Nuclear Evidence Against Iran Mounts
What is likely the final diplomatic push prior to military intervention against Iran is off to a tense start. Yesterday, a five-hour kick-off to renewed negotiations took place between senior U.N. nuclear watchdogs and Iranians at the diplomatic mission in Vienna. There, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials reported that they believe a site at the Islamic Republic’s Parchin military complex was used to test components of nuclear weapons capability, directly undercutting Tehran’s oft-stated claim that the country is developing such capability strictly for “peaceful” purposes.
The Parchin complex came into focus when the Associated Press (AP) publicized a drawing from a country keeping track of Iran’s nuclear program. It depicted a containment chamber that is used to test multipoint explosives of the type used to set off a nuclear charge. The official who shared the computer-generated drawing with AP says it is based on information from an informant inside the Parchin complex, and that going into further detail would endanger the informant’s life. The official also demanded that he and his country remain anonymous in exchange for sharing secret intelligence information.
Olli Heinonen, the former senior official in charge of the Iran file prior to his departure from the IAEA last year, says the drawing is “very similar” to a photo he has seen and identifies as that of the Iranian chamber. He further noted that even the colors of the two images match. His contention was buttressed by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack, who said intelligence agencies are familiar with the drawing as well.
This follows two earlier references to the structure. The first was a November 8 report by the IAEA describing “a large explosives containment vessel” for experiments on triggering a nuclear explosion, one for which they had satellite images “consistent with this information.” The second was from IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, who said his agency had “credible information that indicates that Iran engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices” at the site.
How the current meeting between the IAEA and Iranian officials will affect the multi-lateral talks beginning a little more than a week from now remains to be seen. The groundwork for those talks is being quietly pursued by the EU’s Helga Schmid and Iran’s Ali Bagheri, who are the number two nuclear negotiators for the West and Iran, respectively. It is thought that a behind-the-scenes effort to establish a framework for the meeting will be more fruitful. The other idea behind this initiative is that the Iranians, if they decide to attend the meeting, will know in advance what that framework is.
The Obama administration will reportedly offer Iran a “Chinese menu” of options. For example, if Iran agrees to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent levels, send its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium abroad, and stop enrichment operations at the Fordo facility near Qom (the one that most concerns U.S. and Israeli officials), then it might get processed nuclear fuel from abroad, a suspension of EU oil sanctions, and perhaps spare parts for its American-made civilian aircraft. If Iran agrees to just one or two of the concessions, it might only get fuel for the reactor, medical isotopes or both.
Is such a scenario realistic? Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, hardly sounded conciliatory. “Any miscalculation by the West will prevent the negotiations from being successful,” he told the state-run Mehr news agency on Sunday. “In Baghdad we will wait for a measure that will win the confidence of the Iranian nation.” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack, who won’t be involved in the negotiations at all, was even less optimistic. “The current requirements for entering into the talks with the West are so minimalist, that even if Iran accepts them it will still be able to advance its nuclear program,” Barak told Israel’s Army Radio yesterday. “There is a need to completely halt all uranium enrichment in Iran.” Olli Heinonen explains why, noting that the ability to master the process of producing 3.5 percent enrichment is 70 percent of the way to mastering the fuel cycle for an atomic weapon. Twenty percent enrichment? 90 percent of the process.
On the optimistic side, German deputy foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer expressed the hope that “concrete proposals and compromise” geared at “the right direction,” could be achieved both in Vienna and Baghdad. And in Iran itself, a series of stories in the Iranian press suggesting that the turf between factions aligned with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concerning the nuclear talks may in fact be about who gets credit for making a deal between that nation and the West.
Yet given Iran’s track record, it is more likely that such stories, much like Khamenei’s fatwa about the “sinfulness” of nuclear weapons, is nothing more than “ketman,” deception deployed against a stronger enemy.
The most likely stumbling block will be the total embargo of Iranian oil purchases scheduled to take effect in July. How likely is the easing of that embargo if Iran makes concessions? “They’d really have to wow us,” said an official involved with the process. Yet Iranian negotiators aligned with Khamenei have indicated to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton they consider the easing of that embargo part of a first-step confidence-building measure without which halting 20 percent uranium enrichment as well as sending existing stockpiles out of the country was unlikely.
Thus, it would seem that we are back to square one, pitting the world’s foremost sponsor of state terrorism against a group of EU and American diplomats who remain convinced that this time some sort of breakthrough will be achieved, irrespective of the unbroken track record of diplomatic failures that have occurred up until now. No doubt many Westerners are convinced that the severity of the sanctions to be imposed in July will mitigate Iranian intransigence. Yet a regime that believes it must hasten the second coming of the Mahdi, or Hidden Imam — as well as the Koran-inspired apocalypse that must precede that second coming — could just as easily use economic hardship imposed from without to rally Iranians against a “greater evil” than themselves. In the meantime, Iran’s steady march towards nuclear weapons continues.