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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 01/24/2011

Iran and the effort to halt its nuclear ambitions

By Glenn Kessler

"The most recent analysis is that the sanctions have been working, they have made it much more difficult for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambition. Iran's had technological problems that have made it slow down its timetables. So we do see some problems within Iran."
--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jan. 10, 2011

After years of worry about Iran's nuclear ambitions, there has been an apparent ray of hope, as exemplified by Clinton's quote above, made during a tour of the Persian Gulf earlier this month. Clinton warned that pressure on Tehran should not be eased, even though Meir Dagan, the retiring head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, recently told reporters that Iran could not produce a nuclear weapon until 2015, significantly increasing the timeline for diplomacy. (The Israeli government was furious at Dagan's remarks.) Yet over the weekend talks between Iran and major powers collapsed, with little prospect of resuming soon. Why would Tehran balk from talks if it is under so much pressure? As part of our occasional effort to provide context for stories in the news, here is an update on Iran and the international efforts to restrain its nuclear program.


The talks that took place in Istanbul between Iran and six major powers--the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany--are the fourth time the two sides have met in the past three years, to little avail. In the meantime, Iran has continued to enrich uranium in violation of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend enrichment until it answers outstanding questions about its nuclear program.

Iran says it is has a right to enrich uranium, which it claims will be used as fuel for peaceful nuclear reactors. Senior Iranian officials say the country has no interest in building a nuclear device, but that claim has been met with skepticism. In theory, Iran has enough low-enriched (about 3 to 5 percent) uranium to convert into bomb-grade material for at least one nuclear weapon. In the past year, it has begun to enrich some of the low-enriched uranium to a higher level (19.75 percent), which it says is needed to produce fuel for a medical research reactor.

Bomb grade uranium is enriched to above 90 percent, but don't be confused by the numbers. In uranium enrichment, each level is easier than the last, so 19.75 percent is actually more half of the way to 90 percent. The most time consuming step is enriching uranium in the first place. (Click here for a simple chart that describes why this is the case.) At the moment, Iran's known enrichment activities are under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency, so unless Iran has an unknown secret facility, any effort to break out to higher enrichment levels would be quickly discovered.

Meanwhile, as Clinton indicated, there is increasing evidence that Iran's nuclear efforts are facing difficulties. The Stuxnet virus, which many believe is linked to Israeli and/or U.S. intelligence, appears to have crippled a number of centrifuges needed to enrich uranium. International sanctions have made it harder for Iran to obtain raw materials, such carbon fiber, that it is seeking to make advanced, more powerful centrifuges. (Most of Iran's centrifuges are based on a European design nearly a half-century-old.)

David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) recently estimated that Iran has experienced an unusually high failure rate in its basic centrifuges, with about 2,000 centrifuges having broken at the Natanz plant since it started in 2007. ISIS estimated that it would take Iran a year to amass enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb but it warned that "Iran could halve that time to six months with advance preparation, and with somewhat better operation" of its centrifuges.

Another report last week, by Ivanka Barzashka of the Federation of American Scientists, concluded that Iran's enrichment performance has actually improved in the past year. She said it would "take Iran anywhere from five months to almost a year to produce enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a single crude bomb, which does not seem like a viable breakout option." But she added that "we are entering a phase in which Iran's enrichment capacity will no longer be the important rate-limiting step in producing a bomb because breakout time will be in the order of weeks, not months."

These reports provide clues for why Iran has refused to engage in serious diplomacy on the Iranian program. Time continues to be on its side. It took almost six months for European Union officials to set up this round of talks, which began last month in Geneva. Little was accomplished in December except for an agreement to hold a second meeting this month. But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned at the time that the round in Istanbul would be a failure unless the United States and its partners began to ease sanctions. Though Clinton said before the meeting that Iran had to be prepared for "serious discussions," Iranian negotiators held firm over the weekend and the talks became an exercise in diplomatic frustration. Unlike 2009, the chief Iranian delegate would not even meet one-on-one with the U.S. representative, suggesting Iran no longer even sees a need to pretend it might value interaction with the United States.

The Obama administration won kudos for successfully winning Russian and Chinese support for a new round of U.N. sanctions, which were approved last June. But Iran appears to view the negotiations more as an attempt to test the unity of the six powers rather than a venue for serious talks. The six nations held firm in Istanbul. But at this point it is unlikely both China or Russia will approve yet another round of U.N. sanctions--and they may balk at further unilateral efforts by the United States and European nations.

Meanwhile, Iran's regional position has been bolstered with the possibility that Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon, might build enough support to form the government there--which would be a blow to the United States. The State Department labels Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

The Bottom Line

The situation with Iran remains extraordinarily dangerous. Despite reports of problems with Iran's nuclear program, it continues to build a stockpile of enriched uranium that may some day form the core of a crash effort to build nuclear weapons. Sanctions have not dimmed either its bluster or its regional ambitions. Indeed, the Obama administration repeatedly said that the latest round of sanctions was intended to bring Iran to the negotiating table so a diplomatic solution could be found. But despite a potentially generous offer on the table from the West, offering economic and political benefits in exchange for a deal on uranium enrichment, Iran continues to show little inclination to bargain. Unless that dynamic changes, the options for President Obama could narrow to two very difficult choices--acceptance of Iran's nuclear program or a military attack on its nuclear facilities.

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By Glenn Kessler  | January 24, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Iran, Other Foreign Policy, issue context  
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A fine column, but there should be a verdict. Isn't there a 'pending judgement' category applicable here?

Posted by: angrydoug1 | January 24, 2011 7:49 AM | Report abuse

Why doesn't the so-called "fact checker" publish the fact that the current,unchanged position of the US intelligence community after tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars of intelligence work is that "there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program"? And that under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to which both Iran and the US, but not Israel, are parties, Iran has a legal right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes? This whole exercise appears to be just catering to Israel's fear of losing its preeminent position militarily, economically, and diplomatically - in the middle east.

Posted by: jklfairwin | January 24, 2011 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I had read elsewhere that Iran vetoes IAEA inspectors that it doesn't like -- ones who write reports it does not like. Would have been useful for article to address this issue. If true, the permitted inspectors are the less capable one and that might undermine the "watchful eye" argument.

What are Iran's obligations under the IAEA treaty which it signed? That would seem to be a basic consideration.

How does one explain the facility that was constructed secretly? The one only announced after Iran learned that the US knew about it.

Addressing these issues would result in a more comprehensive summation.

Posted by: RichardCollins | January 24, 2011 9:00 AM | Report abuse

hahaha... Long Live Iran...

Posted by: Kinesics | January 24, 2011 9:07 AM | Report abuse

USA has not signed NPT Treaty.
Iran has the right to veto inspectors it deems "suspecious", that is much like acceting diplomats. Plus, discovering the military side to their nuclear program (if there is any) does not need inspectors with Peircing eyes, but espionage needs inspectors with sleazy thoughts, which Iran is vetoeing...
Let's face it, Iran is clean in it's nuclear program, but the US is not clean in its policies. It's time they pay for this.
I don't think Iran should even sit with the Americans, untill US loses its standing as a superpower.
I don't think we have to wait too long for that...

Posted by: Kinesics | January 24, 2011 9:15 AM | Report abuse

I don't think "factchecker" is an appropriate label for this piece of propaganda.

Posted by: BrianX9 | January 24, 2011 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Glenn Kessler is one more Zionist agitating and rationalizing endless war.

And talk about fact checking, how about this?

A brief reminder of what Iran has endured in recent history.

- Invasion by Russia and Britain in 1914-1918 ostensibly to secure Iran's oil fields

- Invasion again by Russia and Britain in 1941 to take over Iranian oil fields

- Democratic Government overthrown by US in 1953 in CIA Operation Ajax

-France reneges on nuclear power contracts despite NPT obligations 1979

- Invasion by Iraq – up to 500,000s killed by Iraq, West helps Iraq, 1980: Rumsfield goes to Iraq to shake Saddam’s hand in well-known picture

-Chemical weapons attack by Iraq and the west remains silent, 1980 onwards

- US kills 290 mainly Iranian civilians when a US naval ship, in Iranian waters, shoots down an Iranian passenger plane. The US awards medals to those who killed the Iranian civilians. 1988

-US shelters thousands of Iranian MEK terrorists in Iraq and allows them to operate against Iran, 2003 onwards

-Nuclear weapon neighbors tolerated or abetted: Russia, and non-NPT states Israel, India, Pakistan

-Major US armies and air forces currently based on their east and west frontiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and powerful naval forces in the Persian Gulf

- Threats of nuclear attack by Israel (a country whose religion condones Genocide as a commandment from their God no less)

I have traveled twice to Iran in recent years, and am no fan or partisan for the Mullah dominated theocratic regime. Please be aware if you are not, that the vast majority of the business elites, the educated, the women, the young and restless, the artistic and intellectuals all favor transition away from such a state. But they are also patriotic.

One more war, so easy to start and so impossible to finish on any satisfactory basis, and America is toast.

Posted by: tarquinis1 | January 24, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the title "factchecker" because,

a) it's a summary of "our" views of "Iran is bad"; "we and our beleagured powerless friend (Israel) in the Middle East are in imminent danger"; and "time is on the evil Iranian side" plus some weired revelation of a spy contradicting "our" views; and,

b) although there are no facts to support anything the article says, it's time to scare the crap out of our sides and start yet another war by concluding that "The situation with Iran remains extraordinarily dangerous. Despite reports of problems with Iran's nuclear program, it continues to build a stockpile of enriched uranium that may some day form the core of a crash effort to build nuclear weapons." And then they will deliver it with a donkey on a boat all the way to the homeland!!!

We should send a virus that would kill all donkeys before Iranians launch a weapons agains us through them. I'd love to see an article on that.

Posted by: shabanian | January 24, 2011 11:04 AM | Report abuse

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