Andy GrottoAP: China Gives IAEA Intel on Iran

So say anonymous diplomatic sources to AP reporter George Jahn. Bearing in mind the usual caveats about anonymous sources, this is noteworthy on at least two levels.

First, it is an encouraging sign of China’s (too) slow but promising embrace of the responsibilities that come with being a global power. Remember, Beijing did not participate in NPT negotiations and once denounced the nonproliferation regime on the grounds that it was merely “a conspiracy concocted by the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. to maintain their nuclear monopoly.” This sentiment animated Chinese policy from the 1970s into the early 1990s, when, according to Bates Gill (whose book Rising Star I highly recommend), it actively proliferated to Iran and other countries to “undermine superpower influence while enhancing China’s strategic, political, and economic interests.” Today, however, China is a party to the NPT willing to pass along intel on Iran’s nuclear program!

Second, it further supports my argument from an earlier post that leading powers are not, as some pundits feared, exploiting the controversial U.S. NIE on Iran to avoid responsibility for upholding international nonproliferation norms. Precisely the opposite:

By effectively taking U.S. military action off the table for now, the NIE makes it easier, not harder, for countries like Russia to send Iran a stronger signal about its enrichment program. After all, Russia (and China, for that matter) do not want Iran to develop the capability to deploy nuclear weapons; until the Iran NIE, however, this concern was counterbalanced by a worry that the United States might launch another war in the Middle East.

Now if only CIA Director Hayden would stop second-guessing the judgments of the intelligence professionals…

Update: As many of you know, China has denied this story. The plot thickens…

Comments

  1. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    This may turn out to be as big a seismic event as China using their UN Security Council veto for the first time.

  2. SQ

    Actually, it wouldn’t be the first time. The June 2003 IAEA report on Iran describes Chinese assistance to the IAEA on the Iran matter. China is not named there, but it’s obvious which country is meant. There were more explicit media reports around this time, as well.

  3. hass (History)

    Once you get past the media spin, this isn’t terribly interesting news. China gave the IAEA info on its nuclear deals with Iran — which were already covered by the IAEA. The suggestion that this intel had something to do with nuclear weapons is added by the reporter, obviously to suggest that something incriminating has been found.

  4. Andy Grotto (History)

    SQ and hass —

    Passing along intelligence to the IAEA is an order of magnitude more noteworthy — and, for the Chinese, sensitive — than merely disclosing past nuclear commerce with Iran. That’s why the AP story is so significant.

  5. Karl Schenzig

    Dear Mr. Grotto,

    You will be pleased to know that a certain Mr. Losyukov has left the Russian foreign service to join Rosnanotech. On a different note, Russian businessmen have repeatedly made mention of the word “Rassenstaat” in recent conversations with your humble correspondent.

  6. China Hand (History)

    Beyond the issue of whether or not the PRC provided useful intelligence to the IAEA, the other significant fact in the article is that Western diplomats leaked it. I’m assuming the motive was an attemtpt to stir up trouble between Iran and China, who have a close economic and strategic relationship right now. The NIE and the decreased probablility of war have pushed US hostility to Iran off the front pages for now, but the US is currently engaged in an aggressive full-spectrum effort to isolate Iran, economically and diplomatically. The Treasury Dept. put the entire Iranian banking sector on its watchlist on March 20 and today’s NYT gives a picture of US efforts to disrupt trade with Iran via Dubai. I think in retrospect we’ll learn that the Bush administration decided that, since the NIE screwed up the case for real war, it was entitled to international support for no-holds-barred non-military campaign against Iran. And I expect part of that campaign is to try and screw up relations between China and Iran. Hence the embarrassing leak.

  7. Andy (History)

    Andy,

    I don’t think Hayden is second-guessing here, but it’s important to point out he was stating his personal belief. And what Iran did in 2003 is only marginally helpful in telling us what Iran can or intends to do in the future. The NIE essentially said that Iran halted the weapons-related work and Hayden says in the interview he stands by that judgment. However, the future is different and I bet there is a wide variety of opinions within the intelligence community on whether this “halt” by Iran is permanent or temporary and under what conditions Iran might resume work. Furthermore, WHY Iran halted in 2003 is an important consideration:

    We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

    The reason for the halt is important and begs the question of what might happen when that international scrutiny and pressure is lessened or goes away and there are no additional safeguards like the AP in place. If Iran opts to continue its weapons work at some point in the future, how does the IAEA have any hope to detect it without the legal authority provided by the AP?

    And the community wasn’t completely united about the “halt” as well:

    (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program.

    And then:

    We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.

    and as a reminder,

    Moderate confidence generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.

    So I think it’s safe to say the community is pretty clear about what happened in the past, but what is happening now is somewhat less clear and what Iran’s intentions are in the future are very unclear. And what Iran’s intentions are is what Hayden gave his personal opinion on.

  8. Andy Grotto (History)

    China Hand —

    Your inference that this is the Bush administration stirring up trouble rests on the assumption that the leak came from a diplomat that is willing to play this game. You suggest it is a “Western” diplomat, but as you must know, not all Western countries share the Bush administration’s point of view.

    The AP article, however, does not indicate whether the diplomats were Western or not, or even whether they were from a state or the IAEA. It says simply “Diplomats say that China has given the U.N. nuclear watchdog intelligence linked to Tehran’s alleged attempts to make nuclear arms.”

    So I’m curious: are you merely speculating, or do you have any sources to back the inference up?

  9. Andy Grotto (History)

    Andy —

    Sorry, but when the Director of the CIA shares his “personal beliefs,” and those beliefs are inconsistent with the most carefully vetted NIE ever, we should all be very concerned — particularly after the Iraq intel debacle. But I take your points about Iran’s future intentions being fairly unclear.

  10. Miles Pomper (History)

    Andy,
    I would guess this most likely means something to do with the Chinese warhead designs that were passed to AQ Khan and then found their way to Iran and Libya—presumably something that would authenticate that these were Chinese designs..
    If so, it wouldn’t be intelligence on Iran per se, but may be spun that way for other reasons..
    Also, Hayden is frankly stating a conclusion that most analysts have come to (including those in the intelligence community who just had trouble spelling it out)—Iran has not abandoned its long-term strategic goal of having nuclear weapons, but may have made tactical adjustments (ie deferring weaponization) in resposne to outside pressures…

  11. PC (History)

    My read from this was that China is essentially providing some information on transfers to Iran in the context of the IAEA’s investigation into alleged-studies-related procurement.

    After all, the last report said: “The Agency’s overall assessment requires, inter alia, an understanding of the role of the uranium metal
    document, and clarifications concerning the procurement activities of some military related institutions
    still not provided by Iran.” I would imagine that the IAEA is checking up with the suppliers for this procurement, which would very likely include China. I could see the media (or perhaps someone prompting the media) reading/spinning this as “intelligence information.”

    As for Hayden, it didn’t seem that what he said was second-guessing the NIE. The notion that Iran is at least trying to keep its options open to develop nuclear weapons seemed entirely consistent with the broader NIE findings (myopic focus on a misreading of the first-paragraph by the general media aside).

    Good point on the NIE and the willingness of states to own up on Iran though. It seemed this package deal re: 1803 and the “further development” of the 2006 incentives could be tied to the ambitious message of the NIE about Iran’s intentions and cost-benefit susceptibility (or just common-sense…).

  12. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Oh come on, China Hand.

    China cannot give something to the IAEA without expecting it to be near public knowledge within seconds.

    The same goes for virtually any international organization, which typically have zero capacity to keep secrets.

  13. SQ

    Andy: Hayden’s entitled to his own views. It’s part of his job. He’s not just a funnel for the views of the analysts.

    FSB: Hayden can’t tell the intelligence community what to put in an NIE. He’s the director of a single organization, the CIA. And even the DNI wouldn’t dare try to dictate the outcome of an NIE, were he so inclined: it would leak.

    Andy again: China’s giving the IAEA access to secrets about Iran seems awfully similar to China’s giving the IAEA access to secrets about Iran. (OK, end snark.)

    The point is, it’s arbitrary to label one bit of (still obscure) information “intelligence” and therefore important, as opposed to some other type of sensitive information about Iran’s nuclear program otherwise unknown to the world at large.

    So there is precedent for whatever it is the Chinese allegedly have provided to the IAEA. Granted, it was five years ago, and there’s much water under the bridge since then. But whatever this new event was, it doesn’t represent some turning point in Chinese views on proliferation to Iran. That turning point seems to have occurred ca. 1996.

  14. hass (History)

    The willingness to believe that China gave “weapons intelligence” just because some diplomat supposedly told the AP is naive. Leaving aside the many such anonymous “diplomats” who have been feeding the media nonsense intended to incriminate Iran without evidence, the media itself makes things up too.

    For example, remember when the Guardian reported

    Iran has installed 3,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium – enough to begin industrial-scale production of nuclear fuel and build a warhead within a year, the UN’s nuclear watchdog reported last night.

    Of course, the IAEA report had said no such thing about “build a warhead within a year” — that was what the Guardian itself falsely attributed to the IAEA. Now why on earth do you assume that the AP would not do the same about China’s supposed “intelligence” about Iranian nuclear weapons?

    And FYI — there is absolutely no evidence that Iran EVER had a nuclear weapons program— not now, not in 2003, not ever. And I don’t care what the NIE says about that since the previous NIE asserted with “high confidence” that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in 2005 too.

    When will you folks think more critically instead of just swallowing and repeating whatever the officials say?

  15. China Hand (History)

    You’re right, I shouldn’t have said “Western”.

    Pressiran reported the AP story as:

    ‘China discloses Intel on Iran N-program’
    Wed, 02 Apr 2008 22:29:40

    Two senior Chinese diplomats have disclosed confidential information regarding the Islamic Republic’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

    According to AP, the Chinese officials speaking on condition of anonymity claim they have provided the UN nuclear watchdog with classified intelligence to use in its probe into Iran’s nuclear program.

    The officials add that a significant number of countries have helped gather the information on Iran’s past and present nuclear weapons research, refusing to name the countries.

    They, however, conceded that some parts of the information proved to be false and misleading, including a hazy document revealing experiments with implosion technology that can be used to detonate a nuclear device.

    China, a strong opponent of additional UNSC sanctions against Tehran, has categorically advocated a peaceful solution to end Tehran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program.

    SBB/HGH

    http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=49992&sectionid=351020104

    There’s nothing in the AP story to indicate the leakers were Chinese, and it’s possible that the Iranpress guys (or their editors) just blew it. My money would still be on US-friendly diplomats trying to make sure the Iran dossier doesn’t get closed (Fox picked up the AP story, added a quote from John Bolton, and tied the whole thing to coninued efforts to compel Iran to dispel international suspicion about its purported weapons ambitions). But, coming out of Iran, it’s an interesting data point.

    the link http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=49992&sectionid=351020104

  16. hass (History)

    And the media ballyhoo has started! The Telegraph reports that China, one of Iran’s “closest allies” has “betrayed” Iran by “revealing” Iran’s “nuclear secrets” and that Chinese designs for centrifuges intended to turn uranium into a “weaponised state” have been found in Iran, and documents in shaping uranium have been “seized from Iranian officials” etc etc.

    Course, not any of this is accurate, but hey why let that get in the way when you don’t actually have any actual evidence of a nuclear weapons program to show…

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  18. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    I have to side with Lao Tao Ren. It is hard to imagine that China would expect confidentiality or not anticipate possible friction with Iran. I would be surprised if they did not give the Iranians a heads up before they provided the information to the IAEA.

  19. Saint Michael Traveler (History)

    China denies report of passing Iranian nuclear attempt information to IAEA http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-04/03/content_7913830.htm).

    “BEIJING, April 3 (Xinhua) — A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on Thursday denied reports that China had provided intelligence on Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons to the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying the report was fabricated and born out of ulterior motives.

    “The report is made of nothing and has originated from those with ulterior motives,” said Jiang Yu, when asked by a journalist to respond to the report.”

    I have heard from anonymous sources in the street that, bearing in mind the usual caveats about anonymous sources, that Israel is creating the fabricated story to isolate Iran.

    Have US not killed enough people in Irag wanting to start another conflict in the Middle East, this time in Iran?

  20. China Hand (History)

    For what it’s worth, the Chinese officially denied they gave the IAEA any info:

    ‘No Intel on Iran N-issue sent to IAEA’
    Thu, 03 Apr 2008 18:18:23

    Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu
    China has dismissed the reports that Beijing has provided the UN nuclear watchdog with confidential intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.

    Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday that the report was “totally groundless and out of ulterior motives.’‘

    The Chinese official did not provide any further details.

    endquote

    Looking at the overall US-Iran-China situation, I still attribute the report to US mischief-making rather than Chinese efforts to let the IAEA keep pressuring Iran

  21. peter Zimmerman (History)

    “The most carefully vetted NIE ever…”

    I suppose that the Iranian NIE was as well vetted as the October 2002 NIE on Iraq. 🙂

    Iran “ceased its nuclear weapons program” only under a tortured definition of “nuclear weapons program,” one that excluded the long pole in the tent that is uranium enrichment, not weapons design. It took less than a year to go from the first implosion experiments in 1944 to fixing the design of Trinity in early 1945.

    Further 90% of the Manhattan Project’s budget went into producing HEU and plutonium and only 7% to Los Alamos’s weaponization activities.

    Lest you think I am an alarmist, when I worked for Senator Biden in 2002 I was one of the few people with appropriate clearances to state clearly that in my opinion Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons program at that time.

  22. Andy Grotto (History)

    A lot of nonproliferation analysts (including Peter, it would seem, based on his comment above) have been particularly upset about the NIE’s distinction between a weapons “program” and a weapons “option.” Here is the first sentence under the “Key Judgments” section of the NIE:

    We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

    The phrase “nuclear weapons program” was footnoted, and defined as warhead R&D and covert fuel cycle activities. This distinction is what has ticked off a lot of technical wonks, who have directed a great deal of ire at the intelligence community. Peter’s comment captures the gist of why:

    Iran “ceased its nuclear weapons program” only under a tortured definition of “nuclear weapons program,” one that excluded the long pole in the tent that is uranium enrichment, not weapons design.

    First, it really is a sound analytic distinction, unless you think that the German and Dutch enrichment programs necessarily imply weapons intent. Clearly, Iran’s program raises many red flags because of its secrecy and (let’s face it) the fact that it is the Islamic Republic we’re talking about here. But if the NIE proceeded from the assumption that Iran MUST be pursuing a nuclear weapon as quick as possible (as opposed to a more subtle strategy of foregoing weaponization for the time being), then what’s the point of the NIE exercise in the first place? What would its policy relevance be?

    Indeed, this would be the same mistake that so many analysts made on Iraq: “Saddam Hussein couldn’t NOT be pursuing nuclear weapons, so clearly this datapoint [yellowcake, aluminum tubes, whatever] must be reliable and indicative of a weapons program.” This time, the intel community nipped this potential problem in the bud with this Scope Note: “This NIE does not assume that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons.”

    Second, the distinction has policy relevance. The NIE’s judgments that Iran suspended these activities in 2003 (with high confidence) and had not re-started them as of mid-2007 (with moderate confidence), if correct, say a lot about Iran’s overall posture and intentions. It suggests a) that Iran is vulnerable to pressures; and b) that Iran sees itself more in the mold of Japan, with its capacity to go nuclear on relatively short notice owing to its mastery of the fuel cycle (not to mention its space program), than North Korea, which popped a weapon off some 18 months ago.

    Really, what caused the NIE to make such a splash was its apparently stark contrast in tone to the Bush administration’s rhetoric–remember, in October President Bush had issued a stern warning of “World War III” with Iran! That’s why the first clause of the opening sentence grabbed the headlines, while that crucial second clause of the same sentence languished in relative obscurity: “we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

    Unless and until someone shows me evidence that the intel community didn’t follow the right vetting procedures, this whole debacle is best looked at primarily as a failure of marketing by the Bush administration and an artifact of its fear-mongering, and not bad intelligence analysis per se.

  23. AWR (History)

    What a long, strange trip it’s been for China’s nonproliferation policy. In July of 1985, then-Vice Premier Li Peng stated flatly to a congressional delegation that China “would act as though it were a party to the NPT,” and would apply safeguards to all its exports. Had that statement been true, the nuclear programs of Pakistan, and possibly Iran, would have been slowed somewhat, though whether the outcome would have been any different is a subject for idle speculation at this point. The Congress in its wisdom decided to provisionally approve the US-China Nuclear Agreement for Cooperation pending a Presidential certification that China was not proliferating. 13 years later President Clinton certified, and the agreement entered into force. What actually happened in that intervening period? The short answer is that the PLA made a lot of money and sort of got out of the business of selling machine tools and the other requirements of a nascent nuclear weapons program, and China sort of got its act together. But it’s a big country – who really knows what goes out of ports in Fujian, or Shanghai, or Hong Kong? Not to mention what Chinese “cultural delegations” do at places like KRL in Pakistan and God-knows-where in Iran?

    Speaking of Iran, it is quite beyond dispute that the Islamic Republic was doing everything it could to procure what it needed to master the fuel cycle, and China and Pakistan, as well as a number of European (and possibly American) companies, were happy to look the other way and cheat around the edges to get Iran what it wanted. Maybe one reason Iran “suspended” its activities in 2003, in addition to those outlined by Mr. Grotto above, was that they could mothball what they were doing until the duststorm blew over. But anyone who believes the assembly line for an Iranian nuke is now cold is kidding themselves…

  24. hass (History)

    The NIE made the distiction between a nuclear weapons program and a nuclear enrichment program for the very simple reason that Iran is perfectly entitled to have a nuclear enrichment program, as do other countries, and too bad for those who wish to conflate the two to make up for the fact that they don’t actually have any evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran.

  25. AWR (History)

    Dear hass:

    To make this perfectly clear: no one denies Iran the legal right to enrich uranium; except that Iran carried out a multifarious program that looks more like Saddam’s pre-1991 program the more that is revealed, and did so under the guise of being an NPT member.

    The point I was trying to make is that Iran’s behavior provides no confidence that they are not pursuing a capability to do whatever they want, when they want. I don’t deny that this is understandable behavior on their part, but it does great damage to regional security, and I simply can’t understand your desire to absolve Iran for such clearly illegal and irresponsible behavior. My views are also consonant with most Member States of the IAEA, notwithstanding their criticism, with which I generally agree, that the Bush administration’s saber-rattling has only made the situation worse.

    On the main issue, I just hope the unfortunate leaking of China’s cooperation with the Agency’s investigation will not deter them from sharing more details of Iran’s surreptitious procurement program in the future.

  26. China Hand (History)

    Iran’s PressTV finally got it right and is no longer reporting that the AP source for the story was “Chinese diplomats”.

  27. hass (History)

    Iran’s behavior includes overt attempts at cooperation with the IAEA to develop a nuclear program (which was undermined by the US – clearly illegal and irresponsible behavior) that predates the Islamic Revolution and goes back to the Shah’s time when it was set up with the assistance and contribution of the same countries that are yelling “NUKES!” today. It also includes allowing more inspections than the IAEA requires under the NPT, and suspending enrichment for 2 years and more. “Looks like Saddam’s” nuclear program? No, not really.

  28. hass (History)

    Dear AWR
    “Clearly irresponsible and illegal” behavior was how the US consistently undermined Iran’s efforts to acquire technology that it was legally entitled to have, not to mention the US’ repeated threats to attack Iran and deprive Iran of her nuclear rights. Iran’s nuclear program is perfectly legal and legitimate and in accordance with the NPT, and it has been the subject of 5 years of intensive investigation which have turned by squat. If you don’t like it, that’s just too bad.

  29. AWR (History)

    Dear hass,

    Take a deep breath and go back and read what I wrote. Then perhaps we can disagree more agreeably.

    BTW, I doubt you will find any inspector who is satisfied with Iran’s cooperation, and I would like to know the nature of your information about China’s cooperation with the IAEA. You may be the only one aware of what the content was, and if you’d share it we’d all be much the wiser.

  30. J House (History)

    The big picture is, or course, obvious.Iran is moving in one direction only…steadily acquiring the means to make nuclear weapons.One can argue whether Iran has the right to possess them, but make no mistake, it is clearly their intention and in 36-48 months, I will be proven right.
    We will soon be entering the most dangerous period of the 21st century.
    But, then again, it is really all America’s fault…please.

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