New Concerns

Somewhat surprised by North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Il proud announcement of a (this time probably) successful test of a nuclear bomb, the Obama administration’s main concern still seems to be Iran’s nuclear program. The Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate chaired, since January 2009, by former presidential candidate John F. Kerry has submitted earlier this month its report, Iran: Where We Are Today. Apart from a short briefing on the history of the issue, Kerry and his Committee are giving also some interesting, albeit inconclusive, advice.

Obviously the committee is looking forward to direct bilateral talks between the United States and Iran, the first time in three decades, thus contradicting a recent claim by Washington Post’s Kenneth R. Timmerman that the U.S. had 28 high-level diplomatic encounters with Iran since November 2001. After G. W. Bush had put Iran on his infamous axis of evil in his State of the Union address of January 29, 2002, when an Iranian exile dissident group had disclosed the existence of a covert uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water facility at Arak in August 2002, and particularly after the election of the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad diplomatic efforts of the USA and European negotiators U.K., France and Germany had ended in a stalemate. While Iran might have stopped its military nuclear program in fall of 2003, its uranium enrichment efforts, allegedly aiming for civil purposes have, since then accelerated, resulting in a cat-and-mouse game with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which is still going on today.

Kerry’s Committee Report clearly states that, as a signatory of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), “Iran has the right to enrich uranium for civilian uses. But its secret nuclear activities, which date back to at least 1987, violated its safeguards agreement with the IAEA to declare and allow inspections of all nuclear-related sites. The United States, and later the Europeans, argued that Iran’s deception meant it should forfeit its right to enrich, a position likely to be up for negotiation in talks with Iran” [my emphasis].

One of the most controversial issues is the “strong circumstantial case for military involvement, which may or may not have stopped when the weaponization work ended in late 2003. Potentially damning evidence surfaced in 2004 when U.S. intelligence obtained a laptop computer that it said had come from an Iranian engineer. The computer contained thousands of pages of data on tests of high explosives and designs for a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. It also contained videos of what were described as secret workshops around Iran where the weapons work was supposedly carried out.” The IAEA refers to these documents in official reports as “alleged studies”. Iranian officials denounce them as fakes. The Kerry report concedes here that “[s]enior UN officials and foreign intelligence officials who have seen many of the documents told the committee staff that it is impossible to rule out an elaborate intelligence ruse” [my emphasis].

The two alternatives detailed by the Committee’s report, namely either Iran’s potential “breakout options”, a momentous step following North Korea which expelled IAEA inspectors, or covert, so far unknown (or at least un-declassified), enrichment facilities independent of the Natanz both seem rather unrealistic. The former would most probably entail in an immediate attack by Israel or even the U.S. At least the unclassified portion of the National Intelligence Estimate released in December 2007 states that the intelligence community believes that Iran might use a covert facility to enrich low-enriched to weapons-grade uranium.

But how to proceed from here? Understanding the motivations for the Iranian nuclear program by the Obama administration is crucial. Kerry’s report mentions prestige, the investment of tens of millions of dollars in the program, already endured hardships due to international sanctions and, more recently, “concerns focused on tough rhetoric from [former] President George W. Bush and fears of a U.S. invasion, particularly in the months after the start of the war in Iraq in March 2003.”

“In one scenario [of a diplomatic approach], Iran would freeze enrichment at current levels while its parliament ratifies the Additional Protocol, which allows the IAEA to make more intrusive inspections on short notice. Side agreements might be required to establish an even tighter safeguards regime at Natanz, sometimes officials at the IAEA refer to as “Additional Protocol Plus.” Iran also could be required to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear weapon testing.

“A second approach would take a tougher stance, requiring Iran to relinquish all rights to enrichment and close down Natanz and related facilities. Proponents of this view argue that Iran cannot be trusted because of its long history of concealing nuclear activities and they do not trust the spotty record of the IAEA when it comes to identifying clandestine nuclear programs.” The latter seems not to lead out of the deadlock. Thus, Kerry’s report states that “[t]he ultimate solution to the conundrum of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is not technical, but political. In testimony before the committee during two days of public hearings on Iran in early March, Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contended that the nuclear dispute must be viewed as a symptom of the broader mistrust between the U.S. and Iran, not as an underlying cause of the tension” [my emphasis].

Israel’s recent demands of a deadline for possible diplomatic efforts may complicate the issue. “Some analysts argue that setting an advance time table for progress in talks is a recipe for failure. Their argument is that it will take time for the United States to assure Iran that it cannot afford the price of acquiring a nuclear arsenal and that Washington recognizes Tehran as an influential regional player. For others, however, time is more critical because of Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons capacity. They contend that Iran should understand either privately or publicly, that substantive progress on negotiations must occur within a specific time frame or Iran’s failure to abide by the UN Security Council resolutions will trigger significant new sanction.” The latter has evidently not lead to any progress.

The Foreign Relations Committee concludes that “[a] few years ago, the United States and its allies thought they could stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions short of mastering the enrichment process. Iran has crossed that line and now expects the international community to put the stamp of legitimacy on its activities as part of any talks. This would be a highly controversial concession, even if it came with strings attached. The toughest inspection regime and fullest disclosure by Iran about the likely military aspects of its program might not ease the anxieties of the Israeli government and some of Iran’s neighbors. In fact, coming clean about the military aspects of its program, even if they are in the past, may increase distrust among Iran’s neighbors. Despite the potential problems of permitting Iran to continue enriching in defiance of the UN Security Council, the administration has indicated that it is willing to begin talks with Iran without demanding a suspension of enrichment, according to senior State Department officials” [my emphasis].

The optimism may be premature. Today’s nuclear test in North Korea is definitely a serious backlash for the expected new diplomatic initiatives of the Obama administration.

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