VIENNA: Iran has not significantly accelerated its nuclear program in recent months, UN nuclear chief Yukiya Amano told Breaking Defense. This could be a sign that Iran hopes to create favorable conditions for a deal with the United States, which wants the Islamic Republic to freeze its program at its current level and not add to its… Keep reading →
WASHINGTON: Long-awaited talks between the world’s six most powerful nations and Iran are set for February 26 in the mountain city of Almaty in Kazakhstan.
The question is, are the two sides ready to bridge the considerable rift dividing them and actually negotiate? This has not happened in a decade of diplomacy that started in 2003 amid fears Iran was secretly building nuclear weapons. Keep reading →
WASHINGTON: Iran is at a crucial point in its nuclear negotiations with the United States and five other world powers.
What it does on the diplomatic front and what it does with its disputed nuclear program are vacillating between the hardline and the conciliatory. This comes as the United States looks post-election for a fresh start in talks with Iran on its alleged pursuit of the bomb. Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States are the six nations negotiating as the so-called P5-plus-1 with Iran. Keep reading →
Iran has significantly increased the amount of uranium it is enriching at a level close to weapon-grade and is sanitizing a site where it is suspected of doing bomb-related experiments, according to a classified UN nuclear watchdog report released Thursday and obtained by Breaking Defense.
Iran continues to block inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from doing the work they need to guarantee that Iran does not seek the bomb, This comes at a time when Israel is wrestling with the question of whether to attack Iran in order to neutralize its nuclear program. Keep reading →
UPDATED: Iran Nuclear Talks Continue Softly, Softly While Hopes Fade (July 24 18:21 EDT)
Talks on the Iranian nuclear program continued at a low level Tuesday, even as prospects for a peaceful outcome grow increasingly grim.
Senior-level, US-led negotiations to win guarantees that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons have foundered. Meanwhile, there are disturbing developments. Concern is running high that last week’s suicide bombing attack on Israeli civilians in Bulgaria could signal a significant escalation in the covert war between Israel and Iran. The debacle in Syria may threaten Iran’s umbilical-cord relationship with Hezbollah, something which would have unforeseen consequences in the Middle East.
And yet, with all this going on, and after the senior-level talks broke down in Moscow in June, deputies to the European Union and Iranian negotiators met Tuesday in Istanbul. The EU deputy is Helga Schmid, who works for the Union’s foreign policy representative, Catherine Ashton. Ashton speaks for the six powers negotiating with Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. Ali Bagheri, meanwhile, is the deputy to Iran’s head nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Their meeting followed an experts session on July 3, also in Istanbul, which was dedicated to making clear the details of the positions of the two sides. EU officials refused to comment on the Bagheri-Schmid meeting. But they said it would be followed by “contact” between Ashton and Jalili, which means that the two could meet in person or just talk by phone.
After this, there will probably be another experts meeting, rather than talks at a senior foreign ministry level. The experts gathering on July 3 took 13 hours and was judged fruitful enough for diplomats to say that another such experts meeting was likely to take place, although one has not yet been scheduled. “The last round of experts was sufficient to continue the process,” a diplomat close to the talks told me.
Diplomats said the bilateral meetings and experts talks will not be affected by the dramatic developments in Bulgaria and Syria, or even what happens in Vienna where the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is stymied in its investigation of Iran’s nuclear program.
They said there was a real desire to keep the dual-track going of openness to talks coupled with pressure on Iran to get it to cooperate with the IAEA and to rein in its nuclear work. The ongoing negotiations are the only forum where the Iranians are talking at a political level to the international community about their nuclear ambitions. They are the latest stage in a diplomatic process which began in 2003, after Iran was discovered hiding almost two decades of nuclear work.
Other avenues for peaceful resolution are also foundering. Parallel to the official government contacts is something called Track 2 diplomacy, in which non-governmental groups and former government officials try to establish dialog which can hopefully lead to official give-and-take between the two sides. The virtue of Track 2 is that it is often off-the-record, backdoor diplomacy in which new approaches can be tried. But this important channel seems to have dried up over the past year.
The US tactic at this point is to hang tough, since Washington mistrusts Iran and wants to see concrete progress before making compromises of its own. The United States insists that Iran stop, as a confidence-building measure, enriching uranium to 20 percent enrichment, which is closer to weapon-grade. Iran started last year to enrich to 20 percent to fuel a research reactor which makes medical isotopes. The bulk of Iran’s program, however, is designed to enrich to up to 5 percent to make what can be fuel for civilian power reactors. The US position is that Iran will only get relief from the tough sanctions now in effect when it makes concessions on enrichment in general. The United States wants Iran to honor UN Security Council calls for it to suspend all enrichment work, which the United States fears could be eventually used to refine weapon-grade uranium of over 90 percent enrichment.
Iran however refuses to suspend and insists that its right to enrich be acknowledged as “inalienable” under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has raised the possibility of needing to make fuel for a nuclear submarine development program, which could require enrichment of around 60 percent. In any case, Iran calls for sanctions to be lifted as a first step, not a later one. The Islamic Republic says that the IAEA, after years of investigation, has no proof that it seeks nuclear weapons.
It is a stand-off. The political talks have failed at this point because the two sides were no closer to an agreement despite having improved the nature of their dialog by avoiding rants and rhetoric. The experts talks which are continuing are more than a lifeline. They are all that is left after a decade of official and unofficial contacts to defuse a face-off which could lead to war.
Whether they can go further at a low-boil that will allow for secret US-Iranian talks, which many feel is the only way to end this crisis, is unclear. What is certain is that both sides are keeping open a very significant line of communication. It is not a case of the medium being more than the message. The hope is that the medium can become a vehicle for messaging. Whether that can happen amidst growing regional tension, Iran expanding its nuclear work, and with presidential elections this year in the United States and next year in Iran is an open question.Keep reading →
Talks with Iran on its nuclear work have continued but little progress has been made. A diplomat close to the lower-level meeting of technical experts in Istanbul last Tuesday told me “a large gap” remains between the positions of Iran and the six nations negotiating with it – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France. Keep reading →
A full monty of sanctions has gone into effect against Iran, the toughest regime of punitive measures since the Iranian nuclear crisis began a decade ago.
The goal is to pressure the Islamic Republic to give the international community guarantees it will not make atomic weapons. A European Union embargo on buying Iranian oil became active on Sunday. This followed the activation last Thursday of US sanctions against companies which deal with the central bank of Iran to buy oil. The United States had already convinced such major Iranian oil customers such as China, India, Japan and Turkey to reduce their purchases. Keep reading →
A study by a Washington think tank that closely follows the Iranian nuclear program, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), concludes that Iran could have tested a nuclear trigger in a device at the disputed Iranian site of Parchin. Breaking Defense obtained a copy of the draft report.
The Iranian military testing ground of Parchin has emerged as the front line in the continuing struggle between the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Iran. Iran has refused to let inspectors from the IAEA visit the site, some 30 kilometers southeast of Tehran, where they suspect experiments related to developing nuclear weapons may have been carried out. These tests were allegedly done in a 19-meter-long metal cylinder, 4.4 meters in diameter but reinforced in the middle with concrete, almost doubling the diameter to 7.6 meters. Questions have been raised about whether the experiments, which are explosions, could have been done in this cylinder and why the Iranians would use an enclosed device, when such testing is often done in the open air.
ISIS has determined that the metal cylinder could have been used for an explosive experiment with non-fissile material into the trigger for an atomic bomb. The purpose of doing this in an enclosed metal container would have been, of course, to avoid detection that would have otherwise been possible if the explosion were done in the open air.
The reason this is so sensitive is that nuclear material, namely natural uranium, may have been used in what would have been a dry run for the trigger, rather than a chain reaction. Proof that Iran has employed uranium in military research would destroy the Islamic republic’s central claim that its program has made only peaceful use of nuclear material. Iran says it seeks atomic power for energy and other civilian ends but the United States and a host of other countries fear it is hiding a drive to build, or to be able to build, nuclear weapons.
The IAEA is meanwhile investigating whether Iran diverted some 20 kilograms of natural uranium “in the form of natural uranium metal and process waste” from the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory, according to an IAEA report last November. The IAEA is moving cautiously on this charge,however, as evidence relies on potentially unreliable weighing of nuclear material The IAEA has quizzed Ukrainian scientist Vyacheslav Danilenko about Parchin.
It said in its November report that it had “strong indications” a “foreign expert” had assisted Iran in working on developing a “high explosives” trigger for a bomb. This unnamed expert has been identified as Danilenko, who said he was in Iran to help develop “a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds (‘UDDs’ or ‘nanodiamonds’),” the report said. The cylinder at Parchin can be used for nanodiamonds.
But Danilenko had another expertise. He had worked for the Soviet Union on designing nuclear weapons small enough to fit in a missile, bomb or artillery shell. He “was in Iran from about 1996 to about 2002,” the IAEA said in its report.
The IAEA investigation is part of an international effort to win guarantees that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons. The standoff over Parchin comes at an especially sensitive time as diplomacy is being renewed with a Saturday meeting in Istanbul between six major powers, including the United States and Iran. The United States wants Iran to stop higher-level enrichment of uranium and to close a heavily protected enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom. The IAEA, the watchdog agency for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has inspectors monitoring uranium enrichment at both the Fordow site near Qom and at Iran’s other, and larger, enrichment plant in Natanz.
The IAEA had visited another site at Parchin in 2005 but found nothing. Parchin is not actively monitored by the IAEA since no nuclear material has been reported there. But the cylinder has aroused suspicions. ISIS has photographs of the site. A satellite photograph from March 14, 2000 shows, ISIS says, “the foundation where Iran would place a high explosive test chamber later (later) in the year 2000.” This foundation looks like just a hole in the ground. The ISIS report then shows a satellite photograph from August 13, 2004 which it says “shows the building containing a high explosive test chamber.” Neither image shows the alleged metal cylinder, which would have been inside the building and may no longer be there.
At stake is testing the initiation system for a nuclear warhead that would fit inside, as ISIS says, “the payload chamber of the Shahab 3 missile tri-conic nose cone.” The IAEA had reported in November 2011 that the explosive chamber at Parchin could be used to test an implosion trigger for an atomic bomb. This is precisely the sort of trigger needed for a nuclear warhead for a missile.
The test would involve, ISIS said, “hundreds of fiber optic cables … placed in proximity of the inner surface of the high explosive. The other end of the fiber cables go to a fixture for a rotating mirror that is part of a high speed streak camera.” What is key here, according to ISIS, is that “an experiment of the initiation of the R265 system (the implosion trigger) . . . would contain less than 70 kilograms of high explosives and would have been possible to conduct in the chamber at Parchin… Iran’s goal of using this chamber would likely have been to hide its activities from overhead observation.”
The IAEA says satellites have reported activity at Parchin recently. This has raised concern that Iran may be trying to clean up the site ahead of any inspection. Iran has rejected such charges. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters last month in Tehran that uranium traces cannot be cleaned up, as tiny particles would remain after any effort to sanitize an area, and insisted that only “conventional military” activities are carried out at Parchin.
But the IAEA report in November described two types of experiments that could have taken place at Parchin. The first is hydrodynamic tests, which are simultaneous explosions of an implosion trigger to compact a spherical nuclear core. The second would be explosions to test a neutron initiator, a tiny capsule in the center of the bomb core which bathes the nuclear material with neutrons, thus accelerating a chain reaction. Both these tests could use natural uranium as a surrogate for fissile material. Other surrogates, such as tungsten, could also be used. The IAEA inspectors would test both the cylinder and the area for traces of any of these, if they get access to the cylinder.
ISIS warned that it was not clear “if an IAEA visit would be able to detect whether such an experiment happened.” But it said a visit would still “help establish more transparency of Iran’s alleged nuclear weaponization activities and should be supported both publicly and by governments.”
Michael Adler is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writing a book on diplomacy in the Iranian nuclear crisis. Michael covered this extensively for five years while in Vienna, where he reported on the International Atomic Energy Agency.Keep reading →