Monitoring developments in international security

Archive for June, 2011

Iranian nuclear aspirations under further scrutiny


[…] the Agency remains concerned about the possible existence in
Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.

– From IAEA report of May 24, 2011

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano

On Monday, International Atomic Energy Agency Director Yukiya Amano stated that his organization had received further information involving Iran’s nuclear program that seemed to point to potential military dimensions of the program. [IAEA] The nuclear watchdog last month published a report citing seven ‘particular areas of concern’ including ‘developing, manufacturing and testing of explosive components suitable for the initiation of high explosives in a converging spherical geometry.’ [IAEA] This ‘area of concern’ no doubt relates to the conventional explosives used to initiate criticality in an implosion-type weapon.

Meanwhile this week, western media began scrutinizing a Republican Guard article originally published on the elite military organization’s website in April. The paper, titled ”The Day After the First Iranian Nuclear Test — a Normal Day’, raised eyebrows as a signal of the military’s support for an Iranian nuclear weapon. Experts cite a number of reasons for the article ranging from a form of retaliation against the computer virus attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities to a strategy of seeking to ‘slowly acclimatize the international community to conditions that would make a breakout to nuclear weapons more feasible.’ [ISIS]

These developments come on the heels of Tehran announcing that it plans to further increase its capacity to generate 20% enriched uranium by 300%. While Iran has stated that its nuclear research reactor in Tehran requires uranium enriched to 20%, the Middle Eastern nation already has several years worth of fuel stockpiled and currently lacks the technology to build further reactors requiring fuel of this grade.

The UN has already sanctioned Iran four separate times for failing to comply with Security Council resolutions relating to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. This latest flurry of developments has started re-focusing international attention on the possibility of Tehran eventually pursuing a nuclear weapon. In particular, analysts worry about the potential for a ‘breakout’ scenario whereby Iran re-introduces its current, 20% enriched, uranium stockpile to its enrichment cascades and races to increase the level of U-235 enrichment to 90% or above, creating a stockpile of weapons-grade uranium. Iran’s stated plans to increase its capacity to enrich uranium to 20% will not only increase the nation’s available stockpile of 20% enriched uranium but also make available more centrifuges for use in a potential breakout scenario and dramatically decrease the time needed to produce weapons-grade material.

The Fordow nuclear facility outside Qom.

The developments of the past week certainly do not help assuage fears that Iran’s stated peaceful goals of its nuclear program are simply a rouse to allow the nation to continue to progress towards a nuclear weapon. It should also be noted that the new enrichment capabilities are going to be installed at the Fordow facility, which is located next to a military base and, owing to its location inside of a mountain, is less vulnerable to air strikes than the enrichment facility at Natanz. The Fordow facility was not even acknowledged until 2009, when western intelligence agencies made public their knowledge of it.

The government of Iran has been careful to careful not to relinquish its ability to plausibly deny accusations that its nuclear program is military in nature. While it has violated several UN resolutions, there has never been any weapons-grade uranium found. And although suspicious, the covert manner in which the nation attempted to secretly build the fortified enrichment facility at Fordow does not necessarily betray its intentions as belligerent. Finally, despite already having – and planning to further develop – a capacity to enrich uranium which greatly out-paces any conceivable peaceful use for the enriched uranium, that imbalance still does not provide the much-wanted ‘smoking gun’ that points definitively to a nuclear weapons program. Regardless, the international community has, for years, focused attention on the Iranian nuclear program so it would be inconceivable that there are not at least a handful of contingency plans should such a conclusive piece of evidence emerge. It’s intriguing to wonder how Iran has accounted for these plans and, given the recent events discussed above, what exactly its strategy is.

Sources: GSN (June 6), GSN (June 9), ISIS, Yahoo News, IAEA Director General statement, Report to IAEA Board of Governors

Useful background information:

ISIS: Nuclear Iran

how uranium enrichment works

nuclear weapon designs

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Chinese cyber attacks emphasize need for better electronic defenses

It is precisely the absence of a constraining political
framework around cyber warfare that makes cyberspace
so attractive as a place in which to pursue aggressively
cultural, religious, economic, social and even – paradoxically – political goals.

– From the executive summary of ‘On Cyber Warfare

New details emerged today of the cyber attacks on the email accounts of hundreds of US and other Asian government officials, Chinese political activists, military personnel and journalists. Google said the relatively simple phishing attempts, which involved leading the target to a fake login page to obtain the user’s login information, have been taking place for months. The GMail provider also pinpointed the source of the attacks as Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province and host of the regional military command center.

These attacks are not the first time Google has accused Chinese hackers of spying on the users of its GMail service. In 2009 it traced attacks on Chinese human rights activists to an IP address at Lanxiang Senior Technical School in Jinan, according to The Telegraph. These latest attacks come in the midst of a cyber security review in both the UK and US. BBC recently reported that the Ministry of Defence in the UK plans to employ hundreds of experts to help improve the UK government’s electronic defenses. A cyber attack on major US defense contractor Lockheed Martin further emphasized the rapidly increasing need for robust cyber defense mechanisms. The US earlier this week announced that cyber attacks sponsored by another country can constitute an act of war and reserved the right to use military actions as a result of such attacks. Washington plans to issue a more detailed statement regarding its cyber warfare policies later this month.

This most recent round of Chinese cyber attacks underline what is quickly becoming a major theme in modern political engagement: the cyber threat. As Stars and Stuxnet ravage Iranian nuclear facilities and fears of a potential equally powerful but less specifically-targeted virus raise concerns over the security of infrastructure ranging from power plants to telecommunications, leaders around the world are having to scramble to bolster defenses on a new front of vulnerability. As noted in the Chatham House paper quoted above, this new cyber front is the perfect platform for asymmetric warfare where traditional military might is all but meaningless. This notion of a whole new dimension of threats engaging in asymmetric warfare should certainly weigh heavily in American military commanders’ and policy-makers’ minds; the US has struggled with two other types of asymmetric engagements in recent years: terrorism and insurgency.