AND THE NIE
The US National Intelligence Estimate Changes The Picture
On The Iran Crisis
JNV Anti-War Briefing 110
31 January 2008
briefing is available as a pdf here.
Posted 1 December
The latest report from US intelligence on
Iran’s nuclear programme gives concerned citizens the opportunity
to focus the public’s attention on the possibility of a
negotiated solution to the Iran crisis; and to emphasize the importance
of uranium ore contamination as an obstacle to any effort to develop
an Iranian nuclear weapon.
TOWARDS A SOLUTION
One crucial sentence in the US National Intelligence
Estimate (published on 3 December 2007) points to the possibility
of a negotiated solution.
Iran’s leaders might be persuaded to
give up any ambition to develop nuclear weapons, says the NIE,
if there were (a) ‘threats of intensified international
scrutiny and pressures’, along with (b) ‘opportunities
for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional
influence’ by non-nuclear means.
This is followed by the Big Lie of the NIE:
‘It is difficult to specify what such
a combination might be.’
In fact, we do have a very good idea what
carrots Iran might respond to, because they were set out in considerable
detail by Iran in 2003.
THE GRAND BARGAIN
In that year, Iran sent a secret negotiating
proposal to the State Department (via the Swiss government), laying
out a broad array of concessions it was willing to make to Washington,
including an end to military support for the militant groups Hamas
and Hezbollah, tighter controls on its nuclear programme and Iranian
support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question
(recognizing Israel for the first time).
In return, Iran
sought an end to US financial and economic sanctions, full
access to peaceful nuclear technology and a recognition of Iran’s
‘legitimate security interests’, among other goals.
Leverett, then a senior director on the US National Security
Council staff, saw the Iranian proposal. He described it as “a
serious effort, a respectable effort to lay out a comprehensive
agenda for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement”.
added: ‘The message had been approved by all the highest
levels of authority. They wanted us to deal with sanctions, security
guarantees, normalization of relations, and support for integration
of Iran into the World Trade Organization’.
Crucially, Iran sought a security guarantee
from the United States, a cast-iron commitment not to try to overthrow
the Iranian government, in particular a promise not to invade
or attack Iran.
This was the central element of the ‘grand
bargain’ offered by Iran, as this line from the proposed
2003 ‘roadmap’ indicates: ‘US refrains from
supporting change of the political system by direct interference
from outside’. (A pdf of the 2003 fax is here.)
Journalists and politicians should be reminded
of the 2003 offer from Iran.
Particularly because the 3 December US National
Intelligence Estimate says that Tehran might be persuaded to forego
nuclear weapons if offered ‘opportunities for Iran to achieve
its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence’
by non-nuclear means.
Iran explained to Washington what it wanted
in terms of ‘security, prestige and goals for regional influence’
Therefore, to strengthen regional security,
and the global nonproliferation system, and to prevent Iran from
acquiring nuclear weapons, the agenda set out in the 2003 negotiating
offer should be pursued rather than dismissed out of hand.
IS AN IRANIAN BOMB POSSIBLE?
Hawks on both sides of the Atlantic have
pointed to the increasing number of centrifuges being operated
by Iran as a sign of its increasing uranium enrichment capability,
allegedly creating a springboard to the early development of an
Iranian nuclear bomb.
The latest US National Intelligence Estimate
indicates that there are significant technical problems for any
Iranian bomb programme dependent on gas centrifuge enrichment,
which will not be overcome for many years.
It is possible that these problems include
the difficulties created by contamination of Iranian uranium ore
by molybdenum and other heavy metals. That is the opinion of former
British nuclear weapons scientist Frank Barnaby.
Barnaby, now an analyst with the Oxford Research
Group, states that:
‘These impurities could condense
and block pipes and valves in the gas centrifuges. In spite
of this problem, the Iranians should be able to enrich uranium
to the low enrichment needed for civil nuclear-power reactor
fuel. But they would not be able to enrich above about 20% in
uranium-235. Therefore, Iran would not be able to produce uranium
enriched enough for use in nuclear weapons unless most of the
molybdenum was removed.’ (Would
Science magazine reported in 2006: ‘According
to an official at the U.S. State Department, Iran has struggled
to convert [uranium fluoride] UF4 into UF6, a dangerous process
[necessary to uranium enrichment] involving highly toxic and corrosive
fluorine gas. The official also claims that Iranian UF4 is tainted
with large amounts of molybdenum and other heavy metals. These
oxyfluoride impurities in UF6 “might condense” and
thereby “risk blockages” of valves and piping, an
IAEA specialist told Science.
‘Reducing impurities to allow production of uranium fuel
for peaceful uses, containing a few percent U-235, should not
be a huge challenge, according to experts. But more sophisticated
equipment is required to reduce impurities impurities enough to
make highly enriched uranium, containing 20% or more U-235. Only
a handful of countries can do it. For a weapons effort, filtering
out molybdenum “is a fairly significant problem,”
says nuclear nonproliferation expert Rose Gottemoeller, director
of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow
office.’ (Richard Stone, ‘Iran’s Trouble With
Molybdenum May Give Diplomacy a Second Chance’, Science,
13 January 2006)
The NIE suggests that Iran may not be able
to produce weapons-grade uranium before 2013: ‘We assess
centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce
enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so....
we judge with moderate confidence [Iran] still faces significant
technical problems operating [its centrifuges].
‘We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible
date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU
for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely. We
judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically
capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the
2010-2015 time frame. (INR [State Department Bureau of Intelligence
and Research] judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability
before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic
Journalists and politicians should be reminded
that, according to the NIE, Iran is ‘very unlikely’
to be ‘technically capable’ of producing weapons-grade
uranium before 2010, and may not be able to do so until 2015.
They should also be forcefully reminded that
so long as Iran is inspected by the IAEA, especially if Tehran
agrees to a rigorous Additional Protocol monitoring system, the
civilian uranium enrichment facilities cannot be used to generate
material for weapons.
They should be asked if there is any information
indicating that Iran has overcome its heavy metal contamination
in its uranium ore.
If not, they should be informed of the publicly-available
evidence which suggests that Iran is physically incapable of producing
weapons-grade uranium, quite apart from the technical and logistical
challenges of operating large numbers of centrifuges successfully.
THE IAEA REPORT
The headline news about the NIE was its findings,
based on secret new evidence (probably provided by a high-level
defector) that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons programme,
and has not had such a programme since 2003. (There are some questions
about quite what US intelligence means by a ‘nuclear weapons
programme’ - exactly what it thinks Iran was doing before
It is widely believed that the NIE has averted
the immediate prospect of US military action. However, the threat
has not gone away entirely.
The next turning point in the US-Iran crisis
will be the publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s
report on Iran’s past nuclear activities, now expected in
The indications are that the IAEA will largely
if not entirely clear Iran, and the US will seek to undermine
the inspectors. Where have we heard that before?
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