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The Iran Primer

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U.N. reports new information on Iran’s nuclear program

Michael Adler
         The United Nations has obtained new information that Iran may have worked on making nuclear weapons, according to a report distributed in Vienna February 25. Its nuclear watchdog agency also said Iran appears to have overcome setbacks from the Stuxnet cyber-virus that set back its enrichment of uranium, a fuel used for both peaceful nuclear energy and to make a bomb.
         The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency may increase international concern about the Iran’s controversial program. It also may spur calls for tougher sanctions if diplomatic negotiations with the Islamic Republic remain stalled.
         The report shows how Iran has continued to stonewall an IAEA investigation. Tehran claims it only wants to generate electricity from nuclear power rather than make a bomb and has reduced cooperation with the IAEA since facing UN sanctions.
         But the IAEA has “new information recently received” which leads to “further concerns (about military-related nuclear work),” the agency said. It did not provide specifics.
         Since 2003, following revelations about secret Iranian nuclear work, the IAEA has investigated possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Since 2005, the watchdog agency has been looking into documents, allegedly from Iran, that detail research on how to explode an atomic bomb and how to fit a nuclear weapon on top of a missile.
         Iran rejects these documents as forgeries by foreign intelligence agencies. But the new IAEA report said that Iran has still not provided answers to questions raised by the documents and has in fact has not responded on this issue since August 2008. Iran “is not engaging with the Agency … on … the allegation that Iran is developing a nuclear payload for its missile program,” the new report said.
        The United States has reportedly completed a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that expresses concern that Iran has resumed nuclear weaponization work broken off in 2003, when the Islamic Republic feared possible military action after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
         A senior diplomat in Vienna told reporters that the most recent IAEA information gave “a better picture of what happened before 2003. And it provides information on what happened after 2003, and this is of course of concern to us. And we need to engage Iran on that.”
        The U.S. estimate reportedly concludes that Iran has continued its suspension of most of the weaponization work halted in 2003. U.S. intelligence officials reportedly believe that Iran is riven by a debate over whether to move more decisively towards making a bomb or to keep the nuclear program to the goal of developing electricity from atomic power.
         The IAEA said that Iran continues to develop its ability to enrich uranium. It said Iran had produced 3,606 kilograms of low-enriched uranium as of February 5. This is uranium enriched enough for nuclear power but not for weapons. But the same amount of uranium could also be enriched further to make two bombs. 
         Iran appears to have recovered from a cyber-attack on its Natanz enrichment plant, the report concludes. It now has a total of 5,184 centrifuges enriching uranium; the total had dropped by about 1,000 about 18 months ago. The Stuxnet virus, which some reports claim may have been planted by the United States or Israel, is believed responsible for incapacitating a large number of centrifuges.
         The IAEA also reported that Iran is making larger amounts of more highly enriched uranium. It has so far produced 43.6 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which it says it needs to fuel a research reactor that produces isotopes for medical purposes. Iran began doing this after a U.S.-backed fuel swap deal with France and Russia broke down in late 2009. However, the United States fears Iran is using this as a pretext to move closer to weapon-grade uranium, which requires an enrichment level of over 90 percent.
         Meanwhile, Iran said it will begin feeding nuclear material into centrifuges at a second enrichment site, the Fordow plant, by summer. In the near future, it also plans on testing full cascade lines of more sophisticated centrifuges at a pilot plant at Natanz.

         The new developments indicate that Iran is making progress on uranium enrichment despite the cyber-attack and international sanctions. Tehran is also increasingly defiant of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on it to suspend the strategic enrichment process. In addition, Iran continues to balk at providing information about other aspects of its nuclear work, such as questions about the new Fordow plant. And it has denied full access to a heavy-water reactor under construction which could eventually produce large amounts of plutonium, another possible nuclear bomb material


Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, formerly covered the International Atomic Energy Agency for Agence France-Presse


Why the Istanbul talks failed

Michael Adler in Istanbul

  • Why did talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers in Istanbul January 21-22 fail to produce any agreement or significant movement toward a compromise?
The talks deadlocked after Iran imposed two preconditions on any deal designed to assuage fears that the Islamic Republic seeks nuclear weapons. The Iranian delegation demanded that:
  • the world first recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium,
  • and the United Nations drop its punitive economic sanctions on Tehran. 
The world's six major powers--Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States –were united in opposing these preconditions. They insisted that Iran must first show its goodwill by taking "confidence-building measures." These might be:
  • agreeing to ship out most of its enriched uranium. This strategic material can be used to power civilian nuclear power reactors but also to make a bomb.
  • giving more information to U.N. inspectors about its controversial nuclear program.
The world’s major powers are concerned about possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear work, which Tehran claims is just for peaceful energy. These issues have been sticking points since revelations about secret Iranian nuclear sites in 2002. Once Iran cooperates, the six powers said, they are willing to consider lightening the international pressure on Iran.
Since 2006, the United Nations has passed four sanctions resolutions against Iran for failing to halt uranium enrichment and to cooperate fully with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Individual nations have also unilaterally imposed their own embargos and trade penalties. More than 100 international financial institutions and dozens of businesses have also cut off or cut back on business with Iran.
These wide-ranging measures have disrupted Iran's ability to finance its international trade through banks and to get the insurance needed to guarantee shipments of basic commodities, such as oil, and other import and export goods.
  • What was the reaction from the six major powers to the Istanbul meetings?
The European Union, which has organized the diplomatic effort, admitted disappointment. “This is not the conclusion I had hoped for,” European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the two-day talks. “We had hoped to have a detailed and constructive discussion of those ideas,” she said. “But it became clear that the Iranian side was not ready for this unless we agreed to preconditions relating to enrichment and sanctions. Both these preconditions are not a way to proceed.”
The European Union, as well as the six negotiating nations, indicated that the ball is in Iran’s court. “Our proposals remain on the table. Our door remains open. Our telephone lines remain open,” Ashton said.
A senior US administration official said Washington never expected the talks to be easy and that it did not feel they had broken down.
  • What was the reaction from Iran?
Saeed Jalili, the chief Iranian negotiator, also expressed disappointment at the outcome. He criticized the six major powers for demanding that the Islamic Republic curtail its nuclear program while sitting on their own nuclear weapon stockpiles.
Jalili also said Iran resents that the six powers are trying to pressure Iran, which he said does not seek nuclear weapons and is being unfairly singled out from the more than 130 countries which signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But he, too, said Iran “always remains open to diplomacy.”
In Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also said Iran was open to holding further talks. "They have talked for a few rounds, but we never expected that issues would be resolved during these few sessions because of the record and mentality of the other parties," he said in a speech on state television from the northern city of Rasht.  He said conditions for "good agreements in future sessions" had been created as both sides have met and become acquainted with each other's views.
But Ahmadinejad reiterated Iran's hardline position. "The uncultured Zionists [Israel] and some power-hungry people in Europe and the U.S. are not interested in a good resolution of the issues,” he said. “The world should know that this nation stands up to bullying and will put the bullies in their place. You cannot make Iran back down an inch from its course as it is now a nuclear state."
  • What does it mean for diplomatic efforts?
The clear failure in Istanbul signifies a serious setback for the U.S.-led effort to engage Iran in diplomacy. No new talks have been scheduled. Western officials insisted that the two-track approach—seeking engagement while still putting pressure on Iran through sanctions and other punitive financial actions—will continue until an agreement is reached. The goal of the six powers now is to drive Iran back to the negotiating table.
The officials refused to say how much time they would give Iran to change its mind about cooperation or how quickly they would move towards sanctions. They said, however, that reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions remained an urgent matter.
The Istanbul talks were a sequel to negotiations in Geneva last December, which re-launched international diplomacy but also failed to produce an agreement.
The talks in Geneva and Istanbul represent the second diplomatic effort by the Obama administration. Negotiations had previously broken off when Iran reneged on an agreement in October 2009 to ship most of the enriched uranium it had made out of the country in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which is used to make isotopes for medical diagnosis.   


Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, formerly covered the International Atomic Energy Agency for Agence France-Presse

Nuke estimate may buy diplomacy more time

Michael Adler

  • What does the new estimate by Israel’s retiring Mossad chief Meir Dagan-- that Iran won’t have a weapon before 2015-- do to the diplomatic effort?
It reinforces it. Diplomacy needs time and and gets time if Iran is stalled in its nuclear program, as is apparently the case.
  • How does his assessment differ from other recent estimates?
Not that much. Moshe Yaalon, Israel's strategic affairs minister, had said on Israeli public radio in December that "the Iranian nuclear program has a number of technological challenges and difficulties," putting it up to three years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This places the crunch time at 2014. And Dagan had said in June 2009 that "unless their program experiences technical problems, the Iranians will have by 2014 a bomb ready to be used."
Brigardier General Yossi Baidatz, an Israeli military intelligence official, had said in November 2009 that Iran would have a nuclear weapon by 2010.
  • How does his statement affect the urgency of a diplomatic deal?
Western diplomats say it does not reduce the urgent need for a deal, but they admit that it could slow things down. Some compare it to the US National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 which said Iran had stopped weaponization work in 2003 towards making an atomic bomb. This came just as the United States and European powers were trying to convince Russia and especially China to join in tougher sanctions. The NIE report deflated that effort.
It is not clear however if the new Israeli estimate will have the same effect. US officials have themselves been saying that Iran's nuclear program has suffered serious hitches and that this gives diplomacy a chance. They have stressed that such a window in a confrontation that risks becoming a shooting war should be taken advantage of -- urgently.
  • Is it likely to put off speculation about an Israeli military strike in the next year?
Definitely. It reinforces the U.S. point of view that Iran's domestic politcal strife and its nuclear problems give diplomacy an unexpected chance.
Does Iran’s announcement that it has increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium change assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog?
No. The IAEA is still seeking to verify whether Iran's nuclear program is peaceful or designed to make nuclear weapons. Iran has been steadily increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium since 2006. The IAEA investigation dates from 2003.
  • What is Tehran trying to do by inviting China, Russia and friendly European countries to tour its nuclear sites before the next round of diplomatic talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers due to be held in Istanbul on January 20-21?
Iran, which insists that its nuclear work is a peaceful effort to generate electricity, says it wants to show that its program is a strictly civilian project. Western diplomats decry the invitation, however, as a show to stall diplomacy by distracting attention from Iran's continued violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. These resolutions call on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and comply fully with the IAEA investigation of the Iranian nuclear program.
  • How is that a deviation from the U.N. protocol of inspecting nuclear sites?
It is not a deviation. Various delegations, especially from non-aligned countries, have toured Iranian nuclear facilities in the past. The bottom line, however, is that the IAEA has inspectors at Iranian nuclear sites, and they are the ones who monitor Iran's activities. Their conclusions are available for all to see in reports issued regularly by the IAEA. The last report, on November 23, 2010, said: "While the agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."



Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, formerly covered the International Atomic Energy Agency for Agence France-Presse

U.N. report says Iran’s nuclear program temporarily stopped

Michael Adler

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency – the U.N. nuclear watchdog – issued a report on Iran’s controversial nuclear program on Nov. 23. What did it conclude, in a nutshell?
It reported that Iran stopped uranium enrichment for at least one day on Nov. 16, although it provided no specific reason. The new report comes amid speculation about whether international sanctions and sabotage--specifically a computer virus called Stuxnet, which some analysts speculate may have been launched by the United States or Israel—are causing technical problems. But the IAEA also said that Iran continues to produce enriched uranium and now has amassed 3,183 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. If Iran decided to refine it further into highly enriched uranium, it could potentially make two atom bombs.
  • What does the international community know for sure about Iran’s nuclear program?
Iran has an extensive network for producing enriched uranium, which can be used to power civilian power reactors or to make atom bombs. Iran is also building a reactor which could produce large amounts of plutonium, another weapons material. In short, Iran has in place installations for the entire nuclear-fuel cycle, from mining uranium to producing fuel for reactors, or bombs.
  • What does it not know for sure about Iran’s program? 
It does not know whether Iran is hiding sites and secretly producing the fissile material needed to make atom bombs and working on weapon and missile warhead designs.
  • In what specific ways has Iran cooperated with the IAEA since 2003?
Iran has honored its basic safeguards agreement, the mandate for monitoring its nuclear work under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The IAEA has inspectors verifying whether nuclear material in Iran is diverted from peaceful uses. Iran has done even more, allowing for tougher inspections under an Additional Protocol to the NPT, notifying the IAEA as soon as it drew up plans to build new nuclear facilities and even allowing for special "transparency" visits to military and other sensitive sites.
  • In what specific ways has Iran not cooperated with the IAEA since 2003?
Iran ended its extra cooperation after it was cited by the IAEA on Feb. 4, 2006 for non-compliance with its monitoring obligations. Iran was charged with hiding nuclear work for almost two decades and failing to report acquisition of nuclear materials. Iran has also refused to answer questions about the possible military dimensions of its program.
  • What will be the specific issues in a new round diplomacy?
The six world powers negotiating with Iran -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States -- want the Islamic Republic to honor United Nations resolutions calling on it to suspend uranium enrichment, apply the Additional Protocol, and fully cooperate with IAEA inspectors. The sextet also wants Iran to agree to a fuel swap -- shipping out most of the uranium it has enriched in return for getting reactor fuel. This arrangement is designed to build confidence that Iran will not use its enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons.
  • What is the key gap between the two sides?
Iran insists it has the right to enrich uranium, as a signatory to the NPT and so cannot be forced to suspend enrichment. The United States and its allies insist that Iran must show its good intentions by halting the production of fissile material that can be used for bombs.

Read Michael Adler's chapter on Iran and the IAEA in “The Iran Primer” 

Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, formerly covered the International Atomic Energy Agency for Agence France-Presse

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