Iran update: number 137


  • P5+1 Talks in Geneva: apparent breakthrough
  • Iran admits to developing covert nuclear enrichment plant
  • Iranian and US bi-lateral diplomacy receives boost
  • US officials says Iran has enriched enough nuclear fuel for eventual bomb
  • Obama changes missile defense plans
  • Malaysian middlemen accused of smuggling US military equipment and technology to Iran


During talks between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany) on 1 October in Geneva, Iran agreed to allow inspectors to view a recently revealed enrichment facility and to participate in follow-up discussions about its overall nuclear enrichment program before the end of the month.

Although there has already emerged some doubt over what was actually agreed in Geneva, there was discussion about the possibility of Iran sending its low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France for further enrichment for the purpose of ultimately fueling a Tehran-based medical research reactor operating under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The plan would enable Iran to continue operation of the research reactor beyond 2011, but would also reduce its current LEU stocks at Natanz by around 3/4, stocks that currently serve no obvious purpose and pose a concern for much of the international community, worried that it could be used as feedstock to manufacture fissile materials for future bombs. The IAEA will hold a meeting with Iranian officials on 19 October to discuss the possible arrangement.

US President Barack Obama, accompanied by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, announced before a press conference at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh on 25 September that Iran had been developing a uranium enrichment facility in secret and that the design of the facility was "inconsistent" with a peaceful nuclear program. The US Administration apparently knew about the facility before Iran disclosed the existence of the site to the IAEA on 24 September. During a press conference in Tehran, Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said that the enrichment facility, which is located in a mountainside near Qom, was intended to serve as a back-up in case Iran's other nuclear sites were destroyed by a foreign military attack. IAEA Chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, said that in accordance with Iran's legal obligations to the Agency, it should have given notice once it had decided to build the enrichment plant, about three to four years ago. Iranian officials disagree with this interpretation of their obligations. ElBaradei met with Iranian officials in Tehran on 4 October to work out details for the IAEA to inspect the facility on 25 October.

Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and US Under Secretary of State William Burns held direct bi-lateral talks in Geneva on 1 October for about 40 minutes. The day before Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki met with US representatives in Washington, DC. These meetings were considered at least symbolically significant because it has been about three decades since meetings of this level were held. The meetings came after a summer of heightened discord between Iran and the United States. Iranian authorities have claimed that the US government encouraged or was involved in the election-related protests against the Iranian government. Observers have suggested that the controversy will have a damaging impact on the willingness of Iran's ruling clerics to compromise on nuclear issues.

Glyn Davies, the US ambassador to the IAEA, announced on 9 September that Iran has enriched enough nuclear fuel to constitute a "possible breakout capacity," but maintained that there is no evidence that Tehran has resumed the warhead development program apparently halted by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2003. There was renewed criticism of President Obama's decision to continue seeking a diplomatic solution to Iran's defiance of UN Security Council demands that it halt enrichment. Former Israeli deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh said the country will launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities by the end of the year if harsh sanctions are not imposed on Tehran. Meanwhile Obama Administration officials have accused Israel of exaggerating in order to "shorten the timeline" for engagement. Iran would need to further enrich its uranium for weapons-grade fissile material.

The controversy over Iran's progress in developing nuclear technology was complicated further by accusations that IAEA Chief Mohamed ElBaradei concealed a report in which the Agency's investigators wrote, "The agency... assesses that Iran has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device based on HEU [highly enriched uranium] as the fission fuel." However, the IAEA continued to maintain that there is no "concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapons programme in Iran."

On 17 September, President Obama announced the termination of the plans set out by former President George W. Bush for a ground-based ballistic missile defense (GMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic, in favor of short-medium range, sea-based SM-3 systems. In a news conference, Obama said that the location and capabilities of the new interceptors would be more effective against a future missile launch by Iran and ready earlier than the more ambitious and untested system planned under the Bush Administration. The new architecture is to be implemented in four phases between 2011 and 2020.

"This is something that is in the doctrine of anti-Iranianism," said Supreme Leader Khamenei of the revised missile defense plan, "since the policy and the 30-year-old history of the Islamic Republic has proven that Iran wants to live in peace and under the spirit of equality and fraternity, with its Muslim neighbors and the rest of the world." Khamenei went on to compare Obama unfavorably with former President Bush saying, "Even the current administration -- with the apparently friendly words and messages -- follows that same anti-Islamic and anti-Iranian policy of the past." American critics argued that Obama should have secured Russian assistance in imposing stronger sanctions on Iran before relinquishing missile defense. "Did we think we'd get some quid pro quo[from Russia]? That's certainly not apparent right now," said Senator John Kyl.

On 27 and 28 September, as part of a military exercise called The Great Prophet IV, Iran test-fired its Shahab-3 and Sejil missiles, which are thought to be Iran's longest-range missiles and possibly capable of reaching Israel and parts of southeastern Europe. The exercise, which came only days after the revelation of the facility near Qom, and shortly before the discussions in Geneva, was seen as a preparedness and protective measure by Iranian officials, whereas Middle Eastern and Western leaders saw the timing as unduly "provocative".

The US Department of Justice has stepped up its prosecution of Malaysian middlemen who were allegedly and fraudulently purchasing US military technology and equipment and supplying it to Iran, in violation of trade sanctions. The six legal cases handled by the Department since August 2008 involved, "shipments that have included parts for bombers and items sent to firms linked to Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile program." According to Steven Pelak, the principal deputy chief of the Justice Department's counterespionage section, similar smuggling operations were once based in Dubai but, "We've seen a lot more being now diverted through Malaysia in particular. We have seen Iranian front companies there and we've seen an increase there since there's been a tightening in Dubai." The prosecutions are part of a multi-agency effort, commenced in 2007, to crackdown on illegal exports of restricted military technology and "dual-use" equipment with military and commercial applications.


Stories and links

IAEA to inspect Iran's Qom site Oct. 25, Parisa Hafezi, Reuters India, 5 October 2009

Obama plan aims to squeeze Iran, reassure Israel, Robert Burns, Associated Press, 19 September 2009

IAEA secret report: Iran worked on nuclear warhead, Julian Borger, The Guardian, 18 September 2009

Jon Kyl: Missile move shows 'we'll cave' , Andy Barr, Politico, 18 September 2009

Obama scraps Bush-era missile defense for new plan, CNN, 17 September 2009

Press release: statement by Senator John McCain, Sen. John McCain, 17 September 2009

RIM-161 SM-3 (AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense), Global Security, 17 September 2009

Iran attack: Israel ex-min sees end-yr deadline, William Maclean, Reuters, 16 September 2009

Iran to meet world powers over nuclear program, George Jahn, Associated Press, 14 September 2009

Iran Gains US Military Technology Through Malaysia Middlemen, Justin Blum, Bloomberg, 14 September 2009

Iran holds fifth trial over election unrest, Reza Derakhshi, Reuters, 14 September 2009

Iran snubs Barack Obama's nuclear talks, Adrian Blomfield, Daily Telegraph, 13 September 2009

US Says Iran Could Expedite Nuclear Bomb, David Sanger, The New York Times, 9 September 2009

Iran Won't Bow to Deadline Demand for Nuclear Talks, Henry Meyer, Bloomberg, 3 September 2009


Comments, editorials, and analysis

Iran concedes little on nuclear issue, Alistair Lyon, Saudi Gazette, 5 October 2009

Excerpts from Internal IAEA Document on Alleged Iranian Nuclear Weaponization, ISIS Report, 2 October 2009

Deconstructing the Iranian Challenge, Joshua Pollack, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 29 September 2009

Iran's secret site is the missing piece in its nuclear puzzle, Peter Grier, Christian Science Monitor, 29 September 2009

The Qom Uranium Enrichment Facility - What and How Do We Know?, 2009

What Else is Iran Hiding?, Nima Gerami and James Acton, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 September 2009

Last Chance for Iran, Daniel Coats, Charles Robb and Charles Wald, Washington Post, 21 September 2009\

Q&A: Iran and the nuclear issue, BBC News, 21 September 2009

Obama's Strategic Confusion, Brian Kennedy, Wall Street Journal, 20 September 2009

Russia's Reaction on Missile Plan Leaves Iran Issue Hanging, Clifford Levy, Peter Baker, The New York Times, 18 September 2009

Iran Agrees To Meet With The P5+1, Voice of America News, 17 September 2009

The New Defense Realism, Joseph Cirincione, Foreign Policy, 17 September 2009

How to Talk to Iran, Roger Cohen, The New York Times, 16 September 2009

Analysis: Testing time for Obama on Iran, N Korea, Robert Burns, Associated Press, 15 September 2009

Is There Time to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon?, Greg Thielmann, Arms Control Association Threat Assessment Brief, 10 September 2009

ISIS Analysis of the August 2009 IAEA Report on Iran: Centrifuges increase; Rate of LEU production steady; progress on inspection requests at Arak and Natanz; no progress on possible military dimensions, David Albright, Paul Brannan and Jacqueline Shire, ISIS Report, 28 August 2009

Statement of Nicholas Burns Before the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, R. Nicholas Burns, Testimony, Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, United States Senate, 30 July 2009

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