Is Iran developing nuclear weapons?
The inauguration of US President Barack Obama ushered in hopes that a political and diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue might soon be found, amid the possibility of new relationship between Washington and Tehran. However, the months since January 2009 have all but quashed the possibility of any new era in bilateral relations emerging in the near future. Iran now faces a September deadline to positively respond to the diplomatic overtures of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) or else face the possibility of increased escalation.
One can find ample barriers to progressive, problem-solving diplomacy on both sides. Despite the promise of a new approach, the Obama administration's game plan on Iran has remained the same as his predecessor, with only minor cosmetic changes. In Iran, the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ongoing political unrest and factional infighting point to the re-entrenchment of inflexible policies and positions and the promise that the nuclear program will continue its present course indefinitely.
This article assesses the near and mid-term prospects for a diplomatic outcome to the Iranian nuclear issue. It provides a basic technical overview of Iran's nuclear program, its current status and international efforts to rein it in. Finally, it provides an overview of both the diplomatic and non-diplomatic strategies employed by the major powers.
Contrary to the decisions of the UN Security Council and at the crux of the nuclear dispute, Iran continues to develop its uranium enrichment capacity as well as construction of a heavy water research reactor. As of 31 May 2009, Iran had installed a total of 7,221 centrifuges - out of a planned ~50,000 - at its industrial-scale uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA had previously reported that Iran's IR-40 heavy water research reactor at Arak would not come online before 2014.
Perhaps more important than the enrichment and heavy water questions, the IAEA has been unable to make any progress in resolving outstanding issues related to its investigation into Iran's past undeclared nuclear activities. In August 2007, Iran and the IAEA agreed to a work plan to resolve all such issues. The resolution of these issues would be necessary for the IAEA to begin the process of providing assurances to the international community regarding Iran's claim that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.
While the IAEA has been able to close the docket on many of the issues originally identified in the work plan, it has not been able to make progress on the far more serious issues related to alleged studies relating to possible nuclear weaponization work. The IAEA has assessed that these allegations point to a possible military-nuclear connection. Much, if not all, of the evidence related to these allegations has come from documents either shown or given to the IAEA from foreign governments.
In his report to the June 2009 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, out-going Director General Mohamed ElBaradei again reported that no additional progress had been made on the outstanding issues. The IAEA reported, as it has invariably since November 2004, that Iran has not diverted any nuclear to military or unknown use, pursuant to its basic safeguards obligation required under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In December 2007, the US National Intelligence Council reported its finding "with high confidence that in fall 2003, Iran halted its nuclear weapons program." The report defined "nuclear weapons program" as "nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work." The estimate assessed that until fall 2003, military entities in Iran "were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons."
In March 2009, US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair reaffirmed this finding, adding that Iran "had not restarted these activities as of at least mid-2007." Blair said that the US intelligence community continued to believe no Iranian political decision had been made to acquire a nuclear weapon, though he admitted there was uncertainty as to what national security criteria or deadlines might influence such a decision.
Reinforcing the lack of urgency over the Iran situation, in August 2009 the US State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research assessed that Iran would not have the technical capacity to produce materials for use in a nuclear weapon before 2013. But these conclusions have not blunted the drive to curb Iran's extant nuclear programs.
In February 2006, at the behest of permanent members France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the UN Security Council embarked on a program to incrementally escalate international pressure on Iran for the purpose of compelling it to suspend its uranium enrichment and heavy water reactor programs and later to cooperate with the IAEA in resolving outstanding issues.
Adding a second component to what has come to be called a dual track strategy, after June 2006 the moves to increase pressure on Iran were coupled by attempts of the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) to induce Iran into negotiations by offering it economic incentives in return for suspension of its "proliferation sensitive" nuclear activities. Neither of these two approaches, combined or separately, have achieved their stated goals, which for the western powers is still zero enrichment.
Related to the incentive track, the P5+1 initially offered Iran a package of incentives in June 2006 - updated in May 2008 - essentially promising the negotiation of economic and technology cooperation arrangements with Iran, in addition to the removal of sanctions and trade restrictions, in exchange for the indefinite suspension of its "proliferation sensitive" nuclear activities. The sticking point of the offer from Iran's perspective is the requirement that it suspend nuclear activities as a pre-condition and maintain suspension throughout the negotiations.
The proposal notably omits several topics that address key political concerns that underlie the frayed relations between Iran and the western powers. Those include the normalization of relations between Iran and the United States and security guarantees - both a feature of the stalled and possibly defunct effort to curb North Korea's nuclear program. The package also omits dealing with Iran's support for groups designated by the United States as terrorist organizations, despite a 2003 offer from Iran to put this on the table in order to achieve a comprehensive political solution.
Related to the escalation track, since 2006 the UN Security Council has adopted five resolutions on Iran, though only three of them have imposed sanctions. The sanctions have targeted entities and individuals involved with Iran's nuclear, ballistic missile and asymmetrical warfare programs. In addition, the Council has ordered a halt to Iran's uranium enrichment, reprocessing, and heavy water reactor programs and imposed financial and travel restrictions on individuals and entities involved with those programs. The Council has also prohibited all arms exports from Iran.
If the goal of the sanctions has been to compel the Iranian government to change their policies, then they have not had their intended effect. In fact, in response to these moves Iran has downgraded its cooperation with the IAEA and continued to proceed with the installation of centrifuges at its industrial-scale enrichment plant at Natanz. Despite the use of both carrots and sticks, Iran continues to maintain its right to nuclear energy and has refused to accept any further suspension.
Since the beginning of 2009, the P5+1 game plan on Iran has remained hauntingly similar to its 2006-2008 approach. During the March 2009 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, the P5+1 issued a joint statement sticking to the same demands: calling upon Iran to meet the "requirements" of the IAEA Board and UN Security Council and to implement and ratify the Additional Protocol. The statement blandly reaffirmed the commitment of the P5+5 to achieving a "comprehensive diplomatic solution." The 1 April 2009 US/ Russia Presidential Statement, issued at the G20 summit in London, made a similar call but offered no new ideas.
Though US President Obama campaigned on a platform of increased diplomacy with Iran, a fresh approach to issue has yet to emerge from the White House. The most tangible change in US diplomatic policy toward Iran came in April 2009 when, in the context of a P5+1 meeting, the Obama administration announced it would be present at all further meetings between the P5+1 and Iran within the context of the dual track strategy.
While subsequent press reports indicated that a new US-EU diplomatic strategy toward dealing with Iran could involve greater flexibility, the implementation of any such plans were postponed to await the outcome of the Iranian elections. Reportedly, US and EU policy makers had considered an approach that would allow Iran to continue operating its full nuclear program during the initial phases of talks, while focusing on broadening inspections. Such a proposal, if it had been made, could have gone some ways toward injecting fresh air into the stale diplomatic effort.
Since the disputed June presidential elections in Iran, both sides have retrenched their positions, and the dispute continues its collision course. At the July 2009 G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, world leaders reaffirmed their support for "comprehensive, peaceful and diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue." The G8 statement further urged Iran to accept the P5+1 proposal and stressed Iran's "responsibility, as reiterated by UNSC Resolutions, to restore confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear activities."
Though the G8 did not mention any specific deadline, several key leaders subsequently expressed the expectation for Iran to respond to the P5+1 proposal by September. Reinforcing this "deadline," US President Obama reaffirmed the September deadline, saying that nations would use the G20 summit to take stock of Iran's progress.
In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced Iran would prepare a new package of "political, security, and international" proposals intended to serve as a "good basis for talks with the West." Unless Iran's response meets the key condition of suspension, it seems unlikely it will be received as a basis for negotiations, thus setting the stage for continued escalation.
The press has subsequently reported that US officials have been engaging in international consultations on the possibility of imposing a gasoline embargo on Iran - either a likely sign that the US government does not anticipate Iran will present an acceptable package in September or an attempt to induce Iran to comply. As noted by The New York Times, Iran imports about 40 percent of its gasoline due to the lack of sufficient refining capacity. The New York Times also noted Iran had previously said it would respond to such a move by ceasing its oil exports and closing the Strait of Hormuz to commercial shipping.
The United States would face a tough diplomatic sell for such an initiative, however. Diplomatic officials cited by Reuters indicated that Russia and China have made clear to the P5+1 that they will not agree to further sanctions against Iran at this time. Other diplomats noted that the EU was also split on the matter of imposing sanctions on Iran's energy sector. Of the five European countries currently on the UN Security Council, diplomats believed Austria and Turkey would both object to such measures. Other Security Council members, such as Indonesia, which abstained from the most recent resolution on Iran, may also be reluctant to impose harsh sanctions.
In another sign of possible brinkmanship, the Pentagon has requested funds to accelerate development of a 30,000 pound, conventional explosive bunker-busting bomb. The bomb, known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, could be dropped either by a B-52 or a B-2 bomber. The funds requested by the Pentagon would aim to make the weapon deployable on the B-2 by June 2010. According to Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, the accelerated deployment of the weapon has been backed by two US military commands: Pacific Command, which includes responsibility for North Korea; and Central Command, which includes responsibility for Iran.
In light of likely opposition to additional sanctions at the UN Security Council, governments seeking to increase pressure on the Iranian government may again have to seek cooperation outside the UN. Such a path would almost certainly blunt the effectiveness of any punitive measures contemplated. Given the wide bi-partisan support - demands, really - for harsh sanctions against Iran, President Obama may face a difficult time finding domestic support for implementing bold diplomatic initiatives, even if his administration was prepared to pursue such a course.
On the other side, in the wake of the June election, Iran's political leaders have shown no sign that they are contemplating any new approach to the nuclear issue. The first hint has come from the replacement of the head of the Iran Atomic Energy Organization, GholamReza Aghazadeh, who stepped down in July 2009 after serving in that capacity for 12 years. His replacement, Ali Akbar Salehi, soon struck a conciliatory tone. In his first interview, he stated, "more efforts will be made to obtain mutual trust. So that the case lasting for six years will be closed as soon as possible."
Given the practical and political difficulties of taking a hard line, US attempts at brinkmanship may prove counterproductive due to the political reality that further delay in moving toward serious negotiation allows more time for Iran to continue its nuclear programs. For the moment, the onus is on Iran to deliver a reply to the P5+1 that lives up to Salehi's pledge to work toward mutual trust. Summing up the need of the moment, Mohamed ElBaradei, in his intervention to the June IAEA Board meeting, expressed hope that Iran would make a goodwill gesture, thus helping to quickly enable the start of meaningful dialogue addressing the comprehensive range of issues.
Michael Spies is a research associate with the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy.
1 Portions of this article are adapted from and update Michael Spies, "Proliferation Challenges and the NPT: An Update on the Case of Iran (May 2008-April 2009)," Disarmament Diplomacy, No 90, Spring 2009.
2 "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran,"
Report by the Director General, IAEA document GOV/2009/35, 5 June 2009.
3 The IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei has acknowledged that Iran "has the knowledge and has demonstrated that it has the capacity" to enrich uranium, in an attempt to deemphasized the political potency of the issues. See Mohamed ElBaradei, "Intervention on Non-Proliferation Issues at IAEA Board of Governors," IAEA Board of Governors, Vienna, 17 June 2009.
4 "Understandings of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IAEA on the Modalities of Resolution of the Outstanding Issues," IAEA document INFCIRC/711, 21 August 2007.
5 Ibid, paragraphs 14-25. This work includes design of nuclear weapons usable components, a modified reentry vehicle for an intermediate range ballistic missile suitable for nuclear weapons use, development of additional and undeclared uranium conversion activities, as well as the presence of a document describing the casting of uranium metal into hemispheric shapes - such as would be required in the core of a nuclear bomb.
6 See GOV/2009/35. For discussion on Iran's obligations under the NPT, see Michael Spies, "Iran and the Limits of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime, 22 Am. U. Int'l L. Rev. 402-443 (2007).
7,8 US National Intelligence Council, National Intelligence Estimate: Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, November 2007.
9 Dennis C Blair, US Director of National Intelligence, Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community, unclassified testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2009.
10,11 For instance, the Washington Post reported that the State Department believes Iran will not make a decision to acquire nuclear weapons, "for at least as long as international scrutiny and pressure persist." Walter Pincus, "Iran Years From Fuel For Bomb, Report Says," Washington Post, 7 August 2009.
12 EU3+3 Statement on Iran's Nuclear Program, delivered by UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, London, 2 May 2008.
13 Resolutions S/RES/1696 (2006) of 31 July 2006, S/RES/1737 (2006) of 23 December 2007, S/RES/1747 (2007) of 24 March 2007, S/RES/1803 (2008) of 3 March 2008 and S/RES/1835 of 27 September 2008. Resolutions 1737, 1747 and 1803 imposed or increased sanctions.
14 Statement on Iran's Nuclear Program on behalf of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, IAEA document INFCIRC/749, 1 April 2009.
15 Joint Statement by President Dmitriy Medvedev of the Russian Federation and President Barack Obama of the United States of America, 1 April 2009.
16 Nazila Fathi, "Iran Says It Plans New Nuclear Offer ," New York Times, Page A12, 16 April 2009.
17 L'Aquila Statement on Non-Proliferation, G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy, 8 July 2009.
18 French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the press that Iran would be required to respond by the date of the G20 summit, set to take place in Pittsburgh. Sarkozy said, "Between August and September it's for them to decide how they want things to evolve. Pittsburgh is the date." "G8 leaders to pursue Iran nuke talks: Sarkozy," Agence France-Presse, 9 July 2009.
19 US President Barack Obama, Remarks to the Press, US Press Filing Center, L'Aquila Italy, 9 July 2009.
20 Robert F Worth, "Senior Cleric Says Leaders of Iran Are Unfit to Rule," New York Times, page A10, 12 July 2009.
21 David E Sanger, "U.S. Weighs Iran Sanctions if Talks Are Rejected," New York Times, page A4, 3 August 2009. Iran receives the majority of its gasoline from six foreign firms: Vitol of Switzerland; Trafigura of Switzerland and the Netherlands; Total of France; Glencore of Switzerland; British Petroleum; and Reliance of India. "US will do what it takes to keep Iran from getting nuclear arms," Agence France-Presse, 3 August 2009.
22 Adam Entous and Tom Doggett, "Iran fuel imports possible target in nuclear standoff," Reuters India, 4 August 2009.
23 "Pentagon Eyes Accelerated 'Bunker Buster' Bomb," Reuters News Agency, 2 August 2009.
24 "Iran's new nuclear chief urges mutual trust in nuclear row," Xinhua Press Agency, 18 July 2009.