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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Iran's nuclear program gains speed

The New York Times is reporting this morning that Iran has resolved many of the technical issues that were holding up its development of nuclear weapons and that its nuclear program is gaining speed.
Inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency have concluded that Iran appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before, according to the agency’s top officials.

The findings may change the calculus of diplomacy in Europe and in Washington, which has aimed to force a suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities in large part to prevent it from learning how to produce weapons-grade material.

In a short-notice inspection of Iran’s main nuclear facility at Natanz on Sunday, conducted in advance of a report to the United Nations Security Council due early next week, the inspectors found that Iranian engineers were already using roughly 1,300 centrifuges and were producing fuel suitable for nuclear reactors, according to diplomats and nuclear experts here. Until recently, the Iranians were having difficulty keeping the delicate centrifuges spinning at the tremendous speeds necessary to make nuclear fuel, and often were running them empty, or not at all.

Now, those roadblocks appear to have been surmounted. “We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the energy agency, who clashed with the Bush administration four years ago when he declared that there was no evidence that Iraq had resumed its nuclear program. “From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact.”
In other words, the Iranians have passed the point of no return. The Times notes that this has led the Russians to argue that there is no point in seeking suspension of the Iranian nuclear development, while the US is arguing that there is still a chance for diplomacy to work. I'm not sure which argument I find more disturbing.
The logic of demanding suspension was that it would delay the day that Iran gained the knowledge to produce its own nuclear fuel, what the Israelis used to refer to as “the point of no return.” Those favoring unconditional engagement with Iran have argued that the current strategy was creating a stalemate that the Iranians are exploiting, allowing them to make technological leaps while the Security Council steps up sanctions.

The Bush administration, in contrast, has argued that it will never negotiate while the Iranians speed ever closer to nuclear-weapons capacity, saying there has to be a standstill as long as talks proceed. In a telephone interview, R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for policy, who is carrying out the Iran strategy, said that while he had not heard about the I.A.E.A.’s newest findings they would not affect American policy.

“We’re proceeding under the assumption that there is still time for diplomacy to work,” he said, though he added that if the Iranians did not agree to suspend production by the time the leaders of the largest industrial nations meet next month, “we will move ahead toward a third set of sanctions.”
If the first two sets of sanctions had no effect, why does anyone think the third set will have any effect?

And then there's this ominous statement:
Inspectors are concerned that Iran has declined to answer a series of questions, posed more than a year ago, about information Iran probably received from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer. Of particular interest is a document that shows how to make uranium into spheres, a shape suitable for use in a weapon.
But all of this doesn't mean that Iran is going to build weapons immediately:
Some Bush administration officials and some nuclear experts here at the I.A.E.A. and elsewhere suspect that the Iranians may not be driving for a weapon but the ability to have sufficient stockpiles of low-enriched uranium that they could produce a bomb within months of evicting inspectors, as North Korea did in 2003. That capacity alone could serve as a nuclear deterrent.

One senior European diplomat, who declined to speak for attribution, said that Washington would now have to confront the question of whether it wants to keep Iran from producing any nuclear material, or whether it wants to keep it from gaining the ability to build a weapon on short notice.

Continued stalemate, the diplomat said, allows Iran to move toward that ability.

But hawks in the administration say that the only position President Bush can take now, without appearing to back down, is to stick to the administration’s past argument that “not one centrifuge spins” in Iran. They argue for escalating sanctions and the threat that, if diplomacy fails, the United States could destroy the nuclear facilities.

But even inside the administration, many officials, particularly in the State Department and the Pentagon, argue that military action would create greater chaos in the Middle East and Iranian retribution against American forces in Iraq, and possibly elsewhere.

Moreover, they have argued that Iran’s enrichment facilities are still at an early enough stage that a military strike would not set the country’s program back very far. Such a strike, they argue, would make sense only once large facilities had been built.
I have left out parts of the Times article and suggest that you read it all.

What I find most disturbing about this from an Israeli's perspective is that Israel is very likely to be stuck taking action alone against Iran. Unless President Bush decides to go for broke in the final months of his second administration - which appears very unlikely - dealing with Iran is likely to be left to the next American administration. If the next American President is Rudy Giuliani or someone like him, I am somewhat comfortable that Iran will not be allowed to blow Israel off the map. But if it's Hillary Clinton or Barak Hussein Obama, we are on our own. In the absence of elections, the current government will remain in power until November 2010. While I think it is highly unlikely that Ehud K. Olmert will serve out his entire term, I do not necessarily see the current left-leaning Knesset being replaced. Do we really want the appeasing Tzipi Feigele Livni making the decision as to whether and when we go after Iran's nuclear capability? I don't.

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