Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Russia believes Iran decades from nuke

Elizabeth Newell, UPI:
Russia believes Iran to be 25 to 30 years away from possession of nuclear arms, but U.S. experts disagree.

"We should look at the real possibilities of Iran," Val Spector, the president of the International Academy of Sciences on Problems of National Security, said Monday. "Their progress is kind of stopped. Their enrichment process is not very successful, even on a production level - the problem is of purification of initial materials. Unless they come to a solution of this purification problem, which is the most complicated part of any chemical production, the side reaction will impure the initial materials and spoil the final product." READ MORE

In a Woodrow Wilson Center lecture, Spector said Russia's assessment was based on the opinion of military experts who had visited Iranian nuclear sites. It contradicts, however, the assessments of the United States and its allies.

"That's a surprising assessment given that most estimates from intelligence organizations in the west see Iran from two to ten years away," said Jim Phillips, research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, told UPI. "Twenty-five years seems like a very optimistic estimate from my perspective, I think they're a lot closer than that."

At the lecture, Spector did address the possibility that Iran could have come into possession of nuclear material illegally, making it easier for them to achieve nuclear armament sooner than Russia expects. However, he does not see that as a serious threat.

"Our military intelligence is connected to the technological capability of Iran, not on some kind of supposed delivery of illegal materials," Spector said. "The efficiency of a nuclear device depends on the precision of the arrival of the parts that come to the critical mass. Without the right timing, there will be contamination, but the bomb will fizzle, not blow."

Russia sees the discussion of Iranian nuclear capabilities as more of a political issue than a security issue, according to Spector, who referenced the U.S. role in Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's return to power in 1953. Spector said the perception in Iran was that the United States hoped to force its way of life onto Muslims in the Middle East and that this belief infused the nuclear discussion with anti-imperialist sentiment.

"The issue of nuclear independence has coincided with the issue of national independence in Iran," Spector said. "If we took politics out, it would be much better. (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, though he is looking very fanatical, he is not. He's trying to put a semblance of order that was lost after the death of (Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini and he's trying to start the relaxation of his regime."

Spector said that bringing Iran to the United Nations Security Council would also be a political move. He called that option "unjust," because other countries had developed nuclear capabilities and had not been brought before the Security Council.

However, Phillips said the Security Council option was an appropriate one for dealing with Iran. "Other countries don't have the same long history of supporting terrorism and violating international law as Iran does," he said. "If [Spector] was talking about India and Israel, I think the importance difference is neither of those countries signed a non-proliferation treaty while Iran did sign it."

Spector indicated that Russia takes at face value Iran's statement that it will not create a nuclear weapon.

"Iran said, 'We're not going to create a nuclear weapon as we understand that such development will lend legitimacy to nuclear weapons of Israel and Israel will be able to improve its nuclear arsenal and threaten security of Iran and the whole region directly,'" Spector said.

According to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has a right to enrich uranium for its civilian nuclear energy program, but many in the west believe Iran is using its civilian nuclear energy program as a guise to enrich uranium for the development of nuclear weapons. Many in the United States and European Union, especially, believe taking Iran's word for it that it will not build or use a nuclear weapon is extremely risky.

"That's a very dangerous assumption," Phillips said. "I think Iran would use weapons it sees as in its own interests without relating it to what Israel has or doesn't have."

Phillips believes that differing stances on Iran will cause friction between the United States and Russia in the future.

"I think Russia's foot-dragging on the Iranian nuclear issue will become an increasingly problematic source of tension in bilateral relations. What makes me pessimistic is that right now Russia is on its best behavior in the run-up to the G8 summit. It will likely become even less forthcoming after that summit."