It has been a very long road since the announcement in November of 2013 that a preliminary agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations had been made on Iran’s nuclear technology. There have been extensions along the way and times when a permanent deal appeared imminent along with times when no such deal seemed possible. Despite tremendous pressure from Israel and the neocon lobby who lust after a war with Iran, the outlines for a permanent deal are now in place. What remains is to nail down the details by the June 30 deadline when the extensions of the interim agreement expire. Laura Rozen and Barbara Slavin capture the historic significance of what has been achieved:
We have “found solutions,” Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif first proclaimed on Twitter on April 2, “Ready to start drafting immediately.”
We have “succeeded in making history,” Zarif said at a press conference here April 2. “If we succeed, it is one of the few cases where an issue of significance is solved through diplomatic means.”
We have “reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” US President Barack Obama said from the White House rose garden after the deal was announced April 2.
What stands out about the agreement is just how much Iran was forced to give up on issues that had been seen by most observers as non-negotiable. Jonathan Landay interviewed a number of nuclear experts on the agreement:
On its face, the framework announced Thursday for an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program goes further toward preventing Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon than many experts expected it would, including requiring an international inspection system of unprecedented intrusiveness.
The version of the agreement as released by the US can be read here. Let’s take a look by sections.
The first section addresses the general concept of uranium enrichment. Although hardliners in the US want all enrichment in Iran stopped, it was clear that Iran would never have agreed to stop. But what has been achieved is staggering. Iran will take two thirds of its existing centrifuges offline. Those centrifuges will be placed in a facility under IAEA inspection, so there is no concern about them winding up in an undisclosed facility. Further, only Iran’s original IR-1 centrifuge type will be allowed. That is a huge concession by Iran (everybody knows the IR-1’s suck), as they had been developing advanced centrifuges that are much more efficient at enrichment. Many critics of a deal with Iran had suspected that advanced centrifuges would be a route that Iran would use to game any agreement to increase their enrichment capacity if only the number and not the type of centrifuge had been restricted. Further, Iran will not enrich uranium above 3.67% for a period of 15 years. And the stockpile of 3.67% uranium will be reduced by 97%, from 10,000 kg to 300 kg. This reduction also will apply for 15 years. This section also carries an outright statement of targeting a breakout time of 12 months to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb. [But as always, it must be pointed out that merely having enough enriched uranium for a bomb does not make it a bomb. Many steps, some of which there is no evidence Iran has or could develop under intense international scrutiny, would remain for making a bomb.]
The next section of the agreement is titled “Fordo Conversion”. Iran’s Fordo site is the underground bunker built for uranium enrichment. Iran has agreed not to enrich uranium at Fordo or to have uranium or any other fissile material present for 15 years. While many have advocated a complete shutdown of Fordo, the agreement provides a very elegant alternative. Fordo will now become a research site under IAEA monitoring. Had the site shut down, where would all of the scientists who work there now have gone? By keeping them on-site and under IAEA observation, it strikes me that there is much less concern about those with enrichment expertise slinking into the shadows to build a new undeclared enrichment facility.
The section on the Natanz facility follows Continue reading
There will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth by Bibi (Red Line) Netanyahu, war mongers John (Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran) McCain and Lindsey Graham and paid MEK shills throughout Congress today because an agreement was reached early Sunday morning local time in Geneva, culminating a process that has been over ten years in the making to seek a peaceful route to preventing any weapons development in Iran’s nuclear technology. Although this is only an interim agreement, it takes significant steps toward making it much more likely that any move by Iran to construct a weapon would be detected and would take longer. More or less simultaneously with the announcement of the agreement, AP reported that the US and Iran have been engaging in secret bilateral talks since March, well before Rouhani’s election this summer.
A fact sheet on the agreement is posted at the White House web site.
Concern over Iran’s nuclear program had ratcheted up in early 2012 when Iran significantly increased its rate of production of uranium enriched to 20%. That concern arose because 20% enriched uranium is technically much easier to take the remaining way to the 90%+ needed for a weapon. Before that point, most of Iran’s work had been directed toward uranium enriched below 5%. Netanyahu’s famous “red line” applied to the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium that would be needed to produce sufficient weapons grade uranium for one nuclear bomb. Significantly, the agreement reached today stops all of Iran’s enrichment to 20% and calls for Iran to either dilute back to below 5% or convert to a chemical form that makes it much harder to convert to weapons grade all of Iran’s stock of 20% uranium. In addition to halting enrichment to 20%, the agreement also prevents Iran from increasing its stockpile of uranium enriched to up to 5%.
Recall that when the IAEA’s latest report came out, I noted that Iran had been showing restraint since the beginning of 2012 by not committing any of the new centrifuges it was installing to actual enrichment activity. Further, no new centrifuges had been installed since Rouhani’s election. The agreement reached today includes a commitment by Iran to take steps to reduce the the number of centrifuges that are available for enrichment, among other restrictions on centrifuges. From the fact sheet:
Iran has committed to halt progress on its enrichment capacity:
· Not install additional centrifuges of any type.
· Not install or use any next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium.
· Leave inoperable roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow, so they cannot be used to enrich uranium.
· Limit its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines, so Iran cannot use the six months to stockpile centrifuges.
· Not construct additional enrichment facilities.
My initial understanding of the reductions in centrifuges would apply only to those centrifuges that had been installed but were not yet in use. By consulting the actual IAEA report (pdf) from earlier this month, I calculated that there are roughly 15,660 centrifuges installed at Natanz, with about 9048 of them in use. That means there are an excess of 6612 centrifuges installed but not being used. Half of those would be about 3306 centrifuges to be made unavailable. At Fordow, there are about 2976 centrifuges installed, with 744 in operation. Of the 2232 extra centrifuges there, 1674 are to be made unavailable. Combining the numbers for the two facilities, Iran would be giving up access to 4980 centrifuges under this understanding of the agreement.
However, the fact sheet states quite clearly that the reductions apply to all installed centrifuges. With that as the case, then the reduction is much more dramatic, with 7830 centrifuges being made unavailable at Natanz and 2232 at Fordow, for a total of 10,060 centrifuges being made unavailable. These numbers seem to reduce the centrifuges actually being used for enrichment at Natanz, with the number going down from 9048 to 7830. This reduction of 1200 or centrifuges does seem to match with the number shown in the graph in Annex II of the November IAEA report that are associated with enrichment to 20%, so it would appear that those centrifuges are being shut down entirely rather than being shunted back to enrichment to 5%.
Of course, promising these changes is one thing, but verifying them is critically important. The agreement comes with much greater access to Iranian facilities by IAEA inspectors. Returning to the fact sheet: Continue reading
I have often described the process of “diplomats” close to the IAEA’s Vienna headquarters gaining access to documents and other confidential information relating to Iran’s nuclear activities and then selectively leaking the most damaging aspects of that information to George Jahn of AP. Sometimes, the information also is shared with Fredrik Dahl of Reuters, who, like Jahn, is also based in Vienna. Many believe that Israeli diplomats are most often responsible for these leaks and for shaping the stories to put Iran in the worst possible light.
Today that process is in play once again and the “damaging” new information appears to be a letter from Iran to the IAEA in which Iran states that they intend to add thousands of new generation centrifuges called IR-2 centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium. The stories by Jahn and Dahl, already echoed by the New York Times (one can only assume that Joby Warrick will be along a bit later today to complete the first round of the propaganda machine), make this sound like a new and very important breakthrough that will make it much easier for Iran to produce uranium for a nuclear weapon. Only through close reading of the articles do we learn that these new centrifuges will be installed at the Natanz facility and will only be used for low-level enrichment to below 4% uranium (5% in the Dahl article). Enrichment to the more controversial 20% level is carried out at the Fordow facility and even that level is still short of the 90%+ needed for a weapon. Keep in mind also that IAEA regularly monitors both of these facilities and that all uranium has been accounted for, meaning that no 20% material has disappeared for secret conversion to weapons grade.
None of the articles gets around to pointing out that Iran installed its first IR-2 centrifuges over a year ago and the current development only represents installation of additional IR-2 units. Oh, and in the final paragraph, Jahn grudgingly admits that no time frame for this installation was given and that the installation work has not even started. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is Jahn’s breathless announcement from today’s leak:
Iran is poised for a major technological update of its uranium enrichment program that would vastly speed up production of material that can be used for both reactor fuel and nuclear warheads, diplomats told The Associated Press Thursday.
The diplomats said that Iran last week told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it wants to install thousands of high-technology machines at its main enriching site at Natanz, in central Iran. The machines are estimated to be able to enrich up to five times faster than the present equipment.
Jahn waits until the 13th of 15 paragraphs before getting around to stating that these new centrifuges will only enrich to low levels since they will be at the Natanz facility. Dahl’s opening is no less dramatic:
Iran has told the U.N. nuclear agency that it will deploy more modern machines to refine uranium, a defiant move that may further complicate diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute over Tehran’s atomic activities peacefully.
The Islamic Republic said in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it will use the new centrifuges at its main enrichment plant near the central town of Natanz, according to an IAEA communication to member states seen by Reuters.
Such a step could enable Iran to enrich uranium much faster than it can at the moment and increase concerns in the West and Israel about Tehran’s nuclear program, which they fear has military links. Iran says its work is entirely peaceful.
With all this panic going around, the Times had to join in:
Iran has told the United Nations nuclear supervisory body that it plans to install more sophisticated equipment at its principal nuclear enrichment plant, a diplomat said on Thursday, enabling it to greatly accelerate its processing of uranium in a move likely to alarm the United States, Israel and the West.
The diplomat, based in Vienna which is the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, cited a letter from Iranian officials to the I.A.E.A. saying it wants to upgrade its main enrichment plant at Natanz. The upgrade could speed up enrichment by as much as two or three times, the diplomat said, requesting anonymity in light of the confidential nature of the Iranian note.
As I mentioned earlier, Jahn notes at the very end of his article that there is no time frame for this installation. Neither Dahl nor the Times makes this important point in their panic-mongering:
One of three diplomats who spoke to the AP said Iran gave no time frame for its planned upgrade. He said installation work had not started at Natanz, adding it would take weeks, if not months, to have the new machines running once technicians started putting them in.
Considering that Jahn also included this quote from Mark Fitzpatrick of David Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security, it appears that Jahn is finally gaining awareness of how he has been used lately to ratchet up anti-Iran sentiment:
“This won’t change the several months it would take to make actual weapons out of the fissile material or the two years or more that it would take to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile, so there is no need to start beating the war drums,” he said. “But it will certainly escalate concerns”.
Fitzpatrick also is quoted by Dahl, but only with the inflammatory “game changer” language, not the calmer disclaimer on the lack of impact on the critical final steps of weapon production.
Note: During the time I was writing the version of the post above, Jahn and AP updated their story, but it retains the URL linked above (when Reuters produces new versions of stories, they get new URL’s so their changes can be tracked more easily). Notably, the mention of no time frame for the installation has been moved up to the fourth paragraph and the opening language has been altered significantly. The new version of the story emphasizes what IAEA is saying rather than what diplomats told Jahn. Here are the opening paragraphs of the version of the story times-tamped 8:32 (I failed to save a copy of the previous version with a time-stamp about two hours earler):
The U.N. nuclear agency has told member nations that Iran is poised for a major technological upgrade of its uranium enrichment program, in a document seen Thursday by The Associated Press. The move would vastly speed up Tehran’s ability to make material that can be used for both reactor fuel and nuclear warheads.
In an internal note to member nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it received notice last week from Iran’s nuclear agency of plans to install high-technology enriching centrifuges at its main enriching site at Natanz, in central Iran. The machines are estimated to be able to enrich up to five times faster than the present equipment.
Although the word “diplomats” still appears in the headline for the story (“Diplomats: Iran Prepared to Up Nuclear Program”) Jahn does not reference a diplomat until the fourth paragraph when he talks about the time frame. It’s almost as if Jahn and his editors are starting to realize how formulaic the diplomat to Jahn pipeline has become. Of course, anyone who has been paying attention knows how AP “saw” the document Jahn describes in his opening, he is just being less direct about it in this new version of the story.
Try as they might, those who are pushing hard for a military attack on Iran under the guise of preventing Iran obtaining nuclear weapons are finding it impossible to whip up enough fear to overcome the media frenzy surrounding the home stretch of the Presidential Election season. Today’s biggest dose of fear-mongering is courtesy of Jodi Rudoren and David Sanger at the New York Times:
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday offered findings validating his longstanding position that while harsh economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may have hurt Iran, they have failed to slow Tehran’s nuclear program. If anything, the program is speeding up.
But the agency’s report has also put Israel in a corner, documenting that Iran is close to crossing what Israel has long said is its red line: the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack.
Despite Rudorin and Sanger claiming that Iran is “close” to “the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack”, a closer examination of both data they present in the article and of the IAEA report itself shows that Iran’s “progress” toward a weapon is precarious at best.
For example, a chart in the Times article shows the proliferation of centrifuges at the Qom facility which is located inside a mountain and presumed to be immune from Israeli (but probably not US) bombs. The figure shows that the total number of installed centrifuges at this facility has increased steadily from 0 in September of 2011 to 2,140 this month. However, the same figure also shows that only 696 of those centrifuges are functioning and the number of functioning centrifuges has not changed over the course of the three reports issued in February, May and August of this year.
In this interview between David Sanger and Jake Tapper, Sanger makes a striking claim: that he doesn’t know who leaked StuxNet.
I’ll tell you a deep secret. Who leaked the fact? Whoever it was who programmed this thing and made a mistake in it in 2010 so that the bug made it out of the Natanz nuclear plant, got replicated around the world so the entire world could go see this code and figure out that there was some kind of cyberattack underway. I have no idea who that person was. It wasn’t a person, it wasn’t a person, it was a technological error.
At one level, Sanger is just making the point I made here: the age of cyberwar may erode even very disciplined Administration attempts to cloak their covert operations in secrecy. Once StuxNet got out, it didn’t take Administration (or Israeli) sources leaking to expose the program.
But I’m amused that Sanger claims he doesn’t know who leaked the information because he doesn’t know who committed the “technological error” that allowed the code to escape Natanz. I find it particularly amusing given that Dianne Feinstein recently suggested Sanger misled her about what he would publish (while not denying she might call for jailing journalists who report such secrets).
What you have are very sophisticated journalists. David Sanger is one of the best. I spoke–he came into my office, he saw me, we’ve worked together at the Aspen Strategy Institute. He assured me that what he was publishing he had worked out with various agencies and he didn’t believe that anything was revealed that wasn’t known already. Well, I read the NY Times article and my heart dropped because he wove a tapestry which has an impact that’s beyond any single one thing. And he’s very good at what he does and he spent a year figuring it all out.
Sanger claims, now that DiFi attacked him, he doesn’t know who made this “technological error.”
An error in the code, they said, had led it to spread to an engineer’s computer when it was hooked up to the centrifuges. When the engineer left Natanz and connected the computer to the Internet, the American- and Israeli-made bug failed to recognize that its environment had changed. It began replicating itself all around the world. Suddenly, the code was exposed, though its intent would not be clear, at least to ordinary computer users.
“We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” one of the briefers told the president, “and we don’t know if we were part of that activity.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton railed Tuesday against Iran’s beginning of operations at its Qom uranium enrichment facility, which is buried deep within a mountain to protect it from bunker-buster bombs. Less than 24 hours later, the Deputy Director of the Natanz enrichment facility was assassinated when a bomb attached to his car exploded in northern Tehran. Iran is blaming Israel,citing similarities of this attack with two previous attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, attacks in which Iran says the US also was complicit.
Despite the fact that Iran’s new uranium enrichment plant at Qom is designed to enrich uranium to only 20%, well short of the 90%+ that is needed for nuclear weapons, the US response to the start of operations there paints it as a highly provocative act:
“This step once again demonstrates the Iranian regime’s blatant disregard for its responsibilities and that the country’s growing isolation is self-inflicted,” Clinton said in a statement.
“The circumstances surrounding this latest action are especially troubling,” Clinton said.
“There is no plausible justification for this production. Such enrichment brings Iran a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.”
Clinton rejected Iran’s assertion that it needed to enrich uranium to produce fuel for a medical research reactor, saying Western powers had offered alternatives means of obtaining such fuel but their offers had been rejected by Tehran.
Remarkably, Clinton also called for Iran to return to the “P5+1” talks, apparently having missed Iran’s Foreign Minister stating last week that Iran is ready to return to these critical talks aimed at diffusing the tension over Iran’s nuclear technology.
It appears that the US is having a bit of trouble with message management over its actions in relation to Iran. Over at Moon of Alabama, b reports on an embarrassing incident yesterday in which transcription from a “senior administration official” in the Washington Post got a bit too candid and had to be revised. Continue reading
According to Haaertz, the Iranian Fars News Agency is reporting (although I don’t see a story yet at their website or at Mehr News) an explosion in Isfahan, where an Iranian uranium processing facility is located:
A explosion rocked the western Iranian city of Isfahan on Monday, the semi-official Fars news agency reported, adding that the blast was heard in several parts of the city.
It should be noted that Iran operates a uranium conversion plant near Isfahan, one with an important function in the chain of Iran’s nuclear program.
It first went into operation in 2004, taking uranium from mines and producing uranium fluoride gas, which then feeds the centrifuges that enrich the uranium.
The underground centrifuge facility at nearby Natanz was previously attacked by the Stuxnet virus and is seen as perhaps the most important Iranian enrichment facility.
When today’s explosion and the recent death of Hassan Moqaddam, the head of Iran’s missile program, in an explosion of dubious origin while hawks nattered on about the IAEA Iran report, are coupled with the Stuxnet attack, it appears that the Iranian nuclear program is being attacked simultaneously at all points along the path that could lead to a weapon on a missile.
Was today’s explosion an escalation of that battle?