Monthly Archives: April 2014

Gates on the Israeli Tail’s Attempt to Wag the Dog in 2007

Lobe Log | Jim Lobe | April 23rd, 2014


I’ve been slowly reading Robert Gates’ Duty over the last week or so and some of it is quite pertinent in light of the recent recommendation by JINSA’s Michael Makovsky and Lt. Gen. David Deptula (ret.) in the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration provide Israel with Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP) bombs and B-52 bombers to deliver them against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Here’s what they wrote in their article entitled, “Sending a Bunker-Buster Message to Iran”, (echoed here by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin):

By transferring to Israel MOPs and B-52Hs the administration would send a signal that its ally, which already has the will, now has the ability to prevent a nuclear Iran [a very dubious assertion, according to most experts]. Once they are delivered — ideally as the current six-month interim deal is set to expire in July — Iran will be put on notice that its nuclear program will come to an end, one way or another.

While Gates in his book (pp. 190-191] doesn’t say whether Israel requested the same weaponry in 2007, his description of the arguments presented, both pro and con, would certainly apply to Makovksy’s and Deptula’s arguments today. The passage is worth quoting in full, although the main point is summarized at the end when Gates quotes directly from what he told Bush in private. Here’s the passage as a whole:

Debate [about Iran’s nuclear program] heated up considerably in May [2007], prompted by several Israeli military requests that, if satisfied, would greatly enhance their ability to strike the Iranian nuclear sites. In a meeting with the Joint Chiefs and me in the Tank on May 10, in the middle of a conversation on Afghanistan, the president suddenly asked if anybody was thinking about military action against Iran. He quickly added that the goal was of course to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons and that he “just wanted you to be thinking about it — not a call to arms.”

Two days later the national security team met with the president in his private dining room adjacent to the Oval Office. The participants included Cheney, Rice, Mullen, Bolten, Hadley, Hadley’s deputy Jim Jeffrey, and me. We addressed two questions: How do we answer the Israelis and what should we do about the Iranian nuclear program? In many respects, it was a reprise of the debate over the Syrian nuclear reactor the year before. Hadley asked me to lead off. When making my case to the president on a significant issue like this one, I always wrote out in advance the points I wanted to make, because I did not want to omit something important. Given Bush 43′s green light to Olmert on the Syrian reactor, I was very apprehensive as the meeting began.

I recommended saying no to all the Israelis’ requests. Giving them any of the items on their new list would signal U.S. support for them to attack Iran unilaterally: “At that point, we lose our ability to control our fate in the entire region.” I said we would be handing over the initiative regarding U.S. vital national interests to a foreign power, a government that, when we asked them not to attack Syria, did so anyway. We should offer to collaborate more closely with Israel, I continued, doing more on missile defense and other capabilities, “but Olmert should be told in the strongest possible terms not to act unilaterally.” The United States was not reconciled to Iran having nuclear weapons, but we needed a long-term solution, not just a one-to-three-year delay. I went on to say that a strike by the United States or Israel would end divisions in the Iranian government, strengthen the most radical elements, unify the country behind the government in their hatred of us, and demonstrate to all Iranians the need to develop nuclear weapons. I warned that Iran was not Syria — it would retaliate, putting at risk Iraq, Lebanon, oil supplies from the Gulf (which would lead to skyrocketing oil prices), and the end of the peace process, as well as increasing the likelihood of a Hizballah war against Israel. Addressing what I knew to be Cheney’s desire to deal with the Iranian nuclear program before Bush left office, I observed that our current efforts to isolate Iran, significantly increase their economic problems, and delay their nuclear program might not be successful in bringing about a change of policy in Tehran during the Bush presidency, but they would leave his successor a robust array of tools with which to apply pressure. Finally, I pointed out that the president’s own conditions for preemptive war had not been met, our own intelligence estimate would be used against us, and we would be the ones isolated, not Iran.

Cheney spoke next, and I knew what was coming. Matter-of-factly, he said he disagreed with everything I had said. The United States should give Israel everything it wanted. We could not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If we weren’t going to act, he said, then we should enable the Israelis. Twenty years on, he argued, if there was a nuclear-armed Iran, people would say the Bush administration could have stopped it. I interjected that twenty years on, people might also say that we not only didn’t stop them from getting nuclear weapons but made it inevitable. I was pretty sure Condi [Condoleezza Rice] did not favor accommodating Israeli’s requests, but the way she expressed her concerns about not leaving our ally in the lurch or feeling isolated led Mullen and me after the meeting to worry that she might be changing her mind. Mullen talked about the difficulty of carrying out a successful attack. Hadley remained silent. At the end, the president was non-commital, clearly frustrated by the lack of good options for dealing with Iran. He had a lot of company in the room on that score.

That afternoon I flew to Colorado Springs to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Aboard the plane, I became increasingly worried that the president might be persuaded by Cheney and Olmert to act or to enable the Israelis to act, especially if Condi’s position was softening. I decided to communicate once again with Bush privately. I said,

“We must not make our vital interests in the entire Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Southwest Asia hostage to another nation’s decisions — no matter how close an ally. Above all, we ought not risk what we have gained in Iraq or the lives of our soldiers there on an Israeli military gamble in Iran. Olmert has his own agenda, and he will pursue it irrespective of our interests. …We will be bystanders to actions that affect us directly and dramatically. …Most evidence suggests we have some time. …The military option probably remains available for several years.  …A military attack by either Israel or the United States will, I believe — having watched these guys since 1979 — guarantee that the Iranians will develop nuclear weapons, and seek revenge. …A surprise attack on Iran risks a further conflict in the Gulf and all its potential consequences, with no consultation with the Congress or foreknowledge on the part of the American people. That strikes me as very dangerous, and not just for sustaining our efforts in the Gulf.”

Most of that should act as a rebuttal to Makovsky’s and Deptula’s dangerous recommendations.

Iran: Next expert-level nuclear talks to be held in New York

The Jerusalem Post | 04/20/2014

Iranian Deputy FM says negotiations with P5+1 slated for May 5-9 ahead of high-level talks in Vienna.


Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, November 22, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Fabrice Coffrini/Pool

The next round of expert-level nuclear talks between Iran and six world power were set to be held in New York in early may, Iranian media on Sunday reported Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi as saying.

The senior Iranian negotiator in talks with the P5+1 powers said the meeting would take place from May 5-9 on the sidelines of a session on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Araqchi said the negotiations would precede a new round of high-level talks scheduled for May 13 in Vienna between the Islamic Republic and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

According to the official state news agency IRNA, Iran and the six world powers will begin work drafting a long-term settlement of Iran’s disputed nuclear programme at the expert-level talks next month.

During the May 5-9 meeting, the P5+1 world powers and Iran will start “writing draft of comprehensive agreements which will be a complex and difficult work,” IRNA quoted Araghchi as saying.

Hamid Baeedinejad, Director General for the Political and International Affairs Department of Foreign Ministry, will head Iran’s team at talks on the sidelines of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review preliminary committee meeting, IRNA said.

The P5+1 powers have agreed a July 20 deadline with Iran to clinch a long-term deal that would allow a gradual lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions imposed on Iran over its atomic programmer.

Tehran denies using its declared civilian atomic energy programme as a front for covertly developing the means to make nuclear weapons, saying it seeks only electricity from its enrichment of uranium.

Under a breakthrough preliminary agreement that took effect on Jan. 20, Iran halted some aspects of its nuclear programmer in exchange for a limited easing of international sanctions that have laid low the major oil producer’s economy.

In its monthly update, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has a pivotal role in verifying that Iran is living up to its part of the accord, said that Iran so far was undertaking the agreed steps to curb its nuclear programme.


Japan Economy Still Feels The Downside Of Fukushima

Eurasia Review | Emre Tunç Sakaoğlu  |

Japan’s trade deficit has quadrupled reaching a year-on-year level of ¥13.75 trillion ($134 billion) since the beginning of the previous financial year which ended on 31 March 2013. While Japanese imports increased 17.3% in the meantime up to ¥84.6 trillion ($825 billion), Japanese exports only increased by 10.8% up to ¥70.8 trillion ($690.5 billion). According to data provided by the Ministry of Finance with respect to March 2014, Japan’s trade deficit has lately reached the monthly level of ¥1.45 trillion ($14.1 billion).

Japan’s trade balance has been facing continuous shortfall for the 21st month in a row. Indeed, the trade deficit, which today accounts for ¥13.75 trillion (or $134 billion), marks a record high in the economic history for modern Japan. The big picture looks all the more depressing considering that between 1963 and 2011, Japan had only trade surpluses and no trade deficits at all on a yearly basis.

The main reason behind Japan’s increasing trade deficit is the increasing cost of its energy imports mostly from the Middle East. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 11 March 2011 which ended up with the meltdown of three reactors, the Japanese government shut down all nuclear plants in the country. Although a few still remain functioning and another 14 is expected to be restarted soon, the future of the rest is still to be decided after time-taking safety inspections to come.

Current Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, albeit his predecessor, is a keen supporter of Japan’s reinstitution of its nuclear power base to a certain extent. Nevertheless, nuclear energy once provided for 30% of the country’s need, and most of the lost amount will continue be compensated with imported fossil fuels (such as oil and LNG) for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, Japan continues to log a large trade deficit with China. With the depreciation of Japanese yen last year, the government aimed to leverage its imbalance vis-à-vis China, but the depreciation move did not have a solid effect on Japanese exports in the short-run. Meanwhile, Japanese imports were successfully reduced. Nevertheless, added to this picture was the continued outflow of Japanese capital which decreases Japanese exports and even bears the potential to increase Japanese imports. Therefore monetary policies themeself were not sufficient in this regard.

In the days to come, the Japanese government is expected to increase taxes on consumption and imports, while it will also take several fiscal measures in order to rejuvenate exports. At the end of the day though, it seems very difficult for a country like Japan with a decreasing saving rate and increasing energy consumption to level the gap through ad-hoc measures instead of structural ones and without relying on nuclear energy up to a significant extent.

Did Israel steal bomb-grade uranium from the United States?

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists | Victor GilinskyRoger J. Mattson | 04/17/2014

Last month the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), the nation’s highest classification authority, released a number of top-level government memoranda that shed additional light on the so-called NUMEC affair, “the story that won’t go away—the possibility that in the 1960s, Israel stole bomb-grade uranium from a US nuclear fuel-processing plant.”

The evidence available for our 2010 Bulletin article persuaded us that Israel did steal uranium from the Apollo, Pennsylvania, plant of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC). We urged the US government to declassify CIA and FBI documents to settle the matter. In releasing the current batch—the release being largely due to the persistent appeals of researcher Grant Smith—the government has been careful to excise from all the released documents the CIA’s reasons for fingering Israel. Despite this, the documents are significantly revealing. For one thing, the excisions themselves are a backhanded admission of the persuasiveness of the CIA’s evidence. (Why these excisions are legally justified is not apparent—after nearly 50 years, the “sources and methods” issues have long ago dissipated.)

While we still don’t know exactly what the CIA told high government officials, we do know from the released memoranda that top officials thought the CIA’s case was a strong one. Also, as described in our earlier article, one of us was present at the CIA’s February 1976 briefing of a small group at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). At that session Carl Duckett, then-CIA deputy director for science and technology, told the NRC group the CIA believed the missing highly enriched uranium ended up in Israel.

The newly released documents also expose government efforts, notably during the Carter administration, to keep the NUMEC story under wraps, an ironic twist in view of Jimmy Carter’s identification with opposition to nuclear proliferation.

The context of NUMEC. A bit of background is in order here. After a 1965 inventory, NUMEC was found to be missing about 100 kilograms of bomb-grade uranium, even after accounting for all processing losses. The close personal and commercial ties to Israel of the plant owners and operators raised suspicions that remained unresolved. The affair of the missing bomb-grade uranium was revived in 1976. The newly formed NRC was in the process of writing licensing regulations for commercial fuel firms—of which NUMEC was one—and had heard rumors of possible theft in the 1960s from NUMEC’s Apollo facility.

The NRC asked for a CIA briefing. Duckett startled the NRC group with CIA’s conclusion that the missing uranium was in Israeli bombs. The NRC chairman informed the White House, and President Ford took an interest in the case. Ford’s Attorney General, Edward Levi, discovered that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the NRC predecessor nuclear licensing agency, had previously convinced the FBI not to open a criminal investigation into the material’s disappearance. The AEC was concerned that the public revelation of the NUMEC case would draw attention to its lack of control over nuclear bomb materials in the hands of private firms, and thus undermine the commission’s efforts to get nuclear power programs underway. In addition, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was not eager to get into a technical area with which his agents were unfamiliar. Levi gave the FBI its first instruction to investigate the material’s disappearance, a decade after the 1965 inventory that was the object of concern. In fact, although they attracted little attention, NUMEC inventories through 1968 showed even larger unexplained losses.

After the 1976 election, the Ford White House alerted the incoming Carter administration to the NUMEC affair. In December 1976, according to a July 1977 National Security Council memorandum, then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush briefed President-elect Carter on the case. Congress had been pressing for public disclosure of records of large unexplained losses of bomb-grade material (in government parlance, “material unaccounted for,”or MUF) from the government’s nuclear weapons complex. The White House feared the story was sure to hit the headlines if there were any suggestion of Israeli theft from the NUMEC facility. And any disclosures about Israel’s bomb program would of course have threatened the Carter administration’s Middle East policies.

Carter instructed his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to deal with the NUMEC matter in the context of the impending public release of MUF data. Brzezinski’s staffers John Marcum and Jessica Tuchman posed questions to the CIA about the NUMEC affair. Ted Shackley, then-CIA’s deputy director for covert operations, called Marcum on a secure line on July 28, 1977, to provide answers. Marcum’s entire two-page description of the call in his memorandum to Tuchman is blanked out in the version just released by ISCAP. As noted in our earlier article, other evidence suggests that the next day Shackley briefed senior officials of the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), the principal successor agency to the AEC. He told them that environmental samples taken by the CIA in Israel in 1968 contained highly enriched uranium, whose enrichment level was so high it pointed to the Portsmouth, Ohio, uranium enrichment plant as the source. Portsmouth was where NUMEC obtained uranium stock for its naval fuel products. We don’t know whether this information is in the excised portion of Marcum’s memorandum. We do however now have Marcum’s unredacted conclusion: “The CIA case is persuasive, though not conclusive.” Marcum preceded his conclusion with the pregnant observation, “At this point, despite the FBI clean bill of health, I do not think the president has plausible deniability.”

The unusual Brzezinski interlude. The matter passed up to Brzezinski, who submitted a memorandum to the president on August 2, 1977. (The president’s diary records a discussion on NUMEC the same day.) Brzezinski summarized for President Carter the views of ERDA, the FBI, and the CIA regarding Israeli involvement. His characterization of the CIA’s views is excised in the version just released. His descriptions of the other agencies’ views omit important evidence. For example, the memorandum understates by about a factor of six the unexplained amount of missing uranium—more than 330 kilograms by 1968, or enough to make over a dozen Hiroshima-yield bombs. He reported ERDA’s statements that there was “no evidence” of theft, adding that the agency had no basis for that conclusion. Nevertheless, when it came to his conclusion for the president, he used the same formulation (with our emphasis): “while a diversion might have occurred, there is no evidence—despite an intensive search for some—to prove that one did. For every piece of evidence that implies one conclusion, there is another piece that argues the opposite. One is pretty much left with making a personal judgment—based on instinct—as to whether the diversion did or did not occur.” Leaving aside the contradiction between saying there is no evidence of theft and then saying there is more or less equal evidence on each side of the case, there was in fact a great deal more evidence of Israeli involvement already available in ERDA, FBI, and CIA records that Brzezinski apparently did not take the trouble to look into.

Brzezinski took at face value the AEC’s claim that it had investigated the NUMEC affair. As we showed in our 2010 article, however, the commission’s inquiries into the NUMEC affair were mainly designed to exculpate NUMEC and the AEC itself from any charges of wrongdoing. In evaluating these past so-called investigations, Attorney General Levi wrote President Ford on April 22, 1976 that federal officials might have violated criminal statutes, including those that cover accessory after the fact and failure to report a felony.

Brzezinski also passed off the FBI’s findings as amounting to no more than confirmation that the president of NUMEC, Zalman Shapiro, had frequent contacts with Israeli officials, including a science attaché “thought to be an intelligence officer,” and received unexplained VIP treatment in Israel. In fact, Shapiro was by then known to have had contacts with Israel’s head of military intelligence and the head of its nuclear weapons program. He later acknowledged knowing Binyamin Blumberg, head of Israel’s “bureau of scientific liaison,” which engaged in high-risk intelligence capers. On one strange occasion in 1968, Shapiro hosted an Israeli intelligence foursome at the Apollo plant. One was the Mossad agent who headed the team that spirited former Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann out of Argentina and who later ran Jonathan Pollard’s spying on the United States for Israel. (Mossad is the Israeli agency that handles foreign intelligence collection and covert action.) Another was that agent’s deputy in the Eichmann kidnap, who went on to become head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. A third was Mossad’s director of technical services. The last was Israel’s science attaché, who had held a senior position in Israel’s nuclear weapons program.

The FBI, Brzezinski told Carter, had just concluded its latest investigation and “was unable to uncover any evidence of theft, although the interviews included many current and former NUMEC employees.” In fact, the FBI investigation continued for two more years, and its interviews of NUMEC employees revealed many suspicious circumstances concerning NUMEC shipments to Israel.

The last part of the Brzezinski August 1977 memorandum to President Carter is the most revealing of the Carter administration’s intentions regarding the NUMEC affair: “We face tough sledding in the next few weeks (particularly in view of [Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s] Mid-East trip) in trying to keep attention focused on ERDA’s technical arguments and, if necessary, on the FBI investigations, and away from the CIA’s information.”

Time for real transparency. It’s fair to ask, in view of the other losses in the US nuclear weapons complex, why the CIA and others singled out NUMEC for grave suspicion as the source for Israeli bomb-grade uranium. In brief, the reasons are these: NUMEC’s unexplained losses were a significantly larger proportion of its throughput of highly enriched uranium than was the case for other firms that dealt with nuclear materials. Sloppy accounting and lax security made the plant easy to rob without detection. NUMEC had commercial relationships with Israel’s defense and nuclear establishments and regularly made sizeable nuclear shipments to Israel, which at that time were not checked by the AEC. NUMEC’s owners and executives had extremely close ties to Israel, including to high Israeli intelligence and nuclear officials. Israel had strong motives to obtain the highly enriched uranium before it was producing enough plutonium for weapons. High-level Israeli intelligence operatives visited the NUMEC plant. Israeli intelligence organizations were used to running logistically complicated, risky operations to support nuclear weapons development, and it would have been very much out of character for them to pass up an opportunity like this. On top of all this, records show the CIA believed its 1968 environmental sample taken in Israel evidenced an enrichment level unique to Portsmouth.

Nearly 50 years have passed since the events in question. It is time to level with the public. At this point it is up to the president himself to decide whether to declassify completely the NUMEC documents, all of which are over 30 years old. He should do so. We know that is asking a lot given the president’s sensitivity about anything involving Israel, and especially anything relating to Israeli nuclear weapons. But none of his political concerns outweigh his responsibility to tell the US public the historical truth it deserves to know.
Victor Gilinsky

A physicist, Gilinsky is an independent consultant, and advised Nevada on matters related to the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. His expertise spans a broad range of energy issues. From 1975 to 1984, he served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, having been nominated by President Gerald Ford and renominated by President Jimmy Carter. Earlier in his career he worked at Rand Corporation; he was also an assistant director for policy and program review at the Atomic Energy Commission.

Roger J. Mattson

Roger J. Mattson is a mechanical engineer who consults on safety matters with NRC licensees and Energy Department contractors. From 1967 to 1974, he was on the Atomic Energy Commission technical staff. In 1976, he led an NRC task force that addressed the Apollo/NUMEC affair. He left government service in 1984.

Israel’s Mordechai Vanunu is as much a hero as Edward Snowden

Those who support the US whistleblower should back his Israeli predecessor in his bid for a new life abroad

The Guardian | Duncan Campbell, Sunday 20 April 2014

Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu

‘The decision to restrict Mordechai Vanunu’s movements seems to be based more on a desire to inflict punishment on an unrepentant man than for security concerns.’ Photograph: Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters

Ten years ago today, a man emerged from prison to be greeted by a crowd of his supporters embracing him with carnations and a crowd of his enemies drawing their fingers across their throats. He had served 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.

The man was Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who, in 1986, came to Britain to tell the Sunday Times the story of the then secret nuclear weapons facility at Dimona in Israel. Out alone in London and disillusioned with the length of time the story seemed to be taking to reach publication, he was lured by a woman from Mossad to Italy. There, he was kidnapped, drugged and smuggled out of the country to Israel, where he was convicted of espionage.

On his release from prison, he was led to believe that he would soon be free to leave the country where he is vilified and regarded as a traitor. When I interviewed him in Jerusalem six months later, back in 2004, he was still hopeful that, having served his time, he would be able to start a new life abroad. It has turned out to be an empty hope. Last December, he failed in the high court of justice in his latest bid to be allowed to leave. Does Edward Snowden, as he adjusts to life in Moscow, wonder whether he will still be haunted and hunted by the US government for decades to come?

No one seriously claims that the man who was exhaustively debriefed by the Sunday Times nearly 30 years ago has any secrets up his sleeve. The decision to restrict his movements seems to be based more on a desire to inflict punishment on an unrepentant man than for security concerns. A pacifist who has urged the Palestinians to pursue their aims by non-violent means, he was not a spy but was driven to his actions by a horror of Hiroshima and the possibility of a nuclear war in the Middle East.

Writing in Ha’aretz last year, Aluf Benn drew parallels between the cases of Vanunu and Snowden, who both “had junior positions in defence organisations, in which they were exposed to sensitive national secrets. Both became convinced their employers were responsible for immoral acts and decided to violate their oaths of secrecy and tell the world about them.” Benn suggested that “Israelis who support Snowden, and who see him as a freedom fighter who exposed the American empire in its hypocrisy and evil, need to relate to his Israeli predecessor in the same way”.

Vanunu has also been compared with another American who blew the whistle on what he regarded as his country’s immoral activities. Indeed he has often been described as the Israeli Daniel Ellsberg, to which the latter responds: “I can only say that I would be proud to be known as the American Vanunu, although my own possible sentence of 115 years for revealing state secrets [the Pentagon Papers] was averted by disclosure of government misconduct against me which pales next to the Israeli misconduct in assaulting, drugging and kidnapping Vanunu in the process of bringing him to trial, let alone the 11 years of solitary confinement he was forced to endure.”

The UK and the British media have a special responsibility towards Vanunu. He was persuaded to come to London on the understanding that he would be protected. The Sunday Times journalist with whom he worked most closely, Peter Hounam, later wrote in his book on the case, The Woman from Mossad, that “to most sane people he did something brave and altruistic”. The National Union of Journalists recognised its duty to whistleblowers who risk everything and made Vanunu an honorary member on his release from jail. The proprietor of the paper that brought him to England also has responsibility and one hopes that he, too, may yet give Vanunu the sort of backing that those in his direct employment have had when faced with legal action.

These are unforgiving times for people who want to expose what governments want kept secret. In Egypt, journalists from al-Jazeera are held in prison on baseless charges, and over the past few weeks we have also seen how the authorities in Iraq, Libya, Turkey, China and Syria – to name just a few of the worst offenders – deal with those involved in propagating uncomfortable truths.

As the US secretary of state, John Kerry, continues to encourage the release of Palestinian prisoners to further the Middle East peace process, how admirable it would be if someone who risked his life and sanity for the very purpose of peace was finally allowed to lead a normal life in the country of his choosing.

Learning from the Past in the Iranian Nuclear Dispute

Middle East Research and Information Project | Tytti Erästö | April 16, 2014

The controversy over the Iranian nuclear program is in many ways a product of the US-Iranian conflict. The United States and Iran are in the grip of mutual negative perceptions that, in turn, have been reinforced by the escalatory dynamics of the nuclear dispute. After years of seeming diplomatic deadlock, these dynamics suddenly changed for the better in the autumn of 2013. The positive trends culminated in November, when Iran agreed with the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany, the so-called P5+1, on a confidence-building deal known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Given the record of diplomatic non-achievement, the deal is a historic development. The parties began to implement the JPA in January 2014; it is supposed to pave the way for far more ambitious next steps.

Although the de-escalation and the JPA are generally associated with the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of the Islamic Republic and the subsequent change in Iran’s foreign policy orientation, these developments cannot be fully understood without taking into account the simultaneous changes on the Western side. Indeed, the summer of 2013 was a crucial period of introspection on both sides when fixed ideas and narratives began to give way to more flexible positions. The following discussion, based on interviews with negotiators and diplomats on both sides, shows that each side was reaching a critical point in a learning process around the time of Rouhani’s victory.


The US began to have suspicions about the extent and intent of Iran’s nuclear program in the 1990s. In those years, the Clinton administration put pressure on foreign companies to cut off Iranian access to civilian nuclear technology. [1] Iranian officials frequently evoke this history when arguing for the Islamic Republic’s need for a domestic enrichment program. [2] But it was only in response to the 2002 revelation of undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran that proliferation concerns became shared internationally. Iran’s initial response to international concerns was a comprehensive offer for bilateral negotiations with the US in 2003. [3] The Bush administration rejected the offer, reflecting the imperial mood following the Iraq invasion, as well as denial of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, as evident in the “axis of evil” rhetoric. Instead, “the EU-3” — Great Britain, France and Germany — began negotiations with Iran, resulting in an agreement whereby Iran suspended its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities and the EU-3 recognized Iran’s nuclear rights, offered nuclear cooperation and made “firm commitments on security issues.” [4]

After disagreement about details ended the EU-3 initiative in 2005, Iran resumed the suspended activities and the Europeans joined the US in calling for UN Security Council action. At the same time, the P5+1 took over nuclear diplomacy with Iran. No multilateral talks were held until mid-2008. The early P5+1 approach consisted of demanding that Iran suspend all enrichment of uranium, in line with US policy and with Security Council resolutions since 2006. From the Iranian perspective, the previous experience with the Europeans had shown that the West viewed suspension as an end in itself rather than a means to a negotiated solution. [5] In what was to become a recurrent pattern, Iran responded by stepping up its nuclear activities.

The increasing risk of escalation to military confrontation arguably contributed to a change in the P5+1 approach in 2009. Based on President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to negotiate with Iran “without preconditions,” the P5+1 called their new approach “confidence building,” meaning an implicit withdrawal from Security Council demands and a shift in focus to limiting Iran’s production and stockpiles of enriched uranium. After a near diplomatic success in late 2009, however, Iran started enriching uranium up to 20 percent, the threshold at which the element is considered “high-enriched,” though not close to weapons-grade, which is 90 percent enriched. Meanwhile, the West imposed the harshest sanctions to date in the dispute on Iran’s oil industry and Central Bank. In the 2012 and spring 2013 talks, Iran was asked to suspend enrichment up to 20 percent; give away its stocks of uranium already enriched to such levels; and halt all activities at the underground Fordow enrichment plant. In return, the P5+1 offered to help Iran build a new light water reactor; to deliver spare parts for its civilian airplanes; and, in the spring of 2013 at Almaty, Kazakhstan, to give modest relief from sanctions on trade in gold, metals and petrochemicals. Iran reportedly offered to suspend 20 percent enrichment and convert its stockpile of enriched uranium to oxide (which is harder to enrich further), but only “in exchange for recognition of its right to enrich and a lifting of some banking sanctions.” [6] Each side rejected the other’s proposals.

Talks were on hold during the summer of 2013. But Rouhani’s victory brought about an unprecedented exchange of reconciliatory gestures between Tehran and Washington. When new teams of negotiators met in October, Iran reportedly offered to address outstanding concerns about uranium enrichment and asked the P5+1 to define their end goal — were they still insisting on UN Security Council demands or were they ready to accept Iran’s right to enrichment under the 1975 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) with agreed-upon limitations? [7] At last, the parties reached the breakthrough, in the form of the JPA. This six-month process involves restriction and enhanced monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities and more extensive sanctions relief than that included in previous offers. [8] By outlining the contours of a comprehensive deal, due in July, the P5+1 also explicitly stated their readiness to accept an Iran with an enrichment capacity.

Assessing Intentions

The three Western officials interviewed for this article took Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions for granted, although they emphasized that Iran’s goal is probably nuclear weapons capacity, rather than an actual weapon. Gary Samore was White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction until February 2013. He suggested that, even if Iran wants only breakout capacity, the P5+1 and Iran have “fundamentally different interests.” [9] Robert Einhorn was the State Department’s special adviser for non-proliferation and arms control until May 2013. He attributed Iran’s nuclear program to its desire to be “a dominant player, a hegemonic player in the Middle East,” adding that “the perception that they are close to having a nuclear weapons could be valuable in pursuing those goals.” [10] On the other hand, the Western officials agreed that Iran’s nuclear policy is also driven by existential concerns. As Einhorn suggested, the Iranians fear that any agreement “wouldn’t be enough” because “we would always ask for more until the regime was gone.” He added, “They think somehow that having this [nuclear] capability would immunize them from pressures from the West.” Asked if Western military threats might be contributing to this problem, Einhorn admitted it is possible.

Though showing sensitivity to Iranian security concerns, the Western officials had little time for Iran’s argument that the West’s past policy of technology denial is what drove the Islamic Republic to develop an indigenous enrichment program in the first place. “A cover story,” said Samore. While acknowledging the US attempts “to prevent countries from cooperating with Iran in nuclear area,” Einhorn believed that “if Iran had said we are prepared to rely on foreign sources of enriched uranium, they would have gotten guaranteed commitments of enriched uranium supplies to fuel light water reactors.”

Not surprisingly, the Iranian officials interviewed for this article dismissed the Western allegations as political. One (henceforth Iranian official A) referred to the fatwa from the Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, against nuclear weapons, going on to make a case that having such weapons would be against Iran’s interests. [11] This official stressed that the nuclear program is driven by the need to diversify Iran’s sources of energy in order to provide for the demands of a growing population. Recalling that the US once acknowledged Iran’s civilian energy needs, in the 1970s, he noted that Iran’s population has doubled since then. The change in the US position after 1979, he said, illustrates the political nature of the dispute. The second official (Iranian official B) pointed to a more general problem. Comparing the nuclear dispute to Western attempts to label the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry as a threat to international security, he said, “Unfortunately, there is a kind of colonial thinking that a Third World country cannot have…this sensitive technology.” “In theory, they will say that all states are equal, but in practice…they don’t accept this.” [12]

The Blame Game

The Western interviewees saw the failure of nuclear talks to date as resulting mainly from Iran’s non-constructive position — “to give basically nothing and to ask for everything,” as the third Western official, who wished to remain anonymous, put it. [13] Samore argued that the Iranians have “clearly demonstrated that they’re prepared to cheat or renege on agreements when they think it’s in their interests.” The ex-White House man also believed that “up to now the Iranians have just not been willing to give their negotiators authority to sit down and actually try to come up with a basis for an agreement.” This problem he traced to the “suspicion” and “stubbornness” of the Leader. Ayatollah Khamenei, Samore argued, rejected bilateral talks with the US because “at the end of the day, he prefers to have the US as an enemy rather than a friend.” The anonymous Western official, who refrained from talking about Khamenei’s intentions, agreed that the period from 2007 to Rouhani’s election was “difficult [because the Iranians] did not really engage in substance.” Instead, he said, Iranian negotiators “had lots of general statements on their rights,” giving the impression that they did not “really want to make concessions.”

Given these negative views of Iran, it was somewhat striking that two of the three Western interviewees considered it possible that the entire nuclear confrontation might have been avoided if the Bush administration had been willing to talk to Iran. “I have some inclination to believe,” said the anonymous official, that crisis could have been averted had the US been more supportive of the EU-3 during the 2003-2005 talks. Samore was more skeptical, but admitted that it was “one of the big unanswered questions” and wished that “we had run that experiment.”

Mirroring Western discourse, the Iranian officials blamed the P5+1 for the persistence of the dispute. On the one hand, the Iranians criticized the other side for lack of sensitivity and respect. As official A explained, the P5+1 want to make a deal but do not know how: They focus only on commitments, forgetting about rights and showing no respect for Iranian concerns. Official B, too, stressed that one “must listen to the other side’s demands” while negotiating. On the other hand, it seemed to the Iranians that the West is not genuinely interested in a negotiated solution. “Unfortunately,” official B said, “they don’t want to find a solution for this problem.” Official A referred to the implacable hostility to the Islamic Republic in some American quarters. Interaction with Iran or regime change — which does the US want? He further pointed out that, in addition to willingness, one needs readiness and ability to work for a diplomatic solution. The Obama administration, he suggested, lacked the last of these three qualities.

The Effects of Coercion

The Western officials seemed united in the conviction that diplomacy with Iran needs to be backed by sanctions. Samore said the purpose of sanctions is “to produce flexibility at the bargaining table” and “obtain nuclear concessions.” Does not the difficulty of lifting sanctions, due to opposition in Congress, undermine their contribution to diplomacy? Samore did not seem to see a major problem here: The P5+1 “would be happy to lift sanctions if Iran would accept verifiable limits on their nuclear program…. If there was a deal that actually satisfied US concerns…the administration would be able to convince Congress that the sanctions should be lifted.” Einhorn admitted that it is “easier to impose sanctions than to remove them” but likewise believed that lifting sanctions is possible depending on the prevailing political environment. The third official, however, was much less optimistic, and went on to suggest that domestic resistance to lifting sanctions partly explained the diplomatic deadlock. The problem, he explained, “is that the Obama administration is not in control of what the US is doing.” Given that it was even difficult for the EU to “get the necessary assurances from the US administration that Congress will not…do something which is negatively affecting us,” he wondered—assuming a deal were to be negotiated—how Iran could “have any confidence that the US president…will be able to implement such a deal” or that the bargain “would not fall apart once implementation has been launched.”

Deploring the West’s coercive approach, Iranian official B stressed that diplomacy was a “way to find a solution, not to use a gun with a white flag” and that it would be “impossible to impose something on the Iranians to change their behavior.” He wondered on what grounds Iran is always required “to show everything in its hand” while the other side reserves for itself an unlimited right to threaten and impose new sanctions. In addition to its own apparent right to a nuclear bomb, he noted, Israel is also given the freedom “every day to threaten Iran” and to draw red lines at the UN. The same official compared the cyber-war against Iran’s nuclear facilities to missile attacks. He further explained Iran’s unwillingness to engage in bilateral talks with the Obama administration with reference to the West’s confrontational approach. As he explained, “On the one hand, they say that we want to talk with you and, on the other hand, they threaten [and] add every day a sanction.” He added, “We only see their stick, never…their carrot. This is a problem.”

Obstacles to Confidence Building

The anonymous Western official who was concerned about the US ability to deliver on a deal did not let Iran off the hook. The Iranians, he argued, completely lost the confidence of their interlocutors. “[It is] not up to us to rebuild this confidence. It’s up to Iran.” It was understood on the Western side, however, that in practice confidence building would mean bargaining based on reciprocal concessions. No Western interviewee seemed worried about concessions, since each thought that previous offers, in Einhorn’s words, were “totally balanced.” Einhorn regarded the incentives offered to Iran in the 2013 Almaty talks as “quite significant,” while Samore described the offer as a “kind of small for small.” Einhorn acknowledged that, under that proposal, Iran “wouldn’t get what they wanted most” but added that “we wouldn’t get what we wanted most,” either. Asked if the proffered sanctions relief was in fact rather slight, the third Western interviewee explained that “you cannot give a lot” in exchange for “a very modest step from Iran” because there is “still a huge area of other concerns” and “you have to…keep your assets for the other issues.” As for Iran’s counter-proposal to the P5+1 offer, Einhorn described it as “almost a joke, frankly.” Yet Einhorn and the anonymous Western official acknowledged the gap in perceptions as to what constitutes balance. “Maybe from an Iranian perspective,” said the latter, “the other side did not provide some really attractive incentives which you can sell.”

Reflecting the general Iranian position that the P5+1 offers were unbalanced, Iranian official B pointed out that “confidence building is a two-way road, not a one-way road.” “When we want to negotiate, it is better we put everything on the table — what we have, what they have — and try to find a conclusion and compromise.” He emphasized that “we don’t want to have a defeat policy — we want to have a win-win policy.” Referring to the P5+1’s 2012 offer of spare parts and repairs for aircraft in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions, official A said it was “just crazy.” As for the P5+1’s nuclear-related incentives, a document in the latter official’s possession highlighted that the P5+1 were obliged to deliver the elements that they were now offering as incentives: “Placing technical cooperation…in the shadow of political measures is contrary to the dignity and specialized status of the International Atomic Energy Agency.” [14] The document noted as well that, in contrast to the strict demands made upon Iran, the wording of Western incentives was vague, serving to further “deepen the distrust and uncertainty on the Iranian side.” [15]

The Iranian officials suggested Iran might suspend 20 percent enrichment as part of a more balanced deal, indicating that this step is mainly a bargaining chip. It seemed, however, that the Western demands to close down the Fordow enrichment facility (2012) or suspend activities there (2013) would be unacceptable as long as the threat of military action against Iran persisted. “Fordow has a lot of expense for us,” official B said. “If they didn’t threaten our facilities on the ground, why [would] we go underground?” He added, “Every day Israel threatens we want to bomb…[Iranian facilities] and we go under the ground — it’s a kind of defense policy.” The aforementioned document said the same: “Facing constant threats, we need a backup facility to safeguard our enrichment activities.” [16]

In light of the strategic importance of Fordow from the Iranian perspective, why did the West place so much emphasis on suspending activities in the facility? Einhorn explained that “we didn’t think we were asking too much” because the facility was very small compared to the other enrichment plant at Natanz — “like a drop in a bucket.” Asked why the presence of IAEA inspectors in Fordow was not enough to alleviate Western concerns, the third official pointed to the possibility “that Iran would just under the eyes of the IAEA…install more capacity, produce more material and then suddenly find some pretext [to] withdraw from the NPT.” Although he recognized that Fordow is viewed as a “high-value facility” by Iran, the official stressed that it would be fine if “we just ask them to stop the operations. This will not mean to destroy the facility.”

Toward a Comprehensive Approach

The Western interviewees took a tough line with regard to oil and financial sanctions. In Samore’s words, “those are our biggest sanctions,” which should not be traded except for “the biggest nuclear concessions.” By that phrase, he meant limiting Iran’s capacity to produce fissile material, meaning “enrichment and, potentially, production of plutonium.” The third official said that such a discussion would become relevant only at a later stage — “after an initial confidence-building step” and as part of “full-fledged negotiations.” Einhorn made a similar argument, recalling that “it took us a long time to build these sanctions” and that “once sanctions are suspended, it’s very hard to get them restored.” He continued, “We have to be pretty sure, before we actually lift sanctions — or even suspend them — that the Iranians are sincere.”

The problem from the Iranian perspective, however, was that the P5+1’s incremental approach did not involve a discussion on the end state and thus failed to build confidence in Western intentions. As Iranian official A explained, Iran had developed great distrust for the other side during the previous negotiations. Recalling that Iran had provided more than 1,000 pages of declarations and allowed intrusive inspections beyond its legal obligations, he wondered whether there was ever going to be an “end to this story.” He called for some guarantee that the process will reach a conclusion.

In light of the Iranian concerns, what had prevented the West from pursuing a more comprehensive deal or a discussion on the end state thus far? The anonymous Western official pointed out that such a deal “would take ages to negotiate,” and that a discussion on the end goals at this stage would be meaningless because Iran would not trust that those goals would be maintained. Responding to the question of why it is so difficult to recognize Iran’s right to enrichment, he asked, “Why should we recognize any specific rights which are not specifically mentioned [in the NPT] — in particular in a situation where a country is in violation of its obligations?” (The US stance has long been that the NPT’s guarantee of an “inalienable right of all parties to the treaty to develop the research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” does not cover enrichment of uranium.) Samore also suggested that this question is partly one of principle. On the other hand, he referred to the concern that Iran would simply claim “an unqualified right to enrichment” that “cannot be limited in any way.” Einhorn shared this view, noting that “politically for the US it’s not very easy to accept a domestic enrichment program in Iran,” especially “before the Iranians had given any indication that they’re prepared to accept real limitations” to their program. Both Samore and Einhorn suggested, however, that the P5+1 position on this issue might change depending on circumstances. As Einhorn noted, acknowledging Iran’s right to enrich “would be a big concession” that the P5+1 are reluctant — both “politically and strategically” — to make “until there was any tangible basis to believe that the Iranians were prepared to make compromises.”

Samore and Einhorn seemed to have come to the conclusion that the piecemeal confidence-building approach had proven itself ineffective. Therefore, Samore anticipated that there was “a good chance that after the [Iranian] presidential elections the US will try to work toward agreement in the P5+1 on a comprehensive deal.” Nevertheless, Samore had little faith in Iran’s interest in a comprehensive deal because it “would be tantamount to giving up its effort to produce nuclear weapons.” Einhorn seemed more optimistic. As he argued,

It’s coming to the point where it would be advisable to explain to the Iranians what the end state would be.… We’ve made hints…that we can accept an enrichment program but we haven’t been explicit about that yet…. It doesn’t mean you go right to the end state. You can begin with a confidence-building step, but you give the Iranians an indication of where this is heading.

Speaking right after Rouhani’s election, Einhorn thought that the summer of 2013 provided an opportunity for the P5+1 to discuss a change of strategy.

As for the Iranian views on the prospects for the success of the coming talks, the interviewees seemed to think that the ball is in the P5+1’s court. Official A noted that, as a result of the previous rounds of talks, each side has plenty of information about the other’s views. The success of a potential deal depends on details. Official B expressed cautious optimism about the future, anticipating that the Rouhani team’s “tone of talking…will be easier for the P5+1…. It’s possible there will be a better understanding between the two sides.” At the same time, he added that “surely Iran will not change its main strategy [nor]…accept anything against [its] inevitable rights.”

Lessons from the Past

Negative perceptions clearly persisted in the views of the five Western and Iranian interviewees in the summer of 2013. Each side viewed the other as harboring ill intent and each blamed the other for a non-constructive approach to the nuclear negotiations. At the same time, the officials distanced themselves from the most extreme claims. The Western officials saw Iran as being after a nuclear weapons capability but not necessarily the bomb, for reasons in line with what could be called realist assumptions of rationality — that is, power and influence, but also insecurity created by the US-Iranian conflict and the escalation of the nuclear confrontation. Although the Iranian officials dismissed the Western proliferation concerns as politically motivated, they simultaneously acknowledged the difference between the Obama administration and hardliners in Congress.

Taken together, the statements left room for the interpretation that — rather than an intractable conflict of interests — the main obstacle to dispute resolution to date had been the mistrust created by ambiguity about the other side’s intentions. In other words, until the summer of 2013, neither side was ready to make meaningful concessions given their low expectations of diplomatic success. To this surmise, it should be added that throughout much of the nuclear dispute the West gave priority to coercion and diplomacy based on compromise was therefore ruled out. A major change in the Western approach had occurred already in 2009, as the incoming Obama administration acknowledged that sanctions alone would not produce results. Nevertheless, coercion was still a key part of the Western idea of diplomacy at the time of the interviews, as some officials seemed to be waiting for Iran to accept the P5+1’s earlier proposal as a result of the pressure created by the oil and Central Bank sanctions. A third, perhaps less obvious explanation for the failure of previous talks could be what political psychologists call “concession aversion”: People dislike losing more than they like winning, and when bargaining they tend to overvalue their own concessions while underestimating those of others. [17] In this regard, both sides were arguably held back because their key assets — that is, the sanctions regime on the Western side and progress in nuclear research on the Iranian side — have become highly politicized over the years.

How, then, were the parties able to overcome mutual mistrust and concession aversion in the autumn of 2013? It seems that both sides reached a critical point in a learning process. As noted by Samore and Einhorn, by the summer of 2013 it had become clear that the P5+1’s confidence-building approach was not working. It was logical to try a different, more comprehensive approach, although at the time there was still vacillation between sticking to the accustomed track and going further. Though neither Iranian official said so, it may be said that the result of the 2013 presidential election indicates learning on the Iranian side: There was broad consensus that the confrontational style pursued President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was making things worse. The resulting change in Iran’s international image, as well as the gestures of good will by US and Iranian leaders, engendered trust that two key parties to the dispute were now determined to reach a diplomatic solution. This trust, in turn, facilitated the justification of the new comprehensive approach to Western audiences, allowing the incorporation of more significant confidence-building steps in the JPA. While the West was finally prepared to define the end goal (thus implicitly accepting Iran’s right to enrichment), Iran gave up on its previous insistence that the P5+1 explicitly recognize such a right at an early stage. Moreover, the West offered more sanctions relief and Iran accepted more limitations to its nuclear program than had previously seemed possible. At the same time, the West apparently acknowledged Iran’s need to hold on to the underground site in Fordow due to its defensive value, at least for the time being, and Iran accepted that relief from the most crippling sanctions is not possible at this stage.

Perhaps the main lesson to be drawn from this experience is that perceptions not only matter, but in fact are crucial for shaping the disputant parties’ intentions and thus the entire conflict. The more it has seemed to Iran that the US is focused on regime change and containment, the more reason Iran has had to hold on to all aspects of its enrichment program, which in turn has empowered hardliners on both sides. For the most part, the Iranian nuclear dispute illustrates the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecy. More recent events, however, demonstrate that such dynamics can be reversed, given sufficient political will and the right political circumstances on both sides. Such a window of opportunity was created in 2013 as both sides worked to minimize ambiguity about their intentions. The Iranians adopted a more moderate and consistent diplomatic style, while the Western parties to the dispute took the crucial step of defining their end goal, thus alleviating the Iranian suspicion that there would be no end to Western demands.

The task of managing perceptions will undoubtedly be crucial for future diplomacy as well. In this sense, the successful completion of the JPA by June 2014 would itself be an important achievement, as it would further bolster the precarious trust between the parties, and perhaps boost the political momentum for bolder steps even if the July deadline for a comprehensive solution is not met. At the same time, a sense of disillusionment with the ongoing diplomatic efforts might bring the parties back to square one — or worse, empower those forces on both sides whose interests truly are irreconcilable. It is precisely such high stakes, however, that might help create the necessary political will on both sides to overcome the remaining obstacles.

Author’s Note: Thanks to the Stanton Foundation for supporting my research in 2012-2013, including the collection of material for this article.


[1] Aslı Ü. Bâli, “The US and the Iranian Nuclear Impasse,” Middle East Report 241 (Winter 2006).
[2] See, for example, Javad Zarif, “Tackling the Iran-US Crisis: Need for a Paradigm Shift,” Journal of International Affairs 60/2 (Spring-Summer 2007).
[3] The text of this offer is printed in an appendix to Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
[4] “IAEA Information Circular,” INFCIRC/637 (November 26, 2004).
[5] See Javad Zarif, “UN Security Council 5612th Meeting,” December 23, 2006.
[6] Laura Rozen, “The P5+1 Nuclear Proposal to Iran in Almaty: Document,” Al-Monitor, June 9, 2013.
[7] For details, see Barbara Slavin, “Iran’s New Nuclear Proposal,” Al-Monitor, October 17, 2013.
[8] For details, see “The Joint Plan of Action,” November 24, 2013.
[9] Interview with Gary Samore, June 12, 2013, Cambridge, MA. All subsequent quotations of Samore are from this interview.
[10] Interview with Robert Einhorn, June 17, 2013, Cape Cod, MA. All subsequent quotations of Einhorn are from this interview.
[11] Interview with Iranian official A, June 26, 2013. Subsequent quotations are from this interview.
[12] Interview with Iranian official B, August 27, 2013. Subsequent quotations are from this interview.
[13] Interview with anonymous Western official, August 28, 2013. Subsequent quotations are from this interview.
[14] “Iran’s Response to the P5+1 Offer,” document handed to the author by Iranian official A, June 26, 2013.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Jack Levy, “Loss Aversion, Framing and Bargaining: The Implications of Prospect Theory for International Conflict,” International Political Science Review 17/2 (April 1996).

For background on the international law aspects of the Iranian nuclear issue, see Aslı Ü. Bâli, “International Law and the Iran Impasse,” Middle East Report Online, December 16, 2012.

For more on the election of Rouhani, see Kevan Harris, “An ‘Electoral Uprising’ in Iran,” Middle East Report Online, July 19, 2013 and “Iran, the Twenty-First-Century Island of Stability,” MERIPblog, September 28, 2013.

Nuclear Security Summit Communiqué Statement

The Nuclear Security Summit Communiqué Statement on Separated Plutonium Is a Step Backward

Union of Concerned Scientists | Ed Lyman | March 25, 2014

The communiqués issued at the previous two Nuclear Security Summits said almost nothing about the dangers of separated plutonium. That was a problem. The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit communiqué does say something about plutonium—but the world would have been better off if it had remained silent on the issue.

The communiqué statement, although vague, promulgates the false and very dangerous notion that MOX fuel, a mixture of plutonium and uranium, is much less of a security threat than pure plutonium:

“Furthermore, a considerable amount of HEU has been down-blended to low-enriched uranium (LEU) and separated plutonium converted to mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. We encourage States to minimize their stocks of HEU and to keep their stockpile of separated plutonium to the minimum level, both as consistent with national requirements.”

The problem is that, contrary to the impression this statement gives, converting plutonium into MOX would offer little barrier to theft and subsequent use in producing nuclear weapons.  One MOX fuel assembly contains many bombs’ worth of plutonium, and can be rapidly disassembled, if necessary, to facilitate theft.

The Summit statement implies that converting separated plutonium to MOX fuel has a comparable security benefit to down-blending highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium. Nothing could be further from the truth. To reverse HEU downblending would require access to uranium enrichment technology—something that is generally out of reach for sub-national groups. To reverse blending of plutonium with uranium would only require a modest capability for chemical processing that could be accomplished in a small-scale and easily concealable glovebox facility.

One of the chief beneficiaries of the communiqué statement is Japan. Japan is facing increased criticism from its neighbors, like China, for its plans to increase its already substantial stockpile of separated plutonium by starting up the Rokkasho reprocessing plant.  This plan is especially problematic given the collapse of Japan’s strategy for using plutonium as MOX fuel in its currently shuttered fleet of nuclear power plants. Since Japan is building a MOX fuel fabrication plant adjacent to Rokkasho, the communiqué statement gives Japan cover for separating additional plutonium provided that it fabricates it into MOX fuel, even if the fuel is stored for decades before it is irradiated in nuclear reactors.

UCS has been working to try to prevent an effort by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to downgrade the security requirements for MOX fuel and other forms of plutonium diluted with other materials. The communiqué statement will set back that and other efforts to ensure adequate controls over all materials that are useful to terrorists seeking nuclear weapons.

About the author: Dr. Lyman received his PhD in physics from Cornell University in 1992. He was a postdoctoral research scientist at Princeton University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, and then served as Scientific Director and President of the Nuclear Control Institute. He joined UCS in 2003. He is an active member of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management and has served on expert panels of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. His research focuses on security issues associated with the management of nuclear materials and the operation of nuclear power plants, particularly with respect to reprocessing and civil plutonium. Areas of expertise: Nuclear terrorism, proliferation risks of nuclear power, nuclear weapons policy

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