On March 1, the Pentagon announced it was sending the USS Monterey – a vessel equipped with the sophisticated Aegis radar system, capable of protecting Europe from a potential Iranian nuclear missile strike – to the Mediterranean.
The guided missile cruiser is the first part of a missile shield announced by the Obama administration in 2009.
Its deployment comes one week after the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a notably outspoken report on Iran’s nuclear activities and lack of cooperation with inspectors operating under the UN Security Council’s mandate.
Issued on February 25, the report appears to agree, at least in part, with the conclusions of a new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, about which members of Congress and their staff were briefed a week earlier.
Together, the reports paint a picture of Iran persisting in its controversial nuclear activities despite international concern, although the US report suggests that sanctions and sabotage have slowed the program.
The latest NIE reportedly revises the conclusions of a controversial 2007 NIE on Iran, which argued that the regime had halted its clandestine work on a nuclear weapons program. When the 2007 estimate’s “key judgments” were declassified and released, they offered a starkly different perspective than the message emanating from the Bush White House, which had been emphasizing a growing Iranian threat.
Yet public perception of the 2007 NIE largely ignored one of its other key findings: that Iran was continuing to develop uranium enrichment technology.
In the absence of a civilian need for such technology, this finding suggested that enriched uranium was being produced for nuclear weapons.
The new NIE remains classified and is only available to a limited readership in government. Yet the US media, quoting sources in Congress, has offered a glimpse of one of the estimate’s main conclusions: Although Tehran has yet to make a strategic decision on whether to build a nuclear weapon, it is developing the unspecified components of a bomb, itself a complicated engineering challenge.
Tougher IAEA Report?
The quarterly IAEA reports are intended to record the agency’s progress in persuading Tehran to convince the world that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes.
This is a diplomatic obligation for Iran as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In addition, mandatory provisions of several UN Security Council resolutions oblige Tehran to cooperate with IAEA inspectors.
Progress has been slow at best, but under the leadership of Director-General Yukiya Amano, who took over from Mohamed ElBaradei in late 2009, the quarterly reports have indicated a tougher IAEA approach to Iran.
The February 25 report noted the following:
• Contrary to
Security Council resolutions, Iran has not suspended its uranium
enrichment activities at several facilities, which are under IAEA
safeguards. Indeed, enrichment activities have been expanded at both a
pilot plant and the main plant at Natanz, and at an enrichment plant
called Fordow, near the holy city of Qom.
Tehran admitted the
existence of the latter facility in 2009, days before it was revealed by
US and European surveillance. Indeed, Iran is enriching with more than
5,000 centrifuges, 1,000 more than three months ago. (A rare optimistic
note is that Iran’s total of 8,000 centrifuges is slightly less than the
total at the time of the last report, suggesting breakdowns remain a
• Iran has now produced more than 3,600 kilograms of
low-enriched uranium; if processed into higher proportions of the
fissile isotope U-235, this could theoretically be enough for several
atomic bombs. In addition, Iran continues to enrich some of this to a
higher (20 percent) proportion of U-235, a cause for concern because
anything beyond is defined as highly enriched uranium (HEU).
Iran is also working on two new centrifuge designs that might be more efficient than its problematic IR-1 centrifuge.
Iran is not responding to information requests about the Fordow plant
and has yet to tell the IAEA anything about 10 new centrifuge plants.
Sites for five of these plants have already been chosen, and
construction will begin on one of them before the Iranian new year
(March 20) or shortly afterward.
• Iran has provided no further
information regarding its claim last year that it possessed laser
enrichment technology, nor on its later announcement that it was
developing a new type of centrifuge. The regime has also ignored IAEA
requests about additional locations related to the manufacture of
centrifuges and research and development on enrichment.
Although Iran has stated that it is not working on reprocessing – which
the IAEA confirmed, but only in the facilities it was permitted to
inspect –the regime continues to work on heavy-water projects in
violation of Security Council resolutions.
• Some activities at
the Isfahan uranium conversion and fuel manufacturing facilities
contravene Iran’s international obligations.
• Under a section
titled “Possible Military Dimensions,” the IAEA report refers to “new
information recently received” as well as concerns “about the possible
existence in Iran... of activities related to the development of a
nuclear payload for a missile.”
This disturbing conclusion
reinforces previous evidence that Iran is working hard to design a
nuclear weapon small enough to fit on top of a missile less than three
feet in diameter. It also suggests that Iran intends to design an
implosion-type device, which is more challenging than the gun-type
design used in the Hiroshima bomb and later developed by apartheid-era
South Africa. Nuclear devices for missiles must also be more durable
than those dropped from aircraft because they need to cope with the huge
acceleration and high reentry temperatures associated with rocket
(The IAEA report also notes that Iran has had to delay
the start-up of the Russiandesigned Bushehr civil nuclear power reactor
because of unspecified problems requiring the unloading of the uranium
fuel rods. The New York Times subsequently reported a problem with the
reactor’s cooling pumps.
Although Bushehr is not an immediate
proliferation concern, its personnel need many of the same skills
required for the controversial portions of Iran’s nuclear program.) Tehran’s Nuclear Intentions
nuclear progress has been extraordinarily slow. Using technology
similar to Iran’s, Pakistan needed eight years to reach the testing
stage in the 1970s and 1980s. Iran is believed to have been working on
nuclear weapons since the mid-1980s, or roughly 25 years. Some of the
delay can be attributed to poor administration, but the technical
challenges and the disruption of needed imports of material and
equipment have also contributed to the slowness. The reported, and
perhaps unreported, incidents of sabotage have probably played a role as
The US sees this delay as confirmation that its sanctions
policies are working, while also claiming that Tehran has yet to make a
“strategic decision” on whether to move from the technical ability stage
to actually making a testable device. Yet it is difficult to reach the
same optimistic conclusion from reading the IAEA report, and it makes
the deployment of USS Monterey seem unnecessary.
Much of the
confidence that Iran remains unable to make a nuclear device rests on
the knowledge that its IR-1 centrifuge has never been successfully used
to make the required 90 percent HEU needed for a deliverable atomic
bomb. Iran’s attempts to develop two new centrifuge types, known as IR-4
and IR-2M, could be beyond the regime’s technical skills. Given
Tehran’s relations with Pyongyang, however, Iran could obtain access to
advanced P-2 centrifuges, which were revealed to be operating in North
Korea last year.
Pakistan has used this type of centrifuge to develop enough HEU for as many as 100 atomic bombs.
is still refusing to engage in any meaningful dialogue with either the
IAEA or the international community – the January talks in Istanbul
between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Russia, China, Britain, France and
Germany) failed to make any progress. Meanwhile its nuclear
decision-making is likely being affected by the popular demonstrations
sweeping the Arab world, which it probably sees as distracting
Washington and weakening the US position in the region. The resultant
higher oil prices will certainly compensate Iran for the effect of trade
Both the IAEA report and the new NIE should serve as reminders not to become complacent about the threat of a nuclear Iran.The
writer is the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy
Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.