JERUSALEM — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has added new fuel to the international debate over Iran nuclear ambitions, which intensified last week when a Times of London report provided the strongest public evidence yet that Iran could be weaponizing its nuclear program.
In an ABC interview last night, Mr. Ahmadinejad rejected as US forgeries the confidential intelligence documents obtained by the Times, which showed that Iran was testing a pivotal component of a nuclear bomb as recently as 2007. While intelligence experts – who have been aware of the documents for months – have yet to publicly declare whether they are authentic, the documents have confirmed what many in Israel have long maintained: that Iran is on a dangerous nuclear trajectory.
“After the disclosure of this document, if it is authentic, it does prove that the Israeli position until now was the right one,” says Ephraim Kam, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program and deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. “Until now, many experts did not accept that Iran was running to create a nuclear weapon. They had been arguing no that there’s no evidence of that. It’s harder to make that argument now.”
But what’s clear to observers on all sides of the issue – from those who argue for a tough stance against Iran to those who think the West is fumbling its chance to solve the crisis – is that the “leak” of the documents on the eve of the Obama administration’s own end-of-year deadline for a negotiated solution is not coincidental.
“Someone is giving out those documents for a purpose, and the purpose is pressure,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. “I’m in no position to say if the documents are authentic. But I am always suspicious when something suddenly crops up when Iran is under pressure to do something.”
Dr. Kam made the same point but was more direct. “The timing seems to be part of the American efforts to increase the pressure on Iran,” he said.
A possible smoking gun
The Times report indicated that Iran had plans in the past two years to develop a neutron initiator – the all-important device that triggers a nuclear bomb’s explosion.
One two-page document in particular, which is undated but reportedly from 2007, is being scrutinized across the globe because – if true – it would indicate a clear march on the part of Iran toward a nuclear weapon.
That would fly in the face of a 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate that stated that Iran’s weapons work was suspended in 2003.
“The big question is to what extent the documents are authentic or not. It seems very professional, but someone could distort it or change it – I don’t know,” Kam explains. “Since it was dated to 2007, the meaning of this is that they planned to renew or they have already renewed their program, and that might be the smoking gun everyone is looking for.”
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, run by respected physicist and former weapons inspector David Albright, analyzed The Times’ report and the documents in question. In a statement on its website, the institute urged “caution and further assessment of this document, in particular to confirm the document’s date and with how the document fits with other information regarding Iran’s nuclear weaponization activities both prior to 2003 and any work afterwards.”
A statement on the institute’s website added that “we have seen no evidence of an Iranian decision to build [nuclear weapons]” but said that even without such a decision, the type of work indicated by the documents is “consistent with a plan to have all the research and development in place in the process of creating a reliable nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile such as the Shahab 3.”
Israeli officials have taken an across-the-board policy of declining any comment on the issue, preferring to let worrisome developments – from the surfacing of these documents to Iran’s Dec. 16 test of its mid-range Sajjil-2, which can reach Israel – speak for themselves. The only relevant comments have come from Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen Amos Yadlin, who said at an INSS conference last week that Iran is extremely close to acquiring the technology necessary for a nuclear weapon, and that it has already produced enough low-enriched uranium for that purpose.
“They are also improving long-range missiles with solid fuel propellant, are also developing nuclear detonators, and are taking other steps that do not fit the Iranian claim that its program is for civilian purposes,” Mr. Yadlin said told the conference.
Israel’s position has not substantially changed due to what appears to be a piling up of new evidence – and Iran’s intransigence in the eyes of some, says Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the INSS in Tel Aviv. But she and other analysts in Israel, which faces the most imminent threat by a nuclear Iran, are concerned over whether the Obama administration and its European allies will take a more aggressive approach on the Iran nuclear issue come 2010.
“This is the latest in a chain of developments that make it clear that Iran’s intentions are to go for military nuclear capability. The strongest evidence comes from the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] itself, which was the one party that has been perceived as the most lenient towards Iran,” says Dr. Landau, who adds that time has run out for Iran to prove its intentions are peaceful. “Apparently the IAEA has this secret annex which was leaked to the press and it obviously contains the same information … which does not square with a peaceful program.”
Landau says Israel is concerned that despite what seems like tougher talk on the part of the Obama administration, there won’t be actions to back it up, in part due to differences of opinion across the international community. Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council, differ substantially from European leaders and the US.
“Even though this picture is emerging in such a clear way, we don’t see the determination to deter Iran from moving forward,” says Landau, who would like to see strong signals from Washington that the military option and US sanctions separate from any approved by the UN Security Council are realistic options. “The whole international dynamic right now is giving Iran the message that the international community is not united, and so they’re not up against a very tough response.”
On Sunday, Obama advisor David Axelrod implied that US patience with Iran was running out after Tehran failed to embrace an Oct. 1 deal to ship enriched uranium out of the country for further processing. The deal, to which Iran agreed in principle, would have assuaged international concerns over Iran developing a stockpile of low-enriched uranium that could have been further enriched to make a nuclear bomb, while still allowing Iran to continue with its civilian nuclear program.
“Listen, nobody has any illusions about what the intent of the Iranian government is,” Mr. Axelrod said on ABC’s This Week. “And we’ve given them an opportunity to prove otherwise by allowing them to ship their nuclear material out to be reprocessed for peaceful use. And they have passed on that deal so far. And the international community is going to have to deal with that if they don’t change their minds.” Iran also refused to stop work on its newly declared enrichment facility near Qom, and said it would build ten new enrichment facilities.
“Plainly, there are going to be consequences if they don’t turn around,” Axelrod said. Obama said he would give his Iran policy review until the end of the year, indicating a Dec. 31 deadline.
But what the Obama administration didn’t take into account when trying to push through a deal in Vienna was the domestic Iranian political picture, says Dr. Farhi at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.
“The way the negotiations occurred over the transfer deal was that Obama immediately moved into threatening, with deadlines and redlines, more or less the way Bush used to do,” says Farhi, a political science professor who has taught in both the US and Iran. “Even the most hard-line sectors were ready to engage in a deal. But if you do it this way, you make it almost impossible for the government to push for that deal, given its domestic dynamics. Americans approach Iran as if it has no domestic politics. But ultimately, the way the international community approached the deal made it impossible to sell it.”