The pressure is cranking up on Iran. During her recent tour of the Middle East, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared that Iran is "moving toward a military dictatorship", because the civilian government is being "supplanted" by the Revolutionary Guard, which "poses a very direct threat to everyone." She added: "We don't want to be engaging while they're building a bomb." About a week earlier US National Security Adviser Jim Jones described the Iran nuclear issue as the "top global security threat."
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's announcement that the country would now begin producing higher enriched uranium has thrown fuel on the fire. German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg described the gesture as "pushing back" the "outstretched hand of the international community."
Yet amidst the escalating calls for greater sanctions and diplomatic pressure to isolate Iran, there have been contradictory statements. In September last year, US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Glyn Davies declared that Iran had now acquired "possible breakout capacity" if it decided to enrich its uranium to bomb-grade level. American intelligence reportedly found that despite having enough nuclear fuel "to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon", the regime had "deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb."
Yet after Ahmedinejad's declaration of plans to ramp up enrichment to a higher 20 per cent level, White House officials responded with scepticism, putting the statement down to "politics not physics."
"The Iranian nuclear program has undergone a series of problems throughout the year," said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs. "We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching." Indeed, production at the Natanz plant has been notoriously beset with technical difficulties leading experts to believe that Iran will not be able to increase its enrichment capacity. Despite these findings, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) insisted on the imminent danger that Iran would embark on a breakout programme capable of producing weapons-grade uranium in six months.
Yet the speculation that Iran could achieve this feat, despite the fact that its "centrifuges appear to be breaking down at a faster rate than expected" according to US and European officials, is difficult to take seriously. Indeed, the notion that Iran currently has enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb, promoted even by purported expert groups such as ISIS (and first hyped in inaccurate media reporting about February 2009's IAEA report on Iran's nuclear programme) is simply a myth.
Debunking the myth, Physics Today reported: "... as Chemist Cheryl Rofer points out, at 3.49%, the concentration of Iran's 1010 kg of enriched uranium-235 is still too low to make an atomic bomb and would have to be reprocessed for a number of months to reach the necessary enrichment level for military applications. The uranium enrichment facility would also have to be reconfigured to reach higher concentration levels of U-235. An atomic bomb requires highly enriched uranium-235 at greater than 90% concentration."
Given Iran's current technological capacity, there are no grounds to suspect that Iran can or will soon be able to develop a nuclear bomb. Indeed, all of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) is safeguarded by the IAEA, subject to round-the-clock surveillance, and could not be further enriched to weapons-grade level without immediate detection.
This, in fact, was the actual conclusion of the IAEA's February 2009 report, which - contrary to claims that Iran had deliberately underreported its uranium stocks - found instead, according to IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, that there was "no reason at all to believe that the estimates of LEU produced in the (Natanz) facility were an intentional error by Iran. They are inherent in the early commissioning phases of such a facility when it is not known in advance how it will perform in practice." She added on fears that Iran could divert its uranium to other secret enrichment facilities: "No nuclear material could have been removed from the facility without the agency's knowledge since the facility is subject to video surveillance and the nuclear material has been kept under seal."
The latest IAEA report has also already been distorted beyond all proportion. In particular, much has been made about "alleged activities" with "possible military dimensions" relating to "the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." Yet there is no evidence at all that Iran is or has ever tried to develop a nuclear payload. These phrases are in fact references to the infamous "alleged studies" contained in a laptop obtained surreptitiously by US intelligence from unidentified sources. The "alleged studies" on the laptop constitute a bundle of supposed confidential Iranian documents related to nuclear work. Almost all detailed allegations about Iran's alleged nuclear weapons activities currently derive from these "alleged studies", attributed to Iran, but whose authenticity has never been proven. The IAEA has tended to approach the issue by referring to them in its reports and demanding that Iran provide information to disprove them - yet to date, the US government has refused to provide Iran copies of the "alleged studies" (which allegedly originated from Iran in the first place) so as to respond to them appropriately.
But we now know that the "alleged studies" are an intelligence fabrication. US national security journalist Gareth Porter has recently confirmed from senior US and German intelligence officials that purported evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme - including the IAEA's 'alleged studies' as well as an alleged Iranian 'neutron initiator' document unearthed by the Times - was forged. The IPRD published an extensive analysis of previous IAEA reports and information on, among other issues, the Iranian nuclear weapons issue toward the eve of the Bush administration. Our report found systematic evidence of intelligence politicization and even fabrication in relation to Iran over the last few decades. In summary, detailed analysis of this new 2010 IAEA report illustrates that on matters of fact, evidence and substance, it yet again undermines the case against Iran.
In the meantime, there is, evidence that Western intelligence agencies are already conducting a covert war inside Iran. In early 2008, a US Presidential Finding uncontested by Democrat members of the House affirmed that the CIA was financing anti-Iranian 'blackops' to the tune of $300 million. Robert Gates, the architect of Bush's Iran strategy, remains Obama's defence secretary. Former CIA counterterrorism official Philip Giraldi told Gareth Porter that the media had frequently published "false intelligence" on Iraq and Iran from unreliable pro-Israeli sources.
The core issue for Iran "is its need for fuel rods, which are processed from 20%, enriched uranium" to create "medical isotopes" (for cancer treatment) at the Tehran Research Reactor - a need which no one disputes. The Reactor was in fact built by the United States in 1968 under the Pahlavi regime. Iran's current need for fuel rods is new, and has arisen "due to the low levels of its current stockpiles and its need for 120Kg of fuel."
Under the latest deal proposed in October 2009, Iran would be required to send its uranium to Russia, where it would be further enriched and then dispatched to France for conversion into fuel rods for use in the Tehran reactor. Under US leadership, the international community unilaterally demanded that Iran send 1.2 tons (1,100 kilograms) - around 70 percent of its entire stockpile - by the end of last year. Iran received heavy criticism for failing to meet the deadline, despite the fact that no actual agreement was reached, largely due to the international community having failed to provide unequivocal legally-binding assurances that they would comply with fuel rod supply requirements; and despite the problem that the international community still refuses to recognize Iran's right to develop and enrich the uranium in its own reserves under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran has already had binding agreements with both France and Russia with which they have failed to comply - more would be needed than bland assurances.
As if to prove this point, goal-posts keep changing, with the US and EU suddenly declaring on 6th February 2010 that "even if it agrees to a nuclear-fuel swap", Iran must separately "prove to the rest of the world that its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes." Their 'clarification' came shortly after Ahmedinejad announced Iran's willingness in principle to accept the deal, subject to reviewing "some of the details."
Yet Iran has for long stated its willingness to implement the IAEA's 'Additional Protocol', an entirely voluntary measure which would subject Iran's nuclear facilities to an even more stringent and intrusive international inspection process, and which would satisfy US and EU professed demands for 'proof', while also permitting a multilateral consortium to adjudicate uranium enrichment within Iran - as long the international community equally recognizes Iran's NPT-stipulated right to develop its own peaceful nuclear enrichment programme. Yet detailed proposals along these lines have been repeatedly ignored and rejected out-of-hand by both the US and the EU.
To understand the Iran nuclear stalemate, just as with the Iraq-WMD fiasco, we need to look beyond official western platitudes, threats and narratives about Iran-WMD to explore the wider geopolitics and pressures emerging in the context of an increasingly strained global hydrocarbon energy system, in which access to the world's largest strategic oil and gas reserves and domination of the world's fast-emerging nuclear market are increasingly urgent problems.