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Iranian Nuclear Danger Not Immediate: Intel

Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility, shown in 2007. Acting and retired U.S. officials have said they strongly believe the Middle Eastern nation presently possesses no undeclared uranium refinement sites (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian). Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility, shown in 2007. Acting and retired U.S. officials have said they strongly believe the Middle Eastern nation presently possesses no undeclared uranium refinement sites (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian).

Iran possesses no nuclear armament, has not committed to constructing such a weapon and would likely require years to develop an atomic explosive transportable to a target, according to U.S., European and Israeli intelligence assessments reported by Reuters on Friday (see GSN, March 22).

The findings -- described by acting and retired U.S. and European government insiders informed of intelligence on Iran -- differed sharply in tone from public discussions over potential Israeli military action aimed at curbing Iranian atomic activities, according to Reuters. Tel Aviv and Western capitals all fear that Iran's atomic efforts might enable the Persian Gulf regional power to acquire a nuclear-weapon capability, but Tehran insists its nuclear ambitions have always been strictly nonmilitary in nature.

The Middle Eastern nation is now operating no clandestine uranium enrichment facilities, according to assertions by present and past U.S. government insiders.

"We are very confident that there is no secret site now," though Iran's construction of such facilities in the past suggests it would ultimately build another clandestine plant, an Obama administration insider said.

The sources also voiced a strong belief that the global community would spot a key Iranian step to assemble a nuclear bomb, such as refining uranium to a weapon-usable level, well before Tehran could complete a weapon.

President Obama's call for a near-term focus on addressing the nuclear standoff through financial penalties rests on the U.S. conclusions, Reuters reported. In addition, the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies have said recently they do not believe Iran's leaders have made an official decision to seek a nuclear weapon.

Israel and European governments, though, differ with the United States over how far Iran advanced in preparing a nuclear-bomb schematic  before halting its formal weapon effort, as well as the speed at which the country is now closing in on a nuclear-weapon capability. Israeli and European estimates on both matters place Iran further along in its nuclear development than Washington's analysis.

A 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that Iran halted formal nuclear-bomb efforts in late 2003 was based in part on internal telephone and e-mail statements obtained from various Iranian specialists. Sources of the statements included Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a major figure in the Middle Eastern nation's atomic efforts, Reuters reported.

Still, Iran might have shifted elements of the one-time bomb effort into a multitude of armed forces and research offices, including poorly known scholarly entities, according to a large number of European specialists (Zakaria/Hosenball, Reuters I, March 23).

A 2010 update to the 2007 U.S. analysis "more accurately" judges the utility of Iran's public uranium enrichment program in a potential move to produce weapon-usable uranium, according to a think-tank analysis issued on Thursday.

Construction of an undeclared Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Qum for three years prior to its public disclosure by Western leaders in 2009 indicates that aspects of an Iranian nuclear-weapon effort might have persisted beyond 2003, when the United States believes such an initiative was already shuttered, the Institute for Science and International Security said (see GSN, Sept. 25, 2009).

"A firm conclusion on whether a 'restart' [of the Iranian nuclear-weapon program] has occurred ... may not be possible, given that Iran would be expected over time to increase its precautions against leakage of any information about secret nuclear weaponization work," the analysis adds.

"Most of this discussion occurs on a highly classified level, and the Iraq experience teaches that such information and assessments can be manipulated by policy-makers and selectively leaked for political gain," the think tank said. "Because of that, it is critical to support the [International Atomic Energy Agency’s] effort to fully understand and verify allegations of Iran’s past and possibly ongoing nuclear weaponization work (Institute for Science and International Security release, March 22).

Several one-time IAEA personnel, though, have said the U.N. nuclear watchdog's leader has stifled opposing views over Iranian nuclear development in a manner reminiscent of tactics employed in the debate over Iraq's purported WMD programs prior to the 2003 military intervention in that country, the London Guardian reported on Thursday. No viable weapons of mass destruction were uncovered in Iraq following the invasion.

"[IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano] is falling into the Cheney trap. What we learned back in 2002 and 2003, when we were in the run-up to the war, was that peer review was very important, and that the analysis should not be left to a small group of people," former IAEA official Robert Kelley said.

"So what have we learned since then? Absolutely nothing. Just like (former U.S. Vice President) Dick Cheney, Amano is relying on a very small group of people and those opinions are not being checked," Kelley said.

Amano in November issued a report noting "serious concerns" that Iran was seeking a nuclear-weapon capacity (see GSN, Nov. 9, 2011). Since that time, he has on multiple occasions pointed publicly to possible indications of nuclear-weapon develop activities in the country (see GSN, March 12).

Additional retired agency insiders noted the director general's March 2011 breakup of the IAEA External Relations and Policy Coordination Office, which under his predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei had questioned certain assessments by the agency's nuclear inspections division and opposed the release of data with potential to justify U.S. acts of armed force.

"There has been a concentration of power, with less diversity of viewpoints," one previous agency worker stated, adding Amano's supporting staff shares the leader's stance on the Iranian atomic dispute.

Former IAEA Director General Hans Blix added: "The agency has a certain credibility. It should guard it by being meticulous in checking the evidence. If certain governments want a blessing for the intelligence they provide the IAEA, they should provide convincing evidence. Otherwise, the agency should not give its stamp of approval."

Amano's concerns over Iranian nuclear-weapon efforts are rooted in extensive substantiating information, much of which was available during ElBaradei's tenure, according to Western envoys who back the current IAEA leader.

"It is arguable that ElBaradei was a slightly more benefit-of-the-doubt operator than Amano," one diplomat said. "He might have fretted more about making judgments on evidence because he didn't have 100 percent confirmation. Amano says, 'I don't have 100 percent certainty, but it makes no sense saying nothing until a smoking gun is visible,'" one envoy stated (Julian Borger, London Guardian, March 22).

Meanwhile, a Russian diplomat on Thursday said no final date has been decided for planned discussions between Iran and six world powers, Interfax reported.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton recently said the six negotiating powers -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- had decided to join new discussions with Iran over the Middle Eastern nation's nuclear program. Iranian officials most recently met with representatives from the nations on two separate occasions in December 2010 and January 2011, but neither gathering yielded clear progress toward resolving concerns about Iranian atomic operations (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011).

"Negotiations are expected to take place in April. But a date and venue for them has not been set yet," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.

The sides were previously reported to have scheduled the discussions for April 13 (see GSN, March 21; Interfax I, March 22).

The Russian State Duma intends early next month to convene a discussion on the nuclear dispute, according to the head of the legislative body's international affairs committee.

"The main aim of the round table discussion will be to consider likely scenarios, to map ways out of the dead end and to understand whether there can be a common platform for us and the other members of the sextet that would be suitable for Iran, Russia and other states," Alexei Pushkov added.

"Some say the world should learn to live with a nuclear Iran. They are in the minority. Others say Iran should be bombed. Also, there is the idea of an interim status. For instance, Japan does have a certain nuclear potential, but it does not create nuclear weapons," said Pushkov, who backed the latter alternative (Interfax II, March 22).

The leader of the Iranian legislature's national security committee on Thursday said "the slightest of errors" by Western powers toward Iran would place the Israeli state's future in question, Iran's Press TV reported.

“Should the Western countries want to commit the slightest of errors regarding Iran, they will be gripped by such ramifications that will endanger the existence of the Zionist regime,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi said.

“In case of any venture against our country, the aggressors will face a swift, resolute and serious countermeasure,” Boroujerdi said (Press TV, March 22).

Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Singaporean counterpart, K. Shanmugam, addressed the Iranian nuclear standoff during talks on Thursday, the Straits Times reported (Phua Mei Pin, Straits Times, March 23).

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