Joshua PollackIran Probes The Limits

Enough slicing and a salami ends up like this.

What happens when a government with a nuclear program systematically works itself into the position of being “a ‘screw turn’ away” from building a nuclear weapon? On one hand, let’s say this government wants to preserve its relations with a great power ally that arms it and shields it from sanctions; on the other hand, its leaders compete to be more pro-nuclear, aiming to win the favor of the military, the scientific establishment, and the public.

The balance can be hard to maintain. With enough jostling, it could tip.

To get a sense of the problem, take a few moments to read this declassified memorandum from the U.S. National Security Council staff in 1987, previously described by Mark Hibbs in the December 28, 2009 issue of NuclearFuel. Titled, “Dealing with Pakistan’s Nuclear Program: A U.S. Strategy,” it expresses the difficulties faced by the White House in persuading the Government of Pakistan (GOP) to stay within certain “nuclear red lines” — including no enrichment beyond 5% — while trying to assure Congress that the situation was still under control.

Substitute “Iran” for “Pakistan” and “the West” for “Congress,” and you could almost imagine memos like this one being written over the last couple of years in the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai.

As it happens, Pakistan seems to have crossed the enrichment “red line” during or shortly after an armed crisis with India in early 1990. (Senior Pakistani diplomat Abdul Sattar hinted as much at a 1994 event sponsored by the Stimson Center — see p. 42 of this edited transcript.) Afterward, the White House would no longer certify to Congress that Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons, sanctions kicked in, and nothing remained of the alliance for an entire decade.

Which Brings Us to Now

In his first full-scale report Iran report as IAEA Director-General (GOV/2010/10), Yukia Amano is pretty direct about “possible military dimensions”:

The information available to the Agency in connection with these outstanding issues is extensive and has been collected from a variety of sources over time. It is also broadly consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted and the people and organizations involved. Altogether, this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile. These alleged activities consist of a number of projects and sub-projects, covering nuclear and missile related aspects, run by military related organizations.

The concluding summary of the report opens with another crisp statement:

While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

That’s a non-certification if there ever was one.

The Bad News

We don’t know what red lines Moscow and Beijing might have communicated to Tehran, if any — although Iran’s own decision to enrich “up to 20%” may have triggered this response from the Russians.

Among other provocative actions described in GOV/2010/10, the Iranians also rushed to commence the re-enrichment process without waiting for IAEA safeguards inspectors to show up — an incident that occasioned an unusual short report to the IAEA Board of Governors last week.

The Iranians have now relocated nearly their entire stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), where re-enrichment has begun. Yet GOV/2010/10 documents no progress toward setting up process lines to make new fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) — the ostensible reason for re-enrichment. Nor is there word of any work on a process line to convert the re-enriched UF6 gas from PFEP to the uranium oxide needed for the fuel.

The report does record that, as of last November, a process line has been completed at Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility to produce “natural uranium metal ingots” for R&D purposes. And if that weren’t good enough, another process line is planned to make metal from 19.7% enriched UF6 — basically what’s now being produced at PFEP. Again, that’s for R&D purposes.

As many readers will know, U metal — enriched to 80% or more — is the stuff of which bombs are made. Iran may not have the Bomb, but it has acquired a complete salami-slicing kit, and knows how to use it.

(At least we can’t say that we had no warning at all. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) publicly signaled interest in making U metal ingots as early as 2005. The idea was reiterated as recently as last April.)

The Good News

Amid the mounting fatalism and hand-wringing, what separates Iran in 2010 from Pakistan in 1990 is too easily overlooked. Iran is an NPT member state. Its nuclear facilities — the declared and operational ones, anyway — are under containment and surveillance, meaning that what happens there is visible to the world in short order. Also, these facilities can’t be defended effectively against the determined actions of one or more Western military powers — something Pakistan never had to contemplate. If push ever came to shove, the Iranians would have to start over again, and under very different circumstances.

For these reasons, withdrawal from the NPT would be a dicey business. And trying to sneak around the NPT, as the Qom/Fordow experience teaches, is not as easy as it once might have seemed.

While a diplomatic solution remains out of reach — and a military solution, if it can be called that, remains the option of last resort — vigilance and firmness can still keep the screwdriver from turning.


  1. MarkoB

    Could it be possible to also draw another historical analogy, one perhaps more pertinent?

    So far as I can see in commentary on the latest safeguards reports three issues have tended to dominate (1) the weaponisation statements cited above (2) the crisis is escalating (3) Iran’s program at Natanz is stalling. The post broaches (1) but leaves (2) and (3) aside. To make conclusions about where we go now requires factoring in all of (1), (2) and (3).

    Which get’s me back to the analogy. Could Iran, like North Korea, end up tit-for-tating it’s way to a bomb? I think if we take on board (2) and (3) we should try and avoid the North Korean example and try and de-escalate the crisis.

    I hope the mention of “firmness” is not a reference to more escalation.

    I notice that a tougher report on Syria comes exactly when the White House has moved to re-engage with Damascus.

  2. andrewf (History)

    Do any of the blog writers or commentators have any thoughts on the likelihood of Iran leaving the NPT in the event that it was attacked by Israel (or even the US)? Presumably that would be a ‘bad thing’. But how likely is it?

    Josh responds: I’d call it not a sure thing but a pretty good chance, and a good reason not to attack.

  3. Alan (History)

    A couple of things – firstly, while the report fails to identify a breach of the NPT by Iran, the non-supply of fuel plates for the TRR is a clear breach of the NPT by the West, as is the ongoing blocking of nuclear technology and assistance for the last 20+ years. The NPT is not something that Iran accrues any benefit from.

    Secondly, Iran needs the TRR fuel, it seems this year, but it may be longer depending on the rate at which they have used/are using it. This is the only leverage the US has left, as China disappears over the horizon.

    Both sides therefore badly need a TRR fuel deal. It is also becoming increasingly clear that Iran does not want to be in anybody’s pocket, be it China, Russia or the US. It is also evident that a deal with Iran marginalises Israel and their capacity to act.

    In the medium term it seems that a passive Iran with a full fuel cycle could be of strategic benefit to the US, countering undue Russian and Chinese influence over Iran, as well as the undue influence of an Israeli agenda over US policy.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    > I notice that a tougher report on Syria comes exactly when the White House has moved to re-engage with Damascus.

    I trust the IAEA report will be on the table during Mr. Ford’s confirmation hearings. The possibility that Syria had, or was participating in, a clandestine nuclear weapons program seems worthy of some attention. Particularly since Syria continues to stonewall on the matter and IAEA has found those uranium particles.

  5. Anon

    “Pyongyang showed that a nuclear arsenal does not have to be large or sophisticated to be politically effective. Nuclear tests strengthened the country’s hands and tied the hands of the international community. Thus, it is crucial to stop aspiring programs short of demonstrating their capabilities.”

    Siegfried S. Hecker
    “Lessons learned from the North Korean nuclear crises”

  6. Amir (History)

    For sure Iran will leave the NPT if it attacked I think it is trivial and even justified

  7. Norman (History)

    Jeff and others,
    I see no mention in the media of the idea of trading international supervision or participation on LEU production in Iran for Iran’s signing on to the Additional Protocol (and perhaps some additional measures such as providing the IAEA more transparency). You, Jeff, and Thomson proposed these ideas some time agao and other experts have joined in. Is this still the least bad option under the current circumstances (Ahmadinejad, internal unrest, latest IAEA report)?

  8. Nick (History)

    In case of an attack by US or Israel, it would be very doubtful that IRI will stay in NPT. Probably the withdraw from this treaty letter was written long time ago and is in Soltanieh’s drawer in Vienna, in case of an attack by any NPT member. If you recall, IRI in the last BOG meeting tried very hard to include a non-aggression committment towards NPT members by other members, as expected it was rejected by US and some European countries.

  9. Bahram Chubin (History)

    Any thoughts on the following quotation from Hasan Rouhani, Iran’s former “moderate” nuclear negotiator?

    It seems that in originally having agreed to the swap, Ahmadinejad had jumped the gun. He came under fire for that decision from all camps: liberals, reformists and fellow conservatives like Larijani. He has since continued to argue for the swap, but has not not overcome the opposition to the plan.

    The opposition to the swap is driven, in part, by domestic politics. Ahmadinejad had harshly attacked Rohani for having sold out in negotiations with the West. It must give Rohani some pleasure to turn the table on Ahmadinejad.

    Rohani’s point, however, is perhaps not without logic. If Iran is entitled to receive the fuel it needs for its medical reactor even without giving up its low-enriched uranium which can be used in other civilian reactors, why should the swap be required? And why should Iran be punished by sanctions if it does not agree with the swap?

    It any case, it seems that the internal disagreements in Iran and Iran’s inability to speak with one voice have caused considerable damage to its diplomatic efforts on the nuclear front.

  10. Josh (History)


    Yes, the demise of the LEU-TRR deal does look like a case of payback by Ahmadinejad’s opponents, doesn’t it? And I agree that Rohani’s comments should be read in that vein. The notion of a “virtual suspension” is pretty creative and seems like little more than an accusation that Ahmadinejad is weak. He’s been foist on his own petard.

    Certainly, Iran’s LEU has assumed a significance in politics that far exceeds its practical value. Iranian politicians in the last few months have asserted that the LEU is needed for Darkhovin (which doesn’t exist), Bushehr (which is fueled by Russia), and even Arak (which won’t use LEU fuel). Now it’s going to be re-enriched for TRR — nearly the whole existing stockpile, it would seem! But there’s no visible progress toward preparing to make the fuel assemblies. What’s really being enriched, perhaps, is defiance. Perhaps Ahmadinejad is trying to assert his ownership of that substance.

  11. archjr (History)

    The TRR swap deal was always something of a cipher. The potential benefit was only to kick the enrichment issue not very far down the road, while carrying forward the underlying assumption that Iran would respond to more diplomatic entreaties in a period during which its stockpile of enriched uranium would fall below the threshold for a bomb. This was obviously a pipe dream, though Einhorn, et. al., deserve credit, if only for coming up with a clever placeholder that could serve to probe whether Iran was serious about a diplomatic solution, employing the IAEA as a facilitator. The reasoning behind this deal, with 20-20 hindsight, has proven false. The discussion allowed Iran to bring cancer patients and “humanitarian” concerns into the calculus over the scope and direction of its nuclear program. And it created opportunities for Ahmadinejad and his rivals to stake out positions they thought were important to enhance their domestic political stature, as has been noted by many. But it was a nice try on all fronts, and a last failed attempt by ElBaradei to burnish his legacy and placate an Iran full of piss and vinegar about its rights (as opposed to responsibilities) under the NPT. In the end, the swap could have fostered somewhat better cooperation between Iran and the IAEA, and served as a (pretty thin) confidence-building measure.

    It appears from all accounts the swap idea is toast. Don’t be surprised to see it reinvigorated as another ploy by Iran to delay resolution of the dossier before the Agency. However, Amano’s report more clearly defines what Iran must do to “close the IAEA books” than anything to date. It makes it more difficult to refer the matter back to the Agency from the UN Security Council. The new DG deserves a lot of credit.

    Iran will not withdraw quickly from the NPT unless there’s an attack on its nuclear facilities. While the government clearly does not mind (and in fact relishes) being an outlier, testing every limit of politics by pointing up what it views (certainly with reason) as inequities in the system, any withdrawal from the treaty (absent an attack) will occur only when Iran makes a national decision to openly pursue a nuclear weapon.

    Experts on Iranian politics might be asked to speculate on where a future tipping point might occur, where Iran’s continued defiance of nonproliferation norms becomes a disadvantage internationally that can be exploited by the politicians to gain stature at home. This is an outcome much to be desired, and Amano and Co. have done a good job in drawing this choice more starkly than ElBaradei could ever bring himself to do. As Iran’s violations of its nonproliferation commitments continue to mount, it will increasingly find itself not welcome at diplomatic cocktail parties and less relevant than ever as a voice or force to be reckoned with, regionally and internationally. Maybe sanctions against the Rev Guards, and the immense heavy diplomatic lifting required to bring anything meaningful about, can accelerate this isolation. (Sanctions didn’t do much on their own to change the behavior of the Chinese PLA; there was rather a domestic rebalancing of power that reined in the PLA-controlled companies and reduced their ability to do mischievous and harmful things. And China remains too big an actor to isolate. Iran enjoys no such heft in the international arena.)

    Surely Iran’s pals in the non-aligned movement, not to mention the Chinese, are growing weary of trying to defend Iran’s actions on some sort of “haves” vs. “have-nots”/national sovereignty rationale. Sadly, this tiresome issue will not resolve itself in the IAEA anytime soon, much less in the NPT RevCon: changing votes takes time. But I suspect the longer this goes on, the more political capital Iran will have to expend to maintain its untenable position. This is also a situation much to be desired, and diplomatic measures can and should be employed to bring this about. I hope the US Government is expending as much energy on this front as it is in trying to devise a least-common-denominator approach to more sanctions. Perhaps a new IAEA Board resolution next month will succeed in further delineating Iran’s malfeasance; it can’t do much, but it can’t hurt either.

    The IAEA has come a long way on Iran since the 2002 revelations, when a Bolton-crafted resolution would have been defeated in the Board if put to a vote. But Iran’s deft angling to make their case a North-South issue of technology access and sovereignty has been remarkably successful, and the arguments remain. They will doubtless be prominent in the NPT Review Conference, and one can only hope the U.S. and like-minded nations are doing all they can to deflate this diversion from the central issue of Iran’s noncompliance. Meanwhile, every effort should be expended to increase safeguards coverage in Iran, bringing with it an increasingly difficult position for Iran to maintain. You are right to observe that “vigilance and firmness can still keep the screwdriver from turning.”

  12. Arnold Evans (History)

    Iran has never been serious about subjecting its nuclear program to the US’ discretion. Iran has never been serious about suspending its enrichment program until the US sees fit to allow it to resume. If that means Iran is not serious about a diplomatic solution, then Iran has been openly not serious about a diplomatic solution since 2006. We didn’t need the TRR deal to (re)discover that Iran has never been serious about reaching that type of diplomatic solution.

    Amano is certainly more accommodating to the US perspective of its dispute with Iran than El Baradei was. Now that it is well and widely understood that there is no effective military option to stop Iran’s nuclear program, along with the facts that there are also no sanction or regime change options to do so, it is not clear what effective benefits a more friendly IAEA director general will give the US in this matter. I guess time will tell on that.

    About screwdrivers turning, they are clearly turning at least as quickly as they have been since 2006. If one thinks Iran’s nuclear program is not making progress now, I don’t know what progress would look like.

    Iran does not have to withdraw from the NPT to be nuclear capable. Japan had ratified the additional protocols before Ichiro Ozawa said Japan could make thousands of warheads if it wants to. Iran will still be an NPT signatory when it announces that its religious beliefs prevent it from building a bomb that otherwise its opponents would have no way of preventing.

    If the US bombs or allows Israel to bomb Iran, the NPT will be the least of the US’ concerns. Maybe Iran would leave, maybe it would stay. That would be the least of Iran’s concerns as well.

    Since we are very unlikely to see a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program, (and even if we did see such an attack, it would not change the outcome in any way favorable to the US) instead we are starting to see the process by with the West, as well as the Iranians, adjust to the reality that Iran could make a weapon if it wanted.

  13. George William Herbert (History)

    The point of the TRR swap was to build a framework in which Iran could take positive steps to establish credibility of its claim that the program is really only of peaceful non-military intent.

  14. anon

    “What happens when a government with a nuclear program systematically works itself into the position of being “a ‘screw turn’ away” from building a nuclear weapon?”

    Hmmmm….sounds like a flaw in the NPT to me.

    What happens when the NWS don’t seriously have a program of getting to zero?

  15. Alan (History)

    Josh/Bahram – I think it is perfectly possible that the US simply has to wait until there is a political accord in Iran to move ahead with a deal. I think that early in the negotiation, the US chose to define the Iranian position as backsliding and started issuing deadlines.

    This was a tactical error, because the US had failed to understand the political reality of the situation in Iran, even though the US did have the right to be a little aggrieved at how the goalposts had moved. As a result, something had to happen when those deadlines passed, so sanctions talk was cranked up.

    But what in truth has happened? December 31 came and went with barely a whisper other than sanctions “being discussed”. Even now, Obama’s talk of serious sanctions all carry the rider “in a few weeks”. It therefore looks like the US may now have a better understanding of the Iranian position, and are playing for time so that the Iranians can get their house back in order.

    It’s a shame on one level, because the US did not need to crank it up to the point where the Chinese had to intervene, but it seems there is a chance they may yet get it right and hopefully smooth over a couple of the problems which emerged after October.

  16. Arnold Evans (History)

    Alan, what goalposts did you think moved?

  17. Alan (History)

    Arnold – we’ve been here before! I maintain Iran offered (but did not agree to) a fuel swap at Geneva that entailed sending out LEU and waiting for the delivery of fuel plates in return. This I believe is evidenced by public statements made by Ahmadinejad in Farsi in late September.

    The goalposts that moved were therefore the subsequent insistence in Vienna on simultaneity of exchange (which it seems to me is perfectly reasonable, and should have been part of the original discussion).

    Therefore 2 significant errors were made. Iran offered too much on day one, because the West may well have accepted simultaneity of exchange if it had been in the original offer; and the US/West chose to get aggressive over it rather than play a cannier game that would have allowed a modified deal to be sealed, regardless of the reasons for why it was modified.

    That said, I maintain that both sides need a deal. Iran needs the plates; the US has no other leverage, but nothing can be agreed while the political limbo in Iran continues, hence the way the sanctions talk is dragging on and on in order to give the Iranian elite the chance to kiss and make up. It is just that we need not be playing that out in such a tense atmosphere.

    Besides, just how important is this LEU anyway? They have just moved it all out of the FEP to the PFEP, which I believe is much less secure. It suggests the real issues here are more to do with the principles under which the NPT operates and Iran’s refusal to be treated in a unique way.

  18. FSB
  19. kme

    Alan: It is worth remembering that NNWS potentially derive two things from the NPT – the promised nuclear technical assistance, and the restraint on their geopolitical competitors from developing their own nuclear weapons programs.

    With a couple of nuclear-weapons capable states in the neighbourhood, it’s true that Iran doesn’t accrue as much of this potential advantage as some other states do – but at least they’re not facing a nuclear-capable Saudi Arabia (to pick just one example). So I don’t think it’s quite correct to say that “The NPT is not something that Iran accrues any benefit from.”

  20. hass (History)

    Any country with a nuclear program is “a screw turn away” from making bombs. According to the IAEA there are about 40 countries right now that have the “capability” to make nukes, so that’s a nonsense charge. As for the IAEA not being able to certify the absence of undeclared activities in Iran, that’s also true for many other countries because the IAEA simply does not verify the absence of undeclared activities in ANY country unless they have implemented the Additional Protocol. Iran (unlike Egypt, Argentina, Brazil etc) did so on a voluntarily basis for 2 years and no evidence of any undeclared activities was found, and Elbaradei is on record specifically stating that the IAEA has no evidence of undeclared activities in Iran. So, the IAEA has in fact consistently certified that Iran is in full compliance with its existing NPT obligations which require nondiversion of declared uranium. Stop with the spinning, Josh.

  21. Josh (History)

    Hass’s misguided and intemperate comment is the sort of thing I usually don’t approve anymore, but in this case, it provides an opening for some useful clarification. Why did DG Amano decline to provide assurances that Iran isn’t building nuclear weapons with undeclared fissile material and facilities?

    The background to the question, of course, has to do with evidence of weaponization activities, which the IAEA clearly takes seriously. It also has to do with Qom, and Iran’s frank unwillingness to live by the same rules as other states by declaring its decisions to build new nuclear facilities. (This is the modified Code 3.1 issue.) It also has to do with Iran’s Gchine/Bandar Abbas mining and milling operation, which is producing uranium that hasn’t been declared, and doesn’t have to be under Iran’s increasingly outdated Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. (Adopting the Additional Protocol would remedy that.)

    So here’s what Amano said about all this earlier this week:

    The Agency continues, under its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with Iran, to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, but we cannot confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities because Iran has not provided the Agency with the necessary cooperation.
    The necessary cooperation includes, among other things, implementation of relevant resolutions of the IAEA Board of Governors and the United Nations Security Council, implementation of the Additional Protocol and of modified Code 3.1, as well as clarification of issues related to possible military dimensions to Iran´s nuclear programme.
    I request Iran to take steps towards the full implementation of its Safeguards Agreement and its other obligations as a matter of high priority.

    That about sums it up.

  22. hass (History)

    Sorry Josh but that does not sum up anything. Iran is in full compliance with its existing safeguards according to every single IAEA report that has certifed non-diversion of nuclear material in Iran, and there is no evidence of any undeclared activities or even of the “alleged studies” according to Elbaradei. Even Amano himself said that he has seen nothing in IAEA documents to prove that Iran is seeking nukes. Demands on Iran that exceed its safeguards are simply illegal, ultra vires and nonbinding. As for the Fordow site, fact is Iran was under no obligation to report it earlier than it did, contrary to Acton’s beliefs. Read this for more info:

    This absence of specification regarding the process for entry into force of the Subsidiary Arrangements, in light of the detailed specification of the process for entry into force of the Safeguards Agreement and amendments to it, including the constitutionally required consent of the Iranian domestic lawmaking institutions, is probative textual evidence that Iran did not intend for the Subsidiary Arrangements to be legally binding per se. Rather, the Subsidiary Arrangements would appear to be more accurately characterized as agreed guidelines or understandings for implementation of the Safeguards Agreement by the parties, of a non-binding legal character.

    And THAT sums it up.

  23. Josh (History)


    Sorry, not even close on a single point. The Board of Governors found Iran to be out of compliance. And so on and so forth.

    I’m not sure why you’re arguing with me, anyway. What Amano says is what Amano says, whether you or I like it or not. His words are very clear.

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