As diplomats began drafting a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program and Western sanctions in Vienna Tuesday, US officials were poised to demand a drastic cut in Iran’s enrichment capabilities that is widely expected to deadlock the negotiations.
Iran is almost certain to reject the basic concept that it should reduce the number of its centrifuges to a fraction of its present total, and the resulting collapse of the talks could lead to a much higher level of tensions between the United States and Iran.
The Barack Obama administration’s highly risky diplomatic gambit rests on the concept of “breakout time”, defined as the number of months it would take Iran to accumulate enough weapons grade uranium for a single nuclear weapon.
Both Secretary of State John Kerry and former US proliferation official Robert Einhorn have explained the demand that Iran give up the vast majority of its centrifuges as necessary to increase Iran’s “breakout time” to at least six months, and perhaps even much longer.
Einhorn, the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control until June 2013, wrote in a report for the Brookings Institution that the number and type of centrifuges “will be limited to ensure that breakout times are…a minimum of 6 to 12 months at all times.”
In a separate article in The National Interest, Einhorn wrote that such a “breakout time” would entail a reduction from Iran’s present total of 19,000 centrifuges to “a few thousand first-generation centrifuges”.
Kerry suggested in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Apr. 8 that the administration would try to get a breakout time of more than one year but might settle for six to 12 months. He compared that with the two months he said was the current estimate of Iran’s breakout capabilities.
“Breakout” has been touted by hardline think tanks as a nonpolitical technical measure of the threat to obtain the high-enriched uranium necessary for a bomb, but it is actually arbitrary and highly political.
Even proliferation specialists who support the demand to limit Iranian enrichment capabilities severely, however, including both Einhorn and Gary Samore, Obama’s former special assistant on weapons of mass destruction, believe that “breakout” is more about the politics surrounding the issue than the reality of the Iranian nuclear program.
In an interview with IPS, Samore said the breakout concept can only measure the capability to obtain the necessary amount of high-enriched uranium from acknowledged facilities – those that are under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
It does not deal with a scenario involving secret facilities, he said, because it is only possible to estimate rates of enrichment in facilities with known quantities and types of centrifuges.
The use of the breakout concept is based on the premise that Iran would make a political decision to begin enriching uranium to weapons grade levels in its Natanz and Fordow plants as rapidly as possible. That would mean that Iran would have to expel the IAEA inspectors and announce to the world, in effect, its intention to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Samore, who left the Obama administration in January 2013 and is now the executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Security, told IPS, “It’s extremely unlikely that Iran would actually take the risk for single bomb,” calling it “an implausible scenario.”
Samore is no dove on Iran’s nuclear issue. He is also president of United Against Nuclear Iran, an organization that puts out hardline propaganda aimed at convincing the world that Iran is a threat trying to get nuclear weapons.
Another problem with the specter of “breakout” is that, even if it took the risk of enriching the necessary weapons-grade uranium, Iran would still have to go through a series of steps to actually have a bomb that it could threaten to use.
A report released last week by the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that calculations of breakout capability “are rough and purely theoretical estimates” and that they “omit inevitable technical hitches” and “an unpredictable and time-consuming weaponization process.”
According to the testimony by director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2010, that process, including integrating the weapon into a ballistic missile, would take three or four years.
The ICG report quoted a senior Iranian official as saying, “Serious people know that, even if Iran sought nuclear weapons, it will take years to manufacture one. What’s more, no state has ever invited opprobrium or a military strike just to produce a few kilograms of highly enriched uranium.”
In an interview, Jim Walsh of MIT’s Security Studies Program was scathing about the “breakout” scenario the administration is using to justify its diplomatic stance. “The idea of Iran kicking out inspectors to rush to get one bomb is silly,” he told IPS.
Samore believed that Iran would be far more likely to try what he calls a “sneakout” – the use of secret facilities to enrich uranium to weapons grade — than a “breakout”.
But as is generally acknowledged by proliferation specialists, such a covert route to a nuclear weapons capability would take much longer than trying to do so openly. Furthermore, it is almost certain to be detected, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified in April 2013.
Despite his conviction that the breakout concept makes no sense as the basis for negotiations with Iran, Samore believes it will be “the test for any deal”, because it is the only way to measure it. “It’s a political fact of life,” Samore said. “It all gets boiled down to breakout time.”
The dominance that the breakout advocates have achieved in the lopsided Iran political discourse has given opponents of an agreement a new form of pressure on the Obama administration to make unrealistic demands in the negotiations.
Einhorn admitted at a panel at the US Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. Tuesday that the decision on the length of breakout time and the level of centrifuges to be demanded “will come down to a political judgment”.
He clearly suggested, however, that the decision is primarily a response to political pressures from various unnamed parties and not a matter of finding a political compromise with Iran.
“Some say six months or less,” he said. “Others say you need a year. Some say a year and a half or two years.”
The former senior State Department official on proliferation issues insisted, moreover, that there was no possibility of accepting Iran’s explicit demand to be permitted to increase its enrichment capacity to as many as 30,000 centrifuges in order to support a nuclear power program.
“That amount would bring breakout time down to weeks or days,” he said. “That’s breakout.”
He did not discuss the possibility of agreement on gradually phasing in additional centrifuges as the practical need for them is demonstrated by progress on a new nuclear reactor.
The tough talk by Einhorn, who has clearly been given the green light to describe administration thinking publicly, makes it much less likely that the administration will back away from a breakout demand in the face of firm Iranian resistance.
Scores were reported killed during Anbar operations that are seen as precursors to a full assault on militants in Falluja. The numbers given are reported by Iraqi officials and cannot be independently confirmed. If the government figures are accurate, at least 210 people were killed and 120 were wounded. Well over half the dead were militants. Bombers also attacked a courthouse in Baghdad, but they were unable to penetrate the building.
Claims of a chemical attack on the Eastern Ghouta village of Deir al-Asafir remain unconfirmed Thursday, two days after opposition media published video purporting to show the aftermath apoison gas attack on the village roughly 12 kilometers southeast of the Syrian capital. “It’s not confirmed,” said Qusai Zakaria, a prominent Eastern Ghouta activist currently in the US on an advocacy tour organized by the Syrian American Council. “The doctors there don’t have enough equipment to analyze the symptoms,” he told Syria Direct.
An activist with Deir al-Asafir’s Local Coordination Committee told Syria Direct Wednesday that the chemical reports were likely exaggerated. “There’s nothing to this story; there was a strange smell at night after a few missiles fell, people feared chemicals,” he said.
The new accusations coincide with the release of a Human Rights Watch report citing “strong evidence” that the regime attacked three towns in Idlib and Hama provinces with chlorine gas in mid-April. Activists who spoke with Syria Direct confirmed the central details of HRW’s reporting on attacks in the Hama town of Kafr Zeita on April 11 and the Idlib town of Telmans on April 21. “You could see the yellow gas on the trees,” said Telmans-based activist Salih al-Idlibi, describing the aftermath of a barrel bomb attack the morning of April 21. “It had a really strong smell, many times stronger than household cleaning products.”
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal al-Mekhdad rejected reports that Damascus used chlorine gas as a weapon last month, telling CNN earlier this week that “chlorine gas has never been used as a weapon.”
Islamic Front blows up another regime checkpoint in Idlib
The Islamic Front on Wednesday night released dramatic video purporting to show its demolition a regime checkpoint in the Wadi a-Deif military encampment in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, the second time in ten days that the group has blown up a government installation in the base, which sits adjacent to the M5 international highway. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights cited sources who said that “dozens” of regime soldiers had been killed or injured in the attack on the Tallat a-Sawadi checkpoint, while pro-Islamic Front news site Omawi Mubashar claimed that the group planted some 60 tons of explosives in an 850 meter-long tunnel that rebels dug under Wadi a-Deif.
The Wadi a-Deif encampment is considered one of the most fortified in Idlib province, and contains large stores of weapons and equipment used by regime forces. It also sits three kilometers west of the town of Telmans, which regime forces are believed to have attackedwith chlorine gas on April 21.
Assad’s presidential ‘opponents’ roll out platforms
Pro-regime newspaper al-Watan reported Wednesday that two presidential candidates, Hassan a-Nouri and Maher al-Hajjar, have held a series of television interviews over the past few days in which they proposed their electoral programs. President Bashar al-Assad has not held any meetings, or released statements on his presidential program; al-Watan stated that observers have attributed this to the Syrian people’s familiarity with his policies. Al-Watan further reporteded that citizens in Damascus, its environs, Homs, Latakia, and a-Sweida have organized events and crowded marches in support of the president.
In contrast, the opposition website Syrian Revolution claimedthat the regime organized an event yesterday, titled “Together,” at the Al-Baath University in Homs province, during which it locked the university gates to prevent students from exiting the premises. Despite these measures,photosshow a number of students jumping over the university walls to escape campus.
A photo circulating online Wednesday appears to show UNHCR materials that have been recycled into a pro-Assad campaign tent. Photo courtesy of Addounia TV.
Observatory: 850 dead in regime prisons in past 5 months
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced yesterday that 850 prisoners, among them six women and 15 children, have died in regime prisons over the past five months. "These individuals died as a result of their exposure to torture, field executions, and inhumane and unsanitary conditions," the Observatory claimed, "in addition to deprivation from medicine and medical treatment which they needed." In a similar vein, Amnesty International announced on Tuesday that torture has been practiced systematically in Syria since the start of the conflict, and called for allowing lawyers and doctors to visit prisoners to prevent further abuses, as well as stepping up independent investigations into incidents of torture to punish those responsible.
Navy Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned last March the widespread use of torture in governmental detention centers, and also expressed her regret that some militant opposition groups have resorted to similar tactics. She noted that governmental abuses far exceed those of opposition groups, a claim which led Bashar Jaafari, Permanent Representative of Syria at the UN, to accuse Pillay of acting like an "insane person."