Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Has Iran run down the nuclear clock?

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A new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report due to be released tomorrow is believed to contain compelling evidence that Iran is now at the end stage of its nuclear research program and is actively working on weaponisation technologies.

Ahead of the report's scheduled release we present a range of reading that predicts what the report will likely detail, where the effort to contain Iran's nuclear weapons program is at and whether the time has come to move from economic sanctions to military options.

Washington Post intelligence correspondence Joby Warrick summarises the off the record leaks from senior Western diplomats and nuclear experts ahead of the report's release.

Intelligence provided to U.N. nuclear officials shows that Iran's government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings.

Documents and other records provide new details on the role played by a former Soviet weapons scientist who allegedly tutored Iranians over several years on building high-precision detonators of the kind used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction, the officials and experts said. Crucial technology linked to experts in Pakistan and North Korea also helped propel Iran to the threshold of nuclear capability, they added.

It is the alleged specificity of detail in the IAEA report that will mark a line in the sand when compared to previous studies.

....the new disclosures fill out the contours of an apparent secret research program that was more ambitious, more organized and more successful than commonly suspected. Beginning early in the last decade and apparently resuming - though at a more measured pace - after a pause in 2003, Iranian scientists worked concurrently across multiple disciplines to obtain key skills needed to make and test a nuclear weapon that could fit inside the country's long-range missiles, said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector who has reviewed the intelligence files.

....one key breakthrough that has not been publicly described was Iran's success in obtaining design information for a device known as an R265 generator. The device is a hemispherical aluminum shell with an intricate array of high explosives that detonate with split-second precision. These charges compress a small sphere of enriched uranium or plutonium to trigger a nuclear chain reaction.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz has a story on the Parchin military base, which is 30 kilometres from Teheran, and is believed to be where most of the nuclear weapons research is carried out. Despite repeated IAEA requests, the Iranians have refused access to the facility.

New York Times correspondent David Sanger looks at the US strategy for dealing with Iran to date.

This approach has included a sanctions regime to hurt Iran's economic interests, particularly individuals and entities that are linked to acquiring nuclear technologies and knowhow, but extends to cyber-warfare containment strategies including anti-missile defence shields. However, the revelation that Iran was attempting to murder Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the US on American soil has stirred up debate on whether it is now time to adopt the military option.

Despite a recent escalation in threats by Washington to hold Iran responsible for the assassination plot, the evidence suggests the Administration's bark is worse than its bite, as this LA Times story explains:

...they now have decided that a proposed move against Iran's central bank could disrupt international oil markets and further damage the reeling American and world economies.
The softening position illustrates how concern over the weak economy has hobbled the administration when it comes to combating what officials describe as Iran's efforts to attack U.S. interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.
U.S. officials and foreign diplomats added that the likelihood that other governments would strongly resist such a step also helped push the central bank measure from consideration and diplomatic discussion.
....Rather than pursue sanctions against Iran's central bank, U.S. officials now say they will seek to persuade some of Tehran's key trading partners - including the Persian Gulf states, South Korea and Japan - to join the U.S. in enforcing existing sanctions. The U.S. will also add a few more narrowly focused sanctions, they said.

....The sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran would have aimed to isolate it from the world economy by barring any firm that does business with it from transactions with U.S. financial institutions. That would make it much tougher for Iran to sell crude oil, the top source of government revenue.

Terrorism and economic sanctions expert Avi Jorisch also wonders why the US is not enforcing its own sanctions regime, noting that the Treasury has blacklisted the Central Bank of Iran on a number of occasions. As Jorisch explains, to give teeth to this economic weapon:

The United States should ask banks that provide services of any kind to the Central Bank of Iran to cease doing so immediately. If they refuse to comply, the U.S. government should take immediate legal action in accordance with the PATRIOT Act and the U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 981, freezing any U.S.-based assets they hold and blocking their access to American markets.

Moving against the Central Bank would necessitate indirect action because the bank does not appear to possess assets in America. However, the U.S. government does have the power to freeze the funds deposited in a foreign bank on behalf of the Central Bank if the foreign bank maintains an account (known as an "interbank" or "correspondent account") at a U.S. financial institution or has actual operations or property in the United States.

This AP analysis looks at Israel's and the Gulf States' shared concerns over Iran's nuclear weapons pursuit.

Finally, an interview with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who argues that "I think it's time to confront the Iranian regime, because it's the poster child for state sponsorship of terrorism. It's trying to get a nuclear weapon. It's repressed its own people. The regime has absolutely no legitimacy left. We should be doing everything we can to bring it down and never take military force off the table".

Rice also offers a comprehensive overview on the other hot button topic of what a premature US military pull out from Iraq and Afghanistan will mean for the world and Iran's hegemonic ambitions.

Allon Lee