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Will Souring US-Russian Relations Enable US-Iran Bilateral Nuclear Technology Talks?

Michael Gordon reports in the New York Times that Iran may be making overtures for direct bilateral talks on Iran’s nuclear technology. As Gordon points out, however, news of the overture came to the US through Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, prompting some to wonder whether this is just Maliki trying to broker a deal:

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq told the Obama administration this month that Iran was interested in direct talks with the United States on Iran’s nuclear program, and said that Iraq was prepared to facilitate the negotiations, Western officials said Thursday.

In a meeting in early July with the American ambassador in Baghdad, Mr. Maliki suggested that he was relaying a message from Iranian officials and asserted that Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s incoming president, would be serious about any discussions with the United States, according to accounts of the meeting.

Although Mr. Maliki indicated that he had been in touch with confidants of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he did not disclose precisely whom he was dealing with on the Iranian side. Some Western officials remain uncertain whether Iran’s leaders have sought to use Iraq as a conduit or whether the idea is mainly Mr. Maliki’s initiative.

Gordon goes on to note that negotiations so far have taken place in the P5+1 format and that “it is difficult to make major headway in such a committeelike forum”. However, besides including Russia in the list of countries comprising the P5+1 group (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the US), the article does not mention worsening relations between the US and Russia over the Edward Snowden situation and the Boston Marathon bombing investigation.

I find it significant that Maliki made the overture to the US in early July. Snowden has been holed up in the Moscow airport since June 23 and so early July coincides with the point at which the US began to realize that Russia does not intend to turn Snowden over to the US. Add to that the fact that the P5+1 negotiations mainly revolve around the Russian “step by step” plan, with the June 2012 negotiations on that plan having taken place in Moscow. It would make sense to me that Rohani would see that with US-Russian relations souring quickly, the US would be hesitant to follow a negotiation path set by Russia.

If this really is an Iranian overture, I see it as a very a good sign. It would suggest that Iran sees the worsening US-Russia feud and wants to suggest a way to remove that feud as an issue to be overcome in bringing a resolution to the nuclear technology situation. By suggesting such a course of action, it seems that Iran may be serious about finally resolving the nuclear technology issue.

Arguing against this rosy interpretation is the fact that Iran sees Russia as a strong ally, so cutting them out of the negotiations could be seen as Iran choosing sides in the feud and thereby risk their own relations with Russia. The timing could be explained simply by noting Rohani’s election in mid-June and the mere act of floating the idea of direct talks would be seen as cementing Rohani’s positioning as a moderate, even if the direct talks never materialize.

The situation bears close watching over the next few months.

Steven Seagal Helps Rohrabacher in Failed Quest to Visit “Chechnyans”

It is a bit surprising Russia would allow a visit from a man who took up arms against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

It is a bit surprising Russia would allow a visit from a man who took up arms against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Proving once again that he has the reasoning skills of a termite-infested and rotting fence post, Dana Rohrabacher had the bright idea that he and fellow geniuses Michele Bachmann and Steve King should go to Russia to get to the bottom of why Russian and US intelligence agencies did not jointly predict and prevent the Boston Marathon bombing. From the announcement of the trip on Rohrabacher’s website (oh, wait, it looks like Rohrabacher just crossposted the ABC News story transcribed from what Rohrabacher’s office fed them):

A delegation of American lawmakers will travel to Russia next week in part to investigate last month’s Boston Marathon bombings, ABC News has learned.

The group, led by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., wants to find out why a 2011 Russian request that the United States investigate Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspected Boston bombers, did not raise more red flags.

The Russians  offered a vague warning that Tsarnaev planned to link up with extremist groups abroad, but an FBI investigation yielded no evidence to support those claims at the time. The lawmakers also want to know why  subsequent U.S. requests for additional information about Tsarnaev went unanswered by the Russians.

“If there was a distrust, or lack of cooperation because of that distrust, between the Russian intelligence and the FBI, then that needs to be fixed and we will be talking about that,”  Rohrabacher, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, told ABC News by telephone.

“Our goal is to use Boston as an example, if indeed there was something more, that should’ve been done that wasn’t because of a bad attitude,” Rohrabacher added.

Remarkably, the ABC News transcription goes on to cite Rohrabacher wanting to overcome any “lingering mistrust between the former Cold War rivals”. And yet, neither ABC News nor Rohrabacher seem to give any thought to the fact that back in the heady days when the US was backing Osama bin Laden and other mujahideen fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Rohrabacher himself decided to play dress-up, grab a gun and go to Afghanistan to join the fun in hunting Russkies. Oh well, forgive and forget, I guess.

Unlike when he tried to visit Afghanistan and was denied entry because of his rabble-rousing past and continued meddling, Rohrabacher was allowed entry to Russia. Rohrabacher’s goal wasn’t only to talk to Russians, however. Since the Boston bombers were ethnic Chechens, it appears that the great Congressman decided he had to visit himself some “Chechnyans”. That’s right, in a reprise of Rohrabacher’s infamous Congressional hearing on Balochistan where he mangled the pronunciation of the region, Rohrabacher now has shown his cultural sensitivity once again by mangling another name: Read more

Iran Putting Out Hopeful Signals Ahead of Amano Meeting in Tehran, Resumption of P5+1 Talks Wednesday

Although today’s meeting with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in Tehran  is still in process as of this writing, Iran has put out very hopeful signals ahead of both this meeting and the resumption on Wednesday of the P5+1 talks in Baghdad. Adding to the atmosphere that a deal could be in the works are some positive words from Amano himself:

Before his arrival in Tehran Amano told reporters, “I really think this is the right time to reach agreement. Nothing is certain but I stay positive.” Amano added “good progress” had already been made.

/snip/

“We need to keep up the momentum. There has been good progress during the recent round of discussions between Iran and the IAEA,” Reuters quoted Amano as saying.

The same Mehr News piece carried upbeat news from the Iranian side as well:

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi had said he hoped an agreement would be reached to devise a “new modality” between Iran and the IAEA during Amano’s visit.

/snip/

“Iran had previously invited IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano to make a trip to Iran, but he decided to travel to Tehran and hold talks with our country’s officials before the Baghdad talks,” Salehi said.

“We regard the visit by the agency’s director general as a gesture of goodwill,” Salehi stated. “The focus will be on the issue of modality and a new working modality to help clear up the ambiguities and (answer) the agency’s questions. And we hope that an agreement will be reached between both sides to devise a new modality.”

Fars News has the details on who is taking part in today’s meeting:

Amano, accompanied by his chief inspector Herman Nackaerts and number two Rafael Mariano Grossi, was welcomed at the airport by Iran’s IAEA envoy, Ali Asqar Soltaniyeh, and a number of other officials.

During his one-day stay, Amano will hold talks with Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Fereidoun Abbassi Davani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Saeed Jalili and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

The high levels of the participants on both sides of the talks do suggest that a deal could be imminent, and Fars collected a number of statements from diplomats agreeing: Read more

World Approach to “Peace” in Syria: Arm Both Sides

The carnage in Syria continues unabated, with government forces shelling citizens, especially in the city of Homs. Qatar’s minister for international cooperation described Sunday’s veto of the UN Security Council resolution by Russia and China in this way:

Khaled al-Attiyah, Qatar’s minister for international co-operation,  said the vetoes sent “a very bad signal to Assad that there (is a) license to kill.”

Russia claims they are working for a peaceful settlement in Syria, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Damascus now to speak to Assad:

Lavrov told Assad, according to Russia’s RIA news agency: “Every leader of every country must be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours. It is in our interests for Arab peoples to live in peace and agreement.”

Lavrov, whose government wields rare leverage in Syria as a major arms supplier to Damascus, said Assad assured him he was committed to halting bloodshed by both sides and that he was ready to seek dialogue with all political groups in Syria.

But the arms that Russia has been supplying to Assad are still being put to use against Syria’s citizens. From the same Reuters article:

Opposition activists said the fresh assault on Homs came after 95 people were killed on Monday in the city of one million, Syria’s third biggest. More than 200 were reported killed there by sustaining shelling on Friday night.

“The bombardment is again concentrating on Baba Amro (district of Homs). A doctor tried to get in there this morning but I heard he was wounded,” Mohammad al-Hassan, an activist in Homs, told Reuters by satellite phone. “There is no electricity and all communication with the neighborhood has been cut.”

A further 19 people were killed and at least 40 wounded in Tuesday’s barrage, activists said. Some reported fighting between army defectors and government forces trying move into areas the rebels hold in Homs.

Reflecting the total failure in what passes for world “diplomacy”, the response from the West is to arm the citizens of Syria to fight back against government forces who were armed by Russia. The approach starts out positively, as an attempt to prevent the arming of the Syrian government, but by the time Joe Lieberman gets involved, it goes terribly astray: Read more

Russia’s Description of Sodium-22 in Bag Headed for Iran As “Work of a Nuclear Reactor” Misleading

In a cyclotron, the magnetic "dees" accelerate ions to very high speeds in an outwardly spiraling path before they hit the target. (Diagram from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Radioactive sodium-22 has been found in a bag checked at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport that was headed for Tehran. The earliest reports on this finding were quite misleading, as the initial statement from Russia indicated that the material “could only have been obtained as the result of the work of a nuclear reactor“.

The problem with the Russian statement is that sodium-22 is in fact produced in a device called a cyclotron and not in the type of nuclear reactor containing uranium that most folks think of when they hear that term. Cyclotrons work by using very strong magnetic fields to accelerate ions (atoms stripped of one or more electrons so that they have an electric charge) to very high speeds before they are slammed into a target. The name “cyclotron” derives from the fact that the path traveled by the ions is circular (more accurately spiral).  In the case of sodium-22, the ions are deuterons. Deuterons are ions of heavy hydrogen, known as deuterium, which contain one proton and one neutron (and thus have a net charge of plus one), rather than just the solitary proton found in normal hydrogen.  When deuterons are accelerated to very high speeds and then made to slam into a target of magnesium, the normal magnesium-24 atoms absorb a deuteron and then quickly eject an alpha particle (a helium nucleus with two protons and two neutrons), turning into sodium-22.

Sodium-22 emits both a positron (this is the antimatter form of an electron, or an electron with a positive rather than a negative charge) and high energy gamma ray (like an X-ray), with a half-life of 2.6 years. It can be used in biological experiments as a “tracer”, buts its most common use in medical technology appears to be for calibration of an instrument known as a gamma probe.

The earliest reports on this story only included the Russian statement that the radioactive material only could have come from a nuclear reactor, but later reports are clearing up parts of the misleading nature of that statement. For example, at the time of this writing, the Reuters story, which has been evolving rapidly, characterizes sodium-22 as “an isotope that is used in medical equipment but has no weapons use”. Further, the story says:

Sodium-22 can be used for calibrating nuclear detectors and in medical equipment, nuclear experts said.

“There is no weapons aspect to this (material),” said Research director Lars-Erik De Geer of the Swedish Defense Research Institute.

It is not clear at all why Iran would need sodium-22 from an outside source, since Iran has registered a cyclotron with the IAEA (pdf, see page 167) that is stated to be used in the production of medical-related isotopes and is capable of producing high energy deuterons. Since Iran does have over 100 nuclear medicine departments, it would be reasonable to expect that there is demand for sodium-22 in calibration of equipment.

The sodium-22 in the luggage was in steel containers:

“Eighteen metallic objects of industrial origin were found, packed into individual steel boxes,” it [the Russian statement] said.

It is also not clear why this material would be shipped in airline baggage rather than through normal medical/industrial channels. Since sodium-22 is not used in weapons work, it would seem that there would be no prohibition on its importation into Iran. Reuters notes that the passenger shipping the luggage was an Iranian national and left Russia, presumably on the flight for which the bag was checked.  Russia has started a criminal investigation.

Update:  Here is Iran’s side of the story, from Mehr News:

Iranian ambassador to Moscow has said that Russian customs officers’ decision to temporarily hold an Iranian dental student at one of Moscow’s main airports was the result of a misunderstanding.

According to Reuters, Russia’s customs service said on Friday it had seized radioactive sodium-22, an isotope that is used in medical equipment but has no weapons use, from the luggage of an Iranian passenger planning to fly from Moscow to Tehran.

The material triggered an alarm in the airport’s radiation control system and a luggage search led to the discovery of 18 pieces of the radioactive metal packed in individual steel casings, the report claimed.

“Over a month ago, a dental student in Moscow, (before) flying to Iran, was (found) in possession of a material related to his work, which caused a misunderstanding for customs officials. Later, it turned out that it was not a special case, and the student continued his trip,” Ambassador Reza Sajjadi said.