Obama Drafts New “End of the Road” Benchmarks for Iran
“Iran: The End of the Road Document” Is the title of a paper on which two of President Barack Obama’s top advisers have been working this week in a quiet part of the White House.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly names them as Gary Samore, the president’s top adviser on nuclear proliferation, and Wendy R. Sherman, Undersecretary for Political Affairs.
Obama ordered the paper to be drawn up when he became convinced that the path of nuclear diplomacy with Iran had exhausted itself. This conviction was confirmed by the failure of the EU foreign policy executive Catherine Ashton, who coordinated the Six-Power talks with Iran which ran out of steam in July, to get anywhere when she met Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Istanbul last week.
The End of the Road document is believed in some informed administration quarters to embody a kind of ultimatum which President Obama has decided to put before Tehran straight after the Nov. 6 US presidential elections.
Instead of the Israeli term of “red lines” – which the president shuns – it will lay down “benchmarks” on which the US and Iran must concur to resolve the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.
No one outside the innermost presidential circle knows what Obama proposes to do if Tehran flouts those “benchmarks,” as it has all other limits on its nuclear bomb program for the past 20 years. If reelected, will he finally agree to a military operation or experiment with a fresh path to diplomacy?
That question is still open.
Tehran’s bid to exploit Fordo’s disruption to spin out diplomacy
Although Tehran did not seek the partial disabling by sabotage of its underground uranium enrichment plant at Fordo (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 557 of Sept. 21: Disabling Fordo by Blowing up Its Power Lines; Tehran fears no major attack needed to disrupt its nuclear program), Iranian strategists are exploiting the unsought setback to the hilt.
It has given them a new excuse for stalling the international effort to prevent a nuclear Iran and for going back to diplomacy. They are saying that the West has got exactly what it wanted: a halt to 20-percent enriched uranium production and should therefore be more amenable to a diplomatic, non-military solution to the nuclear controversy. In fact, Tehran has already formulated new propositions and is ready to put them on the table. It has laid the groundwork with three demands, outlined here for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources:
1. Cut the UN Nuclear Energy Agency (IAEA) out of diplomacy and switch to direct Iran-US negotiations.
The door to the direct track was opened on Sept. 17, say the Iranians, when Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, their delegate to the IAEA meeting in Vienna, revealed the damage to the Fordo plant and accused the agency of being infiltrated by “terrorists and saboteurs.”
President Barack Obama was replying indirectly to Tehran’s exploratory move when he told the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25 that the United States will do what it takes to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. But time for a diplomatic resolution “is not unlimited.” The US wanted to find a peaceful solution to the problem, said the president and believed “that there was still time and space to do so.”
Iran may agree to export enriched uranium, returned as fuel plates
2. Tehran is trying to corner Washington into concessions and gain time and space for itself by a crash program to repair Fordo’s damaged electrical connections and restore it to full uranium enrichment capacity in the shortest possible time.
3. The Iranians are using the same argument – high-grade uranium enrichment has closed down at Fordo – to help Washington persevere in holding Israel back from attacking their nuclear sites in the coming weeks. There is no way that enough high-grade uranium for Iran’s first nuclear bomb will be ready by the end of September, as Israel claims, says Tehran. So what’s the hurry for an attack?
Obama has his own powerful motives for blocking Israeli military action – first of all, during the run-up to the Nov. 6, presidential election and later too, if he is reelected, in the early months of his second term.
The US president does not need Iranian promptings to put Israel’s back to the wall on military action against Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington and Tehran sources report that Iran’s new proposals have been roughed out without specifics.
They broadly provide for the US to accept the Islamic Republic’s continued enrichment of uranium of all grades, including 20 percent, at all its plants including Fordo. However Tehran proposes to ship the entire product outside Iran to one or more countries to be returned after conversion into nuclear fuel plates, a form which it is hard to transform into bomb material.
Iran offers to end 20-pc enrichment for end of sanctions.
This was the deal Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the UN watchdog, offered in negotiations with the IAEA in Tehran and Vienna. It was also put by Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili before the European Union’s External Policy Executive Catherine Ashton when they met in Istanbul on Sept. 19.
This was revealed by Soltanieh in a press interview: He said: “We are prepared to suspend enrichment to 20 percent provided we find a reciprocal step compatible with it,” said Soltanieh. “We said this in Istanbul.”
Soltanieh also accused the IAEA of going back on a concession made last month to allow Tehran access to the documents alleging illicit Iranian nuclear weapons activities. Those documents also recorded the agency’s demand for Iran to explain these activities. That concession was later withdrawn, he alleged.
Soltanieh was the first Iranian official to state on record that his government is prepared to negotiate the discontinuation of its 20-percent enrichment program entirely – albeit for a price. “If we do that, there shouldn’t be sanctions,” he said.
Soltanieh also had an answer for the US demand to shut down the Fordo site. “The most important thing [documented in the Aug. 30] IAEA report,” he said, “was the conversion of half the stock pile [of 20-percent enriched uranium] to fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor.”
Tehran is spinning out time to finish its plutonium reactor
Obama dumped the new Iranian case onto the desks of US intelligence agencies for a thorough review and assessment. He received their answers shortly before his UN address Tuesday, Sept. 25:
They are summed up here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources:
a) The Iranian proposal was simply a shot in the dark unauthorized by any of its governing institutions including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Indeed, say the Iran intelligence experts, if the US accepted it as a basis for negotiation, Khamenei would most likely veto it before it any talks moved forward. Washington would therefore be wasting its time by taking it seriously.
b) Even if Khamenei did endorse the proposition, the administration must beware of trusting Iran. Past masters of deception, the Iranians are holding out their new lure to sucker the US into another round of diplomacy as a subterfuge to gain time for another nuclear objective.
Those intelligence analysts are warning the administration that Tehran would welcome another year or two of diplomatic negotiations because in that time, they can complete the IR-40 “research” reactor which is under construction at Arak.
US intelligence estimates that, at the present pace of work, the reactor will be ready to go on stream by the end of 2014. The entire dispute over enriched uranium would then be academic because Iran would be able to build nuclear bombs from plutonium.
Arak could produce enough plutonium for two bombs per year
As explained by Dr. Richard J. McDonald, who spent 25 years as a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the IR-40 reactor under construction at Arak is a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor similar to the Cirrus reactor in India and the Khushab reactor in Pakistan, both of which produce plutonium.
North Korea and Israel have also used plutonium for their nuclear weapons, says Dr. McDonald.
When operational, the Arak reactor should be capable of producing enough plutonium for a couple of weapons per year.
Being a heavy-water reactor, it should run on un-enriched fuel, so rendering Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities superfluous.
The (obsolete) Triga reactor in Tehran has produced small amounts of plutonium for years, probably not enough for a weapons program but enough to study plutonium production and chemical separation, says Dr. McDonald.
He concludes that from this perspective, it appears the obsession with uranium separation is obscuring the real danger and that is that plutonium weapons can be produced at Arak in the near future.