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Spinning Iran’s centrifuges

Posted by alanmirs on August 15, 2011

Asia Time Online - Daily News

By Yousaf Butt

Consider yourself warned – “[I]n the next few years Iran will be in position to detonate a nuclear device,” so writes Ray Takeyh, confidently, in a recent Washington Post OpEd [1]. Why? Because the Iranian government willingly informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would begin installing additional centrifuges with higher capacity to enrich uranium. [2]

Just like fertilizer can be used to increase crop yields – or make bombs – uranium is a dual use material.

Uranium enrichment has been conflated with nuclear weaponization so often that it has morphed into a virtual bogeyman bomb itself – an absolutely impermissible activity for the likes of Iran to pursue. This was not always the case. In irony that only history can muster, Iran’s nuclear program was kicked off in the 1950s with the full encouragement and support of the United States, under the auspices of president Dwight D Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. [3]

In 1970, the US proposed installing 23 nuclear power plants in Iran by the year 2000. A 1976 directive by then-president Gerald Ford offered Iran a US-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel, another key ingredient for making nuclear bombs. [4] This “nuclear fuel-cycle” infrastructure is precisely the type of technology the US is now keen to keep out of Iran.

While it would be nice if Iran stopped enriching uranium, does the international community have any right to insist on that? Unfortunately, none of treaties and legal agreements that Iran is party to have changed since the time of the shah: what was legal then is legal now. [5]

Iran is a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and, as such, is entitled to enrich uranium under IAEA safeguards, which it does. Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US all enrich uranium without any fuss.

In Brazil’s case, there actually ought to be some fuss: their leaders have publicly expressed great interest in nuclear weapons [6] and have – unlike Iran – restricted IAEA inspectors from full access to their main uranium enrichment facility. [6]

Uranium enrichment is useful for generating the fuel for nuclear power plants, and for making radioisotopes for medical and agricultural uses – and, yes, for nuclear weapons as well. Asking how many years Iran is from making a bomb only makes sense if we know – or suspect that – Iran has a nuclear weapons development program.

But earlier this year, the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper released a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear program that could settle this question. [7]

This document represents the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies. Although the content of the new NIE is classified, Clapper confirmed in senate questioning that he has a “high level of confidence” that Iran “has not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program”. [8]

This jibes with the Intelligence community’s 2007 NIE, the unclassified version of which publicly stated that Iran wrapped up its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Recent State Department cables provided by WikiLeaks back this up – for instance State Department officials confirmed that some rehashed IAEA reports of suspicious Iranian activities in 2004 were “consistent with the 2003 weaponization halt assessment, since some activities were wrapping up in 2004”. [9]

To be clear, what the NIE and the State Department cables refer to as Iran’s “nuclear weapons program” (or “weaponization”) pre-2003 was some possible – but disputed – evidence of research by Iranian scientists having to do building and potentially delivering a bomb, not a full-blown actual bomb factory.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, recently told investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that he had not “seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing, in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials … I don’t believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran.” [10]

Indeed, every year, the IAEA has confirmed that Iran has complied with its nuclear materials’ accountancy. There has never been any diversion of nuclear material into any alleged weapons program. Ever.

So, unless Iran starts a real nuclear weapons program it will never make the bomb – no matter how much enrichment takes place.

The only “evidence” of Iran’s nuclear weapons program is its refusal to grant the IAEA completely unfettered access to whatever facilities the IAEA would like to inspect. But since the Iranian government has not ratified the “Additional Protocol” agreement it has no obligation to open every door to the IAEA.

Pretty much everything the US and its allies have done with regards to Iran’s nuclear program has been counter-productive: the sanctions have improved Iran’s domestic scientific capabilities. [11]

The assassination of Iranian scientists has led to one of the victims-to-be – Professor Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani – to be named head of the Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and therefore, automatically, one of the vice-presidents of the country. [12] And cyber-warfare, like the STUXNET virus suspected to be the work of US and Israel, [13]

has not made a significant dent in Iran’s enrichment capabilities: to the contrary, the Iranians have reportedly begun deploying second- and third-generation centrifuges which may boost their enrichment capability three-fold. [14]

So what to do?

Call off the cyber-warfare. Call off the assassinations. Call off the sanctions.

Not only are United Nations sanctions counterproductive, they are not even legal. The UN charter clearly outlines the conditions needed to kick off such sanctions – only after a determination of “the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” is found, something that has never been done.

Far from marching towards making a nuclear bomb, Iran has repeatedly offered to place additional restrictions on its nuclear program well in excess of its legal obligations, including opening the program entirely to joint US participation and limiting the number of centrifuges they operate. More recently they agreed to a Turkish-Brazilian brokered deal to export their enriched uranium for fabrication into reactor fuel abroad. In each case, the US deliberately undermined or ignored these offers.

The underhanded way in which the US and its allies are misusing the IAEA to issue trumped up reports about Iran’s alleged – and it should be stressed many years’ past – “intransigence” over possible military activities threatens the very legitimacy of that agency.

The 118 nations that make up the non-aligned movement (NAM) – ie the real “international community” – have raised howls (or, at least, what passes for “howls” in diplomatic circles) about how politicized the agency has become lately [15].

In a statement read during an IAEA board of governors meeting, representatives of the NAM nations noted “with concern, the possible implications of the continued departure from standard verification language in the summary of the report of the director general [Yukio Amano]”. [16]

As it turns out, Amano himself comes with some baggage attached. Leaked cables cast him as “solidly in the US court” on Iran. [17]. To save the legitimacy of the IAEA, Amano should give serious thought to gracefully resigning his post.

Surely, Iran should be stopped – but only when it does things that are illegal. A lot of dust has been kicked up recently because Iran has expressed interest in enriching uranium to 19.75% as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor so that it can produce medical isotopes. (Normally, reactors used for generating nuclear power use uranium of 3.5% enrichment.) But anything less than 20% is considered low-enriched uranium (LEU) by the IAEA – not highly enriched uranium (HEU) as some have reported.

And in fact there is nothing in the law stopping Iran from enriching uranium to any level it pleases, so long as it does so under IAEA safeguards.

The most objective reading of Iran’s intentions is that it may be stockpiling enough LEU to give itself a “break-out” option to weaponize in the future – unfortunately for the US and its allies, there is nothing illegal about that. The fault lies with NPT that allows such behavior – not with Iran. The US may as well insist that Iran also not produce fertilizer since that, too, can be used in bombs.

Iran could certainly take its stock of LEU and enrich it to a grade required for making bombs, but its LEU is under the surveillance of the IAEA – and has been for decades.

Diverting this material for military purposes would be discovered by the IAEA. So either Iran could cheat and get caught, or it could kick out the IAEA inspectors. [18] These, then, should be the real “red-lines” for taking any tougher actions on Iran.

Asia Times Read More

Tehran and Moscow cheek by jowl

  Aug 17, 2011By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

This is an important week in Russia-Iran relations, in light of the visit to Moscow by Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who is scheduled to discuss a wide range of sensitive issues in talks with Russian officials.

The agenda for the two sides includes “fighting American unilateralism” as well as Russia’s recently-unveiled “step-by-step” plan to resolve the Iran nuclear standoff, according to Mehdi Sanai, a member of the Iranian parliament’s foreign policy and national security committee, who is accompanying Salehi to Moscow for the talks on Tuesday,

The so-called “Lavrov plan”, named after Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was submitted to Tehran last month and calls on Iran to expand its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), envisaging a scenario in which for every proactive Iranian step to resolve any outstanding issues with the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the international community would grant Iran limited concessions, such as freezing some sanctions.

Iran’s rather warm reception of the Russian initiative has led some Tehran pundits to conclude that another round of multilateral nuclear talks is approaching, depending on the United States’ willingness to forego its initial skepticism and give a cautious if not enthusiastic nod to the plan.

One reason for the new stir in the often turbulent Tehran-Moscow ties is the announcement by Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of Iran’s atomic organization, that the opening of much-delayed Russian-made Bushehr power plant is imminent, a position shared by Russia’s envoy to Iran, Alexander Sadovnikov, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of expanding business and trade relations between the countries.

If true and Bushehr goes on line within the next few weeks – initially at 40% capacity according to Abbasi – then in all likelihood Iran will pursue new nuclear contracts with Russia, following the pre-existing memorandum of understanding signed by officials of both countries. This is not to mention the prospect of greater Russian investment in Iran’s oil and gas projects in the coming years.

To open a parenthesis, Abbasi was vilified in a Wall Street Journal editorial for his alleged role in a clandestine nuclear weapons program, an accusation relying on unnamed expert close to the IAEA in a recent report by the Institute for Science and International Security. This is a good example of how the US media and think-tanks keep the mill rolling over an Iranian nuclear threat – irrespective of the recent admission by IAEA’s former chief Mohamad ElBaradei that he saw no evidence of Iranian proliferation.

Clearly, Russia’s willingness to act as an intermediary in the nuclear standoff has impressed Tehran, which nowadays foresees long-term strategic synchronicity with Moscow on a range of external issues, including Syria, Libya and the future of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Envisioning a post-US Iraq and Afghanistan, Moscow and Tehran need to expand their regional cooperation to address the potential implications of US troop withdrawals from those two countries, although few Tehran political analysts are willing to hedge their bets on a complete US pullout from either countries.

If Salehi’s trip goes as planned, we may witness a more explicit Russian position on the thorny issue of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, the subject of four UN Security Council resolutions voted on by Russia. According to unconfirmed reports, whereas the UN has demanded a complete cessation of Iran’s enrichment program, the Russian plan envisages a scenario where under strict international surveillance Iran could continue with its controversial nuclear program, which has fueled Western suspicions of an Iranian nuclear weapons agenda, a charge Iran has flatly denied.

One thing going for the Russian plan is the willingness of some European countries to support it, even though it is highly disliked in some US policy circles since it crosses the US’s “red line” on Iranian enrichment. A visit to Tehran by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is called for; it could go a long way in clearing the European response to the Russian plan.

Perhaps equally important is the reaction of the IAEA, whose head Yukiya Amano has been highly critical of Iran for insufficient cooperation with the atomic agency. Amano has yet to accept Tehran’s invitation to visit Iran’s nuclear facilities and may find it difficult to maintain an inflexible approach at a delicate time when Russia is effectively playing the role of a mediator.

While in Moscow, Salehi may insist on the delivery of the S-300 air defense system that Russia has unilaterally canceled. There is no justification for the Russian move, especially when one factors in that scores of Russian scientists are and will be busy at Bushehr for the foreseeable future and an air defense system to protect them and the nuclear facility that they have put up in Bushehr makes sense, irrespective of the American and Israeli pressure to renege on the contract. At the moment, however, this does not seem very likely, as Moscow is careful not to introduce new points of contention with Washington.

However, for the nuclear proposal to have a chance of acceptance by the US and its Western allies, it must be disentangled with the complicating web of current US-Russia relations that of late have deteriorated due to the divisive issues such as human rights and North Atlantic Treaty Organization interventions.

Henceforth, if Washington perceives the Russian nuclear initiative as part of a Moscow strategy to gain regional influence at the US’s expense, US opposition to the plan is guaranteed. The US has dispatched a high-ranking official, Robert Einhorn, to Moscow for clarification on the details of Lavrov plan and if the issue of Iranian enrichment is not resolved, then a widening gap between Moscow and Washington on Iran becomes inevitable. That is unless Moscow veers back into line and toes Washington’s zero tolerance for Iran’s enrichment that would, in turn, alienate Tehran.
The trick is how to advance the Lavrov plan with the West when the US is wary of Russia’s intentions and of any coming Iran-Russia “groupthink” on the US in the Middle East.

Little surprise then, if Washington opts to distance itself from the Lavrov plan and to sing the tune of negativism in the coming days, in order to prevent it paying the cost of a strategic symbiosis between Tehran and Moscow.

This may be risky with the US’s European allies, some of whom – such as Germany – may prefer to see a relaxation of Iran sanctions that could translate into expanded trade with Iran at a time of European economic malaise.

An important consideration for the US should be over the implications of long-term Iran-Russia growing interdependence. In contrast to the US’s lack of business relations with Iran, that could well translate into the end of Russia’s cooperation with the West on Iran’s nuclear threat at the UN.

This possibility alone should suffice to produce fresh thinking from Washington on how to end the Iran nuclear crisis.

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