Only one day after his inauguration, President Barack Obama got already some good advice on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue from ISIS, David Albright’s Institute for Scientific and International Security, providing essential background information and recommendations to the public and the new administration. It paints once more a gloomy picture of Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions and clandestine uranium enrichment program. Albright and Jacqueline Shire (together with Paul Brannan and Andrea Scheel) even expect that “[T]he year 2009 will likely mark Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.” However, once again, the report does neither consider the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran nor Iran’s claims that its nuclear program serves entirely peaceful purposes.
A Road Map
In order to prevent Iran from going ahead with its enrichment program, Albright et al. see a road map (right now, a rather discredited term) in (i) further increased sanctions (which, so far, had only limited effect, to say the least; the current global financial crisis will have a greater impact on any economy, including that in the U.S. than any sanctions); (ii) hold immediate (!) direct talks (indeed overdue; but right now, who should be addressed? Due to the presidential elections in Iran later this year any talks have to be considered as part of the upcoming campaign); (iii) recommitting to incentive package offered by the European Union in June 2008 (without confidence-building measures it would be an illusion that Iran will respond as desired); (iv) urging Iran to ratify the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) (in fact the most important task for the Obama administration. In return, the nuclear issue should then be referred back from the United Nations Security Council to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a position Iran holds since it had withdrawn its signature under the Additional Protocol early in 2006); (v) building diplomatic relations between the U.S and Iran (overdue as well. Former President George W. Bush may have conducted another grave mistake when leaving that to his successor); (vi) engaging Russia and China (Albright et al. clearly see the former obstacle here in the failed presidency of Bush); (vii) supporting regional arms control and security arrangements (a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East must include Israel, which is not even mentioned by Albright et al.); (viii) establishing regional constraints on nuclear energy (why should it be only regional? Nuclear energy will definitely not solve but create serious problems in the future. Its technology should be abandoned by all governments); and finally (ix) opposing a military solution (it is hoped that Israel is carefully reading that issue, too).
But let’s have a look at the reasoning in the report. How far has Iran come in its enrichment activities? Albright et al. mention that, since early 2007 when the underground centrifuges in Natanz had been activated (presently, more than 5000 P1 centrifuges are rotating, and Iran plans to install a total of 15’000 in the near future), Iran has yielded a total of 630 kilograms of low enriched uranium hexafluoride (LEU). In order to fuel the soon finished reactor in Bushehr, it would need to produce about 37 tons (!) of LEU. The only reason for Iran to carry on with the program is, according to Albright et al., that it’s seeking to establish the capability of producing enough weapon-grade uranium. With almost 6000 centrifuges operating at current levels, Iran could easily produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one or two nuclear bombs a year.
Although circular reasoning, of course, this argument is worth a second thought. Iran has already started, as Albright et al. point out, developing next generation centrifuges (IR-2 and IR-3) and significant stocks of uranium hexafluoride. Altogether, Iran has already produced about 350 tons of uranium, according to Albright et al. enough for over 35 nuclear weapons. All of it is safeguarded by the IAEA.
Evidence or Speculation
While (according to Albright et al., the unclassified portion of) the NIE in December 2007 stated with “high confidence” that Iran had been working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran halted the program in fall 2003, the IAEA published in May 2008 ‘troubling’ activities on developing and “testing a ‘hemisperical, converging, explosively driven shock system’ applicable to an implosion-type nuclear device” and documents that show that Iran has worked on the “redesign of the inner cone of the Shahab-3 missile re-entry vehicle to accommodate a nuclear warhead.” According to IAEA, these illicit activities date into early 2004. Apart from not contradicting in general the NIE, Iran has insisted repeatedly that these documents had been forged, and denies ever having undertaken any nuclear weapons-related research. Since 2003, there is in fact “far less” (according to Albright et al., public) evidence about renewed nuclear weaponization activities of Iran. Since ongoing weaponization work would be considered a ‘smoking gun’, which would significantly erode Iran’s support worldwide (is there any? one is tempted to ask), Albright et al. speculates that “[I]ran has tightened its security over these efforts.” A further discussion and circular reasoning of this kind about intelligence and Iran’s denial, as once again started by Albright et al. in this paper, should be considered useless unless the long awaited new National Intelligence Estimate is made available to the public. Albright et al. speculate a lot about a ‘break-out’ capability of Iran. They write: “Under a wide variety of scenarios, Iran is moving steadily toward a break-out capability and is expected to reach that milestone during the first half of 2009.” Albright et al. argue that LEU may quickly be fueled into the centrifuges to produce weapon-grade highly-enriched uranium. They disregard the obvious high risk of the leaders for the country of being immediately attacked by, for instance, Israel and the U.S. once it leaves the nuclear NPT and diverts LEU.
What about Israel?
In order to build confidence in the international community Tehran has to implement once again the Additional Protocol of the NPT. Iran must indeed prove that it is not clandestinely working on a military project of developing nuclear weapons. In return, the nuclear issue should be referred from the UN Security Council back to the IAEA. These acts should be accomplished as soon as possible. The upcoming presidential elections in Iran will, of course, create some hurdles for the new Obama administration and Tehran, as well. It is unfortunate and negligent that this ISIS report does not explicitly call Israel for eventually signing the NPT and allowing the IAEA to investigate its nuclear activities. The whole Middle East must sooner or later be nuclear-free.