Iran Update: Number 141

  • Tensions increase between Tehran and the IAEA
  • Fuel swap concept still in circulation
  • Western governments encounter resistance to another round of sanctions
  • Leaks revealed in U.S. imposed sanctions; pressure increases within Washington for stronger penalties
  • Tehran announces mass production of cruise missiles; Iran possibly cooperating with North Korea to construct a new rocket launch facility
  • Iran allegedly tried to buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan decades ago

Tensions increase between Tehran and the IAEA

On 1 March, during the first board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under his directorship, Yukiya Amano repeated his concern that Iran has been uncooperative with the Agency and lamented that he is thus unable to assure the international community of the peaceful nature of Tehran’s nuclear activities. The meeting came a little over a week after he oversaw the completion of the Agency’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program, which noted the “…possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile” and that “These alleged activities consist of a number of projects and sub-projects, covering nuclear and missile related aspects, run by military related organizations.”

The Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, rejected Amano’s contention, citing the IAEA’s ongoing verification activities in the country. Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki added that “There is no proof or reason to see diversion of Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities. There is no document.” In response to the IAEA’s latest Board report, Iran’s supreme leader, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, warned the IAEA that it “… should not be under the pressure of the United States and some other countries since such unilateral moves will break trust in the [A]gency and the United Nations.” Iran formally defended its position in an “Explanatory Note” to the IAEA on 1 March.

Fuel swap concept still in circulation

In a continuing effort to secure fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), Iran again stated its readiness to conduct a uranium exchange deal on terms that would be different than the original negotiated plan and submitted to the IAEA a request that the Agency has subsequently circulated to a number of unnamed countries. The original proposal, which has been on the table since October, would entail Iran exporting a majority of its enriched uranium at once for further enrichment up to levels sufficient for the TRR, and then returned to Iran in the form of fuel rods a number of months, possibly up to a year, later. This plan would involve Russia, France, and the United States. It is believed that the main obstacle toward achieving such a deal lies in the Iranian leaders’ lack of trust in these governments. Iran also submitted to the IAEA a letter explaining its “confidence deficit vis-à-vis some western countries on assurances of nuclear fuel supply.” Although the countries to which the new request was submitted were not named, Turkey and Japan have been noted as possibilities in the past (see Iran Update of 24 February 2010). Iranian leaders have also previously indicated a preference for having the swap take place within Iran and exporting the fuel in batches. More recently, however, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, suggested that Iran might now be willing to trade its fuel in one batch.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki expressed his hopes for further negotiations on an exchange of nuclear fuel, “The issue of swap, it is possible to be carried out. The agreement could be made now, but the realization, the fulfilment of the swap needs time.” However, Ambassador Soltanieh said Iran’s proposal “… cannot remain on the table forever.”

Western governments encounter resistance to another round of sanctions

A number of countries that are crucial for U.S.-led efforts to solidify support for another round of U.N. Security Council-imposed sanctions are becoming more reticent in their opposition. China has once again called for more patience and diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program. During a visit by senior U.S. diplomat, James Steinberg, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang made the point of saying, “We believe there is still room for diplomatic efforts and that parties concerned should step up diplomatic efforts and push for progress.” In an effort to move Beijing’s position, Israeli officials apparently shared with Chinese officials some of their intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities and tried to persuade them of the potential security and economic dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. Not long after the visit, however, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike, continued to reject a quick acceptance of new sanctions and explained, “We consider the (Iran nuclear) issue in the whole picture of Chinese diplomacy.” China has been urging Iran to accept the fuel-swap offer.

After meeting with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on 16 March in Beijing, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi acknowledged that China is becoming more worried about the crisis but reaffirmed China’s preference for giving diplomacy more time. In an effort to persuade Chinese officials to take a tougher stance on Iran, Miliband had delivered a speech in Shanghai a day earlier in which he sought to combine approaches, saying that action over Iran’s nuclear program requires a ‘dual-track strategy‘ containing both sanctions and diplomacy.

Brazilian leaders have also continued to voice their opposition to another round of sanctions, despite a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier in March. Brazilian Foreign Minister, Celso Amorim, acknowledged shared anxieties over Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state, but made clear his doubts about the utility of more sanctions, saying during a press conference with Clinton, “…our views may prove to differ and not necessarily be in line with each other. …We will not simply bow down to evolving consensus if we do not agree.” Before Clinton’s visit, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also outlined his opposition, describing attempts to isolate Iran as imprudent. Amorim elaborated upon Brazil’s reluctance, “We don’t believe that sanctions will prove effective. Truly, Iran is a big country and a large and diverse economy, even if they [sanctions] could cause some problems.” He also iterated his concern about what he sees as similarities between the current Western claims about Iran and moves made in the prelude to the 2003 war against Iraq.

In a similar vein, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the BBC while in London for a visit with Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 16 March that claims about Iran making nuclear weapons are “only rumours” and that he does not believe that Iran wants to possess nuclear weapons. Erdogan also said during the interview that he has told Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “…I don’t want to see nuclear weapons in the region,” and regretted what he sees as an “unfair” toleration by Western governments of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told French President Nicolas Sarkozy during their meeting on 1 March that Russia would back further sanctions against Iran “so long as they don’t create humanitarian dramas.” A day later, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tempered speculation that Russia would easily back another round of sanctions and affirmed during a trip in Paris that “We will concentrate all efforts on finding political and diplomatic solutions since they have not yet been exhausted.”

Still, a number of Western leaders were conveying their intentions to garner more support for another round of international sanctions against Iran. Canadian Foreign Minister, Lawrence Cannon, says his country intends to use its presidency of the G8 in order to facilitate firmer sanctions. After a meeting with seven other European foreign ministers and EU Foreign Policy Director Catherine Ashton, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said that the European Union would find a way to impose additional penalties if the attempt for a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions fails. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has also stated that leaders of EU countries are ready to agree in principle for levying more sanctions, but added that they still need to work out the details. Given the lack of international unanimity, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now estimating that it may take several months before any new U.N. sanctions could be agreed.

Leaks revealed in U.S. imposed sanctions; pressure increases within Washington for stronger penalties

The New York Times has learned that since 2000, the U.S. government has provided over $107 billion in contracts and other kinds of payments to American companies “while they were doing business in Iran.” “More than two-thirds of the [U.S.] government money went to companies doing business in Iran’s energy industry … a stronghold of the increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which oversees Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs.”

The revelation instigated a number of U.S. Representatives, under the leadership of Ron Klein (Democrat-Florida) and Mark Kirk (Republican-Illinois), to push for a strengthening of the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act. Their proposed legislation of 10 March, titled the “Iran Sanctions Enhancement Act,” would require the President to report back to Congress after conducting an immediate investigation into the violations, in addition to publishing every month a list of potential sanctions violators. More broadly, the Financial Times reports that the Obama administration has come under heavy pressure from conservative think tanks as well as lobby groups to draft “tough” congressional legislation against Iran.

Tehran announces mass production of cruise missiles; Iran possibly cooperating with North Korea to construct a new rocket launch facility

Iran’s Defense Minister, Ahmad Vahidi, announced in early March that Iran has begun the mass production of short-range naval cruise missiles. He was broadcast on Iran state radio as saying that the cruise missiles, named Nasr-1, could “…destroy 3,000-ton targets” and that they will bolster the country’s naval power.

IHS Jane’s contends that Iran has likely been cooperating with North Korea to construct a new rocket launch facility near the city of Semnan, 200 km east of Tehran. Jane’s analyzed satellite images and concluded that the facility could be enlarged to accommodate Iran’s recently unveiled Simorgh space launch vehicle, and that many of its features resembled similar North Korean sites.

Iran allegedly tried to buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan decades ago

Former British journalist and current fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Simon Henderson, has obtained documents that include a “confession” from Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Kahn, saying that in 1990 Iran’s defense minister at the time had travelled to Islamabad to meet with then-chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs to negotiate the Iranian purchase of “nuclear bombs” for $10 billion. Although Pakistan ultimately refused the deal, it provided two centrifuge machines for enriching uranium. Both the Iranian and Pakistani governments have denied the story.

Nima Khorrami Assl and Chris Lindborg, BASIC

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