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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Intel Report Reshapes Iran Sanctions Debate
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Peter Crail

The Dec. 3 release of a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program appears to have placed another roadblock in the effort by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany to reach agreement on a third resolution sanctioning Iran. Meanwhile, in December Russia began delivering shipments of nuclear fuel for Iran’s Bushehr reactor in preparation for its expected completion later this year.

U.S. NIE Counters Prior Assessment

The unclassified summary of the NIE on Iran’s nuclear programs included a number of key judgments regarding both Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program as well as its declared nuclear activities. Media and analysts have largely focused on a high-confidence judgment that, “in Fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” The intelligence community further judged with high confidence that this halt lasted at least several years and assessed with moderate confidence that this nuclear weapons program had not been restarted as of mid-2007.

In this context, the NIE defines a nuclear weapons program as “design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work.” The intelligence community distinguishes these activities from “Iran’s declared civil work,” including the construction of its uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz.

The NIE assesses, with high confidence, that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in response to “increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.” In 2002, Iran was discovered to have been constructing two nuclear program-related sites, a uranium-enrichment facility and a heavy-water production plant, which may be used in the development of nuclear weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2003 .) Alerted to these sites, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began an intensive inspection process into Iran’s nuclear programs in 2003, which has not yet been concluded.

The finding that Iran halted its program in 2003 constituted a reversal of a previous high-confidence judgment in 2005 that assessed that Iran “is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.” During a Dec. 3 background briefing, senior intelligence officials stated that this new assessment was based on new information received in 2007 that led the intelligence community to review its previous information and revise prior estimates.

Despite differences in conclusions about past programs, the time frame in which Iran may be expected to develop nuclear weapons essentially remained the same in each estimate. In 2005, the intelligence community judged with moderate confidence that Iran would not likely produce a nuclear weapon before “early-to-mid next decade.” The 2007 NIE uses more specific language with a similar time frame, assessing with moderate confidence that Iran “probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.”

Additional time would be needed to construct a deliverable nuclear device after producing enough HEU for a weapon. But, historically aspiring nuclear powers have found that creating enough fissile material has been the most difficult and time-consuming part of the process, characterized by U.S. officials as “the long pole in the tent.” The 2010-2015 time frame estimated by the 2007 NIE, therefore, is based primarily on the progress Iran is making at its declared nuclear sites, particularly its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility. The senior intelligence officials also noted Dec. 3 that Iran continues to develop missile systems that could be used in a “weaponization program at a later time.”

Following the release of the NIE, Western officials have characterized the assessment as supportive of their current approach to Iran. In a Dec. 3 press release, national security adviser Stephen Hadley stated that the NIE “suggests that the President has the right strategy” of international pressure and a “willingness to negotiate.” Similarly, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated in a Dec. 3 press statement, “[T]he double approach chosen by the international community of incentives and measures from the United Nations Security Council was right.”

China, however, indicated that the information in the NIE was cause for additional consideration before additional sanctions were adopted by the Security Council. Asked by reporters Dec. 4 whether the NIE made the prospect of sanctions less likely, Wang Guangya, China’s permanent representative to the UN, responded, “I think the council members will have to consider that, because I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed.”

West Seeks to Expand Sanctions

The differing reactions mirror continuing differences between France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States on the one hand and China and Russia on the other regarding the timing of a third resolution and the specific targets of sanctions. The six countries have been discussing such a resolution for several months (see ACT, November 2007. ), but China and Russia have not supported expanding existing sanctions to the extent desired by the other four states. The last discussions among the political directors of the six countries on Dec. 20 ended inconclusively.

The two current Security Council sanctions resolutions, 1737 and 1747, together place financial and travel restrictions on 50 Iranian persons and entities. The United States and its allies are seeking in the latest round to expand those restrictions to additional Iranian personnel and organizations, including prominent Iranian banks. (See ACT, November 2007. )

Although differences in the position of the six states have been present for several months, Western diplomats have noted that the NIE’s conclusions have limited the short-term prospect for sanctions. The Associated Press Dec. 12 quoted Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. permanent representative to the UN, stating that the NIE “has not been helpful in speeding us to get...agreement on a resolution.” Similarly, a German diplomat told Arms Control Today Jan. 7 that agreement on specific measures has always been difficult and the NIE has “given more breathing space” for differences among the six countries.

Neil Crompton, political counselor with the British Embassy in Washington, suggested, however, that the NIE may have a more encouraging effect in some countries toward sanctions on Iran. Speaking at a Dec. 17 press briefing, he stated, “[T]he perception that perhaps the military option has been reduced might encourage countries, certainly in Europe, to consider sanctions.”

New sanctions measures are currently being considered by the European Union (EU). EU foreign ministers adopted a number of conclusions Dec. 14 regarding the EU’s approach to addressing Iran’s nuclear program, stating that “consideration has begun on additional measures that might be taken in support of the UN process and the shared objectives of the international community.” The conclusions indicated that the EU will decide what actions to take at the foreign ministers’ next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 28. A French diplomat told Arms Control Today Jan. 8 that the EU’s considerations are likely to cover similar ground as those in the Security Council in terms of expanding the current financial and travel restrictions to include additional entities.

Bushehr Shipments Begin

On Dec. 16, Russia began transferring shipments of nuclear fuel to Iran for the Bushehr plant, its first nuclear power reactor. According to an agreement made between Russia’s state-owned firm Atomstroiexport and Tehran, the shipments were to begin at least six months prior to completion of the plant. Atomstroiexport spokesperson Irina Yesipova told reporters Dec. 18 that, six months after the fuel arrives, fuel tests will be conducted, after which the plant will be launched. She added that the plant would not likely become operational before the end of 2008.

Construction of the plant has been met with repeated delays since 1995, when Russia agreed to finish the plant.

The fuel shipments are scheduled to be completed in February, totaling 82 tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel assemblies. This fuel is enriched to about 3.6 percent uranium-235 from natural concentrations of less than 1 percent. The fuel is stored at an on-site facility at Bushehr under IAEA safeguards.

Moscow asserts that the fuel deliveries should pave the way for Tehran’s compliance with Security Council and IAEA demands that it suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities and halt the construction of its heavy-water reactor. In a Dec. 17 Foreign Ministry statement, Russia asserted that “entirely new conditions have been created, allowing Iran to take steps to restore trust in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program.”

Western governments have also expressed support for the fuel shipments, using them as an opportunity to rebut Tehran’s rationale for building an uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. Iran says the facility is intended to provide fuel for its civilian nuclear power program. Enrichment facilities can provide LEU for nuclear power plants or HEU (typically around 90 percent U-235) for nuclear weapons.

A German diplomat told Arms Control Today Jan. 7 that the provision of fuel shows that Iran “has no real need for enrichment.” A French diplomat expressed a similar sentiment in a Jan. 8 interview. The French diplomat added that “there had been an understanding that Russia needed to meet its contractual obligations” to deliver the fuel six months before the plant became operational.

In an apparent reversal of the prior U.S. position, President George W. Bush declared his support for the fuel deliveries, stating Dec. 17, “If the Russians are willing to do that, which I support, then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich.”

The United States has previously opposed completion of the Bushehr plant, and U.S. diplomats have called for a halt to Russian cooperation. Following a 2005 IAEA Board of Governors resolution finding that Iran was in noncompliance with its safeguards obligations, then-U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker told the UN General Assembly that “no government should permit new nuclear transfers to Iran, and all ongoing nuclear projects should be frozen.”

Moscow and Tehran have previously agreed that once the fuel has been used in the Bushehr plant, it will be returned to Russia for storage. The arrangement was concluded to limit the possibility that Iran might be able to use reprocessing facilities to extract plutonium from that spent fuel for use in nuclear weapons.

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