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  • 22 July 2010
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 7 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Nuclear file

The Uranium Core of Obama’s Iran Strategy

This post originally appeared at Talking Warheads:

In dismissing the Tehran Declaration in May, US officials said the fuel swap proposal doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. The core issue, according to four UN Security Council resolutions and two successive US administrations, is Iran’s enrichment program.

That’s why Uranium Intelligence Weekly thought it noteworthy to point out some recent changes in the US National Security Strategy that seem to indicate the Obama Administration might drop its zero enrichment redline on Iran.

Despite UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend enrichment, it’s probable that at some point the P5+1 negotiators (US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) will have to consider the unthinkable — allowing Iranian enrichment activities to continue. Intriguingly, a shift in the most recent May 2010 NSS, while open to a variety of interpretations, is seen by some as tacitly recognizing that fact, suggesting scope for an eventual shift on the issue — assuming Iran meets international demands to come clean about its nuclear program and adheres to the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol.

Jeffrey Lewis is intrigued, though mistakenly called the US demand a precondition for talks.  It’s not.  Dropping that precondition and going ahead with direct talks (albeit few and far between) was Obama’s first policy major shift.  The next step will be to make some move toward accepting Iran’s right to civilian applications of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Most Iran experts see this as a no-brainer.  But arms control people are less willing to blow open the loophole in the NPT that allows countries like Iran to produce fissile material under cover of a civilian program.  So it’s a squabble that keeps the progressive community divided, clearing the way for the hawks and ideologues to sell their simple and concise narrative of “bombs away.”

It’s important that those groups not looking to go to war develop a clear idea of what needs to happen next.  Fortunately, there have been some good discussions in recent weeks among NGOs about exactly that sort of thing.  There’s a consensus emerging that could serve as something of a road map for American negotiators.

Solving the Nuclear Issue in 3 Easy Steps

Now that newly-imposed sanctions have taken some of the pressure off, the Administration needs a renewed commitment to diplomacy.  That means face time with Iranian negotiators — no more negotiating through the press.  It also requires effective partners, building on the progress that Turkey and Brazil gained in May to break down or at least circumvent some of the mistrust that poses such an obstacle.  A plan is already underway for yet another revival of the zombie fuel swap in August, using Turkey as an effective mediator.  Assuming a deal is finally reached to send some uranium out of Iran, both sides can finally declare victory on a confidence-building measure that wraps up outstanding concerns regarding 20% enrichment and the size of Iran’s stockpile of LEU.

Then comes the hard part: the enrichment program itself.

The US has to compromise on its demand of zero centrifuges in Iran.  But it likely won’t lay down its trump card at the beginning of negotiations.  So the goal will be to get Iran to agree to a suspension in line with UNSC resolutions and similar to the suspension it began in November of 2004.  [A suspension; not a halt — demonstrating that a suspension is by definition temporary will be key.]  That will be the objective: trading an acceptance of Iran’s right to maintain an enrichment program for a temporary suspension and reasonable limitations once the program is restarted.

Getting Iran to agree to a suspension, I believe, will be the biggest challenge of all.  They’ve gone down that road before, agreeing to a full suspension in 2004 only to resume it two years later.  The task for the P5+1 will be to convince the Iranians that it will be different this time.  The US will be at the table — a key difference from before — but will still depend on credible partners like Turkey to convey its good intentions. In short, we’re going to have to trust one another.

After that, all that’s left is gaining Iran’s accession to the Additional Protocol and/or other mechanisms for verifying the absence of a weapons program.  Iran’s ratification of the CTBT would be a nice bonus, as it’s a prerequisite for the treaty’s entering into force, and such a gesture would be a sign of Iran’s commitment not to develop bombs.  In exchange for all of this, the international community would have to welcome Iran back into the fold, removing sanctions and reintegrating Tehran into the economic, political and security establishment of the region.

So that’s it.  Not too hard, right?

  • 14 July 2010
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 4 Comments
  • Nuclear file

When is a Nuclear Program Not a Nuclear Program? (UPDATE)

It should come as no surprise that, when dealing with a topic like nuclear weapons and Iran, there’s just a lot of wrong information out there. For example: take this Council on Foreign Relations overview of the Feb 18, 2010 IAEA report on Iran’s safeguards. These IAEA reports are pretty routine, and CFR is a renowned organization — and yet, from the CFR Essential Documents series:

The February 18, 2010 update of this IAEA document on Iranian nuclear activities reports that Iran has completed uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and that the country continued nuclear weapons involvement beyond 2004, in contrast to U.S. intelligence assessments that Iran had halted weapons activity in 2003 and had not begun anew.

The report simply doesn’t say that. From Section 43:

The Agency would also like to discuss with Iran: the project and management structure of alleged activities related to nuclear explosives; nuclear related safety arrangements for a number of the alleged projects; details relating to the manufacture of components for high explosives initiation systems; and experiments concerning the generation and detection of neutrons. Addressing these issues is important for clarifying the Agency’s concerns about these activities and those described above, which seem to have continued beyond 2004.

The Agency does not say Iran sought to build a weapon beyond 2004. It says that Iran’s lack of cooperation with inspectors makes them unable to verify that the ongoing activities are purely civilian in nature. Without greater cooperation, the Agency says, it is unable to declare the absence of a weapons program. (To say nothing of how hard it is to prove a negative).

One of the most fundamental yet often misunderstood facts about Iran’s nuclear program is this: developing nuclear technology is not the same as developing nuclear weapons. True, progress on a civilian nuclear program — up to a certain point — also brings you closer to a weapon. But CFR here makes the same mistake that policymakers continue to make day in and day out: the fact that Iran’s nuclear activities have continued does not negate the conclusions of the 2007 NIE.

The NIE judged with high confidence that in the Fall of 2003, Iran halted its active pursuit of nuclear weapons. Since that time, Iran’s nuclear program has continued, without an explicit decision to build a bomb. Does that mean that, since 2004, Iran has moved closer to a nuclear weapons capability? Yes. [I would argue, in fact, that Iran has had a nuclear weapons “capability” for some time, having mastered the process of enrichment, having the necessary materials available in large enough quantities, and having bomb designs readily available on the Internet. After that, all it takes is time and the decision to actually build the thing.]

To hear some policymakers talk about it, the 2007 NIE has been thoroughly discredited, yet that just proves how politics can so warp the conventional wisdom on an issue like this. In this case, politics prevailed in reinterpreting the written text of the NIE, which clearly defined “nuclear weapons program” as “Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

So there you have it. The NIE said Iran chose to stop pursuing a bomb in 2003, though not to stop its program entirely. The February IAEA report said Iran has not answered the Agency’s questions about certain activities, but it clearly stopped short of CFR’s overhyped conclusion.

Update: A reader writes to say that the IAEA report does in fact indicate an ongoing weapons program after 2004, pointing to the list of alleged activities that “seem to have continued beyond 2004.”  Apparently — as was my point in writing this post — two people can read the same document and draw widely divergent conclusions.

When the IAEA refers to “alleged activities,” it is talking about activities for which it has received some amount of evidence, but about which Iran has not provided enough information for the Agency to form a definitive conclusion.  Thus the use of the word “alleged.” And that, as I said originally, is the core problem with Iran’s nuclear program: there’s just not enough information.  Iran is not cooperating with the IAEA sufficiently to address all outstanding concerns, which breeds a never-ending amount of suspicion about their activities.

Does that mean the IAEA has some evidence to indicate weaponization work continued after 2004?  Yes.  But that evidence is not of sufficient quality, legitimacy or reliability to make an explicit declaration akin to the one CFR made.  (see here for further discussion of the “alleged studies,” and the man behind the intel, Olli Heinonen).  In fact, the US intelligence community  probably also has evidence of weaponization work after 2004, yet has judged that information not reliable or definitive enough to overturn the conclusions of the NIE — which again, was precisely my point.

These issues cannot be simplified based on a cursory reading of one paragraph of a report.  They’re much too complex for that.

  • 28 April 2009
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 1 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Nuclear file

Bloggingheads: Iran’s Nuclear Motives

[vodpod id=Groupvideo.2441633&w=500&h=330&fv=]

Our good friend Richard Parker, from the American Foreign Policy Project (of Joint Experts’ Statement fame), recently went on BloggingheadsTV over at the New York Times to debate Jacqueline Shire on the real reason Iran is intent on enriching uranium.

I think he did a marvelous job, don’t you?

Sign the Petition

 

7,349 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.

Sincerely,

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