Commentary Magazine


Topic: Institute for Science and International Security

Sanctions on Iran: A Tale of Two Narratives

In a session with journalists at the White House last week, President Obama reportedly “made the case that his Iran policy is working.” He also hedged his bets by acknowledging that the “Iranians may be impervious to sanctions.” Friendly journalists being a quiescent filter, the Obama narrative comes through quite well: our president, earnest and competent, is doggedly wielding every tool in his toolbox. He sees some progress — reportedly in the form of “rumblings” that sanctions are prodding Iran to rethink its nuclear ambitions — but he recognizes the recalcitrant character of the Iranian leadership. He’s no fool, but this is, after all, a big problem.

That’s one narrative. It’s not a narrative about what Iran wants or is going to get, or what kind of threat that might pose to the Middle East or the U.S. It’s a narrative about what Obama is doing and how he sees the problem. We can call this one the Narrative of Obama.

The other narrative running in parallel with it is what we might call the Narrative of Events. Its elements are brought to our attention primarily by nontraditional media. The Obama administration simply ignores them in formulating its media themes, focusing instead on what Obama is doing and what he might have to do. Three developments in particular have cropped up in the last week.

One is the confirmation by IAEA inspectors that Iran has begun enriching uranium more efficiently. It’s a technical point, but it shortens the timeline to a weapon. As the Institute for Science and International Security observes, the procedure Iran has inaugurated mirrors the steps to a nuclear weapon outlined in the A.Q. Khan plans recovered from Libya. The Khan method essentially allows Iran to squeeze the most medium-enriched uranium possible from a given amount of low-enriched uranium, accelerating its progress toward the high-enriched uranium needed for a bomb. As the Reuters report notes, analysts say Iran “could advance to weapons-grade level in months.”

The other developments are interrelated and concern the economic sanctions themselves. One is the extent to which China — along with Turkey, India, and Russia — is stepping into the void created by tightened Western sanctions. This article from the new-right journal Il Foglio (available only in Italian) summarizes a number of mutually reinforcing factors, from Iran’s significance in China’s petroleum strategy to the dramatic increase in trade between the two countries and India’s determination not to be sidelined. According to Il Foglio, Turkey has proposed that Iran use major Turkish ports — rather than Dubai — as hubs for its foreign business. As I wrote in July, the rail lines are in place to make this a reality, allowing Iran to simply bypass the Strait of Hormuz for much of its trade.

Worrying about the danger it might create to inspect cargo ships in the Persian Gulf may soon be an outdated concern. Meanwhile, the third development reported in the last week is South Korea’s dilemma over the sanctions. This editorial reflects the significant concerns in Seoul about oil imports and the impact on medium-size businesses; Il Foglio points out, moreover, that if South Korea cooperates fully on sanctions, it will be abandoning one of its fastest-growing foreign markets to China. South Korean enthusiasm for effective cooperation is by no means assured.

Indeed, we are reaching the point at which it’s just as likely that patterns of trade and regional power will shift as it is that nations will continue to respond reflexively to American requests. Rick’s piece today is a timely reminder that the Narrative of Obama is an especially verbose one. It is also increasingly divorced from the Narrative of Events.

In a session with journalists at the White House last week, President Obama reportedly “made the case that his Iran policy is working.” He also hedged his bets by acknowledging that the “Iranians may be impervious to sanctions.” Friendly journalists being a quiescent filter, the Obama narrative comes through quite well: our president, earnest and competent, is doggedly wielding every tool in his toolbox. He sees some progress — reportedly in the form of “rumblings” that sanctions are prodding Iran to rethink its nuclear ambitions — but he recognizes the recalcitrant character of the Iranian leadership. He’s no fool, but this is, after all, a big problem.

That’s one narrative. It’s not a narrative about what Iran wants or is going to get, or what kind of threat that might pose to the Middle East or the U.S. It’s a narrative about what Obama is doing and how he sees the problem. We can call this one the Narrative of Obama.

The other narrative running in parallel with it is what we might call the Narrative of Events. Its elements are brought to our attention primarily by nontraditional media. The Obama administration simply ignores them in formulating its media themes, focusing instead on what Obama is doing and what he might have to do. Three developments in particular have cropped up in the last week.

One is the confirmation by IAEA inspectors that Iran has begun enriching uranium more efficiently. It’s a technical point, but it shortens the timeline to a weapon. As the Institute for Science and International Security observes, the procedure Iran has inaugurated mirrors the steps to a nuclear weapon outlined in the A.Q. Khan plans recovered from Libya. The Khan method essentially allows Iran to squeeze the most medium-enriched uranium possible from a given amount of low-enriched uranium, accelerating its progress toward the high-enriched uranium needed for a bomb. As the Reuters report notes, analysts say Iran “could advance to weapons-grade level in months.”

The other developments are interrelated and concern the economic sanctions themselves. One is the extent to which China — along with Turkey, India, and Russia — is stepping into the void created by tightened Western sanctions. This article from the new-right journal Il Foglio (available only in Italian) summarizes a number of mutually reinforcing factors, from Iran’s significance in China’s petroleum strategy to the dramatic increase in trade between the two countries and India’s determination not to be sidelined. According to Il Foglio, Turkey has proposed that Iran use major Turkish ports — rather than Dubai — as hubs for its foreign business. As I wrote in July, the rail lines are in place to make this a reality, allowing Iran to simply bypass the Strait of Hormuz for much of its trade.

Worrying about the danger it might create to inspect cargo ships in the Persian Gulf may soon be an outdated concern. Meanwhile, the third development reported in the last week is South Korea’s dilemma over the sanctions. This editorial reflects the significant concerns in Seoul about oil imports and the impact on medium-size businesses; Il Foglio points out, moreover, that if South Korea cooperates fully on sanctions, it will be abandoning one of its fastest-growing foreign markets to China. South Korean enthusiasm for effective cooperation is by no means assured.

Indeed, we are reaching the point at which it’s just as likely that patterns of trade and regional power will shift as it is that nations will continue to respond reflexively to American requests. Rick’s piece today is a timely reminder that the Narrative of Obama is an especially verbose one. It is also increasingly divorced from the Narrative of Events.

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NPT Mischief-Making

Eli Lake details the three-ring circus that is about to open at the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty conference this week. He explains that while the Obmai are marshaling support for their anemic sanctions, Iran — with help from Egypt — is trying to make Israel the focus of the “international community”:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will attend the conference as the head of his country’s delegation. He is expected to raise the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons to deflect attention from Iran’s enrichment of uranium. Iran could have an ally in traditional rival Egypt, whose delegation will be pushing for a resolution that would have the effect of singling out Israel, one of the three countries in the world that has never signed the NPT.

It seems for all our suck-uppery to the Muslim World, Egypt — who Obama has largely accommodated by his reticence on its political thuggery and human-rights abuses — is at the center of the trouble-making:

For 40 years, the United States has been a partner in Israel’s nuclear opacity as well. In a deal fashioned in 1969 between President Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, the United States does not pressure Israel to join the treaty, which would require the Jewish state to give up its nuclear weapons. Israel, in turn, does not acknowledge it has the weapons.

The Egyptian working paper of March 2010 on the nuclear-free Middle East threatens to upset this secret understanding. Specifically, it would require member states of the NPT to “disclose in their national reports on the implementation of the resolution on the Middle East all information available to them on the nature and scope of Israeli nuclear facilities and activities, including information pertaining to previous nuclear transfers to Israel.”

This aptly illustrates the many deficiencies with Obama’s Middle East policy and nuclear-proliferation approach. By elevating the non-proliferation gambit, he has given a forum to distract and complicate reasonable measures focused on the only nuclear threat that matters right now — Iran. By ingratiating himself with Arab states and savaging Israel, he has only encouraged the former to do the same. And by taking the nuclear-free Middle East pipe dream seriously, we only encourage further mischief. A case in point:

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said a deal with the Egyptians is within reach.

“The key is for the U.S. administration to quietly let the Egyptians know that at the presidential and vice-presidential level, the United States takes the issue of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East seriously.”

That’s exactly wrong. We should be signaling that we take this not seriously at all and want to focus solely on the Iranian threat. But then the Obami are willing players in the game of misdirection and stalling when it comes to confronting the mullahs, so don’t expect them to take a firm hand with Egypt.

Eli Lake details the three-ring circus that is about to open at the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty conference this week. He explains that while the Obmai are marshaling support for their anemic sanctions, Iran — with help from Egypt — is trying to make Israel the focus of the “international community”:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will attend the conference as the head of his country’s delegation. He is expected to raise the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons to deflect attention from Iran’s enrichment of uranium. Iran could have an ally in traditional rival Egypt, whose delegation will be pushing for a resolution that would have the effect of singling out Israel, one of the three countries in the world that has never signed the NPT.

It seems for all our suck-uppery to the Muslim World, Egypt — who Obama has largely accommodated by his reticence on its political thuggery and human-rights abuses — is at the center of the trouble-making:

For 40 years, the United States has been a partner in Israel’s nuclear opacity as well. In a deal fashioned in 1969 between President Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, the United States does not pressure Israel to join the treaty, which would require the Jewish state to give up its nuclear weapons. Israel, in turn, does not acknowledge it has the weapons.

The Egyptian working paper of March 2010 on the nuclear-free Middle East threatens to upset this secret understanding. Specifically, it would require member states of the NPT to “disclose in their national reports on the implementation of the resolution on the Middle East all information available to them on the nature and scope of Israeli nuclear facilities and activities, including information pertaining to previous nuclear transfers to Israel.”

This aptly illustrates the many deficiencies with Obama’s Middle East policy and nuclear-proliferation approach. By elevating the non-proliferation gambit, he has given a forum to distract and complicate reasonable measures focused on the only nuclear threat that matters right now — Iran. By ingratiating himself with Arab states and savaging Israel, he has only encouraged the former to do the same. And by taking the nuclear-free Middle East pipe dream seriously, we only encourage further mischief. A case in point:

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said a deal with the Egyptians is within reach.

“The key is for the U.S. administration to quietly let the Egyptians know that at the presidential and vice-presidential level, the United States takes the issue of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East seriously.”

That’s exactly wrong. We should be signaling that we take this not seriously at all and want to focus solely on the Iranian threat. But then the Obami are willing players in the game of misdirection and stalling when it comes to confronting the mullahs, so don’t expect them to take a firm hand with Egypt.

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Zeno of Elea’s Triumph in Iran

In the age-old battle of the philosophical postures — “nothing can possibly happen” versus “everything is about to” — Zeno’s logical paradoxes seem to be winning out for control of the Western mindset on Iran. I’m reminded of Zeno’s paradox that “motion is impossible” every time I see another development that quite obviously means Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons. Zeno, you will remember from Logic 101, posited that motion is impossible because every distance to be moved can be split in half in an infinite regression, while the supposed mover can be in only one place at a given point in time.

Of course, for practical purposes, we accept the reality of motion and predicate much of our daily lives on it. Nevertheless, many Westerners are using Zeno’s approach to perpetually argue that no matter what we discover Iran has been up to, it doesn’t mean there are going to be nuclear weapons coming out of it any time soon.

The Zeno Refrain started almost immediately after Monday’s revelation by the Times of London of an Iranian document that showed that the country was pursuing a uranium deuteride (UD-3) initiator — something only a nuclear weapon can make use of — as late as 2007. Never mind that A.Q. Khan and the Chinese have worked with UD-3 initiators for nuclear warheads. Never mind that the National Council of Resistance of Iran reported back in 2005 that Iran was pursuing the UD-3 initiator. Never mind that some of the foremost think-tank experts on Iran’s nuclear program, at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), confirm that “although Iran might claim that this work is for civil purposes, it has no civil application.”

None of this, according to the same ISIS experts, means that this revelation is a “smoking gun.” Instead:

The document could describe work to develop and maintain a capability rather than being part of a program authorized to build nuclear weapons.  The document does not mention nuclear weapons and we have seen no evidence of an Iranian decision to build them.

A spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office did tell the Times that the document “raises serious questions about Iran’s intentions.” But since that’s been said about every previous revelation, the real question is how many more of these “questions” need to be raised before we drop the Zeno approach — which is summed up perfectly in this reader comment from the always useful Arms Control Wonk website:

Research into the physics of nuclear explosions (i.e. obtaining the know-how to achieve a nuclear weapons capability) is different from pursuing an active weapons program (i.e. diversion of material, of which there is no evidence).

The buried premise is that, for our policy purposes, merely “obtaining the know-how to achieve a nuclear weapons capability” is a different issue from “pursuing an active weapons program.” But just as Zeno could be made to look irrelevant by an arrow hitting its target or by Achilles overtaking the tortoise, so the hair splitters on Iran’s nuclear program are, with increasing frequency, made to look irrelevant by the repeated emergence of new information on Tehran’s intentions and activities. Their central error is looking for a smoking gun in the first place. A smoking gun is only available after the trigger has been pulled. What we look for beforehand is the time-honored intelligence pairing of intention and capability — and if we saw the set of Iran-related indicators piling up for any other nation, from Anguilla to Vanuatu, we would say it’s a nuclear-weapons program, and we’d say the hell with it.

In the age-old battle of the philosophical postures — “nothing can possibly happen” versus “everything is about to” — Zeno’s logical paradoxes seem to be winning out for control of the Western mindset on Iran. I’m reminded of Zeno’s paradox that “motion is impossible” every time I see another development that quite obviously means Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons. Zeno, you will remember from Logic 101, posited that motion is impossible because every distance to be moved can be split in half in an infinite regression, while the supposed mover can be in only one place at a given point in time.

Of course, for practical purposes, we accept the reality of motion and predicate much of our daily lives on it. Nevertheless, many Westerners are using Zeno’s approach to perpetually argue that no matter what we discover Iran has been up to, it doesn’t mean there are going to be nuclear weapons coming out of it any time soon.

The Zeno Refrain started almost immediately after Monday’s revelation by the Times of London of an Iranian document that showed that the country was pursuing a uranium deuteride (UD-3) initiator — something only a nuclear weapon can make use of — as late as 2007. Never mind that A.Q. Khan and the Chinese have worked with UD-3 initiators for nuclear warheads. Never mind that the National Council of Resistance of Iran reported back in 2005 that Iran was pursuing the UD-3 initiator. Never mind that some of the foremost think-tank experts on Iran’s nuclear program, at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), confirm that “although Iran might claim that this work is for civil purposes, it has no civil application.”

None of this, according to the same ISIS experts, means that this revelation is a “smoking gun.” Instead:

The document could describe work to develop and maintain a capability rather than being part of a program authorized to build nuclear weapons.  The document does not mention nuclear weapons and we have seen no evidence of an Iranian decision to build them.

A spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office did tell the Times that the document “raises serious questions about Iran’s intentions.” But since that’s been said about every previous revelation, the real question is how many more of these “questions” need to be raised before we drop the Zeno approach — which is summed up perfectly in this reader comment from the always useful Arms Control Wonk website:

Research into the physics of nuclear explosions (i.e. obtaining the know-how to achieve a nuclear weapons capability) is different from pursuing an active weapons program (i.e. diversion of material, of which there is no evidence).

The buried premise is that, for our policy purposes, merely “obtaining the know-how to achieve a nuclear weapons capability” is a different issue from “pursuing an active weapons program.” But just as Zeno could be made to look irrelevant by an arrow hitting its target or by Achilles overtaking the tortoise, so the hair splitters on Iran’s nuclear program are, with increasing frequency, made to look irrelevant by the repeated emergence of new information on Tehran’s intentions and activities. Their central error is looking for a smoking gun in the first place. A smoking gun is only available after the trigger has been pulled. What we look for beforehand is the time-honored intelligence pairing of intention and capability — and if we saw the set of Iran-related indicators piling up for any other nation, from Anguilla to Vanuatu, we would say it’s a nuclear-weapons program, and we’d say the hell with it.

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Blockading Iran

On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed a U.S. naval blockade of Iran. In talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he also suggested that nations not allow the entry of Iranian business people and senior regime leaders. Both measures are intended to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. “The present economic sanctions on Iran have exhausted themselves,” Olmert said, according to today’s Haaretz, the Israeli paper, in its online edition.

At about the same time that Haaretz reported the news of Olmert’s proposals, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security released a May 13 letter from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In the letter, Iran proposed talks on its nuclear program and other topics, such as nuclear disarmament, the Palestinian issue, and democracy in the Balkans. “I see it as a way to start negotiations,” said Institute for Science and International Secutrity President David Albright, referring to Iran’s wide-ranging offer.

Is there anything left to negotiate at this point? After all, most everything that could be said about Iran’s enrichment of uranium has already been uttered. Most every proposal has already been made in one form or another. Mottaki, in his letter, notes his country wants “constructive interaction and reasonable and just negotiations, without preconditions and based on mutual respect.” Of course, what the foreign minister is really saying is that Iran will not stop enrichment as the Security Council has demanded.

So, despite Tehran’s defiance of U.N. demands, should we start discussions with its representatives on the problems of the world? I say, let’s talk. But let’s also impose the blockade before we sit down with the mullahs’ representatives. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday,

The key here is developing leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures on the Iranian government so they believe they must have talks with the United States because there is something they want from us, and that is the relief of the pressure.

There’s nothing wrong about talking with repugnant and dangerous adversaries–as long as they come to surrender.

On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed a U.S. naval blockade of Iran. In talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he also suggested that nations not allow the entry of Iranian business people and senior regime leaders. Both measures are intended to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. “The present economic sanctions on Iran have exhausted themselves,” Olmert said, according to today’s Haaretz, the Israeli paper, in its online edition.

At about the same time that Haaretz reported the news of Olmert’s proposals, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security released a May 13 letter from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In the letter, Iran proposed talks on its nuclear program and other topics, such as nuclear disarmament, the Palestinian issue, and democracy in the Balkans. “I see it as a way to start negotiations,” said Institute for Science and International Secutrity President David Albright, referring to Iran’s wide-ranging offer.

Is there anything left to negotiate at this point? After all, most everything that could be said about Iran’s enrichment of uranium has already been uttered. Most every proposal has already been made in one form or another. Mottaki, in his letter, notes his country wants “constructive interaction and reasonable and just negotiations, without preconditions and based on mutual respect.” Of course, what the foreign minister is really saying is that Iran will not stop enrichment as the Security Council has demanded.

So, despite Tehran’s defiance of U.N. demands, should we start discussions with its representatives on the problems of the world? I say, let’s talk. But let’s also impose the blockade before we sit down with the mullahs’ representatives. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday,

The key here is developing leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures on the Iranian government so they believe they must have talks with the United States because there is something they want from us, and that is the relief of the pressure.

There’s nothing wrong about talking with repugnant and dangerous adversaries–as long as they come to surrender.

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Fool Me Once…

On September 6, 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor at al Kibar. Writing about the raid in the New Yorker on February 11, 2008, Seymour Hersh cast doubt on the contention that it was in fact a nuclear facility:

in three months of reporting for this article, I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria. It is possible that Israel conveyed intelligence directly to senior members of the Bush Administration, without it being vetted by intelligence agencies. (This process, known as “stovepiping,” overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.) But Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations group responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, said, “Our experts who have carefully analyzed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility.”

One of Hersh’s sources was Barack Obama’s non-proliferation adviser, Joseph Cirincione, who told Hersh flatly that

Syria does not have the technical, industrial, or financial ability to support a nuclear-weapons program. I’ve been following this issue for fifteen years, and every once in a while a suspicion arises and we investigate and there’s nothing.

In the face of unequivocal evidence, Cirincione has acknowledged his error, saying “no one bats 1000.” That of course is true. And the difficulty of assessing what Syria was up to was certainly compounded by Syrian deception. David Albright’s outfit, the Institute for Science and International Security, has put out an important study (complete with photographs) of the “extraordinary camouflage” methods the Syrians employed to disguise the facility.

In assessing the track record of an expert like Cirincione, let’s also keep in mind that tight secrecy, camouflage, and deception in nuclear affairs are nothing new. On the eve of the first Gulf war, thanks to secrecy, the United States was almost completely in the dark about the far-reaching scope of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program.

In the run-up to the second Gulf war, the problem was reversed. The intelligence community persuaded itself that Saddam had an active nuclear program when in fact he had none.

One would expect experts to draw appropriate lessons from both experiences. First among them is that humility and a measure of self-doubt are important when trying to penetrate other countries’ secrets.

Such qualities were conspicuously absent in Cirincione’s analysis of al Kibar: “There was and is no nuclear-weapons threat from Syria. This is all political,” is what he categorically told Hersh.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

On September 6, 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor at al Kibar. Writing about the raid in the New Yorker on February 11, 2008, Seymour Hersh cast doubt on the contention that it was in fact a nuclear facility:

in three months of reporting for this article, I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria. It is possible that Israel conveyed intelligence directly to senior members of the Bush Administration, without it being vetted by intelligence agencies. (This process, known as “stovepiping,” overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.) But Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations group responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, said, “Our experts who have carefully analyzed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility.”

One of Hersh’s sources was Barack Obama’s non-proliferation adviser, Joseph Cirincione, who told Hersh flatly that

Syria does not have the technical, industrial, or financial ability to support a nuclear-weapons program. I’ve been following this issue for fifteen years, and every once in a while a suspicion arises and we investigate and there’s nothing.

In the face of unequivocal evidence, Cirincione has acknowledged his error, saying “no one bats 1000.” That of course is true. And the difficulty of assessing what Syria was up to was certainly compounded by Syrian deception. David Albright’s outfit, the Institute for Science and International Security, has put out an important study (complete with photographs) of the “extraordinary camouflage” methods the Syrians employed to disguise the facility.

In assessing the track record of an expert like Cirincione, let’s also keep in mind that tight secrecy, camouflage, and deception in nuclear affairs are nothing new. On the eve of the first Gulf war, thanks to secrecy, the United States was almost completely in the dark about the far-reaching scope of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program.

In the run-up to the second Gulf war, the problem was reversed. The intelligence community persuaded itself that Saddam had an active nuclear program when in fact he had none.

One would expect experts to draw appropriate lessons from both experiences. First among them is that humility and a measure of self-doubt are important when trying to penetrate other countries’ secrets.

Such qualities were conspicuously absent in Cirincione’s analysis of al Kibar: “There was and is no nuclear-weapons threat from Syria. This is all political,” is what he categorically told Hersh.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

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Be Afraid

The November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate declared flatly in the opening sentence of its key judgments that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This categorical statement was accompanied by a footnote which stated that it was excluding from its appraisal “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.” That was misleading right off the bat because Iran’s civil uranium program is an indispensable part of its nuclear-weapons effort. This “civilian” program continues apace.

But what about the covert military side of the Iranian program itself? Did it really come to a halt in 2003 as the NIE states with “high confidence”? Back in February, reports came to light that an laptop with extensive information on Iran’s covert nuclear program had fallen into the hands of U.S. intelligence in 2004. Comprehensive and alarming stories about what was contained in the laptop appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

The deputy director general of safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency briefed member states, including Iran, about the contents of the laptop in February. The briefing notes have now been posted online by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington D.C.

The IAEA official describes, among other things, instructions on how to communicate  within the Iranian program using only first names and the “timing of firing devices-leading to an explosion at an altitude of about 600 meters.” The IAEA’s evaluation of Iran’s “Tests of High Power Explosives” is unambiguous:  

The high-tension firing systems and multiple EBW detonators fired simultaneously are key components of nuclear weapons.

There are a limited number of non-nuclear applications (high performance technique for exploratory drilling).

The elements available to the Agency are not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.

The Agency does not have sufficient information at this stage to conclude whether the allegations are groundless or the data fabricated

Some U.S. officials initially believed the documents contained in the laptop might have been an elaborate forgery. But a consensus has emerged among Western intelligence agencies that they are in fact authentic. The documents do not indicate whether the covert nuclear program actually came to a halt in 2003 as U.S. intelligence has concluded. Nonetheless, the scale and scope of what Iran was doing up until that point is staggering. The IAEA document is essential reading.

The November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate declared flatly in the opening sentence of its key judgments that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This categorical statement was accompanied by a footnote which stated that it was excluding from its appraisal “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.” That was misleading right off the bat because Iran’s civil uranium program is an indispensable part of its nuclear-weapons effort. This “civilian” program continues apace.

But what about the covert military side of the Iranian program itself? Did it really come to a halt in 2003 as the NIE states with “high confidence”? Back in February, reports came to light that an laptop with extensive information on Iran’s covert nuclear program had fallen into the hands of U.S. intelligence in 2004. Comprehensive and alarming stories about what was contained in the laptop appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

The deputy director general of safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency briefed member states, including Iran, about the contents of the laptop in February. The briefing notes have now been posted online by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington D.C.

The IAEA official describes, among other things, instructions on how to communicate  within the Iranian program using only first names and the “timing of firing devices-leading to an explosion at an altitude of about 600 meters.” The IAEA’s evaluation of Iran’s “Tests of High Power Explosives” is unambiguous:  

The high-tension firing systems and multiple EBW detonators fired simultaneously are key components of nuclear weapons.

There are a limited number of non-nuclear applications (high performance technique for exploratory drilling).

The elements available to the Agency are not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.

The Agency does not have sufficient information at this stage to conclude whether the allegations are groundless or the data fabricated

Some U.S. officials initially believed the documents contained in the laptop might have been an elaborate forgery. But a consensus has emerged among Western intelligence agencies that they are in fact authentic. The documents do not indicate whether the covert nuclear program actually came to a halt in 2003 as U.S. intelligence has concluded. Nonetheless, the scale and scope of what Iran was doing up until that point is staggering. The IAEA document is essential reading.

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