CIA Sees Iran Approaching Nuke Capability

NTI

A recent CIA report warns that Iran has maintained its pursuit of nuclear capabilities that could help the Middle Eastern state build a nuclear bomb, theWashington Times reported today (see GSN, March 29).

“Iran continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so,” states the annual report to U.S. lawmakers from the CIA Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center.

The United States, Israel and several European countries have for years expressed concern about Iranian atomic activities that could support a possible weapons drive, but Tehran has insisted its nuclear program has strictly civilian aims.

Iran is “keeping open” the possibility of developing a nuclear arsenal, “though we do not know whether Tehran eventually will decide to produce nuclear weapons,” states the document, which bases its argument partially on a 2007 U.S. intelligence assertion that Tehran several years earlier ended military elements of its nuclear program. U.S. intelligence agencies have been re-evaluating the 2007 conclusion and could soon update it in a forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate (see GSN, Oct. 16, 2009).

Iran’s uranium enrichment program has continued to suffer from mechanical hindrances, the CIA report also notes. The enrichment process can produce civilian nuclear fuel as well as nuclear-weapon material.

Iran is preparing additional short- and medium-range missiles, and “producing more capable medium-range ballistic missiles remains one of its highest priorities,” the report adds.

Tehran is “keeping the door open to the possibility of building a nuclear weapon,” said one U.S. official taking part in nonproliferation efforts.

“That’s in spite of strong international pressure not to do so, and some difficulties they themselves seem to be having with their nuclear program,” according to the official. “There are powerful incentives for them to close the door completely, but they are either purposefully ignoring them or are tone deaf. You almost want to shout, ‘Tune in Tehran” (Bill Gertz, Washington Times, March 30).

Meanwhile, top diplomats from the Group of Eight industrialized nations were set today to threaten Iran with new economic penalties over its nuclear work, the Associated Press reported.

The group’s message was also aimed at China, a nation outside the G-8 that has opposed adopting a fourth U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran. China wields veto authority over Security Council decisions, as do the body’s other permanent member nations: France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Chinese officials “have said now that they will engage on the elements of a sanctions resolution,” said one high-level U.S. official accompanying Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the trip to Canada (Lee/Gillies, Associated Press I/Washington Post, March 30).

“China is part of the consultative group that has been unified all along the way, which has made it very clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is not acceptable to the international community,” Clinton said yesterday in a Canadian television interview (Matthew Lee, Associated Press II/Yahoo!News, March 29).

“As the weeks go forward and we begin the hard work of trying to come up with a Security Council resolution, China will be involved, they will be making their suggestions,” she said.

“As in any effort, we’re going to have to try to come to some consensus and we’re in the middle of that process,” Clinton added.

Asked whether other countries would need to contend with Iran as a nuclear weapons state, she said: “No.” (Lee, AP I).

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg discussed the Iran dispute with Chinese officials during a trip to Beijing this month, Agence France-Presse reported.

“We’ve had a recognition, I think, by our Chinese counterparts of the danger of the Iranian nuclear program and the fact that there does not seem to be a willingness [by] the Iranians to take the very generous offer that the P-5+1 made to them,” Steinberg said.

“Despite the very serious efforts, which we support, of the Chinese to encourage diplomacy on the part of the Iranians, they don’t seem to be responsive,” the official said (Agence France-Presse/Spacewar.com, March 29).

China today reaffirmed its call for a negotiated solution to the nuclear standoff, AP reported.

“We hope relevant parties could fully show their flexibility and make further efforts toward a proper resolution of this issue through diplomatic means,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said (Lee, AP I).

Russia indicated Saturday that it would only support new Security Council measures that specifically target Iran’s nuclear program, Interfax reported.

“When our Western partners are saying that it is time to start discussing sanctions, we are saying that we do not rule out that this time will come, although efforts to go back to negotiations still continue and the chances of them bring some result remain,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a television interview.

“But if this issue has to be addressed again in the Security Council, we will only be ready to discuss ‘[smart] sanctions,’ as our president put it,” Lavrov said.

Such measures would target “Iranian agencies in charge of the nuclear program” without being “detrimental to the country’s population,” he said (Interfax, March 29).

Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution has determined that Israel would be expected to focus a potential military strike against Iran on six of the nation’s nuclear facilities, avoiding broader attacks on its energy infrastructure and other nonmilitary assets, Reuters reported yesterday.

Following a surprise move against Tehran’s nuclear program, Jerusalem might argue the attack “had created a terrific opportunity for the West to pressure Iran, weaken it, and possibly even undermine the regime,” Brookings Institution analyst Kenneth Pollack wrote in a description of a war game conducted late last year. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration would probably not be receptive to such an argument, he added.

Israeli stealth-capable F-15 and F-16 jets could fly over unwelcoming Arab nations to reach targets in western Iran, and midair refueling could enable the aircraft to hit facilities deeper in its territory.

“If there were to be an Israeli attack, the only thing that might be contemplated by Israel would be a precision strike focused on nuclear facilities alone,” said Emily Landau, a senior research associate with the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“Israel has no issue with Iran beyond the fact that it is developing a military nuclear capability, coupled with the harsh rhetoric coming out of Iran,” Landau said.

In addition, Israel could fire conventionally armed Jericho ballistic missiles at Iran. It could could also target Iran with its Dolphin submarines by moving the vessels to the Persian Gulf through the Suez Canal. The submarines are believed to be capable of firing cruise missiles armed with conventional or nuclear warheads (Dan Williams, Reuters, March 29).

Although the Brookings war game could predict Israeli and U.S. actions with a fair level of accuracy, potential Iranian reactions to a strike on its nuclear facilities were less clear, the New York Times reported Friday.

A military strike would probably only delay Iran’s nuclear program by a few years, but Israel more than than the United States is likely to consider such a delay to be worthwhile, the Times added (David Sanger, New York Times, March 26).

In Moscow, Iranian atomic energy chief Sergei Kiriyenko yesterday reaffirmed Moscow’s intention to complete Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant before the end of August, PRIME-Tass reported (PRIME-Tass, March 29).