Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Has the war against Iran already begun?

Warning: admittedly highly speculative post ahead:
Reuters has just published yet another “will there be an Israeli attack on Iran?” piece , amidst the latest spike in speculation of a possible strike against its nuclear programme. I'm beginning to wonder if such speculation is not a little behind the times.
In the last two weeks there have an explosion at an Iranian missile facility that killed a senior Revolutionary Guards figure described as the architect of the country’s missile programme h; another alleged explosion at what may have been a Hizbullah site in Lebanon ; and yet another alleged explosion at Iran’s uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.
The circumstances behind all these explosions are murky and it’s not even certain that the last two explosions happened at all, or at least not at the sites described above, never mind whether or not they were the result of sabotage or an attack. Nor is it out of the question that any of the explosions were the results of accidents. But following on from the assassination of prominent Iranian scientists with alleged links to the country’s nuclear programme (again, it’s far from clear that all of the scientists killed really were involved in the nuclear programme, but at the same time it seems unlikely that they were assassinated merely for giving boring lectures) over the course of the past year, a sudden string of “accidents” at these sensitive sites to occur back to back merely as a result of coincidence seems a little far-fetched. An explosion at a missile facility that kills such a prominent figure also seems highly suspicious and the latest evidence for an explosion having taken place at the Isfahan facility also seems pretty strong , though I suppose it’s never wise to take anything reported in the Murdoch press at face value. While these aren't the first explosions blamed on Israel to have allegedly occurred at Iranian missile sites or Hizbullah arms dumps, it does seem to be a particularly concentrated spate.
The timing of the spate of alleged attacks is also interesting. A major factor in the “will Israel/won’t Israel” equation is the US presence in Iraq, which has always been a major deterrent to an Israeli attack due to US fears that Iran could retaliate through Iraqi allies and proxies by launching major attacks on US troops in the country, as well as the fact that the shortest flight route to Iran would be through US-controlled Iraqi airspace, which would put the US in an extremely difficult position. So the likelihood of an attack was always going to increase once the US got out of Iraq. In mid-October the Obama administration announced that it had decided (or had the matter decided for it) to withdraw more or less all troops from Iraq by the end of this year. Within a month, and very close to the withdrawal date, the first of what appears to be an escalated series of attacks on Iranian military and nuclear targets began.
If these explosions are real and are the result of Israeli or US/Western attacks, doesn’t that mean the much anticipated war against Iran has essentially already started? Clearly the means are different, and the scale so far smaller, than the widely expected large scale simultaneous airstrike blitz on multiple facilities; but the end result is still explosions at Iranian nuclear and missile facilities (not to mention dead Iranian scientists) and at facilities belonging to its ally Hizbullah. How many more explosions can we expect and at what point do people start describing what is happening as war, which repeated attacks on Iranian military and infrastructure facilities clearly amounts to, rather than “sabotage”?
Another thing I’m curious about is how these attacks, if that’s what they are, are being carried out. It’s generally assumed that various forms of sabotage or attacks by intelligence forces are at play. I’m willing to buy that the occasional accident or explosion. But I find it hard to believe that Mossad or the CIA and local allies such as the MEK have penetrated the Iranian military establishment so deeply as to have been able to carry out sabotage against or plant bombs in two ultra-sensitive and presumably extremely well-guarded Iranian facilities within two weeks, especially at a time when Iran has supposedly recently rolled up a local CIA network. I also find for example Richard Silverstein’s explanation for how Israel supposedly attacked the Hizbullah arms dump (by deliberately crash-landing a booby trapped drone that Hizbullah than brought to the facility) a little convoluted.
One possibility that I haven’t seen widely considered yet is that Israel, or even the US, is simply carrying out good old-fashioned airstrikes, possibly in the form of unmanned drone strikes (though interestingly, Le Figaro reported that an explosion last year at Imam Ali Shehab-3 missile base might have been the result of an Israeli airstrike). After all, unclaimed drone strikes have expanded massively throughout the region in the past few years are being carried out routinely in several other countries by the US in particular. Israel last year was reported to be in possession of a new range of drones capable of reaching Iran , while the US unquestionably has bases in the region that it could launch such strikes from. Of course, in many ways it doesn’t really matter how the attacks were carried out -– a bomb attack is a bomb attack and an act of war is an act of war, regardless of how it’s delivered – but I think the opening up of some sort of air campaign would be widely perceived as a notable escalation in the conflict against Iran in comparison to “sabotage” activities that have long been widely regarded as taking place in Iran.
A covert, low intensity (compared to a full-on simultaneous strike at a range of nuclear and military targets) campaign of drone strikes or other forms of bombings in combination with other activities such as assassinations and sabotage seems like a logical choice for anti-Iranian forces, given widespread claims that such a large-scale strike would not do much more than delay the programme while also potentially sparking sparking a major regional war and  an oil price spike that would be crippling for the already stalling US and global economies.  
Why would smaller scale strikes not do the same (ie trigger Iranian retaliation and a regional war)? One reason is that isolated explosions are deniable in a way that the full-on simultaneous destruction of numerous nuclear facilities isn’t, allowing for the consequences of a full-scale attack to be avoided. That matters for whoever is carrying them out but it also matters for Iran, because Iran almost certainly doesn’t want to get sucked into a war with Israel and the US, because it would inevitably lose. Of course Iran has retaliatory options, and knows that the US is unlikely to have the capability or desire to actually invade Iran and overthrow the regime. All the same, if Iran were to start sustainedly lobbing missiles at Israel and Saudi oil infrastructure and to try to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the US would almost certainly bomb its military infrastructure, and probably its civilian infrastructure too, back to year zero, which is not exactly an attractive outcome for the regime. That Iran does not appear willing to get dragged into such a conflict is underlined by the fact that, with the possible exception of the absurd-seeming alleged plot to carry out attacks in the US through an incompetent used car salesman and a Mexican drugs cartel, it has so far appeared to fail to respond to other blatant provocations and attacks such as the blatant assassination of Iranian scientists and the Stuxnet computer virus attack on its nuclear programme; just as Iranian ally Syria failed to respond to the Israeli air raid on a nuclear reactor several years ago and the assassination of one of their senior military figures, and Hizbullah and Hamas, despite much doom-mongering, have failed to respond to the assassination of high-level members such as Imad Mughniyeh.
Of course,  if Israel launched an obvious undisguised large scale airstrike on Iran, it would clearly be politically very difficult for Iran to sit back and do nothing; the regime could well feel forced by popular and nationalist pressure, as well as the dangers associated with being seen to be powerless to respond to large-scale military attack, to engage in some kind of retaliation, irrespective of the consequences. But when it comes to smaller-scale, isolated attacks, the regime can write them off as accidents or isolated incidents not worth responding to, which makes them more attractive for everyone.  
The risk of course is that such attacks continue to the point where it becomes obvious to everybody what’s actually happening and the regime figures it can no longer feign ignorance, potentially sparking a catastrophic full-scale war.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Examining the IAEA's evidence that Iran "may" be pursuing a nuclear weapons programme

The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran has been receiving a lot of attention in relation to the fact that, for the first time, the agency has explicitly said it believes not only that Iran may have had a nuclear weapons programme but that “some activities may still be on-going.”

Most of the report is based on documents that have long been in the IAEA’s possession as well as widely reported on, and that largely relate to alleged nuclear activities carried out prior to 2003 (when the US intelligence community judges Iran to have suspended an allegedly pre-existing nuclear weapons programme). These are most importantly the “alleged studies”/“laptop of death” documents, as well as some documents from the AQ Khan nuclear network (which are different in that Iran admits these are genuine and that it received them, though it says it was given weapons-related Khan documents that the IAEA is particularly interested in without having requested them). As several other observers have pointed out, former head of the IAEA Mohammed el-Baradei declined to publish the alleged studies documents or to use them as a basis for accusing Iran of having a nuclear weapons programme because of questions about their authenticity but his politicised pro-US successor Yukiya Amano has decided to give them the IAEA’s backing. Gareth Porter provides the most comprehensive critical examination of the alleged studies’ veracity here (subscription/log-in needed).  

It is bizarre that a report overwhelmingly focused on weapons work alleged to have been largely wrapped up nearly a decade ago is attracting so much hype and being so widely used to call for yet more sanctions on Iran and even outright war. However, while the “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Program” is overwhelmingly concerned with claims about Iran’s pre-2003 activities, the report does also include the vague but serious charge that “some activities may (my emphasis) still be on-going,” which is rather more relevant to the world today. I thought that it might therefore be interesting to dig out and scrutinise the sections that specifically deal with weapons-related activities that have allegedly taken place since 2003 and/or are allegedly still on-going.

The first such claim is presented in paragraphs 23 and 24 of the annexe. These paragraphs state that the AMAD project, an alleged nuclear weapons programme, was wrapped up in 2003 but that, based on “information the Agency has received from Member states”, “staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects.” Furthermore, some IAEA member states have provided it with information that “some activities previously carried out under the AMAD Plan were resumed later” and that the head of AMAD “retained the principal organization role,” first under a new organisation and then as the head of an Iranian university. The section concludes: “The Agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme.”

It is worth noting how vague and poorly sourced this is. Some staff stayed in place to write up the results of a terminated program. Then, “some member states” provided information that “some activities” that “would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapons programme” were resumed, but no details of these activities are given (or whether or not they might have non-nuclear applications”. So the charge is that some unidentified intelligence agencies have said that some sort of unspecified work with (potential?) relevance to nuclear weapons research continued after 2003, based on unspecified and unverifiable evidence.

The next section explicitly referring to post-2003 activities is paragraph 45, which says that two member states provided the IAEA information that “Iran engaged in experimental research involving a scaled down version of the hemispherical initiation system and high explosive charge referred to in paragraph 43 above, albeit in connection with non-nuclear applications.” Again, poorly sourced and unverifiable, and this time referring to research “in connection with non-nuclear applications,” which raises the question of why this is included at all.

All of the rest of the allegations relating to post-2003/on-going weapons research appear in paragraphs 52 to 56. Paragraph 52 of the report states that, again, two member states provided the IAEA with information relating to “modelling studies alleged to have been conducted in 2008 and 2009.” These “involved the modelling of spherical geometries, consisting of components of the core of an HEU nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behaviour at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield.” So here we do have at least have a specific, nuclear weapons-related accusation with a fairly precise timeframe, though the basis for the accusation and the strength and type of evidence for it is not given; again, all we are told is that “two member states” (at least one of which is presumably Israel - see the last paragraph of the link) say so.
Paragraph 53 states that a member state told the IAEA that in 2005, Iran moved to set up projects in an institution overseen by the alleged head AMAD “to establish a databank for “equation of state” information  and a hydrodynamics calculation centre.” Not being a nuclear expert, I don’t know whether these could have a plausible non-nuclear weapons application and the report doesn’t say so. The paragraph also states that “”a different Member State” told the agency that, also in 2005, a “senior official in SADAT solicited assistance from Shahid Behesti University in connection with complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives.” This sounds pretty clearly related to nuclear weapons. Again we have (presumably the same) two member states providing the IAEA with unverifiable information, this time relating to alleged weapons related research from six, rather than the usual eight-plus, years ago.

Paragraph 54 notes that the IAEA has discovered that Iranian researchers have, “over the past decade”, openly published a variety of papers on topics that “are commonly used in reactor physics or conventional ordnance research, but also have applications in the development of nuclear explosives.” This is such a pathetic piece of evidence for a clandestine nuclear weapons program that it’s not worth commenting on.

Paragraph 55 and 56 state that the IAEA has information from a “member state” that Iran “may” (my emphasis) have continued work after 2004 on research into the manufacture of “small capsules suitable for use as containers of a component containing nuclear material” that Iran, according to a different member state, “may” (again, my emphasis) have experimented with “in order to assess their performance in generating neutrons.” The agency says that such components could be used to generate a nuclear explosion, though it doesn’t clarify whether or not they could be used for another purpose. So again we have unverifiable intelligence from presumably the same two member states, this time to the effect that Iran “may” have continued after 2004 looking into components that it “may” have experimented with as part of a weapons program, without being clear as to whether such research has any other applications.

That, by my reading of the document, accounts for all the references in the report to alleged weapons-related research that the report specifically says took place after 2003. (There are other vaguely-worded references to research that don’t give a clear time frame and that could presumably also have taken place after 2003, but given that the vast majority of the evidence cited is the alleged studies, which refer to pre-2003 work, and the importance the agency would likely attach to any evidence of an on-going weapons program, it seems unlikely to me that the agency would have failed to make it clear when it was referring to alleged post-2003 activities).

So to summarise, apart from the absurd citation of openly published scientific research with clear non-nuclear weapons-related applications, it is all based on unverifiable intelligence from IAEA member states, in almost all cases from what appear to be the same two member states, one of which is likely Israel. In one case this relates to a claim that some staff hung around to write up some research after it had been terminated as well as entirely vague and unspecified allegations that "some" weapons-relevant research continued afterwards. In another, the alleged activities are acknowledged to have been “in connection with non-nuclear applications.” Another relates to an alleged piece of nuclear weapons-related research that allegedly took place six years ago. And then we have a claim that an intelligence agency told the IAEA that Iran “may” have continued some research beyond 2004 that it “may” previously have used as part of a weapons research programme, with being clear about whether or not such research has non-nuclear applications.

In only one case do we have a claim that Iran relatively recently (two to three years ago) carried out an unambiguously weapons-related piece of research, again based on the unverifiable claims of two intelligence agencies.

It hardly bears repeating that, in the light of the Iraq war, the record of (presumably) western intelligence agencies on accurately and honestly presenting evidence of WMD-programmes in four-letter Middle Eastern countries beginning with “Ira-” is some way from being unimpeachable; and in this case we have just one claim by these intelligence agencies that they have some sort of evidence of Iran fairly recently engaging in what is unambiguously nuclear weapons-related research. This is the “evidence”, combined with long-standing dubious claims about what Iran may have gotten up to eight or more years ago, that is being hyped as part of a push towards another potentially catastrophic war in the Middle East.