful purposes. Iran has a clean bill of health, as far as its nuclear program is concerned.

This is not what Israel, its lobby in the United States, and its neoconservative allies had expected. Such a clean bill of health deprives them of any justification for advocating military attacks on Iran. The illegal act of sending Iran’s nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council and the subsequent, highly dubious UNSC resolutions against Iran have also not been effective. So what is the ‘War Party’ to do?

It has resorted to an international campaign of exaggerations, lies, and distortions. This campaign involves planting lies in the major media and on the Internet, making absurd interpretations of what the IAEA reports on Iran, and issuing dire — but bogus — warnings about the speed at which Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is progressing. Such warnings have been around for more than two decades. In 1984, West German intelligence predicted that Iran would make a nuclear bomb within two years.

The campaign uses all the instruments of the U.S. political establishment to advance its agenda. The Bush administration routinely talked about “Iran’s nuclear weapon program,” or “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” without ever bothering to present any credible evidence for their assertion. Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons has become an article of faith even to President Obama, who, in my opinion, is not pro-war. Leon Panetta, the new CIA director, recently said, “From all the information I’ve seen, I think there is no question that they [Iranians] are seeking that [nuclear weapon] capability.” What information, Mr. Panetta? Enlighten us, please.

An important base for the campaign has been the U.S. Congress. Take, for example, the report by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the then chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, issued on Aug. 23, 2006. The first bullet on page four of the report stated, “Iran has conducted a clandestine uranium enrichment program for nearly two decades in violation of its IAEA safeguards agreement, and despite its claim to the contrary, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.”

Not a single word in this statement is true. Iran did not violate its Safeguards Agreement, signed in 1974 with the IAEA, when it did not declare the construction of the Natanz facility for uranium enrichment. The agreement stipulated that Iran was only obligated to declare the existence of the facility 180 days prior to introducing nuclear materials into the facility. Iran did just that in February 2003, and nuclear materials were brought into the facility during the summer in 2003. The assertion that Iran is seeking nuclear weapon was a lie then, as it is now. No evidence of a secret nuclear weapons program has been discovered. Although the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in early December 2007 stated that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, it did not present any evidence that the program existed prior to 2003.

A caption to a figure on page nine of Hoekstra’s report stated that “Iran is currently enriching uranium to weapons grade using a 164-machine centrifuge cascade at this facility in Natanz.” This was another lie. Neither then nor now, when there are more than 5,000 centrifuges at Natanz, has Iran enriched uranium to weapons grade.

According to the bullet at the top of page 11, “Spent fuel from the LWR [light water reactor] that Russia is building for Iran in the city of Bushehr can produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for 30 weapons per year if the fuel rods were diverted and reprocessed.” First of all, according to the Iran-Russia agreement, the spent fuel will be returned to Russia. Second, the plutonium from LWR spent fuel is not suitable for making nuclear weapons. Even if it were, it should not be labeled as “weapons grade,” because converting it to weapons grade is costly, laborious, and time-consuming. Third, the IAEA monitors the Bushehr reactor operations. There is no possibility of overtly or covertly diverting any nuclear materials.

Such lies and distortions forced the IAEA to take the unusual step of sending an angry letter to Hoekstra. Signed by Vilmos Cserveny, a senior official at the IAEA, the letter took “strong exception to the incorrect and misleading assertion” that the IAEA had removed a senior safeguards inspector for “allegedly raising concerns about Iranian deception,” and branded as “outrageous and dishonest” the report’s suggestion that he was removed for not adhering “to an unstated IAEA policy barring IAEA officials from telling the truth” about Iran.

The U.S. mainstream media, and in particular the New York Times, has played a leading role in the campaign of lies and deceptions against Iran’s nuclear program. One would think that, after all the lies and exaggerations that Judith Miller and Michael Gordon planted in the Times about Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the Times would learn its lesson. Apparently not.

For example, after the Nov. 15, 2007, IAEA report on Iran, which, once again, gave Iran a clean bill of health, Elaine Sciolino and William J. Broad of the Times declared, “Nuclear report finds Iran’s disclosures were inadequate.” This was while the IAEA report itself stated several times that the information provided by Iran was “consistent” with the IAEA findings. The word “inadequate” was not used even once in the report.

Why did Sciolino and Broad — the “top” interpreters of what the IAEA really says in its reports — think that Iran’s disclosures were “inadequate”? Because, according to them, Iran had asked the IAEA for a meeting in December 2007 to provide information about its P-2 centrifuges, and, therefore, had missed the November deadline. However, the December meeting was about Iran’s current activities on its P-2 centrifuge, whereas the November 2007 report was about Iran’s past activities. In fact, regarding Iran’s past activities on the design of the P-2 centrifuge, the same November 2007 report stated, “Based on visits made by the Agency inspectors to the P-2 workshops in 2004, examination of the company’s owner contract [the company contracted to build the P-2 centrifuge], progress reports and logbooks, and information available on procurement inquiries, the agency has concluded that Iran’s statements on the content of the declared P-2 R&D activities are consistent with the agency’s findings.” So, the IAEA said one thing, but Sciolino and Broad claimed a completely different thing. By the way, the article has disappeared from the Times‘ archives! Even the Times itself does not believe in it.

But Sciolino did not stop there. After the IAEA issued a new report on Iran on May 26, 2008, Sciolino claimed in an article the next day that the IAEA had expressed concerns about Iran’s “willful lack of cooperation.” No such words or their equivalent can be found in the report. The report stated that the IAEA was trying to understand the role of Iran’s military in its nuclear program. Sciolino did not ask any IAEA official why the agency was not concerned about Brazil’s navy controlling its uranium-enrichment program and limiting IAEA access to its nuclear facilities (in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). She did not ask any U.S. official why the U.S. was not protesting Brazil’s violations of its NPT obligations. Instead, she fabricated nonexistent statements about Iran.

The campaign has an international dimension too. The Australian claimed on Aug. 7, 2006, that Iran had tried to import uranium ore from Congo. Nothing came out of this “report.” The conservative British newspaper the Daily Telegraph has made some of the most blatantly false claims. For example, on Nov. 16, 2006, David Blair reported in the Telegraph that Iran tried to get uranium from Somalia’s Islamic forces, in return for arms. To give his report credibility, Blair quoted UN officials about Iran’s military helping Somali forces. But his claim that Iran wanted uranium in return included no direct quote. It was just a lie. Even the Bush hawks did not buy it.

The Telegraph cooked up another falsehood about Iran’s nuclear program, which provoked an angry IAEA response. On Sept. 14, 2008, Con Coughlin, the Telegraph’s liar-in-chief, claimed that the IAEA could not account for 50-60 tons of uranium, which was supposed to be in Isfahan, where “Iran enriches its uranium.” As the Persian proverb goes, “a liar has a short memory.” Coughlin had apparently forgotten the simple and well-known fact that Iran enriches uranium at Natanz, not Isfahan (where the yellowcake is converted to uranium hexafluoride). The IAEA immediately issued a statement through its spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, rejecting the report. Two days earlier, in another article in the Telegraph, Con Coughlin and Tim Butcher claimed that there were “fresh signs” that Iran had renewed work on developing nuclear weapons.

Typically, Coughlin quoted unnamed sources, the existence of whom can never be verified. In other articles in the Telegraph, Coughlin claimed a link between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence; he alleged that North Korea was helping Iran to prepare a nuclear weapon test, and said that Iran was “grooming” bin Laden’s successor, none of which turned out to be true.

Then there is the rabid anti-Iran “group” called United Against Nuclear Iran. It is supposedly a “non-partisan, broad-based coalition” from “diverse ethnicities, faith communities, [and] political and social affiliations.” But, the group’s Web site is registered to Henley MacIntyre, who was involved in the Republican National Committee/White House e-mail scandal during George W. Bush’s presidency. Its executive director is Mark Wallace, who worked with John “Bomb-Iran-for-Israel’s-Sake” Bolton when he was the U.S. ambassador at the UN. Others involved are Richard Holbrooke, who is now President Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Dennis Ross, a longtime instrument of the Israel lobby. The group has produced a video asserting that Iran has produced highly enriched uranium, a claim that has been debunked thoroughly not only by the IAEA, but also by others.

Another tactic of the War Party has been spreading rumors and innuendoes about the existence of an internal row in the IAEA over Iran. For example, in February 2008, just as the IAEA was going to report that it had clarified Iran’s past nuclear activities, unnamed “senior Western officials” started being quoted saying that some experts within the IAEA were not happy about the report to be released. It forced the IAEA to depart from its routine mode of operation and have a senior official call Reuters to deny the rumors.

In yet another exaggeration of Iran’s nuclear potential, much has been said recently about the accumulation of low-enriched uranium (LEU) in Iran. The suggestion is that Iran can enrich its stockpile of LEU to highly enriched uranium (HEU) for bomb-making. This claim has been thoroughly debunked. Briefly, all of Iran’s LEU is safeguarded by the IAEA. Its conversion to HEU would require extensive new designs, reconfiguration, and reconnection of the centrifuges in Natanz, none of which can evade the IAEA’s watching eyes. Even if Iran could somehow do all of these things, it would only be enough HEU for one nuclear device, which would have to be detonated in a test. Going from a device to a bomb is a difficult task by itself.

In the latest attempt to cast doubt on Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly cyberspace and the mainstream media are full of stories about Iran running out of uranium. Up to now, Iran has been using the 600 tons of uranium oxide, or yellowcake, it purchased in the 1970s from South Africa for conversion to uranium hexafluoride and enrichment at Natanz. The stories are based on a report by Mark Hibbs in Nuclear Fuel (Dec. 15, 2008). The Rupert Murdoch-owned Times of London, another British newspaper in the business of fabricating stories on Iran’s nuclear program, picked up the story and ran with it. Then there was a third report by the Institute for Science and International Security to the same effect. The argument is that if Iran does not have enough yellowcake and cannot import it, then why does Iran bother to have a uranium-enrichment program, unless it is for bomb-making?

Iran has been constructing a facility in Ardakan, which will come online sometime this year, for processing uranium ore into yellowcake. Clearly, had Iran thought that it would not have enough uranium ore, it would not have undertaken the construction of the Ardakan plant. In fact, in December 2006, Iran announced that there are 1,400 uranium mines in Iran, and last month it announced the discovery of uranium ore reserves at three new sites in central Iran. While many sources put Iran’s known reserves of uranium ore at about 3,000 tons, the actual number is at least 30,000 tons.

The above is only a small part of all the lies, exaggerations, and distortions of the facts about Iran’s nuclear program. All the sound bites about the West respecting Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology are just that, sound bites. The truth is, the West does not want Iran to have access to advanced nuclear technology. Now that Iran has succeeded in setting up a domestic nuclear fuel cycle, including designing new centrifuges, the West wants Iran to dismantle them. Why should Iran give up its legal rights under the NPT and its sovereign rights to develop its uranium resources and indigenous nuclear industry?

Intel Estimate Muddied Iran’s Nuclear Intent

February 17, 2009

Washington, D.C.
Tehran Bureau | dispatches

President Barack Obama and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair did not appear to be on the same page this week when they talked about Iran’s nuclear intentions. Obama referred in his news conference to Iran’s “development of a nuclear weapon or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon,” but Blair said “we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”

Both statements are a reflection of the confusion left by the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran over Tehran’s intentions regarding nuclear weapons. That estimate was immediately attacked by the Republicans and disowned by the George W. Bush administration because it revealed that Iran had halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003.

The real problem with the NIE, however, was that it failed to clarify whether the Islamic Republic is determined to have nuclear weapons or only to have the capability to build them as a “hedge” against possible future developments.

The difference between those two possible Iranian strategies can hardly be overestimated. If Iran is actually pursuing nuclear weapons, the United States would have to choose between coercive diplomacy on Iran or accepting its status as a nuclear weapons state and seeking to deter it.

If Iran has a “hedging strategy,” however, the United States could take diplomatic steps that would maximize the incentives for Iran to remain a non-nuclear weapons state indefinitely and not risk an international confrontation.

The “scope note” for the 2007 NIE indicated that it was supposed to answer the question, “What are Iran’s intentions toward developing nuclear weapons?” But the contents of the estimate itself do not address the issue, according to an intelligence source who has read the entire 140-page estimate. The source could not be identified because he is not authorized to speak about the NIE.

The estimate was drafted primarily by specialists on nuclear weapons in the CIA who have little interest and no expertise in Iranian intentions, according to the source. CIA and State Department analysts on Iran, who do have such expertise, were brought into the discussion only after it was drafted.

Despite the absence of any substantive analysis in the body of the estimate, the “key judgments” of the estimate published in early December 2007 did address the question of Iran’s intentions. But those statements revealed two sharply opposed views that could not be reconciled.

On one hand, the document states that ending of the weapons program in 2003 “indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.”

That straightforward statement of the “hedging” interpretation of Iranian strategy is followed by the suggestion that Iran would extend the halt to its nuclear weapons program if it were offered “credible” opportunities to achieve its “security, prestige and goals for regional influence.”

But that view is contradicted by the next paragraph, which says it would be “difficult” to get the Iranian leadership to “forego the eventual development of nuclear weapons.” The reason cited is the alleged “linkage that many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives.”

Unable to reconcile the two views, the document also expresses uncertainty about which is more accurate. “We do not have sufficient intelligence,” it says, “to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.”

The analysts struck a series of other compromise formulas, beginning with a summary statement in the lead paragraph of the key judgments that assesses “with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” That formula managed to include both views of Iran’s intentions in the same sentence.

The statement, “[W]e do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons” represents yet another compromise in the NIE.

The 2007 estimate was not the first that was supposed to address the issue of Iran’s strategy, only to produce a muddled compromise conclusion. The same thing happened on a 2001 estimate on the nuclear program and a 2005 “Note to Holders” which updated the 2001 estimate. In both cases, Robert Walpole, the NIO for Strategic and Nuclear Programs, was responsible for drafting, with the assistance of weapons analysts from the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC).

That lead role gave the weapons analysts a crucial political advantage in the process, according to Paul Pillar, the national intelligence officer on Near East and South Asia during that period. “Who has the lead can make a difference in what gets in the estimate,” Pillar said in an interview.

That skewed the estimates by minimizing the attention given to Iranian intentions, because the weapons specialists had no expertise in analyzing the issue. Equally important, weapons analysts saw their main clientele within the government as being the military services and the Pentagon, according to Ellen Laipson, who was involved in the NIE process as a former national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia and as acting assistant director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production in 2001-2002.

Pillar recalled in an interview that it was his “personal assessment” that Iran was pursuing a “hedging strategy” rather than a policy decision to make nuclear weapons. Pillar said he and other Iran analysts who had followed the nuclear program over the years did not believe it was only for the purpose of energy, but neither did they believe it was aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons. The decision to build a nuclear weapon, he says, “will depend on circumstances of the time, and that’s a decision yet to be made.”

Pillar and other analysts were also aware of pragmatic arguments made within the Iranian regime against making a bomb. Most of the Iran analysts, according to Pillar, believed that Iran’s decision on manufacturing nuclear weapons would be influenced by U.S. policy — and especially by whether the United States was willing to give Iran a firm security guarantee.

The weapons specialists rejected that argument, Pillar recalled: “Some of them would say, ‘don’t give me that Iranian-decision-yet-to-be-made approach — they’ve already decided!'”

Pillar says those two conflicting views on the question of Iran’s intentions were reconciled through “assessment language that is inevitably a compromise of sorts.”

The “key judgments” in the May 2005 “Memo to holders” on Iran’s nuclear program, declassified as part of the “key judgments” for the 2007 estimate, shows how such fudging language was used to reconcile the deep differences over Iranian intentions.

It said the analysts “assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable.” That formula clearly leaned further toward the weapons analysts than toward the Iran analysts.

Pillar admits that he and Walpole “did kind of a crappy job of bridging the two views” in the 2005 estimate.

It’s not clear whether Obama has even been briefed on the distinction between a strategy of manufacturing weapons strategy and a hedging strategy. But given the systematic skewing of intelligence on the issue in the past, he will need to reach beyond Dennis Blair and CIA director Leon Panetta to understand that vital issue.

Going Nuclear: Before and After

February 2, 2009

Ever a ‘threat,’ never an atomic power, Iran points up challenges of nuclear technology

February 27, 2006
The Associated Press

The Iranians may have an atom bomb within two years, the authoritative Jane’s Defence Weekly warned. That was in 1984, two decades ago.

Four years later, the world was again put on notice, this time by Iraq, that Tehran was at the nuclear threshold, and in 1992 the CIA foresaw atomic arms in Iranian hands by 2000. Then U.S. officials pushed that back to 2003. And in 1997 the Israelis confidently predicted a new date — 2005.

Now, as 2006 wears on, and a global focus sharpens on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the coming of any Iranian doomsday arsenal looks to be years away, experts say. Those past predictions consistently underplayed the technological challenges of a bomb program.

Iran itself, which said Tuesday it has begun enriching small amounts of uranium, denies its enrichment program is intended to produce anything beyond weaker fuel for civilian nuclear power plants, not the highly enriched uranium that can fuel a bomb.

The United Nations Security Council is expected to take up the issue next month, when skeptics may push for sanctions against Tehran. But few specialists view a potential Iranian bomb as an imminent threat.

In fact, the latest estimate from the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies sees no Iranian bomb before the next decade. Israeli defense experts agree, speaking of a 2012 date.

The technology involved — uranium gas centrifuges — guarantees delays, said Washington analyst Corey Hinderstein.

“It’s a very complicated process requiring precision from design and engineering to manufacture and installation, and there’s a lot of room for problems,” said Hinderstein, who for a decade has tracked Iranian nuclear developments with the Institute for Science and International Security.

Enrichment occurs in vast arrays of centrifuges, thin-walled cylinders of strong but superlight materials — typically three to six feet tall and several centimeters wide — into which uranium gas is fed. Each of these “rotors,” with just a few milligrams of gas, spins on its axis at up to 70,000 revolutions per minute, separating the heavier uranium-238 from the rarer U-235, the isotope whose nucleus can “fission” to produce energy.

Pumped through thousands of “cascading” cylinders, the mixture’s content is gradually boosted to over three per cent U-235, the level needed for power generators. If extended, the process can produce 90 per cent enriched uranium, the stuff of bombs.

But centrifuges vibrate, shatter, fail regularly, because of imprecise machining, slight imbalances magnified at superhigh speeds, imperfect bearings.

“A vast percentage of centrifuges have to be rejected in testing, up to 60 percent rejection,” said Frank Barnaby, a former British weapons scientist, now with the Oxford Research Group.

The Iranians plan to install 50,000 centrifuges in huge underground halls at Natanz, Iran. But fewer than half the 1,140 machines they had assembled by 2004, using ultrathin aluminum, were good enough to use in cascades, the UN nuclear agency has reported. And problems develop not only with materials, said a retired U.S. centrifuge specialist.

“There are also problems with scoops and other things on the inside. You have to design the electronics that give you variable frequencies. You have to lubricate them properly, hook them together properly, maintain the vacuum,” said this scientist, speaking on condition he not be named because of his sensitive former government position.

Hinderstein’s ISIS calculates that at its last known assembly rate of about 100 per month, Iran would take years to emplace thousands of centrifuges at Natanz, a plant that theoretically could eventually produce highly enriched uranium for dozens of bombs a year.

The ISIS experts suggest Iran could speed things up with a basic small plant of 1,500 centrifuges, to produce enough bomb fuel for one weapon. Even then, the assembly, testing and production process would take the project into 2009, they estimate.

And, asked Barnaby, “who do you deter with just one weapon?”

Even before the centrifuge stage, however, Iran must overcome another technical problem.

Too many impurities remain in the gas produced from processed uranium ore, or yellowcake, at Iran’s uranium conversion facility, the magazine Science reported last month, quoting an unidentified U.S. government official.

The gas conversion facility was built on a Chinese design, but Beijing backed out of the project in 1998, leaving the Iranians without Chinese expertise to ensure the best product.

Contaminants in the uranium hexafluoride gas can block valves and piping. “Those impurities do muck up your centrifuges,” Barnaby said. “It’s not a problem if you want 3.5 per cent enriched uranium for power plants, but if you go to 90 percent these impurities are a major problem.”

Few specialists doubt that the Iranians, with years of work, could overcome such engineering problems. But are they seeking a bomb?

Mustafa Kibaroglu, of Ankara’s Bilkent University, told The Associated Press nine years ago that Iran was incapable of building a nuclear weapon earlier than 2012. Now that his is a widely accepted timetable, this Turkish expert, who has consulted with Iranian leaders, says politics, more than technology, will be the deciding factor.

“Having the capability to build weapons doesn’t mean that they will build nuclear weapons,” he said. “This is an issue yet to be decided by Iran’s (Muslim) clerical leadership. This issue is not to be discounted.”

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press.

John Bolton Reads ‘Em and Weeps

December 5, 2008

Tehran Bureau | washington dispatch

It was an extraordinary scene at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, where John Bolton read ’em and wept. There is, he said, no way to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

His conclusion, stunning in its finality: “We are going to have to deal with a nuclear Iran.”

In so saying, Bolton — among the hawkiest of hawks from the now neoconservative-movement-in-exile — broke ranks with many of his neocon colleagues. Most of them haven’t given up on stopping Iran, as evidenced by a raft of new reports from neocon-linked thinktanks. And they’re busily calling for stepped-up sanctions, making bellicose threats, and warning of military action by the United States and Israel. But Bolton is folding his cards.

“Iran’s going to get nuclear weapons,” said Bolton, to an audience at AEI that seemed shocked into silence. “We have lost this race.” If you don’t believe me, you can watch the video.

According to Bolton, the idea that Iran can be deterred from going forward by applying economic sanctions won’t work. Had it been tried earlier, he said, it might had an impact. “Sanctions could have dissuaded Iran,” he said. “But that time is past.” Europe doesn’t have the will to impose tough sanctions, he said. He lamented his encounters with the German ambassador to the United Nations, during Bolton’s tenure as US ambassador there, and he said that the Germans and other European countries won’t take action to cut off their lucrative trade with Tehran.

But Bolton also said that neither the United States nor Israel will attack Iran to stop its nuclear program. “Neither one is willing to use military force,” he said. Bolton said that until recently he believed that there was a small chance that Israel, on its own, might attack Iran before January 20, when Barack Obama becomes president. But Israel is mired in political confusion in advance of its coming elections, and there is no political will in Israel to go to war against Iran, he said.

Bolton also said that the likelihood of a US attack on Iran under Obama is nil. “Under an Obama administration, that possibility is essentially zero,” he said. “After January 20, the chances are zero.”

If strong action had been taken in the past, say, starting five years ago, Iran could have been stopped, Bolton said. Tough sanctions then would be biting now, he said. Alternately, the United States could have adopted a policy of “regime change,” supporting ethnic minorities, disaffected youth, and Iran’s youth, to create revolutionary unrest, even though nearly all experts on Iran have argued that regime change was never a viable option. Said Bolton: “If we had started it five years ago, we might be in a different place,. It was a good policy option. We should have pursued it. We didn’t pursue it.”

After Bolton spoke, I encountered a very senior neoconservative strategist, who’d served in the Department of Defense, and who was quietly observing the proceedings at the back of the AEI meeting room. I asked him if he agreed with Bolton’s assessment. Preferring not to speak on the record, he said:

“Well, I think what he said is basically true. We’re going to find ourselves in a position not unlike the one we faced with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We will have to contain them and deter them. The problem is, that Iran will feel empowered, and we’ll have an increasing level of tension in the Persian Gulf.”

What does that mean? I asked. According to this former official, it looks ominous. “Eventually, we’ll probably have to do something. But doing it later will be a lot harder than doing it now.” And by doing something, what do you mean, I asked.

“It might come to a war.”

United against Iran?

November 5, 2008

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Tehran Bureau | correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A brand new assembly of bipartisan hawks, from neoconservative hardliners to liberal interventionists, was launched this fall with a mission to mobilize grassroots Americans against Iran’s nuclear program. The group, the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc., describes itself as a “non-partisan, broad-based coalition” whose members include “human rights and humanitarian groups, the labor movement, political advocacy and grassroots organizations, representatives of diverse ethnicities, faith communities, political and social affiliations.” To kick it off, several of its principals authored a September 21, 2008, op ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled: “Everyone Needs To Worry About Iran.”

But so far, at least, the organization seems confined to a propaganda role, uniting ten advocates of a hard-line approach toward Tehran and led by a former Republican political operative, Mark Wallace, who served as deputy campaign chairman for the Bush-Cheney ’04 reelection effort. Wallace, who has specialized in anti-United Nations investigations over allegations of mismanagement, fraud, and abuse, also served as an advisor to Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, during her one and only debate with Senator Joseph Biden, and he is married to Nicole Wallace, the spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign.

Not surprisingly, other leaders of the coalition – which presents itself as United Against Nuclear Iran, or UANI – include such hawkish luminaries as James Woolsey, the former CIA director who is closely aligned with the neoconservative movement; Fouad Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who was one of the leading voices in support of the war in Iraq; and Karen Hughes, the former aide to George W. Bush in Texas and at the White House, who later led the State Department’s public diplomacy effort in the Muslim world.

But the group is comprised of more than just GOP operatives and neoconservative strategists. Among other UANI leaders are two leading Democratic party hawks on Iran: Richard Holbrooke, a former Clinton Administration who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Dennis Ross, who worked in several administrations and served as special Middle East coordinator for President Clinton.

In its mission statement, UANI says: “The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran should concern every American and be unacceptable to the community of nations. … The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is a danger to world peace.” It promises to conduct a wide-ranging propaganda campaign to “inform the public about the nature of the Iranian regime, including its desire and intent to possess nuclear weapons, as well as Iran’s role as a state sponsor of global terrorism,” and it intends to “mobilize public support, utilize media outreach, and persuade our elected leaders to voice a robust and united American opposition to a nuclear Iran.”

So far, at least, UANI’s campaign isn’t going well.

Its website,, is mostly empty. It lists several dozen state chapters, but the vast majority of them have only a single member thus far. By mid-October, the largest state chapter, California United Against Nuclear Iran, had a total of eleven members. The apparent leader of the California chapter, Linda – she doesn’t list her last name – is a Biblical fundamentalist who warns on UANI’s web site that the End Times is near: “We must pray for the peace of Israel, as the scriptures tell us to,” writes Linda. “Ezekiel 38-39 tell us that a nation from the North called Gog/Magog (Russia in modern times), will rise against the small country of Israel, and many other countries will come with Russia in those days. Russia is mentioned as the king of the North, and China is mentioned as the king coming from the East with a 200,000,000 man army!”

The only “event” listed on UANI’s website several weeks after its creation is scheduled for December 31, 2008, when Dr. Kojo Opoku Aidoo will lecture at the University of Ghana about the “potential dangers of Iran’s efforts to ‘nuclearize.’”

Of course, great things have arisen from more humble beginnings. But for an organization whose members include first-rank diplomats and former U.S. officials, UANI seems to have gotten off to a rocky start. They’re also circulating a petition (“A nuclear-armed Iran is a danger to world peace and should be unacceptable to the community of nations. As Americans, we stand united against nuclear Iran.”), raising funds, and offering a newsletter, “Eye on Iran.”

The fact that Holbrooke joined up with a hawkish, neoconservative-inspired group like UANI may not bode well for his desire to be included in an Obama administration, if the senator from Illinois were to be elected. Last year, Holbrooke endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, thus alienating himself from Obama’s circle, and since Clinton dropped out of the race the Obama team has not exactly welcomed Holbrooke. According to a former White House official, who requested anonymity, Holbrooke is close to Biden, Obama’s vice presidential pick, and he is hoping that the Delaware senator might provide entrée into an Obama administration. Its been widely reported in Washington that Holbrooke is vigorously lobbying for an appointment as secretary of state.

Ross, meanwhile, is an Obama adviser. He is viewed with suspicion by many in the Obama circle because of his hawkish attitudes, his reputation as a strong supporter of Israel, and his post at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a staunchly pro-Israel thinktank that has called for a hardline policy toward Iran. Until recently, Ross was several ranks removed from the inner circle of Obama’s team but, according to a highly informed Washington source, lately Ross has become more influential, especially on policy toward Israel and Iran. Though Obama has repeatedly declared his intention to open up a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, he has also warned that he will not rule out the use of force over Iran’s nuclear program and he has called for much more stringent economic sanctions against Iran, including an embargo on imports of gasoline and refined petroleum products by Tehran.

UANI does not address the issue of whether the United States should use military force against Iran. Holbrooke, Woolsey, Ross, and Wallace all co-signed the Wall Street Journal piece, in which they declared, “We do not aim to beat the drums of war.” But they stress that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to possess nuclear weapons, even though some experts question whether Iran is, in fact, moving toward a military nuclear capability as opposed to a civilian enrichment program, and many others say that the United States should start thinking about how to co-exist with, and contain, an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. UANI says that a nuclear Iran poses a “direct threat to the United States and its allies,” and it links the nuclear issue to “Iran’s support of terrorism,” implying that Iran might supply its regional allies, such as Hezbollah or Hamas, with a bomb.

The new organization has attracted virtually no attention in the media, despite its high-profile launch in the Wall Street Journal and the blue-chip credentials of its leading lights. That could change, however, as UANI gets off the ground, and as it attracts more supporters than End Times fundamentalists such as Linda from California.