Fars News reports that Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Catherine Ashton, chief negotiator for the European Union, will meet for lunch tomorrow just before the next round of P5+1 talks with Iran kick off in Geneva later in the afternoon. But even though an interim agreement that would freeze Iran’s current nuclear work in return for a release of some impounded funds to Iran while a longer term agreement is finalized seems more likely than not, those who oppose any deal are desperately lashing out at the last minute. This morning, two bomb blasts near the Iranian embassy in Beirut killed more than twenty and injured well over a hundred. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ramped up his rhetoric even further, making the outrageous claim that Iran has on hand sufficient uranium enriched to 5% to make up to five bombs within a few weeks of a “breakout”. Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem to have quelled for now any Congressional attempts to ratchet up sanctions ahead of this week’s negotiations, but should no agreement emerge this week, look for Washington politicians to race one another to see who can introduce the most severe new sanctions.
Although Beirut has seen several attacks back and forth recently with various Sunni and Shia groups attacking one another, the timing of today’s blasts suggest that the nuclear negotiations may be a target, as well. The Reuters article informs us that an al Qaeda group has claimed responsibility:
A Lebanese-based al Qaeda-linked group known as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for what it described as a double suicide attack on the Iranian mission in southern Beirut.
Lebanon has suffered a series of bomb attacks and clashes linked to the 2-1/2-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria.
Security camera footage showed a man in an explosives belt rushing towards the outer wall of the embassy before blowing himself up, Lebanese officials said. They said the second explosion was caused by a car bomb parked two buildings away from the compound.
But the Syrian information minister goes further, blaming Israel and Saudi Arabia for supporting the attack:
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi implicitly blamed Saudi Arabia and Qatar for supporting radical militants, who have been accused for previous attacks against Shi’ite targets.
Just as they have been working together to arm and fund Sunni fighters for Syria, Israel and Saudi Arabia have joined together to fight against any agreements between the West and Iran on nuclear technology.
Despite a near-miss last weekend on an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations, a report released yesterday by the IAEA shows that Iran has already carried out several of the steps that such an agreement would have called for. The news is good enough that Joby Warrick even opens with a hopeful tone:
Iran appears to have dramatically slowed work on its atomic energy program since the summer, U.N. officials said Thursday. The report could add momentum to diplomatic efforts to resolve a decade-old dispute over Iranian nuclear activities.
The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran all but halted the installation of new centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plants beginning in August, the same month that moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani was sworn in as president. Work on a controversial nuclear reactor also slowed, the U.N. watchdog agency said. Iran continued producing low-enriched uranium, but at a slightly reduced rate, it said.
Similarly, the New Times also finds the report encouraging and associates the improvement with the election of Hassan Rouhani:
President Obama made a vigorous appeal to Congress on Thursday to give breathing space to his efforts to forge a nuclear deal with Iran, and the prospects for an interim agreement may have improved with the release of a report by international inspectors who said that for the first time in years, they saw evidence that the Iranians have put the brakes on their nuclear expansion.
The inspectors, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that very few new advanced centrifuges had been installed since President Hassan Rouhani of Iran took office in June, promising a new start with the West, and that little significant progress has been made on the construction of a new nuclear reactor, which became a point of contention in negotiations in Geneva last week.
Note that one of the big pieces of news heralded by the Post and the Times is the halting of installation of new centrifuges. But buried in the back of the report (pdf), in the second annex, is a graph showing the total number of centrifuges installed, the number of centrifuges dedicated to enrichment of uranium up to 5% and the number of centrifuges dedicated to enrichment to 20%. I have reproduced that graph here, but I have added arrows pointing to two major discontinuities in the trends shown in the graph.
The early arrow, where we see a halt of nearly two years in the installation of new centrifuges and a loss of a number of centrifuges enriching to 5%, corresponds very closely to the release of the Stuxnet worm in early 2010 (although it looks like the loss of functioning centrifuges may have been in late 2009, so the actual release most likely was around that time).
Beginning in early 2011, Iran put more of its installed centrifuges into operation for enrichment to 5% and continued at a fairly steady pace throughout much of the year. At the beginning of 2012, the US and EU imposed much stronger sanctions on Iran. Although Iran did put some centrifuges into operation for enrichment to 20% around that same time, this graph shows that even though Iran restarted installation of new centrifuges in 2012, no additional centrifuges have been put into service for enrichment to either 5% or 20% since early 2012. This capping of enrichment capacity that is in actual operation has rarely, if ever, been noted in the press. Significantly, it predates Rouhani’s election by over a year. Perhaps it is a sign that the sanctions were effective in getting Iran to put the brakes on their program. Alternatively, it might suggest that Iran knew where Israel’s “red line” would be (a stockpile of around 200 kg of 20% enriched uranium might be enough to make a bomb after further enrichment) and made sure that the approach to this line would be slow. They also delayed its onset by converting some of the 20% enriched uranium to fuel plates so that it would be less readily subjected to further enrichment under a “breakout” scenario.
The halting of new centrifuge installation shows up in the graph, where we see the installed centrifuge line level off in the middle of this year, but this seems less dramatic than stopping the process of putting installed centrifuges into use for enrichment.
When we realize that significant steps were taken to slow advancement of Iran’s nuclear program before Rouhani was elected, it becomes easier to understand why his “moderate” stance and willingness to enter into negotiations have not met with significant resistance from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Kahmenei and other leading clerics.
Back on March 7, AP’s Vienna correspondent George Jahn wrote that two diplomats, described as “nuclear experts accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency” informed him that they had seen satellite imagery showing evidence of Iran trying to clean the disputed Parchin site of presumed radioactive contamination arising from work to develop a neutron trigger for a nuclear weapon. Writing yesterday for IPS News, Gareth Porter debunked Jahn’s claims. Porter’s conclusions are buttressed by the fact that David Albright’s ISIS, which Porter notes has published satellite imagery of the Parchin site since 2004 in its efforts to prove Iran is working on a nuclear weapon, has not published any imagery relating to the “clean-up” claims.
Jahn’s March 7 piece opens bluntly:
Satellite images of an Iranian military facility appear to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles at the site, indicating an attempted cleanup of radioactive traces possibly left by tests of a nuclear-weapon trigger, diplomats told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
But a bit later, Jahn does admit not all the “diplomats” he spoke to agreed on what the photos revealed:
Two of the diplomats said the crews at the Parchin military site may be trying to erase evidence of tests of a small experimental neutron device used to set off a nuclear explosion. A third diplomat could not confirm that but said any attempt to trigger a so-called neutron initiator could only be in the context of trying to develop nuclear arms.
One major problem with taking the tack of accusing Iran of trying to develop a neutron trigger is that until now, the loudest accusations relating to the Parchin site have centered around development of a high-explosives based trigger. See, for example, this post where I discuss claims from Benjamin Netanyahu, David Albright and Joby Warrick that high explosives work was aimed at a trigger rather than production of nanodiamonds.
But another huge problem with the claim of Iran trying to clean the site is the impossibility of clean-up itself. Jahn even inadvertently gives us a clue:
Iran has previously attempted to clean up sites considered suspicious by world powers worried about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Iran razed the Lavizan Shian complex in northern Iran before allowing IAEA inspectors to visit the suspected repository of military procured equipment that could be used in a nuclear weapons program. Tehran said the site had been demolished to make way for a park, but inspectors who subsequently came to the site five years ago found traces of uranium enriched to or near the level used in making the core of nuclear warheads.
A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry clearly explained that such evidence cannot be completely removed : Continue reading
President Obama and his administration have spent the last week trying to point out the extreme downside to an attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear sites. Unfortunately, Obama’s words of caution are getting little play while Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made appearances before the war-hungry mob at AIPAC to make the case for an attack now. In the meantime, Iran took positive diplomatic steps that are likely to be overlooked, reversing a death-sentence conviction on an accused US spy and committing to an IAEA visit to the disputed Parchin site.
As seen in the video above, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano made public statements associated with his appearance before the Board of Governors. From his prepared remarks:
As my report on Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran makes clear, the Agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.
In January and February, a senior Agency team held two rounds of talks in Tehran with Iranian officials aimed at resolving all outstanding issues in connection with Iran’s nuclear programme. Despite intensive discussions, there was no agreement on a structured approach to resolving these issues. Iran did not grant access to the Parchin site during the visits, as requested by the Agency. Iran provided an initial declaration on the issues listed in the Annex to my November 2011 report, although it did not address the Agency’s concerns in a substantive manner. During the visits, the Agency also submitted questions on Parchin and the possible role of a foreign expert.
Iran’s Ambassador to the UN agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh dismissed Amano’s report as “only a summary of his earlier report“. Today, Soltanieh announced that Iran remains prepared to define the conditions under which IAEA will be allowed access to Parchin: Continue reading