Sunday, October 04, 2009

Iranians React to Report on Nuclear Program

The Media Line - Benjamin Joffe-Walt: As tensions rise over Iran's nuclear program, one group of analysts seem rather unimpressed by the international hubbub: Iranians.

The head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog group was holding talks with senior Iranian officials in Tehran on Sunday one day after it was leaked that a confidential analysis written by staff at the agency concluded that Iran has acquired "sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device" based on highly enriched uranium.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), arrived Saturday night in Tehran to meet with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, to discuss a visit by U.N. inspectors to a nuclear facility outside the holy city of Qom. ElBaradei's arrival comes a week after the United States' revealed evidence that Iran was building a second nuclear enrichment plant inside a mountain outside Qom.

Iran has since admitted to the plant's existence, claiming it was never a clandestine site and is intended as a backup enrichment site for a civilian nuclear energy program.

Hours after ElBaradei arrived however, the 
New York Times published a story based on a leaked document from within ElBaradei's agency claiming that Iran has mastered the technology needed to design a nuclear warhead.

The leaked document adds fire to an intense debate among Western agencies regarding Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons. Iran is known to have mastered at least two of the three steps needed to effectively launch a nuclear weapon: developing a medium-range rocket capable of striking Israel and Arab nations allied with the West, and acquiring highly enriched, weapons grade uranium.

There has been little consensus among Western intelligence agencies regarding Iran's progress on the final step, that of developing a warhead capable of being attached to a missile.

The report, titled "Possible Military Dimensions of Iran's Nuclear Program," describes an extensive program which began in 2002 and is "aimed at the development of a nuclear payload to be delivered using the Shahab 3 missile system."

The report's conclusions place Iran's nuclear weapons program at a much more advanced stage than most Western governments have publicly acknowledged.

But reactions in Iran were muted, and many Iranian analysts were suspicious of the timing of the report's publication.

"Every time the issue of Iran's nuclear program moves towards some sort of resolution some grand accusation is made against Iran in the western media in order to prevent resolution of the situation," Dr Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, a lecturer at the University of Tehran, told The Media Line.

"A few years ago it was the infamous laptop with information on Iran, which the Americans refused to let any independent computer experts examine. Iranians view this to be the same."

"The very fact that this comes in the 
New York Times when there are strong attempts to ease the situation is revealing," Dr Marandi said. "Why was the information released exactly as Mr ElBaradei is coming to Iran? Why not three months ago?"

"Obviously if ElBaradei thought Iran's nuclear program had a military aspect he would have no reason to hide that, especially towards the end of his term," Dr Marandi said. "So I think the hostility towards Iran runs very deep and has nothing to do with the nuclear program."

Kourosh Ziabari, an Iran-based analyst with the 
Foreign Policy Journal, argued the dispute was of increasingly little interest to many Iranians.

"I believe they are probably developing some underground sites," Ziabari told The Media Line, "but if the US and its allies had come to the conclusion that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons, they would already have launched an attack on Iran."

"Both sides are just trying to add some flavor to the controversy so that we believe they are at odds," Ziabari said. "To be honest the international focus on Iran's nuclear program is becoming boring, it's more of a political controversy over what is essentially a technical dispute between the two sides."

"Iran agreeing to send its low enriched uranium abroad is a good will gesture and I believe they are looking to compromise," he added. "I'm not expecting a major breakthrough from either side and it's impossible to predict how long this confrontation will last, but I think everything will be settled diplomatically, even if it gets to the point of sanctions and takes many years."

Tehran tentatively agreed "in principle" to ship some of its stocks of low enriched uranium to Russia and France for processing into fuel for an internationally supervised research reactor in Tehran. Details of the agreement are set to be worked out at an IAEA meeting in Vienna in two weeks.

"It's a delaying tactic," Dr Mehrdad Khonsari, Senior Research Consultant at the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies told The Media Line. "Iran agrees to send off Uranium which they have already enriched, which doesn't address their continued enrichment of uranium, then the next day they say 'well you know we haven't fully committed to that'."

Dr Khonsari, who has met ElBaradei several times, said he is known to believe in a non-confrontational approach to international conflict resolution.

"His approach as an international civil servant is to move away from public confrontation and to negotiate secretly and privately to bring the positions closer," Dr Mehrdad Khonsari, Senior Research Consultant at the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies told The Media Line. "If you look at it negatively the Iranians have exploited him and contributed to this issue being dragged out much longer than it should have been."

Khonsari argued that while it was difficult to ascertain the exact nature of the Iranian nuclear program, it is clear that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program.

"I don't know whether or not Iran has the know how to develop these weapons, but I'm certain that they can enrich Uranium and deliver a warhead with a missile," said Dr Khonsari, who is also a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "They are certainly going full blast towards achieving a nuclear weapons program, and if left unchecked they will achieve it."