Tag Archives: Saeed Jalili

Breakout beckons: Iran’s nuclear programme

Neither Iran’s election, nor sanctions nor military threats are likely to divert it from the path it is on to getting nuclear weapons

THE resounding victory of Hassan Rohani, the most moderate and outward-looking of the presidential candidates deemed fit to contest the election by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has raised hopes for a nuclear deal between Iran and the international community. As the Islamic Republic’s nuclear negotiator for nearly two years from October 2003, he showed a degree of flexibility that was depressingly absent in the most recent talks between Iran and the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (P5+1).

Mr Rohani seems pragmatic enough to know that Iran needs relief from sanctions to revive its economy, and that a more constructive negotiating stance on the nuclear programme will be needed to get that. Nevertheless, the change in Iran’s top civilian office is unlikely to bring an end to the interminable Iranian nuclear crisis.

Even if Mr Rohani wanted to do the kind of deal that would be acceptable to the West (and there is nothing in his past to suggest that he might), the guiding hand behind Iran’s nuclear policy will remain that of the supreme leader, whose introspective, suspicious view of the world outside Iran has not changed. The die is already cast: nothing is likely to stop Iran getting the bomb if and when it decides it wants one.

The last set of talks between the P5+1 and Iran, the fifth of the current round of negotiations, were in early April and ended on a downbeat note. They followed a proposal in February to allow a modest easing of sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s uranium-enrichment programme and more comprehensive inspections by the IAEA. Intended as a prelude to a more far-reaching deal, the offer represented a slight softening of the six powers’ position, by allowing Iran to keep a small amount of uranium enriched to 20% (for use in a reactor to make medical isotopes) and calling only for the suspension of enrichment at Fordow, a plant buried deep within a mountain, rather than its closure.

Iran’s negotiator, Saeed Jalili (an unsuccessful presidential candidate close to Mr Khamenei), replied that he wanted a suspension of all sanctions in exchange for only a temporary halt to 20% uranium enrichment, an impossible demand.

Mr Rohani’s election means the next round of negotiations will be conducted in a better atmosphere. But to what end? The answer is that the process serves a purpose for everybody. For Iran, the continuation of talks is a means of getting some easing of sanctions in exchange for concessions that will have little impact on its nuclear programme. For America and its allies, the absence of progress up to now has kept the international community lined up behind sanctions. Both sides, preferring to avoid a military confrontation, have an interest in demonstrating that the diplomatic path to a solution has not yet reached a dead-end.

Yet the inconvenient truth is that while the talks seem destined to continue, Iran is close to what is known as “critical capability”—the point at which it could make a dash to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more bombs before the IAEA or Western intelligence agencies would even know it had done so. Despite the severe economic pain that the tightening of sanctions has inflicted on Iran’s people and their evident desire for change, Iran’s strategic calculus has not shifted. The nuclear programme is worth almost any sacrifice because it guarantees the regime’s survival against external threats, as America’s differing policies towards Libya and North Korea illustrate.

Speeding up

How close is Iran to critical capability? British and American intelligence sources think it is about a year away from having enough fissile material to make a bomb and further still from mastering the technologies to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit onto one of its Shabab-3 ballistic missiles and carry out the tests needed to be confident that the system works.

But two of the most respected independent analysts—David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security and Greg Jones, a RAND Corporation researcher who writes on Iran for the Non-proliferation Policy Education Centre (NPEC)—believe that time is running out more quickly. Mr Albright thinks that by mid-2014 Iran will be able from a standing start to produce enough fissile material for a single bomb in one or two weeks. Mr Jones reckons that later this year Iran will be able to produce within about ten weeks enough weapons-grade uranium for a couple of nuclear weapons.

If Iran has a small clandestine enrichment facility designed to enrich uranium from 20% to 90% (highly enriched weapons-grade uranium, or HEU) it could quite soon be able to manufacture enough material for five bombs in about 14 weeks using a new generation of advanced centrifuges it has already begun to install in its main enrichment site at Natanz. Mr Jones, in a recent report for NPEC, says that although a secret facility would put Iran in breach of IAEA safeguards “the time needed for Iran to produce HEU by this method is becoming so short as to make it doubtful that any effective action could be taken before Iran obtained a nuclear weapon.”

For both Mr Albright and Mr Jones, what matters most is the relentless pace at which Iran is adding to its enrichment capabilities and thus the speed at which it can produce the fissile material needed for an implosion device, the most common form of nuclear bomb. As Mr Albright puts it, the critical component for “a fissile-material dash” is the quantity and quality of Iran’s centrifuges. Despite wide-ranging attempts by the West and Israel to delay or sabotage the nuclear programme, Iran has installed around 9,000 new centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow in less than two years, more than doubling its previous enrichment capacity. Reflecting this surge in capacity, Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% or low-enriched uranium has gone from about 2,500kg to around 4,300kg in the same period. In March, Iran announced that it was also building 3,000 of the new, more advanced centrifuges (known as the IR-2m) that are said to be up to five times more efficient than the older IR-1 design. Nearly 700 of the new centrifuges have already been installed. Iran is also making progress with its heavy-water reactor at Arak. Capable of producing plutonium, it could provide an alternative route to a bomb at the end of next year.

Paradoxically, these developments are proceeding without Iran appearing to risk crossing either the red line announced by Barack Obama or the most recent limit set by Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. Both men have threatened that the consequence of Iran crossing their respective lines would be attacks on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but neither line has been drawn clearly. In Israel’s case, the ultimatum set by Mr Netanyahu in September last year was that Iran must be prevented from having enough 20% or medium-enriched uranium (MEU) to allow it to produce the 20 or so kg of HEU required for a nuclear weapon. But how much is that?

More than enough for a bomb

Mr Netanyahu has since suggested that if Iran had 250kg of MEU it would have crossed his red line. But that seems a very high figure for a single nuclear device (see chart). He may have been referring to MEU in the form of uranium hexafluoride that Iran’s enrichment process produces rather than the amount of 20% enriched uranium itself. That is because 250kg of hexafluoride would produce about 165kg of MEU, which is about right for one bomb. Mr Jones reckons the amount of MEU needed for a single bomb could be between 94kg and 210kg depending on how the enrichment to HEU is carried out. Since Iran started producing MEU just over three years ago it has produced 219kg of 20% enriched uranium, of which over 40% has been converted to uranium oxide, some of which has been made into fuel rods for a research reactor in Tehran.

However, that still leaves a 123kg stockpile of MEU, enough for a bomb if Mr Jones is right and therefore already well across Mr Netanyahu’s red line. In the last quarter Iran converted 67% of its MEU production into oxide, but still increased the stockpile by 10kg. Even though Iran is managing its MEU stockpile carefully to keep the negotiations going and preserve ambiguity, on any reckoning it is likely to be well over the line set by Israel before the end of this year. Does that suggest that Israel will carry out a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities some time in the next six months? Probably not. Israeli red lines have come and gone in the past.

A while ago, Israel wanted it to be thought that Iran would face attack if it gained the capability to build a nuclear weapon. That point was probably passed some years ago. Making a bomb depends on Iran’s ability to convert HEU into a metal sphere for the weapon’s core, to make a reliable detonator and then to create a warhead small enough to put on a ballistic missile, a process known as “weaponisation”. Mastery of the techniques required is not beyond Iran’s engineering capacity.

Western intelligence agencies used to reckon that Iran had suspended work on weaponisation in 2004. But after the IAEA published a report in November 2011, since when Iran has refused to allow the agency’s inspectors into the Parchin military research complex facility, that assumption has been challenged. In December 2011 Mr Jones estimated that Iran could produce an implosion-type device within two to six months, thanks in part to the help it is thought to have received from Vyacheslav Danilenko, a former Soviet nuclear weapons designer. North Korea is also believed to have given substantial technical help.

Israel subsequently came up with another red line that its then-defence minister, Ehud Barak, called the “zone of immunity”. This referred to the moment when Iran had enough centrifuges in the Fordow facility, which is impregnable to Israeli conventional weapons, to continue enrichment even after an attack. That line was probably crossed a year or more ago.

As Iran’s nuclear programme has advanced, Israel has become less confident of its ability, acting alone, to do more than temporary damage to it. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says that Israel might have attacked three or four years ago, but that it is less likely to do so now. Until last year Mr Netanyahu appeared to hope that if Israel struck first, America would be forced, whatever its initial reservations, to step in and use its greater military resources to finish the job. After being warned unmistakably by Mr Obama that he could not count on any such thing and that America would not be “complicit” in such an attack, Mr Netanyahu came perilously close to trying to influence the presidential election in favour of his friend, the more hawkish Mitt Romney.

Clear enough?

Since then Israel’s prime minister has concentrated on keeping up the pressure on Mr Obama to honour his commitments on Iran. When the president visited Israel in March, both leaders said they shared a “common assessment” of how close Iran was to getting a bomb and were equally determined to prevent it from doing so. Mr Netanyahu said his red line might be crossed before Mr Obama’s and Mr Obama ceded Israel’s right to defend itself as it saw fit. But the reality is that Israel will contemplate a unilateral strike on Iran only if it comes to believe that America has betrayed it by ruling one out. Even then, suggests Mr O’Hanlon, the intention might be to signal to Tehran that Israel “had not gone soft” rather than out of any conviction that it could delay Iran’s progress to a bomb by more than a year or two.

What could prompt Mr Obama to order an attack? In March last year he said that “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon” and that a “military effort” might be required to divert it from that course. The former defence secretary, Leon Panetta, went further, saying that if America received intelligence that Iran was “proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon” or that a decision had been taken to that end, America would “take the necessary action to stop [it]”. Moreover, the Obama administration has repeatedly claimed that it would know when such a decision had been taken and would have time to respond. So, not much ambiguity there, then? Well, actually, quite a lot.

Mr Obama’s red line rests on at least three questionable assumptions. The first is that the evidence that Iran has taken the political decision to become a nuclear weapons state will be sufficiently compelling to allow for no other interpretation. The second is that there will be a significant interval between such evidence presenting itself and Iran actually having a weapon that it might be willing to use to deter an attack. The third is that a strike or series of strikes bringing America’s military might to bear on Iran’s nuclear facilities would achieve its aims.

Mr O’Hanlon believes that Mr Obama is “locked in” to taking military action if Iran signals its intentions, for example by renouncing the Non-Proliferation Treaty and throwing out the IAEA’s inspectors. Kenneth Pollack, of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at Brookings and author of “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy” (to be published in September), is less convinced that the “US will get a clean shot” of that kind. If Iran left the NPT, it would say it was doing so because it regards the agency’s inspectors as spies, not because it wants a nuclear weapon. Moreover, he believes that Mr Obama will demand a very high standard of proof following the intelligence debacle over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Take my hand and stop worrying

The idea that there will be plenty of time between Iran making the decision to build nuclear weapons and actually getting them is a comforting conceit that Western intelligence agencies have clung to. The implication is that there will be opportunities for careful alliance-building and diplomatic ultimatums before any strike has to take place. But with Iran approaching critical capability that may not be true. As time goes on, the period that Iran needs to produce not one or two but several devices undetected shrinks, increasing the chances of Iran being treated in much the same way as other aspirant nuclear states that have crossed the threshold, such as Pakistan and North Korea.

The third questionable assumption is that air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities would achieve their objective. If Iran, after leaving the NPT, had stockpiled sufficient MEU for several bombs and hidden it well, the chances of finding and destroying it would be small. It could decide to absorb an attack and then, using a still largely intact Fordow or a clandestine plant, move quickly to fissile material production.

No good options

Mr Obama may well conclude that if his military planners cannot be confident of delaying Iran’s progress to nuclear weapons for a long time—at least five to ten years—or changing Iranian behaviour, it is not worth trying. Just as troubling, if bombing was tried and it failed, Mr Pollack thinks Mr Obama would have to follow up with a full-scale invasion. “No American president would or could say, we gave it our best shot, but we can’t finish the job,” he says. Mr Jones has similar fears. He says that such is the scale of the country’s centrifuge enrichment programme that a prolonged bombing campaign would be required to halt it and that “would run a serious risk of turning into a large-scale war with Iran”. America could hammer Iran, but having brought American forces home from Iraq and Afghanistan this is the last thing that Mr Obama wants for his war-weary, financially drained country.

Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC says that one choice is containment and the other military strikes—followed by containment. Given that sanctions and diplomacy are unlikely to alter Iran’s course and that force will not achieve a lasting solution, he thinks America and its allies must start thinking through what containment and deterrence of a nuclear Iran will require.

What nobody knows, quite possibly not even the supreme leader himself, is when and how Iran will step across the nuclear threshold. Pakistan waited nearly 12 years between acquiring enough fissile material for a bomb in 1986 and carrying out a succession of nuclear tests in 1998. Iran might be similarly patient, a course Mr Rohani may advocate. On the other hand, if he fails to win softer sanctions Iran could try to bring things to a head more quickly. What is increasingly hard to believe is that it can be dissuaded or prevented from getting the bomb by force. The challenge for Western policymakers may be less about stopping Iran than managing the consequences of it having a nuclear weapon, which include the unravelling of the entire non-proliferation system.

Clarification: Greg Jones has asked us to point out that his analysis was produced as a researcher for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.  Though Mr Jones is also a part-time adjunct staff member at the RAND Corporation, his analysis is not related to any RAND project and RAND bears no responsibility for any of the analysis or views expressed in it.

Crystal Ball on Iran’s Presidential Election

By Rabbi Daniel M. Zucker

On Friday, June 14, Iranians will go to the polls to elect a new president for a four-year term. Out of a field of 686 applicants, which included 30 women, the twelve-member Guardian Council that vets all candidates cut the number down to eight men that were deemed conservative and Islamic enough to legitimately aspire to the presidency.

 

Among those excluded was Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a top advisor to outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, considered his ally and protégé.  Also excluded were former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the founders of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

 

Now, who is likely to win out of the eight-member gang of unfriendly faces?

 

First, one needs to remember that Iranian elections are never elections.  Rather, they are “selections” — that is, the winner is pre-selected by the supreme leader, and the election is rigged to reflect that choice.  So, in truth, only one person votes in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s presidential elections.  That person is the faqih — the supreme leader — Sayeed Ali Khamenei.

 

Next, the figures that the Iranian press or TV service gives of voter turnout are fraudulent.  Voter turnout is likely to be worse than 2009, when it ran below 30%, despite regime claims that turnout was 65%.  Members of the Bassij — the theological militia — and of the Pasdaran — the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) — are required to cast their votes as instructed and are paid for such.  Likewise, in rural areas, votes are bought wholesale.  Nevertheless, in urban areas such as Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Ahvaz, Tabriz, and Mashad, the polls will remain nearly empty all day as the Iranian populace registers its displeasure and disgust at the lack of real freedom and democracy by boycotting the “election.” The regime claims high figures for voter turnout as a way of legitimizing its rule, but the Iranian populous is not fooled by such claims. Only Western diplomats and other naïve souls are taken in by such falsified figures.

 

What is likely to happen is that no candidate will get a plurality in the first round.  With eight candidates, not only is such a landslide highly unlikely, but it would be a major hint that the election was fixed from the outset.  Round two, reserved for the top two vote-getting candidates, follows the first round by one week and will take place on June 21.

 

And now my predictions: and, more importantly, what they may actually mean.  I think that Khamenei wants Saeed Jalili, the 47-year-old nuclear negotiator, hard-liner, and career diplomat.  Jalili is a fervent supporter of Khamenei, and his election would signal that Iran is willing to stand up to Western pressure and pursue the nuclear program to its successful conclusion, come what may.  A Jalili victory says that the hard-liners are in control and that no reforms should be anticipated.  Iran under Jalili will seem like Ahmadinejad on designer steroids — a greater degree of class, but a yet higher degree of belligerence.  Jalili is Khamenei’s way of saying “full steam ahead.”

 

Some analysts think that Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (Qalibaf), the current mayor of Tehran and Ahmadinejad’s successor in that post, has a good chance as well because of his IRGC involvement.  I personally don’t think that he has been able to convince the regime hard-liners that he has become an irrevocable hard-liner himself.  I think that they will continue to distrust him should he win the power of the presidency.

 

If Gholam Ali Haddad Adel wins a spot in the run-off, it will mean that Khamenei is truly fearful that a revolt is at hand.  Choosing a family member (if only by marriage) is indicative of the fear of all outsiders, including even the Praetorian Guard, the Pasdaran (the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps).  Haddad-Adel is devoted to his in-law, and his elevation to the presidency would show that Khamenei doesn’t trust anyone outside his own family.  It would be a clear sign of paranoia on Khamenei’s part.

 

If the reformist Mohammad Reza Aref is selected, it will be proof that Khamenei blinked first in his eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the West.  Quite frankly, Aref does not stand a snowball’s chances in hell.

 

The other candidates are unlikely to score that well, Valayati being the only exception.  If Valayati is picked, it’s another version of the Jalili candidacy, but even more “in your face,” given Valayati’s Interpol warrant.

 

Two days and counting, and we dare not forget that that nuclear clock is ticking in the background.  Whoever is the winner of this election will become Ali Khamenei’s new puppet.  However, as Israeli commentator Amotz Asa-el points out, none of the candidates has any viable plan to rescue Iran’s failing economy, and it’s that factor that may tell the ultimate tale in the tragedy that is today’s Iran.

 

Rabbi Dr. Daniel M. Zucker is founder and chairman of the board of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East.  He may be contacted at contact@ADME.ws.

Read more: http://www.americanthinker.com/2013/06/crystal_ball_on_irans_presidential_election.html#ixzz2VzR0tVA8
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Iran Tightening Control of the Internet as Elections Loom

Iran is tightening control of the Internet ahead of next month’s election, being mindful of street protests organized the last time around.

 

Iran is tightening control of the Internet ahead of next month’s presidential election, users and experts told AFP on Sunday.

The regime is mindful of violent street protests that social networkers inspired after the last elections over claims of fraud, the report said. The authorities deny such claims, but have not explained exactly why service has become slower.

Businesses, banks and even state organizations are not spared by the widespread disruption in the Internet, local media say. “The Internet is in a coma,” the Ghanoon daily was quoted as having said in a report in early this month.

“It only happens in Iran: the election comes, the Internet goes,” it said, quoting a tweet in Farsi.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and numerous other sites, including thousands of Western ones, have been censored in Iran since massive street demonstrations that followed the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Those protests, stifled by a heavy-handed crackdown that led to numerous arrests and even deaths, were instigated online and observers say the authorities are choking the Internet to prevent a recurrence.

One DVD vendor, who sells illegal copies of Western movies downloaded online, said, according to AFP, that “you can forget about downloading stuff; the bandwidth drops every other minute.”

A network supervisor at a major Internet service provider in Tehran said his company had been unable to address complaints about slower speeds, particularly accessing pages using the HTTPS secure communications protocol.

“Browsing (the net) is difficult due to the low speed. Even checking e-mails is a pain,” he said. “Sometimes, loading a secure Google page takes a few long seconds,” he added.

The problem is not limited to slower speeds, but also affects what people can actually access.

Earlier this month, an Iranian IT website reported that the last remaining software that enables users to bypass filters imposed on net traffic “has become practically inaccessible.”

Authorities refuse to officially confirm the new restraints, but former officials and media reports have accused the Supreme Council of Cyberspace of ordering them.

The council, set up in March 2012, is tasked with guarding Iranians from “dangers” on the Internet while enabling “a maximum utilization of its opportunities,” according to AFP.

The complaints come as Iran prepares to elect its new president on June 14, but the authorities reject claims that there is any link with that and the current problems. The disruptions are also linked to Iran’s stated plan of rolling out a national intranet that it says will be faster, more secure and clean of “inappropriate” content, observers say.

A total of 686 candidates are vying to replace Ahmadinejad, who cannot run for a third straight term according to Iranian law, in the country’s upcoming national election.

Among those who have registered to be considered for the post are Ahmadinejad’s top aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, has also joined the race, accusing the incumbent of needlessly incurring crippling economic sanctions.

The current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is also a presidential candidate. He pledged last week to “resist” western demands regarding his country’s nuclear program if he is elected.