[…] 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
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 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.
Useful background information:
The countries presenting two of America’s biggest diplomatic challenges have been trading ballistic missile technology according to a new UN report leaked to the media. The trans-shipment occurred through ‘a neighboring third-party country’ the report says. Some diplomats identified that country as China and notably the paper, which represents the findings of an international panel, lacks the signature of the Chinese expert assigned to the panel. While there has long been speculation about illegal trade between the two countries, this report represents the latest official allegation of a violation of UN sanctions.
Importantly, the developments further complicate matters involving diplomatic efforts to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program and increase pressure on Tehran to avoid pursuing one. Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council, have traditionally proven reluctant to enforce sanctions on Iran and North Korea and have recently stifled the publication of UN expert reports on the two countries. The unofficial word that China served as a transfer point is sure to embarrass Beijing and no doubt lent weight to the decision of the Chinese expert to remain unsupportive of his panel’s findings. According to UNSC diplomats, China was unlikely to allow the report to be published. Nonetheless, the findings will add further evidence to inefficacy of the current sanctions against North Korea and the need to reestablish negotiations surrounding its nuclear program. And while Iran remains, by all accounts, at least a few years from a nuclear test, the report should also serve as a reminder of the need to keep diplomatic pressure on Tehran from continuing down the path towards a weapon.
In October 2003, the US intercepted a German-flagged freighter bound for Libya. Onboard the ship were thousands of parts for uranium enrichment centrifuges. Two months later Libya announced that it was discontinuing all of its WMD programs and would comply with the NPT. The announcement was seen as a diplomatic victory for the UK and US, who had been working for months in secret negotiations with Libya.
Just two months ago a NATO-led force began air strikes against Libyan forces loyal to Gaddafi. Although UN resolution 1973 specifically authorizes member states to act in order to protect civilians, the air strikes have served as de-facto support of the rebels. Across the Middle East, protests continue. Indeed, there are daily reports of protesters being killed by government forces in Syria and Yemen. Yet forces have only intervened in a country that not 10 years ago dismantled its WMD program.
Countries such as North Korea and Iran are sure to take notice of this. North Korea in particular has taken paranoid indoctrination against the West to a national level. If the six party talks ever do resume, how can the North negotiate in good faith when the US is now bombing a country that less than eight years ago it was praising for abandoning its nuclear program? Meanwhile Iran is facing a popular movement against its government while seemingly remaining ambivalent about the future of its nuclear program. What lessons will it draw from the coalition action in Libya?
A new computer virus that seemed to be targeting Iranian government facilities has been discovered. Iranian officials announced last week that they had detected a new attempt to infiltrate government computers. Public acknowledgement of this new virus, now called ‘Stars’, comes less than a year after the 2010 revelation that a separate virus, Stuxnet, was responsible for the difficulty the Persian nation has encountered in operating its uranium centrifuges. Iranian officials, along with several prominent western cyber-security experts, have attributed the origin of Stuxnet to the United States and Israel. Neither the US nor Israel has accepted responsibility for the virus. Little information is as yet publicly available about the newer Stars virus although it reportedly takes the form of official-looking data and is ‘hard to eliminate in its original form.’ [GSN]
Iran has acknowledged that its enrichment efforts had been delayed by the earlier Stuxnet virus. The virus violently manipulates the spinning speed of rotors inside centrifuges used to separate isotopes of uranium. While doing so, it reports normal operating conditions to the control mechanism thus avoiding an emergency shutdown. The P1 centrifuges being used by Iran are highly sensitive machines and the sudden increases and decreases in speed that Stuxnet subjected them to would have undoubtedly rendered them inoperable. Some speculate that code contained in Stuxnet could cause the centrifuges to literally explode.
Ralph Langer explains Stuxnet
Experts believe that Stuxnet has set back any Iranian program towards a nuclear weapon – real or imagined – by several years. This no doubt gives Israel some breathing room in its debate about a possible preventive strike, ala its universally condemned 1981 destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor which was under construction in Iraq. (It’s worth noting that while the Osirak facility was destroyed, many contend that the strike may have actually accelerated Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.) Regardless, with the emergence of this new cyber attack, it’s clear that somebody has decided to devote considerable resources to sabotaging the Iranian nuclear program. The level of sophistication and explicit objectives of these viruses, coupled in consideration with last year’s assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, certainly limits that list of potential somebodies.
In an Israeli cockpit during Operation Opera