Iran Update: Number 150

  • Iranian officials allege new virus attack; mark latest plans for nuclear program
  • Latest U.S. assessments and speculation about Tehran’s capabilities and intentions
  • Sanctions and alleged smuggling
  • Regional developments

Iranian officials allege new virus attack; mark latest plans for nuclear program

Iranian officials announced on April 25 that another virus has attacked government computers. The commander of Iran’s civil defense organization, Gholam Reza Jalali, referred to the attack as an “espionage virus” which officials have named “Stars.” He said that the virus was still under investigation and there was no specific mention of whether nuclear facilities were targeted. The alleged cyber attack comes not long after Iranian officials recently and publicly pointed to Israeli and U.S. collaboration with Siemens, as being behind the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear program computers last year.

As part of National Nuclear Technology Day observances around April 9, Iranian officials touted and defended their country’s nuclear accomplishments from this past year, all despite a tightening sanctions regime and the Stuxnet virus. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that “Not only should we be able to use all our capacities and potentials in nuclear technology, we should also export nuclear know-how.” Iranian officials also announced that they have successfully tested advanced centrifuges, which they would use to replace their outmoded centrifuges currently in operation. But outside experts are unsure whether Iran has overcome all technical difficulties and has enough material to build a sufficient number for substantial operations anytime soon.

Echoing previous announcements, Iranian officials declared that they will seek to develop four or five more research reactors for the purpose of producing radioisotopes. Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, added that in an effort to fuel the planned reactors,”We will also raise the amount of the enriched uranium up to 20 percent based on our country’s need and for doing so, we will not seek anybody’s permission.”

Iran has long been seeking more fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which is used to produce medical radioisotopes. Despite various diplomatic efforts, a deal was not reached in which Iran would have exchanged some of its low enriched uranium for fuel fabricated by other countries for the TRR. (Former external relations minister of Brazil, Celso Amorim, recently recounted this diplomatic process during the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference at the end of March.) Iran has reported to the IAEA that it intends to work toward having its own fabrication capability for the TRR with a goal of fueling it by September 2011. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, however, seemed to allude to the possibility that some type of deal could still be reached in the future. During a joint press conference with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi on April 21, Baroness Ashton said that previous western offers to Iran are “still on the table.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that officials have ordered the refueling of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which had been unloaded because of a shattered cooling pump, and that the reactor should start up between May 5 and 10. Meanwhile, some have questioned the safety of the plant in light of the nuclear disaster that has unfolded in Japan as a result of the massive earthquake which struck that country on March 11. The Bushehr plant is in an earthquake zone, but Iranian officials have repeatedly said that the plant should be safe.


Latest U.S. assessments and speculation about Tehran’s capabilities and intentions

White House advisor Gary Samore said in an April interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, that Iran has “…experienced enough technical difficulties, and secret projects have been exposed, so all of that I think has given — in my view — the world some number of years to work on this problem before Iran is in a position where it could make a political decision to build nuclear weapons.”

Similarly, Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, ruminated during an Arms Control Association event earlier in March, saying that Iran is moving toward a threshold capability. He defined breakout from a threshold capability into an actual one as a particular sequence of steps: withdrawing from the NPT, kicking out IAEA inspectors and beginning the production of nuclear weapons. He did not deem this to be a likely course of action for Iran in the near future.

The remarks came after the Intelligence Community released the results of its latest global threat assessment to Congress earlier this year. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified on the conclusions of the assessments before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 10. In his prepared statement, he said that Iran is capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon within the next few years. He also said that if Iran eventually makes nuclear weapons, it would most likely choose missiles as the delivery vehicles. He emphasized that Iran is probably keeping its options open as to whether or not it will eventually produce a nuclear weapon:

“We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” (p. 4 )

He also elaborated on Tehran’s decision-making over whether to produce nuclear weapons:

“We continue to judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige and influence , and well as the international security and political environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.” (p. 5)

During the public part of the hearing, Clapper responded to a question from Committee Chairman Carl Levin (Democrat-Michigan) , confirming that the U.S. Intelligence Community has a “high level of confidence” in its assessment that Iran has not “restarted” its nuclear weapons program. However, Clapper chose to defer to the closed session his answer to Sen. Levin’s query on how long it would take Iran to make a nuclear weapon if it chooses to directly pursue this goal.

Sanctions and alleged smuggling

President Barack Obama in early March renewed the “National Emergency with Respect to Iran.” The Executive Order notes that, “Because the actions and policies of the Government of Iran continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States, the national emergency declared on March 15, 1995, must continue in effect beyond March 15, 2011. ”More recently, the Obama Administration blacklisted a Belarusian energy company, Belarusneft, for doing business with an Iranian firm, the NaftIran Intertrade Company, which has supported Iran’s nuclear program. However, some U.S. lawmakers felt that limiting the sanctions to only one additional country was insufficient, and were asking why the United States was not taking similar actions against firms from China, Russia, and elsewhere. Senators Mark Kirk, Jon Kyl, and Joseph Lieberman wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, asking the Administration to apply the sanctions to more entities that they suspect are ultimately working against U.S. national security interests.

Almost 500 foreign companies attended Iran’s gas, oil and petrochemical exposition that began on April 15, with China’s representation having increased by about 50 percent over last year. Although China agreed to the four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions, China has not agreed with the additional punitive measures led by the United States. A considerable number of EU countries also attended the expo, however, presence could not be equated with plans for near-term and active business engagement as a number of the firms had no immediate deals in the works.

In apparent response to U.S. pressure, additional European companies Total of France and OMV of Austria stopped refueling Iranian commercial planes in March. Some Iranian planes have stopped in parts of Eastern Europe where they have been able to receive fuel from Russian companies. Iran announced on April 13 that it would reciprocate by not refueling “western passenger planes.”

An unusual number of reports in March alleged Iran’s involvement in the smuggling of illicit goods. Among the reports, Malaysia intercepted a shipment of possible nuclear components apparently originating from China and bound for Iran, but an investigation was ongoing. Turkey had grounded two Iranian planes bound for Syria; the first one was found to have been carrying only food, and the second, however, had rifles. Qatar has officially denied reports that it had seized two Iranian boats carrying weapons. Diplomats at the United Nations revealed in March that over the past six months, Singapore and South Korea had intercepted shipments that allegedly contained nuclear program and weapons-related materials bound for Iran.


Regional developments

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has opposed President Ahmadinejad’s firing of the intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi. A majority of Parliament signed a statement on April 21, warning the President to follow the Supreme Leader’s orders and re-instate Moslehi. It was suspected that President Ahmadinejad decided to let go of Moslehi after Moslehi had fired another official who has connections to Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the President’s chief-of-staff. On a related note, The Guardian reported that a diplomatic cable from Wikileaks recounted how Ahmadinejad is “grooming” Mashaei to follow him as Iran’s next president.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for the employment of a “credible military threat” if the U.N.-imposed sanctions do not succeed in bringing Iran’s nuclear program to a halt. He defined a credible military threat as one that would hold out the possibility of the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu believes that Iran will not be deterred by sanctions if it can simply bear them with no other consequences. Wikileaks released a U.S. diplomatic cable to Haaretz in which Marc J. Sievers, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, recounted in June 2007 how Netanyahu said he would agree to join a unity government as foreign minister under then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert if Israel launched a military strike on Iran.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have accused Iran of interfering in their internal affairs and demanded that it cease “provocations,” contending that Iran is helping to instigate Shia-led uprisings in their countries. Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah confirmed that Kuwait has expelled Iranian diplomats accused of spying. A Kuwaiti court in March had also sentenced to death one Kuwaiti and two Iranians who were accused of taking part in a spy ring for Tehran. The foreign minister also noted that Tehran was behind an operation that was uncovered last year, which planned to attack “strategic” facilities in Kuwait. However, he emphasized that Gulf states will not want to cut off all ties with Iran. Bahrain had plans to put on trial two Iranians accused of spying. Most recently, Saudi Arabia was warning the Iranian government that it must better protect Saudi diplomats in Tehran or they would be recalled. Students had earlier protested outside of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran against Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Bahrain.

President Ahmadinejad responded to the Gulf states’ moves by warning that the United States was ultimately behind the instability and that it was trying to cause discord between Shias and Sunnis. Tehran also criticized Riyadh for its actions in Bahrain and called on the U.N. Security Council to “end the massacre of the people of Bahrain.”  Meanwhile, the United States has accused Tehran of helping Damascus, both “materially” and by sharing “lessons learned,” to put down opposition protests in Syria. Both Iranian and Syrian officials have denied the accusations. U.S. officials had also criticized the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, with one official warning more recently that Riyadh may be over-emphasizing and focusing too much on Iran’s role in the uprisings that have taken place in recent months.


With additions from Lukas Milevski and Chris Lindborg, BASIC

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