From the nature of the political feeding frenzy surrounding the ongoing P5+1 negotiations with Iran on Iran’s nuclear technology, it is hard to believe that the Joint Plan of Action under which the countries are now operating was extended last November through the end of June of this year. At the time of that extension, the US announced a goal of having the political framework of the final agreement worked out by March 1. That date has now slipped to March 31, but current negotiations are still aimed at getting the political framework in place before the final details get ironed out. But with Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech to a Joint Session of Congress next week and other assorted madness, one would think that we are in the last few hours of the negotiating window.
Of course, one of the groups most upset by the possible outcome of removing the US sanctions against Iran is the MEK. Their latest tantrum, yesterday, in which they tried to claim that they had discovered a new, secret uranium enrichment site, was mostly ignored by the world. Jeffrey Lewis was quick to dismiss the accusation.
I had noted yesterday that Dianne Feinstein and Richard Durbin had tried to give Netanyahu some bipartisany-ness during his visit by inviting him to a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats, but Netanyahu declined the invitation, inexplicably claiming that meeting would lend a partisan nature to his nonpartisan appearance before Congress. Bibi also got slapped down, though, as his bid to get several Arab ambassadors to show up for his speech has been rejected outright.
Just as the US military hates to see peace break out somewhere where they could otherwise be arming and training freedom fighters, Iran’s military seems especially upset by the prospect of a deal with the West. The IRGC is so upset about what is going on that today they broke one of their biggest toys in a fit of rage. Just under a year ago, word came out that Iran was building a replica of a Nimitz-class US aircraft carrier:
Intelligence analysts studying satellite photos of Iranian military installations first noticed the vessel rising from the Gachin shipyard, near Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, last summer. The ship has the same distinctive shape and style of the Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers, as well as the Nimitz’s number 68 neatly painted in white near the bow. Mock aircraft can be seen on the flight deck.
The Iranian mock-up, which American officials described as more like a barge than a warship, has no nuclear propulsion system and is only about two-thirds the length of a typical 1,100-foot-long Navy carrier. Intelligence officials do not believe that Iran is capable of building an actual aircraft carrier.
Navy and other American intelligence analysts surmise that the vessel, which Fifth Fleet wags have nicknamed the Target Barge, is something that Iran could tow to sea, anchor and blow up — while filming the whole thing to make a propaganda point, if, say, the talks with the Western powers over Iran’s nuclear program go south.
Marcy had a bit of fun with the barge at the time, comparing it to our F-35 program.
But now, instead of waiting for the P5+1 talks to “go south”, the IRGC has chosen to destroy their target barge in war games that were launched today. And, just as predicted a year ago, the destruction of the barge was televised. From AP via the Washington Post:
State TV showed footage of missiles fired from the coast and the fast boats striking the mock U.S. aircraft carrier. The drills, which also included shooting down a drone and planting undersea mines, were the first to involve a replica of a U.S. carrier.
“American aircraft carriers are very big ammunition depots housing a lot of missiles, rockets, torpedoes and everything else,” the Guard’s navy chief, Adm. Ali Fadavi, said on state TV, adding that a direct hit by a missile could set off a large secondary explosion. Last month Fadavi said his force is capable of sinking American aircraft carriers in the event of war.
Here is a PressTV segment on the war games, complete with some footage of torpedoes hitting the barge:
Additional footage with more direct hits on the barge can be seen in this PressTV story.
The US Navy has now been sternly warned not to tow any barges into the Strait of Hormuz.
Meanwhile, more negotiations are scheduled for Monday.
Benjamin Netanyahu overstated Iran’s nuclear technology in 2012 when he used his bomb cartoon in an address to the United Nations. The Guardian and Al Jazeera have released a trove of documents relating to Iran’s nuclear program and one of the key documents was prepared by Mossad to brief South Africa just a few short weeks after the famous speech. From The Guardian:
Binyamin Netanyahu’s dramatic declaration to world leaders in 2012 that Iran was about a year away from making a nuclear bomb was contradicted by his own secret service, according to a top-secret Mossad document.
Brandishing a cartoon of a bomb with a red line to illustrate his point, the Israeli prime minister warned the UN in New York that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons the following year and called for action to halt the process.
But in a secret report shared with South Africa a few weeks later, Israel’s intelligence agency concluded that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”. The report highlights the gulf between the public claims and rhetoric of top Israeli politicians and the assessments of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment.
As The Guardian notes, although Bibi’s darling little cartoon makes little to no distinction between the steps of enriching uranium to 20% and enriching it to the 90%+ needed for a bomb, the Mossad document (pdf) states that Iran “is not ready” to enrich to the higher levels needed for a bomb:
Despite that clear information that Mossad surely already had at the time of the UN speech (h/t Andrew Fishman for the link), Netanyahu chose to portray Iran as ready to zip through the final stage of enrichment:
Now they’re well into the second stage. And by next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.
So Netanyahu described a step that the Mossad described Iran as not even ready to start and turned it into something Iran was eager to accomplish in a few weeks. Simply put, that is a lie.
Of further note in the document is information relating to the heavy water reactor under construction at Arak. Although it doesn’t appear that Netanyahu mentioned it in the UN speech, it often is portrayed as another rapid route to a nuclear weapon for Iran, because, when finally functioning, it could produce plutonium that could be used in a bomb. Mossad found, however, that Iran was still a couple of years away from having the reactor functioning. Further, Mossad realized that Iran needs a fuel reprocessing facility (that it does not have) in order to use the plutonium in a bomb:
It should also be noted that those two years have elapsed and the reactor still has not been powered up. Further, there are proposals that the reactor can be modified to make it produce a dramatically lower amount of plutonium.
These documents have been released with very important timing. As I noted last week, Netanyahu aims to destroy the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. By pointing out his lies two years ago, we should be in a better position to see through whatever obfuscation he delivers next week. But with a new air of bipartisany-ness, to his visit, don’t look for Washington politicians to be the ones to point out his next round of lies.
Postscript: I am significantly behind on my homework. I owe Marcy a careful reading of the technical documents from the Sterling trial and need to follow up more fully on the suggestions that false documents (including the Laptop of Death?) were planted with Iran for the IAEA to discover. Now with this new trove of documents and the looming date of Netanyahu’s visit, I need to get busy (on something other than planting blueberries)!
I must confess that I repeatedly put off writing this post. Similarly, the P5+1 countries and Iran now have repeatedly put off finalizing a deal that assures the West that Iran’s nuclear program has no chance to quickly move to a nuclear weapon. I had been operating under the assumption that a final deal would be announced at the November 24 deadline. After all, everything seemed aligned to make a deal seem necessary for both sides. Iran’s economy has been reeling under sanctions for years, but Rouhani’s push for “moderation” had silenced hardliners in his country who see any deal as capitulation. How long Rouhani can hold them back, however, seems to be the biggest mystery. Barack Obama has been waging war seemingly all over the planet, so a deal to avoid another one would be a huge accomplishment for him. And with a new Republican majority set to take over the Senate, meddling by Senate hawks is assured.
But no agreement was reached on Monday’s deadline. Even worse, rumblings that at least a “framework” would be announced also proved to be false. In fact, the framework target is now four months away, with another three months built in to iron out the technical details within that framework.
Jeffrey Lewis sees this long timeframe as delusion:
One wonders what the parties are thinking. Is there any reason to believe that this problem will be easier to solve in four months’ time? Is there any reason to think that, in fact, the parties have four months? Allow me to be the bearer of two items of bad news.
First, the 114th Congress will pass new sanctions legislation. This year, the White House held off the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill in the Senate by the narrowest of margins. (The House passing sanctions is a formality at this point.) Proponents had the votes — 60 co-sponsors, including 16 Democrats — but then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to let it come to the floor.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t be so accommodating.
Second, Iran is continuing research and development on a new generation of centrifuges. A few weeks ago, there was a minor kerfuffle when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran was test-feeding a new centrifuge under development called the IR-5. The issue was that Iran had not previously fed uranium hexafluoride into that type of machine. The Iranians denied this was a violation. (The definitive answer depends on “technical understandings” in the implementation agreement that the EU will not make public.)
With another extension, though, Iran is free to continue its R&D work on new generations of centrifuges — including resuming testing of the IR-5 and eventually the IR-8.
Oh, yes, the IR-8. The IR-5 is a prelude to this much bigger problem. Iran has declared a new centrifuge model called the IR-8 to the IAEA. (One of these bad boys is sitting at the “pilot” enrichment facility, saying, “Feed me, Seymour.”) The IR-8 is about 16 times more capable than the existing centrifuge types installed at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant.
See the update below, as of about 2:45 pm, the Times has changed the wording of the erroneous paragraph without adding a note of the correction. Oops. I got off on the wrong paragraph when I checked back. See the comment from Tony Papert below.
For someone who has written on a range of technical issues for many years, the error committed last night by David Sanger could not be worse nor come at a worse time for the important events he is attempting to cover. In an article put up last night on the New York Times website and apparently carried on page A1 of today’s print edition, Sanger and the Times have garbled a key point at the heart of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations as they near the critical November 24 deadline for achieving a full agreement on the heels of last year’s interim agreement.
The article ostensibly was to announce a major breakthrough in the negotiations, although Gareth Porter had worked out the details of the progress last week. Here is what Porter deduced:
The key to the new approach is Iran’s willingness to send both its existing stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) as well as newly enriched uranium to Russia for conversion into fuel for power plants for an agreed period of years.
In the first official indication of the new turn in the negotiations, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marzieh Afkham acknowledged in a briefing for the Iranian press Oct. 22 that new proposals combining a limit on centrifuges and the transfer of Iran’s LEU stockpile to Russia were under discussion in the nuclear negotiations.
The briefing was translated by BBC’s monitoring service but not reported in the Western press.
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who heads the U.S. delegation to the talks, has not referred publicly to the compromise approach, but she appeared to be hinting at it when she said on Oct. 25 that the two sides had “made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable.”
As Porter goes on to explain, such an arrangement would allow Iran to maintain a large number of centrifuges continuing to enrich uranium, but because there would be no stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU), the “breakout time” (time required to highly enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon) would remain at about a year. By having Russia convert the LEU to fuel rods for Iran’s nuclear power plant, that LEU would be removed from any easy pathway to a weapon. This would provide Iran the “win” of maintaining its present level of around 10,000 operational centrifuges but give the P5+1 its goal of a longer breakout time. The key here is that unlike a proposal in 2005 where Russia would take over enrichment for Iran, this new proposal would allow Iran to continue its enrichment program while shipping virtually all of of its LEU to Russia for conversion to fuel rods.
Sanger appears to start off on the right track with his article:
Iran has tentatively agreed to ship much of its huge stockpile of uranium to Russia if it reaches a broader nuclear deal with the West, according to officials and diplomats involved in the negotiations, potentially a major breakthrough in talks that have until now been deadlocked.
Under the proposed agreement, the Russians would convert the uranium into specialized fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran’s only commercial reactor. Once the uranium is converted into fuel rods, it is extremely difficult to use them to make a nuclear weapon. That could go a long way toward alleviating Western concerns about Iran’s stockpile, though the agreement would not cut off every pathway that Tehran could take to obtain a nuclear weapon.
But about halfway through the article, Sanger displays a shocking ignorance of the real points of recent negotiations and somehow comes to the conclusion that Russia would be taking over enrichment for Iran rather than converting LEU into fuel rods:
For Russia, the incentives for a deal are both financial and political. It would be paid handsomely for enriching Iran’s uranium, continuing the monopoly it has in providing the Iranians with a commercial reactor, and putting it in a good position to build the new nuclear power reactors that Iran has said it intends to construct in the future. And it also places President Vladimir V. Putin at the center of negotiations that may well determine the future of the Middle East, a position he is eager to occupy.
Somehow, Sanger and his New York Times editors and fact-checkers are stuck in 2005, suggesting that Iran would negotiate away its entire enrichment program. Such a drastic move would never be contemplated by Iran today and we are left to wonder whether this language found its way into the Times article through mere incompetence or more nefarious motives meant to disrupt any possible deal by providing false information to hardliners in Iran.
At the time of this writing (just before 9 am on November 4), the Times still has not added any correction or clarification to the article, despite the error being pointed out on Twitter just after 10:30 pm last night (be sure to read the ensuing Twitter conversation where Laura Rozen and Cheryl Rofer work out the nature of the error).
And now, around 2:45 in the afternoon, I see that the Times has changed the erroneous paragraph. So far, I don’t see a note that a correction has been made. Here is the edited paragraph:
Russia’s calculus is also complex. It stands to gain financially from the deal, but it also has an incentive to see the nuclear standoff between Iran and the rest of the world continue, because an embargo keeps Iranian oil off the market. With oil prices falling, a flood of exports from Iran could further depress prices.
Will they ever get around to adding a note? I’ll keep an eye out. Well dang, this is embarrassing. I went to the wrong paragraph when I looked back. The article is still unchanged. Thanks to Tony Papert in comments for catching my bone-headedness.
At long last, a conspiracy theory on Iran’s Parchin site has surfaced that is too crazy to have come from David Albright and his merry band at the Institute for Science and International Security. Recall that Iran has played the ISIS folks expertly on Parchin, giving them a series of interesting things to look at in satellite images of the site. Iran’s manipulations hit their high point when they covered a number of buildings in pink tarp, provoking an especially cute level of concern over just what those tarps might be hiding.
The folks at Debka.com, though, have put themselves firmly into the position of world leaders when it comes to Parchin conspiracy theories. You remember the Debka folks, they are the ones who initially claimed that Israel’s Iron Dome had successfully shot down two incoming missiles when it turns out that the explosions that were heard were actually just Iron Dome misfiring in the absence of any incoming fire earlier this month.
Here is Debka’s glorious new theory, which follows on their recounting of the recent news that Iran has actually moved faster than the initial schedule in the interim agreement with the P5+1 powers on removing its stock of 20% enriched uranium and that they will redesign the Arak reactor to produce less plutonium:
But only on the face of it: This scenario ignore Tehran’s duplicity and conveniently passes over the sudden spurt in Iran’s production of low, 5-percent grade enriched uranium and the covert smuggling of the surfeit to the Parchin military facility of near Tehran for its secret upgrade to 20 percent, a level which can be rapidly enriched to weapons grade.
So with one hand, Tehran has reduced its low-grade enriched uranium stocks, but with the other, has smuggled a sizable quantity of those stocks for further enrichment to a facility barred to nuclear watchdog inspectors.
DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources reveal that 1,300 kilos of low-grade material has been transferred to Parchin and 1,630 advanced centrifuges have been installed there for rapid upgrade work.
Okay, then. Even though every single report from the IAEA has shown that every bit of uranium enriched by Iran has been accounted for and that none has been diverted (see this article from 2012 fear-mongering that grudgingly admits no diversion of material), Debka now wants us to believe that since Iran is removing its stock of 20% enriched uranium, it is doing so as a way to hide their diversion of over a ton of uranium that has been enriched to 5%. Oh, and at the same time, they have secretly installed 1630 centrifuges at Parchin.
But then the Debka conspiracy really starts to fall apart. It appears that they are only claiming that Iran will use these 1600 secret centrifuges to enrich the 5% uranium to 20%, rather than taking it to weapons grade of more than 90%. If we use the standard figures of approximately 25 kg of weapons grade uranium for one bomb and the numbers in this article (where one ton of natural uranium feed leads to up to 130 kg of 5% uranium and then 5.6 kg of weapons grade material), then 1300 kg of 5% uranium could be enough for two bombs.
It’s a good thing Debka is only claiming that conversion from 5% to 20% enrichment would be carried out with these secret centrifuges at Parchin, because getting to weapons grade with so few centrifuges in any sort of reasonable time frame is problematic. If we consult this document from Albright’s group, Figure 1A (on page 5 of the pdf), we see graphs for the amount of time needed to get to 25 kg of weapons grade uranium under scenarios of various numbers of centrifuges and various amounts of 20% enriched uranium. With Debka’s new conspiracy, if they were positing breakout to weapons grade, then we need to start at zero 20% uranium available and look between the 1000 and 2000 centrifuge scenarios. For 1000 centrifuges, ISIS calculates just over 24 months to produce one bomb’s worth of material, while for 2000 centrifuges, that time drops to 14 months. Interpolating for 1600 centrifuges would give us about 20 months of secret work with these 1600 secret centrifuges using 1300 kg of material secretly hidden from a previously perfect mass balance of Iran’s enrichment work.
Last night, The Smoking Gun and then CBS reported on the latest sting carried out by our government to keep us safe from people too stupid for their own good. This time, instead of the FBI setting up the security theater sting, it was an undercover agent for ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement within the Department of Homeland Security. The criminal complaint (pdf) filed yesterday is written by an ICE Special Agent working out of Miami (I’ll return later to the ironic job position she holds).
Once again, as we see repeatedly in the government’s adventures in security theater, we appear to have ensared a small-time hustler but will undoubtedly play this up as a major interdiction of international terrorism. The hustler this time is one Patrick Campbell, who stands accused of brokering a deal to sell U3O8 to Iran. Campbell apparently was promising to ship 1000 tons of the processed uranium ore, but was arrested in New York
yesterday Wednesday when he entered the country from Sierra Leone, where he reportedly lives.
How was Campbell caught? Here is how the complaint describes the elaborate trap ICE devised:
Yup. Everybody knows that Iran absolutely would go shopping for uranium on alibaba.com. Note that ICE does not appear to be able to get their high-tech document production equipment to produce subscripts. There really is no such thing as Uranium 308 or U308. Writing it that way makes it look like they are referring to a uranium isotope. The naturally occurring isotopes of uranium are listed here, where we see that the atomic masses range from 232 (= U-232) to 238 (=U-238). The isotope of interest is U-235, which occurs in nature as only 0.7% of the uranium atoms. Uranium is mined as raw ore which is chemically treated to produce U3O8, which is otherwise known as yellowcake. For further processing, the yellowcake is then converted to UF6 gas and then put into gas centrifuges where the mixture is selectively enriched for the U-235 isotope. Low-grade enriched uranium has the U-235 enriched from the naturally occurring 0.7% to the range of 3-5%. Iran has also produced mid-grade uranium at 20% U-235 for its research reactor used to produce medical isotopes, but this still falls short of the 90% or so U-235 needed for a nuclear weapon.
It would appear that ICE ran this scam on such a short budget that they wouldn’t even front Campbell the money for travel to the US from Sierra Leone. In his negotiations with the undercover agent, Campbell demonstrated a pitiful level of awareness of operational security. The complaint notes many communications with Campbell by email, telephone and Skype. There is no indication that any of the communications were encrypted. The extent of his op-sec appears to be his brilliant use of an acronym to refer to the transaction:
Campbell finally made it to New York
yesterday Wednesday, where he was promptly arrested. Here is how The Smoking Gun opened their report:
A foreigner who agreed to sell undercover Homeland Security agents 1000 tons of yellowcake uranium for shipment to Iran was arrested yesterday when he flew into the United States with uranium samples hidden inside the soles of shoes in his luggage, The Smoking Gun has learned.
Wow. He tried to hide his yellowcake samples in the soles of his shoes, which he then put into checked baggage.
This whole episode is stupid and wasteful on a wide range of levels.
First, Iran purchased huge stockpiles of yellowcake back in the days of the Shah. 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 order to make the case for a military attack on Iran, those who advocate war need to show that Iran is engaged in developing a nuclear weapon. There will be a new IAEA report this week, and we already know that this report will try to whip up excitement around what is already known: Iran’s installation of additional centrifuges for enrichment of uranium to 20% has continued, and Iran now has increased its capacity for such enrichment. What press accounts of the enrichment situation will gloss over is the fact that IAEA inspectors are present at all of Iran’s enrichment sites and that all material is accounted for. That means that in order to accuse Iran of taking 20% enriched uranium and subjecting it to further enrichment to the 90%+ that is needed for weapons, one would have to postulate a secret site, unknown to IAEA inspectors, where Iran could take raw uranium ore all the way to weapons grade.
With the rogue enrichment route to a military attack unlikely to gain footing, war advocates also accuse Iran of other activities aimed at developing a nuclear weapon. A favorite target for those accusations is the military site at Parchin, where one particular building has been separated out and accused of holding a high explosives blast chamber where Iran is accused of carrying out research aimed at developing a neutron trigger device for a nuclear bomb. Despite a very thorough debunking of this theory by b at Moon of Alabama, where it was shown that the chamber was much more likely to be used in production of nanodiamonds than neutron triggers, the accusations continued. In May, George Jahn of AP provided ridiculous “proof” of work on a trigger device by publishing a cartoon (drawn from a real photograph!) and description of the chamber. These new allegations from Jahn even included a claim that there was a neutron detector on the outside of the chamber so that neutron flux from the explosions inside the chamber could be monitored. I showed that this allegation meant that if such work had been carried out, the steel chamber itself would have been made radioactive through the process of neutron activation. This radioactivity would be present throughout the thickness of the steel and therefore could not be removed by a surface cleaning.
Despite the fact that the steel chamber (and possibly even the structural steel of the surrounding building) would be radioactive in a way that could not be cleaned, we have for months been deluged with accusations that Iran is “cleaning” the Parchin site. After this process had gone on for some time, I began to describe it as a game of cat and mouse in which it appears that Iran is having quite a bit of fun at the expense of those who are making allegations about the Parchin site. The primary target of Iran’s pranks in Parchin is David Albright, of the Insitute for Science and International Security. Despite no known expertise in intelligence gathering by photo analysis (and that comment on lack of expertise comes from someone who previously was a CIA photo analyst) we have had multiple accounts from Albright of Iran “cleaning” the Parchin site to remove evidence of their work on a trigger device.
I have responded to most of Albright’s reports, but chose not to respond to his report of August 1, where he declared that Iran had finished its cleanup work at Parchin. That report appears to have been operational for only a brief period, however, as a report issued on August 24 shows images from August 15. In this new report, additional activity at Parchin has taken place and the suspect building is now draped with a tarp that is bright pink.
In keeping with the usual pattern for these accusations, CNN has breathlessly repeated Albright’s analysis. It hardly seems necessary to point out that the point I have been making all along still stands. The most important element of any inspection at Parchin will be the high explosive chamber itself. Iran cannot “scrub” it of neutron activation. That means that if sufficient neutron trigger work was carried out in the chamber to make it radioactive, Iran will need to remove and destroy the chamber. Whether there is a pink tarp over the building or not is irrelevant to the issue of whether the chamber still exists.
The only way Iran can top the comedic spectacle of the pink tarp is to paint the ground outside the building to mimic Albright’s yellow comment balloons and font with a note along the lines of “Please do not look at this building”.
Marcy will be along later to discuss the shiny
thong thing aspect of David Sanger’s New York Times article where he was awarded today’s transcription prize by the Obama administration and allowed to “break” the story in which the US for the first time admitted its role in cyberwarfare against Iran’s nuclear program. What I want to concentrate on here is how in putting forward the cyberwarfare story, Sanger unquestioningly accepts the administration’s framing that Iran is just a short “breakout” away from having multiple nuclear weapons.
Consider this key paragraph:
These officials gave differing assessments of how successful the sabotage program was in slowing Iran’s progress toward developing the ability to build nuclear weapons. Internal Obama administration estimates say the effort was set back by 18 months to two years, but some experts inside and outside the government are more skeptical, noting that Iran’s enrichment levels have steadily recovered, giving the country enough fuel today for five or more weapons, with additional enrichment.
All Iran needs is “additional enrichment” for “five or more weapons”. That assumption is false on many levels. First, because Iran’s enrichment activities are closely monitored by onsite IAEA inspectors, any activity aimed at above the 20% level which is their current upper bound would be detected quickly. That statement is backed up even by David Albright, who has been busy fanning the anti-Iran rhetoric on the Parchin front. Adding further doubt to a rapid breakout of enrichment is that even in this same article, Sanger notes that Iran’s centrifuge technology is old and unreliable. Albright supports that observation as well, and notes that installation of additional capability has been slowed by technical issues that don’t seem related to cyberattacks.
The second major flaw in Sanger’s transcription above is that more than just “additional enrichment” is needed. The whole cat and mouse game at Parchin is playing out because in addition to enrichment of uranium to weapons grade, Iran will need technology for initiating the nuclear chain reaction that results in the weapon being detonated. Sanger makes no mention at all of this technical barrier for which there is no evidence that Iran has made an appropriate breakthrough.
Heck, the “enough uranium for five bombs” framing requires us to count the material enriched to only 3.5%. That makes it surprising the US and Israel aren’t claiming that Iran has enough uranium for an unlimited number of bombs if you count the uranium in the ground that they haven’t mined yet.