x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Week in review: Iran's nuclear designs

In the space of a week, Iran has first been accused of concealing the construction of a second uranium enrichment facility and then accused of having spent the last four years secretly designing a nuclear warhead. The Financial Times reported that British intelligence services claim that Iran has been secretly designing a nuclear warhead 'since late 2004 or early 2005', suggesting that Tehran is in the final stages of acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

In the space of a week, Iran has first been accused of concealing the construction of a second uranium enrichment facility and then accused of having spent the last four years secretly designing a nuclear warhead. "Britain's intelligence services say that Iran has been secretly designing a nuclear warhead 'since late 2004 or early 2005', an assessment that suggests Tehran has embarked on the final steps towards acquiring nuclear weapons capability. "As world powers prepare to confront Iran on Thursday on its nuclear ambitions, the Financial Times has learnt that the UK now judges that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, ordered the resumption of the country's weapons programme four years ago." Last Friday, reporting from the G20 summit being held in Pittsburgh, The New York Times said: "American, British and French officials declassified some of their most closely held intelligence and scrambled to describe a multiyear Iranian effort, tracked by spies on the ground and satellites above, to build a secret uranium enrichment plant deep inside a mountain. "The new plant, which Iran strongly denied was intended to be kept secret or used for making weapons, is months away from completion and does nothing to shorten intelligence estimates of how long it would take Iran to produce a bomb. American intelligence officials say it will take at least a year, perhaps five, for Iran to develop the full ability to make a nuclear weapon. "But the finding so cemented a sense of what Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain called 'the serial deception of many years' that it led to a rare Russian rebuke of Iran, and a milder warning from China, two countries crucial to Mr Obama's efforts to back up diplomacy with far tougher sanctions. "Mr Obama's aides and a raft of intelligence officials argued that the small, hidden plant was unsuitable for producing reactor fuel that might be used in a peaceful nuclear programme. Moreover, its location, deep inside an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base about 20 miles from the religious centre of Qom, strongly suggested it was designed for covert use in weapons, they said." Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former member of the national security council serving three US presidents wrote: "Building a small enrichment facility in an underground chamber on a Revolutionary Guards base with no notification to any international authority, at a time when Iran was under intense pressure to respond to Security Council requests for more inspections, was clearly intended to avoid scrutiny. "Does that mean that Iran was prepared to proceed covertly with a nuclear weapon? Yes and no. If you start with the conviction, as I do, that Iran was and is determined to develop a nuclear capability that would permit it to 'break out' and build a nuclear weapon if and when a decision was made by Iran's highest authorities, probably in response to a direct military threat to Iran by another nuclear power, then the creation of this site would serve two logical purposes. "First, it would disperse Iran's enrichment capabilities, making it much more difficult for an enemy to destroy its nuclear programme with a single strike. If the facility was unknown to the enemy, it would provide an immediate fallback capability in the event the enrichment site at Natanz was destroyed or severely damaged. It was very likely a component of Iran's post-strike Plan B and assumed that any internal opposition to a nuclear weapon would have been removed by the military attack. As such, this facility would very likely be intended to produce a nuclear weapon. "The ambiguities of Iran's position, which have always been present, would be amplified enormously by the existence of such a facility. The mere existence of such an undeclared site would be a constant worry for the non-proliferation community and a constant temptation to some in Iran to jump-start a weapons programme. At a minimum, the availability of a covert enrichment site could shorten considerably the expected time from Iran's moment of decision until the actual production of a weapon, since it could be launched without the knowledge of the IAEA inspectors." On Wednesday, The Times reported: "Iran sought to deflect international outrage over its newly discovered clandestine nuclear plant yesterday, denying that it had any military purpose and promising to allow inspections... "[The country's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi] said at a press conference that the uranium enrichment plant near Qom had been housed on a Republican Guard base to protect it, and not because it formed part of a military nuclear programme. " 'This site is at the base of a mountain and was selected on purpose in a place that would be protected against aerial attack,' he said. Iran was in talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency to set a timetable soon for a visit, he added." The Los Angeles Times noted: "The head of the United Nations nuclear enforcement agency said Wednesday that Iran violated transparency laws when it failed to notify international inspectors it was building a second uranium-enrichment plant. " 'Iran was supposed to inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility. They have not done that,' Mohamed ElBaradei, of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a CNN-India interview during a trip to New Delhi. 'They have been on the wrong side of the law, you know, insofar as informing the agency about the construction, and as you have seen it, it has created concern in the international community.' Meanwhile, as members of the US congress suggest it might become necessary to impose "crippling sanctions" on Iran, The New York Times looked at one of the largest obstacles to that course of action: China. "Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee swept into Beijing last month to meet with Chinese officials, carrying a plea from Washington: if Iran were to be kept from developing nuclear weapons, China would have to throw more diplomatic weight behind the cause. "In fact, the appeal had been largely answered even before the legislators arrived. "In June, China National Petroleum signed a $5 billion deal to develop the South Pars natural gas field in Iran. In July, Iran invited Chinese companies to join a $42.8 billion project to build seven oil refineries and a 1,019-mile trans-Iran pipeline. And in August, almost as the Americans arrived in China, Tehran and Beijing struck another deal, this time for $3 billion, that will pave the way for China to help Iran expand two more oil refineries. "The string of energy deals appalled the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Howard L Berman of California, who called them 'exactly the wrong message' to send to an Iran that seemed determined to flout international nuclear rules. "But some analysts see another message: as the United States issues new calls to punish Iran for secretly expanding its nuclear programme, it is not at all clear that Washington's interests are the same as Beijing's."

pwoodward@thenational.ae