Iran update: number 132

Summary

  • The IAEA releases its latest report on Iran
  • US intelligence officials indicate that Tehran is far off from producing a nuclear weapon
  • Iran launches its first satellite into orbit and plans to expand its launch capabilities
  • Testing phase at the Bushehr reactor site begins
  • President Obama addresses Iranian government, calling for improved relations while expanding sanctions
  • Tehran responds with cautious optimism, but also frustration
  • Iran invited to international security conference on Afghanistan
  • US policy on Iran still under review; may want to approach Ayatollah Kahmenei
  • Mohammad Khatami withdraws from presidential race

 

On February 19 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on Iran's nuclear program. The Agency did not find any evidence of Iran converting its low enriched uranium (LEU) into highly enriched uranium (HEU), a vital step in attaining nuclear weapons capability. However, the IAEA also reports that throughout the investigation, which was conducted over the course of January and February, Iran repeatedly obfuscated and interfered, and refused officials access to the construction site for its planned heavy water nuclear reactor, the IR-40.The report urged again Iran to ratify the Additional Protocol, which would allow more intrusive inspections, and concluded again that it was unable to verify that Iran's nuclear program is strictly peaceful. In response to these developments, the P5+1 issued a joint statement calling on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA. The statement did not threaten Iran with further sanctions.

But US intelligence officials report that Iran is still a long way off from having a nuclear weapons capability, and may not yet have reached a decision on its intentions. At a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 10, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair and Defense Intelligence Agency Lieutenant General Michael D Maples sought to clarify the often confusing reports on Iran's nuclear program. They stated that they do not believe that Iran has highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is required for a nuclear weapon. Regarding reports that Iran has enough uranium for a nuclear weapon, Blair explained that such analyses referred to Iran's LEU, not HEU. "Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of [HEU] for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015," he said. Blair and Maples also explained that Iran's missile program is not necessarily related to its nuclear program, and that it is unclear whether or not Tehran has made the final decision to develop a nuclear weapon, although it has not ruled that option out.

Iran has successfully launched into orbit a domestically-built satellite named Omid ("Hope"). IRNA, Iran's state-run news agency, described the early February launch as part of a "data processing project" for a national space technology program. The mission has fueled Western suspicions that Tehran is pursuing the development of missiles for nuclear warheads, as space launch vehicles are nearly identical to long-range ballistic missile systems, though missiles carrying a nuclear warhead would require a much greater payload and a re-entry vehicle. The US State Department responded to the launch by calling on the international community to put greater pressure on Iran. Less than two weeks later, Iranian telecommunications minister Mohammad Soleimani announced that the Islamic Republic is building seven additional satellites. Omid reportedly completed its mission on March 19.

In early March, the Iranian military successfully tested a surface-to-air missile with a range of approximately 70 miles. The test came days after Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander-in-chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, boasted that the Islamic Republic has missiles capable of targeting Israel. Defense analysts remain skeptical, however, of the accuracy of Iran's long-range arsenal.

In late February, Iran began the "pre-commissioning" phase of its civilian nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The tests are being conducted using simulated fuel rods instead of uranium. The actual fuel is scheduled to be injected into the reactor in the upcoming months, and Iran hopes to have it producing electricity by the end of August. Russia has played an integral role in the activities at Bushehr. Russian nuclear physicists and technical experts built the 1000 megawatt reactor, and will be supplying it with fuel. Under an agreement with the IAEA, which closely monitors the Bushehr facility, Russian officials will ship the spent fuel back to Russia. The last safeguard was essential to easing international concern about the reactor at Bushehr (to safeguard the spent nuclear fuel from being reprocessed into weapons grade plutonium).

In diplomatic developments, President Obama took the unprecedented step of addressing the Iranian government and public in a video message on Nowruz, or "New Day," a holiday marking the Iranian New Year on March 20. Significant topics in Obama's video message included the rekindling of severed relationships between American and Iranian diplomats; a commitment to constructive engagement between the United States, Iran, and the international community; and concerns over the Iranian arms program. The message was notable for addressing both the Iranian people and the government, and offering explicit recognition of the Islamic Republic. U.K. Foreign Minister David Miliband recently urged Tehran to take advantage of Obama's outreach efforts to "start a different kind of dialogue" both with London and Washington.

But this diplomatic initiative was preceded a week before by Obama's extension of comprehensive sanctions against Iran, which were first imposed in 1995. The extension, effective March 15, will last for one year.

Iran has responded to these mixed messages with a combination of cautious optimism and frustration since Obama has taken office. In early February, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on the Obama administration to make a "fundamental change" in US policy toward Iran, saying that his nation is prepared to hold negotiations "based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere." But later that month one Iranian official lamented that the "signal that is reaching Iran from the United States is not a very clear and proper one." In response to Obama's Nowruz broadcast, Ayatollah Ali Kahmenei stated that relations would not improve until the United States ceased its "oppressive actions" against the Islamic Republic. Iranian Parliamentary spokesman Ali Larijani responded to the speech by explaining that Iran's problem with the US is very complex and can't be solved simply by "altering words or selecting the terms that they use." Larijani did not, however, rule out the possibility of negotiations with the Obama administration. The Iranian establishment appears to welcome Obama's change in tone, but is waiting to see if his rhetoric will be matched by substantive action.

Iran will be attending the international security conference on Afghanistan on March 31 at The Hague. Afghanistan, the Netherlands, and the United Nations will jointly chair the conference. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will also be there, had originally proposed the conference and said that she would like for Iran to be present. Clinton has said that Washington is open to the possibility of U.S.-Iranian cooperation against the Taliban, but has no reported plans to meet separately with Iranian officials at this conference. Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh will represent Iran at the conference.

US and European officials close to the issue indicate that the White House aims to establish direct contact with Ayatollah Ali Kahmenei, who has the final say on Iran's nuclear program and other major domestic and foreign policies. Apparently, US administration strategists are increasingly leaning toward engagement before the Iranian presidential elections in June. They want to establish a timetable for negotiations which would protect against Tehran using deliberations to buy time to strengthen its nuclear program and increase its long-range missile capabilities.

Iran's official state news agency reported on March 16 that Mohammad Khatami will be dropping out of Iran's presidential race. Khatami, who served as president from 1997 to 2005, was known as a reformer who sought closer ties with the West. When Khatami announced his candidacy in February, it was widely believed that he had the best chance to defeat Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khatami is expected to endorse Mir-Hussein Moussavi, a fellow reformist candidate.

 

Stories and Links

Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran , International Atomic Energy Agency, February 19, 2009 http://www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/IAEA_Report_Iran_Feb_2009.pdf/

Annual threat assessment of the intelligence community for the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dennis C Blair, Director of National Intelligence, March 10, 2009
http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2009/March/Blair%2003-10-09.pdf

A new year, a new beginning: President Obama's Nowruz address
, March 19, 2009
http://www.whitehouse.gov/Nowruz/

Iran offers "dialogue with respect" with US, Nazila Fathi and David E Sanger, New York Times, February 10, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/11/world/middleeast/11iran.html?_r=1&ref=world&pagewanted=all

Obama team plots opening of Iran ties, Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2009
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123689722950612523.html

 

Comments, editorials and analysis

From Tehran to Tel Aviv, Richard Cohen, New York Times, March 22, 2009
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/23/opinion/l23cohen.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=iran%20obama&st=cse

Analyst: West adopting "paradoxical approach" towards Iran's nuclear program , Islamic Republic News Agency, March 19, 2009 http://www5.irna.ir/En/View/FullStory/?NewsId=404792&IdLanguage=3

Brake lights on Iran from Obama, a mix of caution and confusion, Michael J Gerson, Washington Post, March 18, 2009
http://www.cfr.org/publication/18838/brake_lights_on_iran.html?breadcrumb=%2Fpublication%2Fby_type%2Fop_ed

Study of a possible Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear development facilities, Abdullah Toukan, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 16, 2009
http://www.csis.org/component/option,com_csis_pubs/task,view/id,5337/type,1/

Obama 'letter' to Supreme Leader generates Iran debate, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, March 13, 2009
http://www.rferl.org/content/Obama_Letter_To_Supreme_Leader_Generates_Iran_Debate/1509665.html

Iran's nuclear program: the risk of the "known unknown" , Peter Crail, World Politics Review, March 4, 2009
http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=3386

Arms experts correct the record on Iran uranium claims, Greg Thielmann and Peter Crail, Arms Control Association, March 2, 2009
http://www.armscontrol.org/node/3540

IAEA Report on Iran: Nuclear Weapons breakout achieved; Centrifuge numbers and low enriched uranium output steady; no progress on other safeguards issues, David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, Institute for Science and International Security, February 19, 2009
http://www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/IAEA_Report_Analysis.pdf/

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