Iran Update: Number 140

  • Iran announces it will enrich uranium to higher level
  • New concerns about Iran's intentions, capabilities
  • IAEA Report continues to raise concerns about possible military dimension
  • Diplomatic pressure on Iran intensifies and leads to heated rhetoric between Iran and the United States
  • Western leaders rally for another round of sanctions
  • Iran's response to sanctions
  • Saudi Arabia wants quick resolution to Iran nuclear situation
  • Implications for domestic political situation
  • United States, Israel, ramp up military presence
  • Iranian military and space developments

Iran announces it will enrich uranium to higher level

Iran's Atomic Energy Organization notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on February 8th that it is taking a landmark step by further enriching its own uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Iran had rejected the proposal to export 70% of its stock of enriched uranium and to then receive fuel rods for the reactor at a later date. Iranian leaders have been concerned that they would not receive fuel for the TRR after fulfilling their end of the deal, and put forward their own alternatives — exporting the uranium in batches, or swaps taking place simultaneously on Iranian soil. The first exchange would involve Iran trading an initial 160 kg-batch of its 3.5% enriched fuel for the foreign fuel (enriched enough for the TRR). An additional 800 kg of Iran's enriched uranium would be sealed and given to the IAEA for safekeeping until the first swap was finished. Iranian officials had provided British parliamentarians with a copy of their proposal. Ben Wallace, Conservative MP and chairman of the British-Iranian All-Party Parliamentary Group, told The Times (London) that the Iranian proposal was intended to serve as a confidence-building measure. The proposal was always unlikely to elicit agreement from western leaders, who already saw their original proposal as a generous offer. After the Iranian proposal was rejected, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would enrich its uranium to a higher level.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and other officials in Tehran on February 16th. Turkey has offered to serve as an alternative location for a fuel swap. Turkish officials have increased their efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse over Iran's nuclear program as a whole, particularly motivated by the impact that economic sanctions or military action against Iran would have for the region. To date no progress has been forthcoming. Iranian leaders were continuing to say that they are open to a fuel swap, but still insisted that the exchange take place on Iranian soil.

As a follow up to its previous offer, Japan has once again offered to enrich the uranium on behalf of Iran (in place of Russia and France). Iran has not responded to the Japanese offer yet but its Parliament Speaker, Ali Larijani, is expected to discuss the matter during his meeting with the Japanese Foreign Minister in Tokyo while the offer is also being discussed in the Iranian Parliament. Japan does not have the same soured history with Iran as France and Russia do.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Chairman of Iran's Assembly of Experts and Chairman of the Expediency Council, is reported to have warned Western powers that "Iran is very serious about its nuclear program, both on enrichment and the uranium swap," and that its nuclear program is "irreversible". Reinforcing this sentiment, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation, recently reiterated Iran's plans to build ten new uranium enrichment plants, saying that Iran has narrowed down their locations to about 20 potential sites with an interest in building plants inside mountains to protect them from military attacks. He hopes that Iran can commence the construction of two of the plants within the next Iranian year, which begins on March 21st.

New concerns about Iran's intentions, capabilities

Iran's move to enrich its uranium from 3.5% to 19.75% worries many outside observers because it brings Iran closer to having 80-90% military-grade fissile material. Given some limitations in knowledge about Iran's current technical capabilities, questions remain as to whether Iran will be able to make this jump efficiently. BASIC's Executive Director, Paul Ingram, explained during a phone interview with Bloomberg news,

"The West can't see a rational reason why Iran would want to be doing this, because it can't easily convert that 20 percent enriched uranium into the fuel for the Tehran research reactor. ...It doesn't know the code, the special fabrication technology that is required. It's got to crack that, too, and it hasn't come up with any rational explanation how it's going to do it."

The public summary of an annual U.S. Intelligence Community assessment said that regarding Iran's overall nuclear program, U.S. analysts believe "Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that bring it closer to being able to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." (p. 14) They highlighted two key developments: Iran's number of installed centrifuges has jumped from 3,000 in 2007 to 8,000, though only half of the centrifuges are operational; and the previously secret construction of the nuclear facility at Qom (Fordow).

IAEA Report continues to raise concerns about possible military dimension

On February 18th, the new Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, released his first update on Iran's implementation of NPT safeguards and compliance with key U.N. Security Council Resolutions. The report calls on Iran to "clarify" the "possible military dimensions" of its nuclear program, citing the collection of evidence suggesting that Iran may have conducted "activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile," including "activities involving high precision detonators fired simultaneously; studies on the initiation of high explosives and missile re-entry body engineering," among other activities, some of which may have continued past 2004 (when the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate suggested that Iran's pursuit of weaponization appeared to have stopped). It reports that Iran has moved most of its current stock of low-enriched uranium to the PFEP, apparently for further enrichment to higher levels. It complains that, "the period of notice provided by Iran regarding related changes made to PFEP was insufficient for the Agency to adjust the existing safeguards procedures before Iran started to feed the material into PFEP."

On Fordow, it states Iran is not providing access to information such as the "original design documentation" or "access to companies involved in the design and construction". Contrary to relevant resolutions, Iran continues its enrichment at Natanz, construction at Fordow, and "Iran has also continued with the construction of the IR-40 reactor and related heavy water activities". The IAEA has not been allowed sufficient access to obtain requisite information. The report concluded by requesting Iran to work towards fully implementing the Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol.

Iranian officials called the report "unrealistic" and requested a review of Iran's nuclear program from a legal standpoint, echoing previous calls for its rights to be observed. Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali-Asghar Soltanieh, has claimed that suspicions are talked up because Iran refuses to implement voluntary protocols. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the fears are "baseless" because the religious beliefs of Iranians prohibit the use of nuclear weapons. President Ahmadinejad said in an interview on Russia's NTV Channel on February 12th that "the whole world should be free of nuclear weapons because we see such weapons as inhumane." Iran will host a conference in Tehran on April 17th and 18th to discuss efforts around a nuclear weapon-free world; BASIC Executive Director, Paul Ingram, will attend.

Diplomatic pressure on Iran intensifies and leads to heated rhetoric between Iran and the United States

The Obama Administration has ramped up its global efforts to isolate Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in the Middle East to meet with Arab allies on February 14th, threatened to impose "greater costs" on Iran if it continued its current path. The following day, she warned an audience in Qatar that Iran is heading towards a "military dictatorship". Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called Clinton's remarks a "new deception" intended to "divert public opinion in the region."

The head of U.S. Central Command David Petraeus declared on February 20th that the United States is putting Iran's nuclear program on a "pressure track". General Petraeus contended, "I think that no one at the end of this time can say that the United States and the rest of the world have not given Iran every opportunity to resolve the issues diplomatically."

Western leaders rally for another round of sanctions

The United States was also leading efforts to lobby China, the one possible critical holdout that has a Security Council veto over passing new U.N. penalties against the Iranian government. Secretary Clinton admonished China, saying that it would suffer international consternation if it did not join other Security Council members in punishing Iran. Although saying that she understood China's reluctance to impose new sanctions, she also made the case that China would suffer longer-term consequences if the Middle East became destabilized by a nuclear Iran. In response, China repeated that there was still time for negotiations. Foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said, "China always believes that dialogue and negotiations are the best way to resolve this issue." The differences of opinion over Iran appeared more sharp because of Beijing's anger over the Obama Administration's recent decision to proceed with arms sales to Taiwan.

Russia, another veto-wielding member of the Security Council, has appeared more open to agreeing another round of sanctions. Moscow notably joined Washington and Paris in a group letter chiding Tehran for not accepting the TRR proposal. Russia also decided to delay the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Iran, a decision made after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia to push for tougher sanctions. The possible sale has aggravated both Israel and the United States because the weapons could help protect Iran's nuclear facilities from possible air strikes. Netanyahu also called on states individually to impose tough sanctions on oil to and from Iran. Allianz, Europe's "largest primary insurer by gross premiums," and German reinsurance company Munich Re AG have revealed that they are phasing out their business in Iran.

Iran's response to sanctions

During testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 2nd, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that Tehran has been taking measures to dampen the effects of possible additional U.S. and global sanctions, looking to acquire new sources of gasoline from China and Venezuela. He added that Tehran "...has resorted to doing business with small, non-Western banks and dealing in non-U.S. currency for many financial transactions."

Saudi Arabia wants quick resolution to Iran nuclear situation

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal is reported to have said that sanctions on Iran are a "long-term solution" to prevent its nuclear ambitions, and that he preferred an unspecified "short-term" resolution instead, though said that he was not calling for military action. He added that nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts in the Middle East must include Israel. Saudi Arabia has significant leverage over China as its number one oil supplier.

Implications for domestic political situation

Media attention refocused upon Iran's internal political turmoil during celebrations of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, involving several million people on February 11th. President Ahmadinejad used his speech to focus upon Iran's nuclear program, suggesting that foreign powers are trying to deny the country the right to develop nuclear technology. Some previous hawks are now arguing that the West should avoid taking significant new actions that could play into the hands of the regime until the internal political dynamics can finish playing out on their own. Answering these doubts, U.S. National Security Advisor James Jones said on Fox News Sunday (February 14th) that a new round of sanctions could "...add to that regime's difficulties" and that, "a combination of those things could well trigger a regime change -- it's possible."

United States, Israel, ramp up military presence

In January Washington increased its regional military presence in the Persian Gulf, claimed to be a "defensive maneuver." However, Robert Tait of The Guardian points out that the "U.S. deployment may strengthen radical elements in the revolutionary guards, who have advocated an aggressive response beyond Iran's borders if Arab Gulf states allow American military bases on their territory."

Israel's air force has introduced a new fleet of pilotless planes, or "drones," that can fly as far as the Persian Gulf. Named the Heron TP, the drones are the largest unmanned aircraft in Israel's military and can easily reach Iran.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned Israeli officials of the "unintended consequences" of an air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. He kept open the eventual possibility of a military attack on Iran, but emphasized that diplomacy and sanctions should be tried before resorting to such measures. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that the United States has no immediate intention to launch a military attack against Iran. "Obviously, we do not want Iran to become a nuclear weapons power, but we are not planning anything other than going for sanctions. We want to try to get the strongest sanctions we can out of the United Nations Security Council, mostly to influence their decision-making".

The results of one U.S. public poll seemed to reflect this position. CNN, with the Opinion Research Corporation, conducted a survey between February 12-15, 2010, which included the following question, "What do you think the United States should do to get Iran to shut down its nuclear program - take military action against Iran now, use economic and diplomatic efforts but not take military action right now, or take no action against Iran at this time?" A majority, 63%, chose "Economic and diplomatic efforts only." The three remaining categories: "Take military action now," was chosen by 23% of the respondents; "No action," was chosen by 12%, and 3% said they had "No Opinion." For more results and information, see CNN Opinion Research Poll, February 19, 2010, p. 3.

Iranian military and space developments

Iran launched its first domestically-built guided-missile destroyer. The 94-meters-long, 1,500-ton warship, named the Jamaran, has started patrolling the Persian Gulf. According to the Tehran Times, the destroyer can "carry helicopters and is equipped with torpedoes and electronic radar". Brig. General Aziz Nasirzadeh, a Lieutenant Commander of the Iranian Army Air Force, claimed the successful test of a prototype stealth drone, called "Sofreh Mahi". In addition, Iran announced on February 3rd that for the first time it had successfully launched a satellite sending small live animals into space. In tandem with Iranian Revolution celebrations, President Ahmadinejad marked "Space Technology Day," and unveiled several prototypes of rockets and satellites.

Nima Khorrami Assl and Chris Lindborg, BASIC

 

 

 

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