New York Times
U.S. Sees an Opportunity to Press Iran on Nuclear Fuel
By DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
WASHINGTON — As President Obama faces pressure to back up his year-end ultimatum for diplomatic progress with Iran, the administration says that domestic unrest and signs of unexpected trouble in Tehran’s nuclear program make its leaders particularly vulnerable to strong and immediate new sanctions.
The long-discussed sanctions would initiate the latest phase in a strategy to force Iran to comply with United Nations demands to halt production of nuclear fuel. It comes as the administration has completed a fresh review of Iran’s nuclear progress.
In interviews, Mr. Obama’s strategists said that while Iran’s top political and military leaders remained determined to develop nuclear weapons, they were distracted by turmoil in the streets and political infighting, and that the drive to produce nuclear fuel appeared to have faltered in recent months.
The White House wants to focus the new sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the military force believed to run the nuclear weapons effort. That force has also played a crucial role in the repression of antigovernment demonstrators since the disputed presidential election in June.
Although repeated rounds of sanctions over many years have not dissuaded Iran from pursuing nuclear technology, an administration official involved in the Iran policy said the hope was that the current troubles “give us a window to impose the first sanctions that may make the Iranians think the nuclear program isn’t worth the price tag.”
While outsiders have a limited view of Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration officials said they believed that the bomb-development effort was seriously derailed by the exposure three months ago of the country’s secret enrichment plant under construction near the holy city of Qum. Exposure of the site deprived Iran of its best chance of covertly producing the highly enriched uranium needed to make fuel for nuclear weapons.
In addition, international nuclear inspectors report that at Iran’s plant in Natanz, where thousands of centrifuges spin to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel, the number of the machines that are currently operating has dropped by 20 percent since the summer, a decline nuclear experts attribute to technical problems. Others, including some European officials, believe the problems may have been accentuated by a series of covert efforts by the West to undermine Iran’s program, including sabotage on its imported equipment and infrastructure.
These factors have led the administration’s policy makers to lengthen their estimate of how long it would take Iran to accomplish what nuclear experts call “covert breakout” — the ability to secretly produce a workable weapon.
“For now, the Iranians don’t have a credible breakout option, and we don’t think they will have one for at least 18 months, maybe two or three years,” said one senior administration official at the center of the White House Iran strategy. The administration has told allies that the longer time frame would allow the sanctions to have an effect before Iran could develop its nuclear ability.
Another administration official said that Israeli officials, while still publicly hinting that they might take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, “now feel that what’s happening in Iran makes the country vulnerable to real sanctions,” and might give Mr. Obama more time to persuade China and Russia to go along. A senior Israeli diplomat in Washington said that in back-channel conversations “Obama has convinced us that it’s worth trying the sanctions, at least for a few months.”
Sanctions will be a difficult balancing act for the administration, since it acknowledges that three previous rounds of sanctions have failed to deter Iran, and it also wants to avoid angering Iranians protesting in the streets by depriving them of Western goods. That is why the administration is focusing on the Revolutionary Guards, who are increasingly detested by the protesters, and who have built up billions of dollars of business interests in telecommunications, oil and construction.
The administration aims to get Arab and Asian nations to join Europe in cutting off financial transactions with front companies for the Revolutionary Guards.
China and Russia have been particularly reluctant and could seize on the Obama administration’s view of Iran’s nuclear troubles to resist Mr. Obama’s argument that new sanctions are needed now to punish Iran’s defiance of the United Nations Security Council mandate that it cease enriching uranium.
Iran’s insistence that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only is roundly rejected by Western officials and, in internal reports, by international nuclear inspectors. Yet Washington’s assessments of how much progress Iran has made toward a weapon have varied greatly over the past two years, partly a reflection of how little is known about the inner workings of the country’s nuclear programs.
Mr. Obama’s top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before President George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.
After reviewing new documents that have leaked out of Iran and debriefing defectors lured to the West, Mr. Obama’s advisers say they believe the work on weapons design is continuing on a smaller scale — the same assessment reached by Britain, France, Germany and Israel.
In early September, the American ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Glyn Davies, warned that Iran had “possible breakout capacity.” Administration officials say that Mr. Davies’ assessment was technically accurate, yet the new evidence suggests that Iran is less likely to use its uranium stockpile to assemble one or two bombs, a move officials say would be likely to provoke an Israeli strike.
The administration’s current view of Iran’s nuclear program was provided by six senior administration officials advising Mr. Obama on his strategy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject. The administration’s review of Iran’s program, which they said was based on intelligence reports, information from allies, and their own analysis, did not amount to a new formal intelligence assessment.
In interviews, those officials as well as European officials engaged in the Iran issue and private experts described Iran’s nuclear program as being in some disarray.
The biggest disruption came in late September when Mr. Obama, along with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, publicly exposed Iran’s covert effort to build an enrichment plant near Qum.
Western intelligence agencies had been studying the underground plant from afar for nearly a year, and two European officials say that Iranian nuclear spies recruited by Europe and Israel provided some confirming evidence about the purpose of the plant.
International inspectors who were granted access to the underground site in October found that the plant was about a year away from operation and that it was designed for just 3,000 centrifuges — not enough to produce the large amounts of fuel needed for commercial reactors, but sufficient for the stealthy production of highly enriched bomb fuel. (By comparison, the Natanz plant, which is ostensibly for producing reactor fuel, is designed for 54,000 centrifuges.)
American officials say that the Qum plant is now useless to the Iranians. “They spent three years and tens of millions of dollars on a covert plant that they will probably never turn on,” said the senior official involved in the White House strategy.
The official added, “It would take Iran three to four years to build a duplicate of Qum,” although he acknowledged that Iran could have another secret facility that Western intelligence had missed.
Both administration officials and experts say that another factor slowing Iran’s nuclear development is that it is working with older centrifuge technology that keeps breaking down.
By the recent count of inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency, there were 3,936 centrifuges running at Iran’s enrichment plant in the desert at Natanz — down from a peak of 4,920 centrifuges in June.
Administration officials say Iran began producing almost all of its own centrifuge components after discovering that the United States and other Western countries had sabotaged some key imported parts, and they have made a series of manufacturing errors.
R. Scott Kemp, a Princeton University physicist, said that another factor was in the basic design of the centrifuges, obtained from Pakistan nearly two decades ago. “I suspect design problems,” Mr. Kemp said. “The machines run hot and have short lives. They’re terrible. It’s a really bad design.”
If Mr. Kemp and others are right, it suggests that Iran has a long way to go before it can make good on its recent vow to open 10 new enrichment plants. Iranian officials have said publicly that those plants will use a new version of the centrifuges. But Paul K. Kerr, a nuclear analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said research on the new generation of centrifuges had apparently proved “less successful” than the original, primitive design.
Another possible problem for Iran is the Western sabotage efforts. In January, The New York Times reported that President Bush had ordered a broad covert program against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including efforts to undermine electrical and computer systems that keep the nuclear program running. The Obama administration has been silent about the progress of that program, one of the most heavily classified of the United States government.