aides launch pre-emptive Iran
attack By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Although the place and time
of the next round of talks on Iran's nuclear
program have not yet been announced, the
maneuvering by Iran and the United States to
influence the outcome has already begun.
Iran sought support for a revised proposal
to the talks during the United Nations General
Assembly (UNGA) last month, according to a New
York Times report October 4. Then, only a few days
later, the Barack Obama administration launched a
pre-emptive attack on the proposal through New
York Times reporter David Sanger.
officials suggested the Iranian proposal would
give Iran an easier route to a "breakout" to
weapons grade uranium
enrichment. But that claim
flies in the face of some obvious realities.
An October 4 story by Sanger reported that
Iran had begun describing a "nine-step plan" to
diplomats at the UNGA and quoted administration
officials as charging that the proposal would not
"guarantee that Iran cannot produce a weapon".
Instead, the officials argued, it would allow Iran
to keep the option of resuming 20% enriched
uranium, thus being able to enrich to weapons
grade levels much more quickly.
nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili issued a denial
that Iran had "delivered any new proposal other
than what had been put forward in talks with the
P5+1?. But that statement did not constitute a
denial that Iran was discussing such a proposal,
because the Times story had said the proposal had
been initially made to European officials during
the P5+1 meeting in Istanbul in July. (The P5+1
comprises the five permanent members of the UN
security council and Germany.)
administration officials complained that, under
the Iranian plan, Iran would carry out a
"suspension" of 20% enrichment only after oil
sanctions have been lifted and oil revenues are
That description of the
proposal is consistent with an Iranian "five-step
plan", presented during the talks with P5+1, the
text of which was published by Arms Control Today
last summer. In that proposal, the P5+1 would have
ended all sanctions against Iran in steps one and
two, but Iran would have ended its 20% enrichment
only in the fifth step.
In that same final
step, however, Iran also would have closed down
the Fordow enrichment plant and transferred its
entire stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to "a
third country under IAEA (International Atomic
Energy Agency) custody".
Iran has made
clear that it intends to use the 20% enrichment as
bargaining leverage to achieve an end to the most
damaging economic sanctions.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the spokesperson for
Iran's nuclear negotiating team from 2003 to 2005
and now a visiting scholar at Princeton
University, told IPS, "Iran is prepared to stop
20% enrichment and go below five%. The question is
what will the P5+1 provide in return. As long as
the end state of a comprehensive agreement is not
clear for Iran, it will not consider halting
enrichment at 20%."
administration's portrayal of the Iranian proposal
as offering a sanctions-free path to continued 20%
enrichment is highly misleading, according to
close observers of the Iran nuclear issue. It also
ignores elements of the proposal that would
minimize the risk of a "breakout" to enrichment of
uranium to weapons grade levels.
administration criticism of the proposal, as
reported by Sanger, was couched in such a way as
to justify the US refusal to discuss lifting the
sanctions on Iranian oil exports during the four
rounds of talks with Iran. A senior administration
official was quoted as saying that Iran "could
restart the program in a nanosecond," whereas "it
would take years" to re-impose the sanctions.
Paul Pillar, national intelligence officer
for Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005,
noted in a commentary in The National Interest
that it is "far easier to impose sanctions on Iran
than to lift them" and that if Iran reneged on a
nuclear agreement, "it would be easier still."
Peter Jenkins, British permanent
representative to the IAEA from 2001 to 2006,
noted in an e-mail to IPS that it took the EU only
two months to agree to impose oil sanctions, and
that "political resistance among the 27 (EU member
states) to imposing oil sanctions would probably
be less if re-imposition were required by an
Iranian breach of a deal with the P5+1."
Jenkins pointed out that EU oil purchases
from Iran now have experience in getting supplies
from other countries which could make re-imposing
sanctions even easier.
One US official was
quoted by Sanger as complaining that the Iranian
proposal would allow Iran to "move the fuel
around, and it stays in the country". That
description appeared to hint that the purpose is
to give Tehran the option of a breakout to weapons
But the biggest
difference between the proposal now being
discussed by Iranian diplomats and the one offered
last summer is that the new proposal reflects the
reality that Iran began last spring to convert 20%
enriched uranium into U308 in powdered form for
fuel plates for its Tehran Research Reactor.
The conversion of 20% enriched uranium to
U308, which was documented but not highlighted in
the August 30 IAEA report, makes it more difficult
to use that same uranium for enrichment to weapons
The new Iranian proposal
evidently envisions U308 uranium remaining in the
country for use by the Tehran Research Reactor
rather than the entire stockpile of 20% enriched
uranium being shipped to another country as in its
Former State Department
official Mark Fitzpatrick of the International
Institute of Strategic Studies, who has argued in
the past that the only purpose Iran could have in
enriching to 20% is a nuclear weapon, told the
Times that the conversion "tends to confirm that
there is civilian purpose in enriching to this
But Fitzpatrick told the Times
that the Iranians know how to reconvert the U308
powder back to a gaseous form that can then be
used for weapons grade enrichment. "It would not
take long to set it up," Fitzpatrick said.
In an interview with IPS, Dr Harold A
Feiveson, a senior research scientist at
Princeton's Woodrow Wilson's school and a
specialist on nuclear weapons, said "it would not
be super hard" to carry out such a reconversion.
But Feiveson admitted that he is not aware
of anyone ever having done it. The reconversion to
20% enrichment "would be pretty visible" and
"would take some time," said Feiveson. "You would
have to kick the (IAEA) inspectors out."
Even Israeli policymakers have
acknowledged that Iran's diversion of 20% enriched
uranium represents a step away from a breakout
capability, as Ha'aretz reported October 9.
Defense ministry sources told the Israeli
daily that the Iran's reduction of its stockpile
of medium-enriched uranium had added "eight months
at least" to what the Israeli government has cited
as its "deadline" on Iran. The same sources said
it was the justification for Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu's dropping the threat of attack
on Iran in his UN speech.
reduction in Iranian oil revenues from sanctions
and the recent plunge in the value of Iran's
currency may well have made Iran more interested
in compromise than when the talks with the P5+1
started in April.
Mousavian told IPS, "I
am convinced that Iran is ready for a package deal
based on recognition of two principles." The first
principle, he said, is that "Iran recognizes the
P5+1 concerns and will remove all such concerns";
the second is that the P5+1 "recognizes the rights
of Iran and gradually lifts sanctions".
But Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei has expressed serious doubts about
whether the Obama administration is willing to end
the sanctions on Iran under any circumstances. In
an October 10 speech, Khamenei said the Americans
"lie" in suggesting sanctions would be lifted in
return for Iran giving up its nuclear program.
US officials "make decisions out of grudge
and aversion (toward Iran)", Khamenei said.
Gareth Porter, an investigative
historian and journalist specializing in US
national security policy, received the UK-based
Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for
articles on the US war in Afghanistan.