Yesterday’s report to the Congress of Dennis C. Blair, the new director of America’s national intelligence agencies, made clear that the global financial crisis might be a greater threat to the United States than, for instance, Al Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it is not only threatening the US. According to Mr. Blair, who delivered his report to the Senate Intelligence Committee, roughly a quarter of the world’s nations have experiences “low-level instability such as government changes” as a result of the current slowdown in the global economy.
Somewhat eagerly awaited was, of course, this year’s estimate of Iran’s nuclear program by the agencies. Whether Iran’s allegedly successful launch of a ‘rocket’ into orbit two weeks ago can actually be considered as the country’s “dogged development of a deliverable nuclear weapon”, as Mr. Blair mentioned at the hearing, might in fact be doubtful. Even he admitted, and I suppose that this statement is based on lack of further information, that a political decision about whether or not Iran is turned into a full-fledged nuclear power has so far not been made by the leaders in Tehran. “I don’t think it’s a done deal either way,” he is cited.
So, most probably, no further evidence had been accumulated since the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which concluded, “with high confidence, that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” and that “with moderate-to-high confidence … Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”
Just in time, as usual, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) yesterday asked the question: Is Iran running out of yellow cake? Given the facts that the two uranium mines in Gachine near Bandar Abbas and Saghand in Iran’s central desert would yield only very low-grade uranium ore (it is mentioned in the report that Iran had admitted only 553 parts per million (ppm) at Saghand; less than 750 ppm is considered uneconomical to mine) of low quality and, further, that United Nations Security Council resolutions ban export to Iran especially of uranium ore, is it possible that Iran could slow all operations at Esfahan, the site where uranium hexafluoride, is produced from yellowcake (milled uranium ore) with which the centrifuges for uranium enrichment in Natanz are fueled? Is it possible that the facility is even shut down? A chart in the ISIS report should illustrate the slowing pace of uranium hexafluoride conversion at Esfahan between June 2006 (when production started) and November 2008, after, according to the November 2008 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), maintenance had been done in the facility and conversion resumed. But its nonlinear time axis makes interpretation not easier.
Is Iran’s lack of uranium ore of questionable quality any reason not to be further alerted? Not for David Albright and his co-authors. According to the ISIS report, “[t]he current uranium ore shortfall illustrates a fundamental inconsistency between Iran’s stated intentions – a commercially viable, indigenously fueled, civil nuclear power industry, and its capabilities. If Iran’s objective is a latent nuclear weapons capability, it needs not invest resources in the further development of its mining industry. But if it wants to meet the requirements of even a single Bushehr-type reactor, it will need to do much more to develop its own indigenous mining capabilities, or settle its differences with the international community so that it can import sufficient quantities of yellowcake.”
It might be a further case of circular reasoning: If Iran’s completely insufficient nuclear program for civil purposes does not make any sense their true intention can only be to keep open the option of producing a nuclear bomb.