New York Times: With a vote on new sanctions against Iran only days away, the Obama administration is making the case to members of the United Nations Security Council that Iran has revived elements of its program to design nuclear weapons that American intelligence agencies previously concluded had gone dormant.
The New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON — With a vote on new sanctions against Iran only days away, the Obama administration is making the case to members of the United Nations Security Council that Iran has revived elements of its program to design nuclear weapons that American intelligence agencies previously concluded had gone dormant.
The classified intelligence briefings — some held in Washington for foreign ministers and foreign leaders as they visited in recent months, others in foreign capitals — have been part of a lobbying effort to secure votes for the sanctions, the fourth round since 2006. European and American officials expect the vote could come as early as Wednesday, and they say they believe the sanctions will pass 12 to 3, with Turkey, Brazil and Lebanon likely to vote against the sanctions.
The briefings, according to foreign diplomats and some American officials, amount to a tacit admission by the United States that it is gradually backing away from a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. It is using new evidence to revise and in some cases reverse conclusions from that estimate, which came to the much disputed conclusion that while Iran had stepped up its production of nuclear fuel, its leadership had suspended its work on the devices and warhead designs needed to actually build a weapon.
European intelligence officials and even some officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed great skepticism about those conclusions at the time. Some argued that after the mistakes it made in Iraq, the American intelligence community was being cautious to a fault.
“These were pretty nuanced presentations,” one foreign diplomat said on Monday. “It was full of qualifiers — it wasn’t like Colin Powell doing a PowerPoint,” he said, a reference to the former secretary of state’s dramatic, and since discredited, televised presentation on alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq just weeks before the invasion of that country.
According to a senior administration official, the revised case to the Security Council members “made the point that the Iranians are doing both dual-use research and some things that you can explain only by an interest in nuclear weapons.” Iran’s work, he said, “is limited, carefully circumscribed, and will not, on its own, get them to a bomb. It is by no means the sort of comprehensive effort we saw before 2003.”
Asked whether the new findings constituted a rejection of the 2007 intelligence estimate, which the Bush White House made public while questioning its conclusions, the official said it was not a reversal as much as an “evolution based on new information.”
“And new information,” he said, “comes in all the time, as you would expect on a priority target like Iran.”
Administration officials would not describe the nature of the evidence. One senior official said many mysteries remained about Iran’s continuing work, including whether it is being conducted at the command of Iran’s leaders.
Some of the new information appeared to have come from Shahram Amiri, a 32-year-old Iranian scientist who is believed to have been involved in some nuclear projects. Mr. Amiri disappeared last year while on a religious pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Western officials have confirmed that he is providing information, but will not confirm reports that he is now living in the United States. “He was one of the sources of the new information, but not the only one,” said one official familiar with the briefings.
On Monday, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, said that “Iran is a special case because, among other things, of the existence of issues related to possible military dimensions to its nuclear program.”
He added, “Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.” He spoke while opening a meeting of the agency’s board of governors in Vienna.
The chief Iranian delegate to the agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said investigators should instead focus on Israel’s nuclear program. “Americans and a few other countries have tried to mislead the public from the threat, which is Israeli nuclear capability,” he said, according to news reports from Vienna. “This is a real issue, unlike Iran’s nuclear issue.”
But even as Mr. Soltanieh spoke, his government appeared to be planning how to respond in the likely event that the sanctions resolution before the Security Council passes later this week.
Winning passage has been a long diplomatic slog for the Obama administration, one that has taken months longer than officials predicted. The main stumbling block involved persuading Council members — chiefly China — that more economic pressure was the only way to respond to Iran’s continuing refusal to abide by Security Council demands that Tehran halt the enrichment of uranium.
The new resolution focuses on three targets: the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a powerful military force with vast business interests; Iran’s shipping industry; and some of its commercial enterprises, including banks. As the sanctions resolution was being pulled together, China has refused to allow many of Iran’s banks to be specifically named, and officials have said that in the end they may get only one Iranian bank on the list: the Export Bank of Iran. The Chinese have argued that the links between many of the banks and the country’s nuclear program were thin.
No one expects this set of sanctions, by itself, to create enough pressure for Iran to give up producing nuclear fuel, the ostensible goal of the sanctions. Obama administration officials contend that the resolution is also about demonstrating international unity against Iran’s program — though the Bush administration made the same case about the three previous sets of sanctions.
Nonetheless, American officials insist the sanctions are more than an incremental escalation of the pressure. “This is a more robust set of sanctions than we’ve ever had on Iran,” said Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations. “One of the reasons we think these sanctions will hurt is that the Iranians have been fighting so hard to defeat them.”
The United States and Europe have already laid out extensive plans to use what they call “hooks” in the resolution, including mention of Iran’s central bank, to try to impose additional unilateral sanctions.
The administration has hesitated to describe those plans in detail to avoid scaring off some Security Council members that have quietly agreed to vote in favor of more sanctions. Brazil and Turkey, though, were sharply critical of the Obama administration for going ahead with sanctions after the two countries revived a long-discussed plan for Iran to temporarily move some nuclear fuel out of the country for a year, in return for specialized fuel to run a medical reactor.