Nuclear Iran, Reloaded

In the Reloaded version of my blog, I'll write about Iran, its nuclear program, its culture, and most importantly, myself.

Monday, February 26, 2007

An Insightful comment by Andy, the NonPartisanPundit

[This post is not yet complete]
A couple of days ago, I left a comment in Dave Schuler's blog about non-existence evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran. I received the following very interesting response by Andy.
There is nothing conclusive on an Iranian nuclear weapons program, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling. A quick rundown:

1. Their enrichment program was completely clandestine until it was exposed by Libya’s revelations about the AQ Khan network. Why is it necessary for a civilian program to be clandestine - especially to the point of burying and hiding facilities (Natanz) at great expense?

2. The IAEA discovered a report on the shaping of uranium metal hemispheres and the Iranians have not explained how they got the paper or why they have it and have yet to provide a copy to the IAEA. The only purpose for such information is a uranium implosion device. This is one of the outstanding issues that’s been in every IAEA report for several years now: http://www.isis-online.org/publications/iran/IAEAreport22Feb07.pdf (That’s the english version of the report Amir). Read the other outstanding issues Iran hasn’t answered, such as plutonium separation experiments - another weapons-related technology.

3. Iran is building the IR-40 “research” reactor at Arak. The Iranian’s claim its for research and isotope production, but virtually every reactor in the world of similar design has been used for plutonium production. It is, in fact, tailor made for that purpose. Iran could produce the isotopes it needs with smaller reactors could not easily product plutonium. See more here: http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/1300/technical-cooperation-for-arak

4. The Iranian nuclear program does not make economic sense even though economics and energy independence are primary reasons Iran says it needs nuclear power. For more see this summary of a doe report (the full report is not yet available because the authors are trying to publish it): http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/iran/2006/iran-060421-usia02.htm

5. The link above also discusses Iranian uranium reserves, which are quite limited. The Iranians are spending billions on enrichment when it will run out of reserves in a decade or two and be force to import ore anyway. Why not just import fuel - it’s cheaper and easier and Iran would not have to deal with long-term waste storage.

6. Iran did not declare a research center at Lavizan was nuclear-related under its safeguards agreement. When it was revealed that nuclear-related material was shipped to the site and the IAEA asked to inspect it, all the buildings were razed and the ground was scrapped clean. The Iranian explanation for this was that the site was bought by the city to turn into a park. See more here including satellite images: http://www.isis-online.org/publications/iran/lavizanshian.html

7. The IAEA, under the safeguards agreement with Iran, is only allowed to inspect “declared” sites. A declared site is one that Iran declares is part of its nuclear program. The problem with this kind of arrangement is obvious. Obviously, Iran only declared sites it couldn’t reasonable argue were not nuclear-related, and sites that appeared obviously civilian in nature. This is a major of weakness of the NPT - it relies on nations honestly declaring all their nuclear facilities. For example, there is another undeclared site at Parchin (in addition to Lavizan) the IAEA suspects is nuclear related, but the Iranians have refused to grant access: http://www.isis-online.org/publications/iran/parchin.html

8. Iran is building an extensive enrichment infrastructure, but so far only one reactor is being built to service that infrastructure. Iran has claimed they plan to build 20 or more reactors, but have not yet contracted for them much less broken ground. A typical nuclear reactor takes a decade or more to build. So Iran will have all this enrichment capability and only one reactor for it for at least the next 10-20 years. Considering how dire the Iranians claim their energy needs are, why aren’t they building the reactors first, fueling them with cheap uranium purchased on the open market, and then developing an enrichment infrastructure to support them? Putting the cart before the horse in my view. Meanwhile, Iran’s petroleum sector infrastructure continues to deteriorate. It’s ironic that Iran uses this deterioration and the effects its having on domestic energy supply as proof that it needs nuclear energy.

There are other issues as well, but I think those listed above are most of the major ones. Does it add up to conclusive evidence? No. Every point listed above could have an innocuous explanation, or be countered with appropriate evidence, but the Iranians have consistently been deceptive about both their intent and their actual programs. Iran could dispel much of the evidence above if it were false, yet it either chooses not to or cannot. Considering all the talk of attack by the US or Israel (talk that I think is overblown), one would think Iran would want to increase transparency to erase any doubts, and therefore any justification for an attack.

Now, one thing I’ve said repeatedly is that the evidence fits another possibility - in my view better than an actual Iranian weapons program. It’s my belief that Iran intends to develop the technology and capability to make a nuclear device without actually doing so. Although a parallel clandestine bomb-making program is a possibility (and Amir, the IAEA will never find it because it is not allowed to conduct snap inspections on any suspect site that is not declared), I think it’s more likely Iran has a small R&D program on weapon design (and therefore easily hidden) and will only weaponize if it feels it is necessary. Basically, I think they want to be where Japan and Brasil are - have an advanced civilian program that will allow them to build a bomb in less than a year.

And we can make comparisons to Iraq here as well. We now know that Iraq, or rather, Saddam, wanted his neighbors, primarily the Iranians and Israelis, to believe he still had WMD as a deterrent. So he was at the same time trying to convince one audience he had WMD while at the same time trying to convince another he did not. His calculus was that since he destroyed all his weapons, the UN would not find enough evidence to justify an attack. Of course, he miscalculated. We must be cautious that Iran is not similarly miscalculating. Saddam never really believed the US would invade until literally the eve of the war - he expected France and Russia, whom he had bribed handsomely, to prevent a war. Similarly, Iran believes the US will not and cannot effectively attack it.

Things to ponder.

For those who haven’t yet, please read the Iraqi Perspectives Project on the Iraq war. ( http://www.jfcom.mil/newslink/storyarchive/2006/ipp.pdf ). It’s an excellent analysis of the regime’s decision-making process based on interviews and captured documents. Much of it relates to the military portion of the campaign, but there are important WMD bits in there (Chemical Ali was interviewed, for example) and along with the Duefler report provides a convincing explanation of why and how both the US and Iraq miscalculated. The lessons are very important considering the current crisis with Iran, where misunderstandings and miscalculations also abound.

His points are logical and comprehensive. But I think a sense of criticism can develop the issue even further. I'll complete this post by answering the issues one by one.

1. You should observe the US government's attitude towards any Iranian project from an Iranian perspective and you would easily find out why the Iranian government decided to go clandestine. The most relevant example is the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. Its construction started before Iran's revolution and it is not yet complete, because different companies decided not to complete the project under US pressure. Nuclear power is not the only example; most other strategic projects follow the same trend. More examples: steel-production and vaccine-related projects. (Javad Zarif's talk in Princeton University provides more detail, minute 39:00)

Now, if you were an Iranian government official, and wanted to produce nuclear fuel, and were sure that it'd be opposed by US, would you buy the equipment from Britain or black-market? Apparently, you wont ink an agreement that will be unilaterally terminated under US pressure. Right?

This is why a covert program is not necessarily an illicit one.

In fact, I can draw an exactly opposite conclusion:
Since Iran's covert program was never diverted towards weapons program during the so-called 18 years of concealment, while it easily could, others can be more easily assured that it'll not be diverted in the future: If it was a weapons program, they should have at least taken few steps towards that path, right? IAEA says that they haven't.

15 Comments:

Blogger Qasem said...

And about the second article " The IAEA discovered a report ...": This statement is quite not correct. Iranians handed what they have recieved as a civil-nucs plan from an external source to the IAEA. If they wanted to make a nuc-bomb they would never have shown these papers.

Tue Feb 27, 03:00:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Siamak said...

Merci Amir agha, khoshaalam kardi :).

Tue Feb 27, 02:24:00 PM 2007  
Blogger theBhc said...

The great fallacy that seems to be accepted here is that the nuclear facilities "discovered" by the US-back terrrorist group, the MEK, were not required to be made known to the IAEA until six months before production, as required by the NPT. They were not, per se, "secret" only unannounced. That may sound weak, but it is not a technical violation of the NPT. Iran has never been found in violation of the NPT.

Wed Feb 28, 02:54:00 AM 2007  
Blogger theBhc said...

Oh, and just in case of your readers cluelessly believe that US agitation against Iran has anything to do with nuclear anything, read this:

Pipelines and Imperial Missions

Wed Feb 28, 02:58:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Andy said...

qasem,

You may be correct, though it's not clear if Iran was obligated to turn over this document because it was listed on a separate document the IAEA had. The IAEA originally received a hand-written document that described the various other documents received as part of the 1987 agreement.

In either case, the Iranians were quick to point out that they didn't request that document. It was apparently just given them. It does seem strange, however, that out of all the documents Iran received, the one obviously weapons-related document was the only one Iran did not request.

Wed Feb 28, 04:13:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Andy said...

thebhc,

I guess we can lawyer this all day long. There are a few sections of the NPT where Iran might be found in violation, but the vagueness of the treaty means a case can be made either way.

Despite that, part of the NPT, specifically Article III, requires safeguards agreements to ensure compliance with the treaty. Iran blatantly violated its safeguards agreement - that's inarguable. Whether or not violating a safeguards agreement constitutes an actual violation of the NPT is open to debate. Again, vagueness in the treaty leave open multiple interpretations.

In either event, Iran did not live up to its obligations by violating it safeguards agreement on multiple occasions over and extended period of time.

The "article" you link to is quite humorous. Yes, the US wants to "control" Iranian oil just like it "controls" Iraq's. That is if you define "control" as buying the oil on the open market at market prices, which is exactly what we're doing in Iraq (the US buys about 1/2 the oil Iraq exports, a variety of other countries buys the remainder). Apparently we went to war for oil but somewhere along the way forgot to steal it and instead pay for it like everyone else does.

So, the US has spent over a trillion dollars on a war to "control" the oil only pay market prices for it. Not a very good return on investment, wouldn't you agree, particularly since we bought Iraqi oil under the oil-for-food program before the war.

Wed Feb 28, 11:18:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Andy said...

Amir,

I almost forgot to comment on your initial rebuttal.

It's true that the US has opposed Iran gaining any nuclear technology since the 1979 revolution. But is that really all that surprising considering the history and bad blood between the two countries?

I've heard the argument many times that Iran was "forced" to go clandestine because of the US. But it's not only the US's fault Iran was not able to get nuclear agreements with other countries. Iran's support for terrorism, its assassination of dissidents - particularly in Europe - and its attempts in the early 1980's to export its radical revolutionary ideas did not exactly engender support and sympathy among countries with nuclear technology to sell. So the decision of many governments was not difficult when the US requested they not provide Iran with assistance. And Iran has been able to secure some legitimate agreements with countries such as Argentina. Remember, to, the timeline - Iran first sought to clandestinely buy nuclear material in 1987 - only 8 years after the revolution. Assuming they began attempting to legitimately acquire nuclear technology immediately, that's a pretty short period of time before deciding to go clandestine.

But in any case, even if it felt itself justified, Iran still violated agreements it made under the NPT. If Iran did not intend to honor its safeguards agreement, it should have renegotiated or withdrawn from the NPT.

Wed Feb 28, 11:41:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Amir said...

Dear thebhc,

Thank you for reminding me about the oil industry. In fact one of the major projects that is hindered by the US opposition is the construction of "peace pipeline".

Thu Mar 01, 01:43:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Hugo said...

Thanks, interesting discussion. I'm looking forward to comments with regards to the other points that Andy mentioned.

I agree that the first two points can easily be explained, as qasem and amir did. My understanding was that the uranium metal hemisphere document was received as part of a bundle of documents from the AQ Khan network. That's not enough to prove that it was intentionally seeked for the purpose of a weapons program. (It might however constitute a violation on Article II in the NPT, which states that non-nuclear member states agree to not receive assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, doesn't it?)

Andy, could you briefly detail how Iran would have violated its safeguards agreements? I was also under the impression that the IAEA did not find Iran in violation of the treaty.

The remaining points leave me more perplex...
Amir, may I suggest that you devote a post to each point. This thread could become quite long...

Thu Mar 01, 02:52:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Hugo said...

Also, with regards to point #4, I believe the report you (Andy) are talking about has already been released because I have already read it. I'll try to find it and post a link to it shortly. I was overall not very impressed by it as it doesn't even seem to acknowledge the strategic value of such a program to Iran and instead focuses solely on the economics aspects, vastly based on estimations and speculations. The one very relevant points are the ones that you touched on, namely that the Iranian uranium reserves seem hardly enough to power the country for more than a few years (although these are the "known" uranium reserves only), and the fact that only one reactor is currently in the works.

Also, to comment on point #7: Iran has acknowledged that they had not granted every IAEA request of visit to sites, especially some military sites. They considered them unreasonable demands and made the point that other countries such as the US or France would not allow the IAEA to inspect every single one of their military compounds either. And they seemed to believe that the US was using this as a pretext to gather military intelligence from them. This seems like a rational point to make from a sovereign nation, although one could also argue that they have some interest in restoring confidence from the western nations and should show more flexibility.

Thu Mar 01, 03:19:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Hugo said...

actually, Andy was right. I originally got a copy of the file when Amir posted about it on his blog. The URL was: http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/file_download/53
However, the file has now been taken down by request of the author.

Thu Mar 01, 03:50:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Amir said...

Dear Andy,

You are right. It is not surprising at all. There is a lack of confidence which has to go away. However, this doesn't seem to be relavant to the subject.

Your argument was that since Iran hid its nuclear program, it is probably a nuclear weapons program. I argued that this is not necessarily the case; it was probably because the Iranians didn't want the US to hinder their progress. I also provided some examples of US opposition to Iranian projects....

Now, discussing the reasons for tension, or who is dissident and who is terrorist, or who supports terrorists, is a little bit out of line.

I'd be glad to discuss it after we are done discussing your 8 points.

Also, you pointed out that Iran violated its safeguard agreements. You are absolutely right. But, the violation was NOT about DOING SOMETHING WRONG. It was about NOT REPORTING them. This "NON REPORTING" violation has also been grossly exaggerated by the US government. The Natanz uranium processing facility, for example, should not have been declared until 6 month before introducing uranium. (I might be wrong on details; I'll find a link later).

And besides, these reporting failures have been corrected. Haven't they?

** About "pretty short period of time before deciding to go clandestine"

Tehran's research reactor (built before revolution) had to be shut down for several years. (This is where most of radio-isotopes are produced in Iran). The last time I was there, they were paying about four times the regular price for fuel. (bast. russians!). As you mentioned, it was after the war that Iran had a little bit of extra money to build its destroyed infrastructure. Unlike you, I don't think 8 years is a short time.

** About renegotiating or withdrawing from the NPT:

The NPT itself, if respected by all countries, is not incompatible with Iran's strategic policies. On the contrary, it seems that the NPT is at odds with the US's policy: Under NPT, the United States has an obligation "to facilitate ... the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peacefuluses of nuclear energy." (exact quote from NPT). The United States violated this obligation for some political reasons. This violation has yet to be corrected.

Thu Mar 01, 10:05:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Andy said...

Well, I had a long, detailed comment written that disappeared on me. I'll try to recreate it and post this weekend.

Fri Mar 02, 10:14:00 AM 2007  
Blogger theBhc said...

Wow, Andy, you really are clueless, aren't you? Who exactly who is we when you say "we" pay for it? I don't see ExxonMobil suffering or any of the others. You seem entirely unfamiliar with the new Iraqi Oil Law.

Just why do you think we are there? Good hummus?

Sat Mar 03, 02:10:00 AM 2007  
Blogger theBhc said...

the US has spent over a trillion dollars on a war to "control" the oil only pay market prices for it.

It is not at all clear from this statement who Andy thinks "the US" actually is. Clearly, he has some quaint notion that it is Americans, which he appears to think would include the American oil industry. But this it hardly the case except to the extent that American tax payers do pay for the wars, and the profits of the oil industry, that certainly is true. But record oil industry profits are not being realised because the oil companies are buying the oil on the open market. They're the producers and they produce it quite cheaply. The more the price goes up, the more they make.

Andy's "amusement" of the facts surrounding the history of Middle Eastern geopolitics since the appearance of the Defense Planning Guide is an unfortunate manifestation of a clear lack of understanding of both the crucial nature of the position Iran occupies in Central Asia and the purpose of petroleum control. I can only assume from this that he also believes that a democratically elected Mohammed Mossedegh was not the unfortunate target of a CIA coup in 1953 because he promised to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as BP) but rather, that Mossedegh must have been harbouring some WMD somewhere. Oh, and rather than being the world's largest private oil producer, Exxon buys their oil on the "free market."

That he believes western oil interests actually pay the market price for oil is amusing in itself. Western oil interests sell the cheap oil -- cheap to them anyway -- on the market, which is exactly why all the major oil companies have been posting record profits in the last few quarters ever since the price of oil starting soaring. In fact, oil companies do not consider a prospect economic unless a barrel of oil can be brought in for $25. Previous to 2000, the threshold was $13/bbl. Much of the current oil infrastructure produces oil at or below this cheaper threshold and, in fact, it is estimated that bringing a barrel of oil out of Iraqi soil will cost between $1-$1.50.

Apart from the utterly obvious import that control of the world's oil supply implies, you don't need to take my word that control of Middle Eastern oil supplies in of utmost concern. Dick Cheney himself said -- in the only way Dick sees the world -- that control of pipelines is a "“tool of intimidation and blackmail" and that having Iran sitting on top of all the oil and having nuclear weapons was beyond the pale.

Andy's claim that Iran ought not need nuclear power because it has all that oil is utterly specious, not surprising for someone who thinks that control of the dominant reserves of industrialized society's most crucial resource is of little concern and that we will all just buy it on the "free market." Iran's nuclear program began with US encouragement and technology when the Shah was in power. No one questioned then the expense of building nuclear plants. And that was many billions of barrels ago.

Don't misunderstand me, though. I am not arguing that Iran is or is not pursuing a weapons program. In fact, given the behaviour of the Bush administration, actually having a nuke seems like the best possible position one can assume. But the agenda is a matter of public record, determined quite sometime ago and certainly long before "nuclear" became the big concern.

Wed Mar 07, 03:56:00 AM 2007  

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