Iran update: number 111

Summary

  • US heat turned down on Iran, in spite of the President
  • Outstanding IAEA questions to Iran
  • US statement: Iran no longer assisting Iraqi insurgents
  • Pentagon says US ships harassed by Iran
  • Congress passes Iran democracy bill
  • Iran's changing regional relationships
  • Russia begins delivery of nuclear fuel to Bushehr
  • Iran produces first nuclear fuel pellets

The New Year marked a dramatic turn-around in the mood music towards Iran in Washington, and attention focused almost entirely upon Pakistan. The most obvious shift marked by the publication of the official estimate from the United States' National Intelligence Council, which opened with the statement: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its weapons programme". The estimate continued on to say that "Tehran had not restarted its nuclear-weapons programme as of mid-2007."

President Bush attempted to play down these aspects of the report, saying that it "in no way lessens that threat, but in fact clarifies the threat". European officials generally reacted in a similar manner, pointing out that the danger always lay in the capability that the ongoing civil programme in Iran would give the government to adopt a military programme rapidly in the future should it chose to do so. Nevertheless, there is general consensus that the report has punctured any efforts to build public and international support for military action.

The IAEA released a press statement noting that the estimate was "consistent" with IAEA findings and may help diffuse the current situation. The Agency stressed that Iran still needed to "accelerate cooperation" and had yet to answer all of the Agency's questions, such as explaining traces of highly enriched uranium that inspectors found at research sites. This is probably the key issue hanging over international diplomacy on Iran as we move into 2008.

In a remarkable report in the Washington Times on 3 January, General Petraeus, US Commander in Iraq, was reported to have said that he no longer believed Iran was supplying or training insurgents in Iraq, removing the other major casus belli against Iran.

However, in a clear signal that the risk of inadvertent escalation remains, the Pentagon accused Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats of harassing U.S. Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz. Speaking anonymously, an official claimed that it was 'the most serious provocation of this sort that we've seen yet' and allegedly involved Iranian boats charging US ships and radioing threats that they were about to explode. The Iranian ships withdrew as US troops prepared to fire in self-defense.

On 19 December, Congress voted through the Iran Democracy Bill, providing $60 million to support pro-democracy movements in Iran. This is used by the Iranian government to justify crack-downs on pro-democracy activists, it is widely viewed as counter-productive, and is opposed by Iranian campaigners such as Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi.

President Bush this week begins a tour of the Middle East, and his advisers have been briefing journalists that he will be using the trip to reassure allies of continued US pressure on Iran. In an interview with the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot he said, "Part of the reason I'm going to the Middle East is to make it abundantly clear to nations in that part of the world that we view Iran as a threat, and that the [National Intelligence Estimate] in no way lessens that threat, but in fact clarifies the threat." The Israelis, meanwhile, will seek to demonstrate to the President why they believe Iran's nuclear programme is military in nature.

Iran began a regional offensive to improve relations with its Arab neighbours, in attempts to counter-act Israeli and US overtures. In December Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian President to address the annual summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), a body created with the aim of containing revolution in Iran. Shortly afterwards, he also became the first to take part in the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, at the invitation of Saudi Arabia. Finally, after a 28-year break, Egypt resumed diplomatic relations with Iran and Iran even offered to help Egypt develop a nuclear energy programme.

Following many months of delays, probably the result of diplomatic maneuvering, Russia delivered its first shipment of nuclear fuel to the Bushehr power plant on 17 December. Publicly, President Bush supported the delivery on the grounds that it demonstrated to Iran that it did not need to enrich its own fuel. For many Iranians, delays to the shipment have already vindicated their belief in the need for an independent fuel supply. Privately, the US government was furious at the Russians for giving up leverage on Iran.

Iran's Vice-President, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, has told the official IRNA news agency that Iran has produced uranium oxide pellets for fuel assembly to power the heavy-water reactor currently under construction at Arak. This is the first time the Iranians have said they can turn uranium into the fuel pellets.

 

Stories and links

Iran says relationship with US possible in future, Reuters, 01/03/08
http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSDAH33865120080103

CIA has recruited Iranians to defect, LA Times, 09/12/07
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-usiran9dec09,0,3638197.story

Comments, editorials, analysis

How to defuse Iran, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, New York Times 11/12/07
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/11/opinion/11leverett.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&th&emc=th&oref=slogin

Dangerous liaisons - Russia Iran relationship, the Economist, 19/12/07
http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10329031

Iran's nuclear programme, IISS online publications, December 07
http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-comments/past-issues/volume-13---2007/volume-13--issue-10/irans-nuclear-programme

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