Iran Update: Number 153

  • IAEA to release more data on suspected weapons activities related to Iran’s nuclear program; Tensions flare during annual member state gathering
  • Tel Aviv and London ratchet up talk of military strike on Iran
  • Iran rejects idea of emergency hotline between Tehran and Washington
  • Iran offers proposals on nuclear program; announces receipt of letter from United States
  • U.S. officials accuse Iran of plotting to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States; raise probability of more sanctions
  • Turkey to install NATO missile defense radar, draws ire from Iran


IAEA to release more data on suspected weapons activities related to Iran’s nuclear program; Tensions flare during annual member state gathering

Prior to the upcoming meeting of its governing board on November 17-18, the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) director general Yukiya Amano will issue on November 8 an updated safeguards report on Iran’s nuclear program. Western officials are saying that this next report will reveal more detail than past reports on the suspected military activities related to Iran’s nuclear program in recent years. The Agency has come under more pressure to release data allegedly indicating secret Iranian efforts to experiment with nuclear weapons technology: mainly work on the individual components necessary for constructing and detonating a nuclear device. The Obama administration in particular has been increasing pressure on the Agency to release the sensitive data. Amano spoke last month of the possible release of such information. However, some speculate Amano is concerned that publishing too much of this information may prompt Iran to evict inspectors from the country. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and denies any accusations of weapons research and designs. It also maintains that the data indicating military dimensions of the program are forgeries intended to falsely implicate Iran.

On September 19, at the IAEA’s annual member state gathering in Geneva, representatives from Iran and the United States traded harsh criticisms. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu stated “Iran has continued to engage in a long-standing pattern of denial, deceit and evasion, in violation of its non-proliferation obligations.” He also emphasized U.S. concerns over Iran’s enrichment activities at an underground military facility near the city of Qom. “Expanding, and moving underground, its enrichment to this level marks a significant provocation and brings Iran still closer to having the capability to produce weapons grade uranium,” he stated.

In a speech following Chu’s remarks, Iran’s atomic agency head Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani referred to the United States when he said the “danger of such a country that owns nuclear weapons…is a serious concern for the global peace and security.” Abbasi-Davani also stated that the “hostile positions” of other nations could force Iran to place its nuclear activities “underground” and heighten the secrecy surrounding the program. Although Iran will continue to allow Agency inspectors to monitor operations at the Qom facility, Abbasi-Davani’s statements suggesting the possibility of greater secrecy has heightened concerns. Due to his suspected involvement in nuclear weapons research, U.N. sanctions have specifically targeted Abbasi-Davani. Referring to the assassinations of three Iranian nuclear weapons scientists since 2009, Abbasi-Davani said that the IAEA itself was partly to blame: “We strongly urge the [IAEA] to clear its name and reputation in cooperating and preparing the ground in these measures.” Abbasi-Davani himself was slightly injured in an assassination attempt when he narrowly escaped an explosion in 2010.


Tel Aviv and London ratchet up talk of military strike on Iran

On November 2, Israel test-fired a missile which is believed to be capable of reaching Iran and carrying a nuclear warhead. The launch follows weeks of increased Israeli military exercises, including an Air Force drill at Decimomannu air base in Italy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, were also reported to be pressuring the Cabinet to approve a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Political and military leaders in Israel have in general been reluctant to advocate openly for using military strikes to halt Iran’s nuclear program and have been skeptical about its success and concerned about retaliation, especially if Israel were to take the action alone. Several other members of the Cabinet criticized Israeli media for circulating the reports and attempted to downplay speculation that Israel was pressing ahead with plans for an eventual military strike.

The Guardian reported on the same day that the United Kingdom was ramping up plans for assisting a possible U.S. strike against Iran. Unnamed British officials said that military options were under stronger consideration because they felt that Iran’s nuclear program has been more resilient than they had anticipated, despite mounting sanctions and the Stuxnet malware attack on computers used to operate nuclear facilities. Among other reasons, they also pointed to Iran’s plans to expand its nuclear program and ability to hide portions of the program underground, making military strikes potentially less effective as time wears on. They also acknowledged that the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and the end of NATO’s military campaign has allowed for more focused attention on Iran.


Iran rejects idea of emergency hotline between Tehran and Washington

In testimony before Congress and in public remarks elsewhere, the since-retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael G. Mullen highlighted the dangers posed by U.S.-Iranian miscommunication and proposed establishing an emergency hotline between Tehran and Washington. He expressed concern over the possibility of an inadvertent conflict in the Persian Gulf, given that U.S. and Iranian armed forces operate in close proximity to one another. Comparing the situation to dialogue between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War, Mullen stated “We haven’t had a connection with Iran since 1979. Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union.” Adm. Mullen emphasized the need for greater communication as the lack of U.S.-Iranian contact makes it “virtually assured” that perilous “miscalculations” could result. Adm. Mullen also stressed that rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear program made the lack of U.S.-Iranian communication even more worrisome.

Although President Ahmadinejad commented favorably about the idea when asked by American journalists, the hotline suggestion was quickly rejected by Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi. “We do not need such a line in the region,” he stated in a report by Iran’s Fars News Agency. “They are seeking to set up a hotline in order to solve any potential tensions, whereas we believe if they leave the region, there will be no tension.”


Iran offers proposals on nuclear program; announces receipt of letter from United States

In the lead up to President Ahmadinejad’s annual trip to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Iranian officials put forth a number of proposals regarding its nuclear program. Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, said on September 5 that Iran was willing to place its nuclear program under “full supervision” for five years, as long as sanctions against Iran were removed. Although this was the first Iranian offer in two years since the breakdown in talks between Iran and the West in October 2009, the vagueness of Abbasi-Davani’s statement prompted skeptical responses from Western officials.

In interviews with American journalists while visiting New York, Ahmadinejad extended an offer regarding part of Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities. He indicated Iran would halt production of near 20 percent-enriched uranium in exchange for fuel supplies delivered from the West, which are needed in the Tehran Research Reactor that produces medical isotopes. Ahmadinejad said that Iran would not cease enriching uranium to the 3.5 percent level, nor give up these stocks, which he says are intended for Iran’s nuclear energy program. Iran’s growing stockpile of near 20 percent-enriched uranium has caused increasing concern among international observers since it is closer to the level of highly enriched uranium (about 90 percent) used in producing nuclear weapons. In early September, Iran began moving much of its nuclear fuel production to a hardened and heavily fortified facility near the city of Qom, where it plans on tripling its capacity to produce uranium enriched to near 20 percent levels.

On November 1, Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi said that Tehran had received a letter from Washington that included offers for talks. Salehi added that the letter addressed “some contradictory and baseless subjects” but otherwise he did not describe its content.


U.S. officials accuse Iran of plotting to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States; raise probability of more sanctions

U.S. officials accused “elements of the Iranian government” of planning, sponsoring, and directing a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, in a bomb attack in Washington, DC. The United States has charged two individuals in connection with the alleged conspiracy: Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized American citizen who was arrested last month in New York, and Gholam Shakuri, who remains at large in Iran and is described as a “case officer” of Iran’s Quds Force, a special operations unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Arbabsiar has allegedly confessed to being funded and directed by senior Quds Force officials to hire Mexican gangsters to carry out the attack.

Senior Iranian officials have refuted the allegations, with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accusing Western policymakers of trying to instill “Iranophobia.” The Iranian government has called on the U.S. government to issue an apology for alleging its involvement in the assassination plot and asked for compensation for the individuals accused. Some outside analysts have alluded to internal divisions within the Iranian regime as a potential source of the plot’s origin. However, others have contended that the plot's connections to the Iranian leadership remain sketchy and have raised questions about the plausibility of the plot.

President Obama pledged to “apply the toughest sanctions and continue to mobilize the international community to make sure that Iran is further and further isolated and pays a price for this kind of behavior,” in reference to the alleged assassination plot. Reports suggest that the administration will attempt to persuade other powers to back greater sanctions on Iran, and are also weighing levying sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran in order to ban its international financial transactions.  The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee started the process of adding to U.S. sanctions by approving additional measures on November 2, which if eventually passed would include more financial restrictions and limits on the ability of U.S. officials to speak with their Iranian counterparts. President Ahmadinejad recently pointed to the mounting impact of sanctions and said that Iran’s “…banks cannot make international transactions anymore.”


Turkey to install NATO missile defense radar, draws ire from Iran

In early September, Turkey announced that it had agreed to install U.S. designed radar as part of a NATO missile defense system meant to guard against a potential attack in Europe. Although Turkish officials did not identify Iran as the specific threat inspiring the agreement, past statements by American and NATO officials have made it clear the system is designed specifically to counter Iran’s growing ballistic missile capabilities. The radar site will be hosted at a Turkish military installation in Kurecik, which is located approximately 700 kilometers (435 miles) west of the Iranian border, and will come online by the end of the year. It will be linked with interceptor missiles currently deployed on U.S. Navy vessels in the Mediterranean as well as ground-based systems that will be deployed in Romania and Poland in the future.

Reportedly, Turkish officials stipulated as part of the deal that Iran not be named openly as a threat for fear of inflaming tensions. The two countries have significant and burgeoning economic ties. In addition, Turkey has worked extensively to find a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West, including acting as an intermediary alongside Brazil in trying to reach a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran in May 2010. However, recent events have caused friction in the Turkish-Iranian relationship, chiefly the uprisings in Syria. Turkey has become increasingly critical of the Syrian regime’s brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement, while Iran remains one of Syria’s prime allies in the region.

Iran reacted harshly to Turkey’s decision to host the missile defense radar, with a number of senior Iranian officials leveling public criticism. President Ahmadinejad stated that the decision was not “correct”, and will be to Turkey’s “detriment”.


Contributions from Brett DuBois, Nikita Shah, and Chris Lindborg, BASIC


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