Iranian Nuke Research Continues, U.S. Intel Agencies to Assert

NTI: The U.S. intelligence community is preparing to reverse its conclusion that Iran in 2003 suspended research aimed specifically at producing a nuclear bomb, Newsweek reported Friday (see GSN, Jan. 15).

The reversal — which could become official by February — would revise a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate’s assertion that, as of the middle of that year, Iran “had not restarted” nuclear-weapon construction and design studies halted four years earlier, according to three U.S. counterproliferation officials and two of their counterparts from other countries. Iran has consistently denied allegations by the United States and other Western powers that its nuclear program is geared toward weapons development.

The updated U.S. assessment is expected to make a distinction between the alleged studies, which Iran is believed to have pursued, and efforts to build a nuclear weapon, which it has not, two of the U.S. officials said (Mark Hosenball, Newsweek, Jan. 15).

U.S. intelligence analysts have not agreed over whether Iran’s supreme religious leader has resolved to prepare a nuclear arsenal, the Washington Times reported today.

“There is a debate being held about whether the final decision has been made. It is fair to argue that the supreme leader has not said, ‘Build a nuclear weapon.’ That actually does not matter, because they are not at the point where they could do that anyway,” said one high-level U.S. military officer.

Still, the Middle Eastern nation is moving closer to achieving that milestone, the official warned.

“Are they acting as if they would like to be in a position to do what the supreme leader orders if he gives the thumbs up at some point down the road? The answer to that is indisputably yes,” the official said.

The 2007 intelligence estimate contributed to uncertainties about Iran’s nuclear program by making its key conclusion with only “moderate confidence,” said David Albright, head of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

“The idea Iran has not restarted with moderate confidence, it is a little like debating whether the glass is half full or half empty. Moderate confidence does not mean much and many intelligence agencies, such as the ones in Britain, France and Germany, disagreed that the weaponization did not exist in 2007,” Albright said.

U.S. intelligence agencies “wrote a political document in 2007 to embarrass President [George W.] Bush which everyone uniformly agrees was a piece of trash,” said Representative Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

“I am glad the intelligence community is redoing it. They were wrong in 2007 when they were doing it, they were wrong by a significant degree. Why would I take the one in 2010 they are doing any more seriously, just because I like the outcome?” he said (Eli Lake, Washington Times Jan. 19

Meanwhile, delegates from the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany concluded a Saturday meeting on Iran without agreeing to pursue new sanctions against the country, the Associated Press reported.

The six world powers agreed that “Iran has failed to follow up” on its tentative October agreement to send much of its low-enriched uranium to other countries to be refined for use in a Tehran medical research reactor, said European Union political director Robert Cooper. The proposal sought to eliminate immediate concerns that Iran could produce enough material for a nuclear weapon using its stockpiled uranium, but Tehran has since backed off the agreement, offering only to give up small quantities of its low-enriched uranium at a time in simultaneous exchanges for pre-enriched medical reactor fuel.

Iran stalled the uranium negotiations “in particular by refusing further meetings to discuss the nuclear issue,” Cooper noted.

The six nations — China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — would maintain their “dual track” strategy in addressing the nuclear dispute, he said. “That implies that we will continue to seek a negotiated solution, but consideration of appropriate further measures has also begun.”

The meeting was “for stock-taking and to see the way ahead,” he added.

The powers “reconfirmed our desire” to resume negotiations with Iran on the uranium proposal, said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

“We have talked mostly today on the second track, but it doesn’t mean that we should abandon the first one. We do believe there is still time for meaningful political engagement, and efforts to find a solution. That’s something that Russia has always advocated,” Ryabkov said.

“The meeting is inconclusive in a sense that we didn’t make any decisions right away,” he added. “We have started the next chapter of this saga. We have started the next part of the process. We made a lot of progress.”

U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns described the session only as “a good meeting.”

One high-level diplomat, though, said the discussion was intended to show Tehran it could soon lose its opportunity to reach a deal with the world powers (Edith Lederer, Associated Press/Washington Post, Jan. 16).

Iran yesterday indicated seeing some positive signals from the talks, Reuters reported.

“There have been ongoing negotiations and messages are being exchanged so we have to just wait. There are some minor signs indicating a realistic approach, so any probable developments or progress can be discussed later,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. “We are prepared to help in order to facilitate such realistic approaches and this may bear fruit” (Reuters I, Jan. 18).

“The failure of the-5+1 meeting is natural,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Some nations like China do not believe that the negative approaches, sanctions, threats and politically driven methods can bear any fruit,” state media quoted him as saying (Agence France-Presse I/Spacewar.com, Jan. 17).

“Our consistent proposal has been to resolve the Iran nuclear issue appropriately through dialogue and consultation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said, according to Reuters. “We hope all sides will enhance dialogue and cooperation, and show a more flexible and pragmatic approach,” he said.

“The urgent task now is for all sides to pay attention to the broader picture and step up diplomatic efforts,” he said, adding that the talks “did not touch on specific next steps” on Iran (Chris Buckley, Reuters II, Jan. 19).

Germany, though, called yesterday for more severe economic penalties against the Middle Eastern state, theNew York Times reported.

“We will work for more sanctions,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We always called for transparency and cooperation with Iran, but unfortunately Iran has not responded” (Judy Dempsey, New York Times, Jan. 18).

“Of course we would prefer it if these (sanctions) could be agreed within the framework of the United Nations Security Council,” Merkel said, noting that officials would pursue new international penalties over the next several weeks.

“But Germany will take part in sanctions with other countries that are pursuing the same goal,” Reuters quoted her as saying (Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Reuters III, Jan. 18).

Elsewhere, Iran indicated it would bolster protection of its nuclear scientists after nuclear physics professor Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed last week in a bombing, AFP reported Sunday.

“Some measures have been taken to protect and safeguard nuclear scientists, even though there were some before, but now these measures have been increased,” Tehran governor Morteza Tamadon said, according to state media.

“It’s not like Americans and Zionists (Israelis) would dare to enter our country. … Iran would not give them such security and possibility but they have got help from the antirevolutionaries, monarchists and outcasts,” Tamadon said, adding that authorities had “some leads to chase the case” (Agence France-Presse II/Spacewar.com, Jan. 17).

In Kazakhstan, officials are searching for the source behind a December news report that the nation planned to supply Iran with unrefined uranium ore, Interfax reported. The former Soviet republic has denied the report (Interfax, Jan. 18).