The U.S. Defense Department's intelligence chief said that although Iran has been developing the means to build nuclear weapons, the Middle Eastern nation has not yet made a final decision to do so, Voice of America reported this week (see GSN, Jan. 14).
The conclusion -- originally reached in a comprehensive 2007 intelligence assessment of Iran's nuclear program -- remains valid despite uncertainties about the goals and stability of the nation's government, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Chief Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess said.
"The bottom line assessments of the [National Intelligence Estimate] still hold true," Burgess said. "We have not seen indication that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program. But the fact still remains that we don't know what we don't know."
The report has proven controversial in the United States and has been dismissed by other nations. Advisers to President Barack Obama have also been said to question the assessment, according to Voice of America.
Iran has insisted its atomic ambitions are strictly peaceful, but that assertion has been received skeptically by the United States and other Western powers. Washington and its allies have expressed particular concern about Iran's uranium enrichment program, which can produce nuclear power plant fuel was well as material suitable for use in weapons.
"The fact is, Iran is not dealing straight up. So they can say whatever they would like. I'm an intelligence professional. My job is to verify. And so we continually work on trying to verify what it is the Iranians say. But they are engaged in use of words that is not moving this in a positive direction," Burgess said.
Iranian leaders might have backed away from a U.N. proposal for enrichment of their country's uranium in an effort to win concessions from other negotiating powers, he suggested. The plan sought to defer the Middle Eastern state's ability to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon by refining a large portion of its low-enriched uranium in other countries for use at a Iranian medical research reactor. Tehran has only offered to give up small quantities of its low-enriched uranium at a time in simultaneous exchanges for pre-enriched medical reactor fuel.
"There is always an idea in their head that they can either ultimately get what they've put on the table or move the ball further in their direction. And I think that's clearly one of their aims," he said (Voice of America, Jan. 12).
Russia today indicated that the deal's intended participants were considering counterproposals put forward by Iran, ITAR-Tass reported (see GSN, Jan. 11).
"In early January Tehran presented in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) additional proposals to this effect. We are considering them and are hoping to come to agreement," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko (ITAR-Tass, Jan. 15).
Meanwhile, Washington is seeking Moscow's assistance in pressuring Iran to halt its disputed nuclear activities, RIA Novosti today quoted a high-level U.S. diplomat as saying.
"The United States believes we should keep the door open to negotiations and involve Iran in cooperation," U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns told Gazeta.ru. "But we should also make it clear (to Iran) that a nonconstructive response to creative proposals put forward by the international community will not have but consequences" (RIA Novosti, Jan. 15).
Elsewhere, China indicated it would dispatch a less-ranking delegate to a six-nation meeting tomorrow on Iran's nuclear work, Reuters reported.
The five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany are expected to consider new international sanctions on Iran at the meeting. China, which wields veto authority over all Security Council decisions like the body's other permanent members, has repeatedly voiced opposition to additional economic penalties targeting Tehran.
"Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei will not be able to attend because of scheduling issues. In the current circumstances, we hope that the relevant parties can continue seeking a diplomatic resolution, and demonstrate flexibility," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
"Currently, the parties concerned are coordinating on arrangements for the meeting," she said (Arshad Mohammed, Reuters/Washington Post, Jan. 14).
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi today noted that all Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty signatories are entitled to civilian nuclear energy programs, and he called for stepped-up negotiations aimed at resolving the nuclear dispute, the Xinhua News Agency reported (Xinhua News Agency, Jan. 15).
"We are aware that the representation will be below the level of political director," Agence France-Presse quoted U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley as saying. "It will be a useful meeting to have regardless of the Chinese representation."
"We're gonna work on this issue with our partners," Crowley said. "We continue to engage China and other countries to convince them that the urgency of the situation requires not only additional engagement, but additional support for additional pressure, which obviously China is still working through" (Agence France-Presse/Spacewar.com, Jan. 14).
A member of China's U.N. delegation could attend the talks, several New York-based diplomats told Reuters.
"It's unlikely that the Chinese delegation will have decision-making ability at the meeting, which will make it difficult to accomplish much," sad a diplomat representing one of the countries expected to participate in the session.
While some officials suggested the Chinese move might be a gesture of opposition to new proposed sanctions on Iran or U.S. military exports to Taiwan (see GSN, Jan. 14), one European diplomat said "it's not atypical to have a lower level of Chinese representation there."
Beijing might be wary of taking action on Iran during its term heading the Security Council this month, the official suggested.
"There is a slight sense that the Chinese are very cautious about doing anything in New York this month ... (and) for their own bilateral reasons don't want to initiate anything on their watch," the diplomat said (Mohammed, Reuters).
One diplomatic official at the United Nations said tomorrow's meeting had been scuttled altogether, Interfax reported (Interfax, Jan. 14).
In Tehran, the Iranian Foreign Ministry this week unveiled a Persian-language Web site on the country's nuclear program, Iran's Press TV reported.
"The Web site will gather and update information about different political, legal, historic and geographical developments in the nuclear sphere," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said (Press TV, Jan. 13).