Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

From Iran’s perspective, the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on its nuclear program is the proverbial report that keeps on giving. That assessment—which concluded that Tehran “suspended” portions of its nuclear program in 2003—has made it all-but-impossible for President Bush to take action against Iran in the waning months of his administration. As a result, any decision on Iran will likely be deferred until 2009, at the earliest.

And Tehran is making the most of its opportunity. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released an uncharacteristically blunt report on Monday, noting that Iran still owes the organization a “substantial explanation” about its nuclear activities. According to the U.N. agency, Tehran’s suspected research into nuclear weapons remains a “matter of serious concerns.”

As The New York Times reports:

The nine-page report accused the Iranians of a willful lack of cooperation, particularly in answering allegations that its nuclear program may be intended more for military use than for energy generation.

Part of the agency’s case hinges on 18 documents listed in the report and presented to Iran that, according to Western intelligence agencies, indicate the Iranians have ventured into explosives, uranium processing and a missile warhead design — activities that could be associated with constructing nuclear weapons.

“There are certain parts of their nuclear program where the military seems to have played a role,” said one senior official close to the agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic constraints. He added, “We want to understand why.”

The IAEA's criticism of Iran is rather striking, given its past ignorance (or tolerance) of WMD programs in other rogue states. As former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay told the Times:

“The Iranians are certainly being confronted with some pretty strong evidence of a nuclear weapons program, and they are being petulant and defensive,” said Albright, who now runs the Institute for Science and International Security. “The report lays out what the agency knows, and it is very damning. I’ve never seen it laid out quite like this.”

Among its findings, the IAEA describes Iran’s recent efforts to install larger, more efficient centrifuges, used to enrich uranium. Agency experts report that Tehran has installed second and third-generation centrifuges (described as IR-2 and IR-3) at its Natanz processing facility. As you might expect, the Iranians never reported that advance to the IAEA.

Additionally, agency inspectors report they were denied access to centrifuge component production facilities and an enrichment research center during their most recent visit to Iran, which occurred in April.

The amount of enriched uranium being produced by Tehran remains a mystery. While the IAEA report doesn’t address that topic, an official who spoke with the NYT said Iran has produced 330 kilograms of the material (roughly 700 pounds) since December—double the amount produced during a similar span in 2006.

However, the Times’ account fails to address critical aspects of the enrichment program, including: (a) the number of advanced centrifuges have been installed; (b) the size of the Iranian cascade (or centrifuge array) and (c) the purity of the enriched uranium now being produced.

Obviously, Tehran has succeeded in expanding its production capabilities, but the purity issue is critical. Bomb-grade enriched uranium requires a purity level of more than 90%; by comparison, nuclear power reactors can utilize material with purity levels below 10%. At last report, Iran’s enriched uranium had not reached the required purity threshold, but as with other elements of its nuclear program, attaining that goal is simply a matter of time and effort.

The IAEA Board of Governors is expected to discuss the Iran report next week. Beyond that, it’s unclear what the organization might recommend to the U.N. Past sanctions and resolutions against Iran have been utter failures. And that's a charitable assessment.

Ditto for previous rounds of talks between Tehran and the European Union. But that hasn’t deterred the EU. After the latest IAEA report was unveiled, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana announced plans to go back to Tehran with a “repackaged” set of security, technological and political guarantees, in exchange for Iran—if it abandons its enrichment program.

That proposal, first offered to Iran in 2006, appears to be dead on arrival. Tehran has already announced that it will not give up its enrichment program, which it describes as a “red line” issue.

Iran’s increasingly tough stand should come as no surprise. Last year’s NIE effectively derailed military options against Tehran, claiming the regime that had suspended its weaponization efforts--while acknowledging that work continued on the critical tasks of uranium enrichment and ballistic missile development.

With publication of the intelligence estimate, the Bush Administration apparently abandoned efforts to make a case for military action against Iran. While there have been periodic reports of “planning” for contingency operations against Tehran, these efforts appear to be routine. Additionally, there have been no signs that the Pentagon is preparing to deploy the forces needed for a sustained air and naval campaign against the Iranians.

Meanwhile, Iran is making nuclear hay while the sun shines. Israeli intelligence has warned that Tehran could have its first nuclear device within two years, and the accelerated efforts outlined in the IAEA report lends some credence to that assessment. In any event, it appears that Iran will have nuclear weapons long before the 2015 timeline offered by the U.S. intelligence community.

And that means the next president will face difficult choices on Iran, very early in his (or her) administration. And that’s all the more reason to wonder about candidates who want to negotiate with the Iranian leadership. The recent rounds of talks—supported by the U.S.—have brought us to the verge of a nuclear-armed Iran. We can only imagine what future negotiations might bring.

There's plenty of blame to go around in the west's failure to deal effectively with Iran. But part of that blame lies with our politicized intelligence community, which put partisan battles ahead of cogent assessments. Their flawed NIE that was the analytical equivalent of kicking the can down the road. Our day of reckoning with Iran wasn't deterred--it was merely delayed. And we will face a more dangerous adversary when that day arrives.


Max said...

/* While the IAEA report doesn’t address that topic, an official who spoke with the NYT said Iran has produced 330 kilograms of the material (roughly 150 pounds) since December

Minor math error: 1 Kg = 2.2 pounds, not the other way around.

So 330 Kg is about 660 pounds (at 2 lbs./Kg), and is in fact close to 726 pounds (at 2.2 lbs./Kg).

Spook86 said...

Good catch--it's been corrected (at least in my post). Can't speak for the NYT.