State Dep’t: We Have Our Own Assessment on Iran’s Nuclear Capability

Patrick Goodenough | October 29, 2013 | 4:13am EDT
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Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, second from right, and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, right, at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)

( – As the State Department continues to urge Congress to hit the “pause” button on new Iran sanctions ahead of further talks next week, it indicated Monday that its assessment differs with that of an independent expert on the amount of time Iran needs to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in a new report says Iran has significantly shortened the “breakout” time. Depending on which uranium stocks and centrifuges it applied to the task, it could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon in as little as one month, it said.

But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday the administration has its own evaluations.

“We maintain, of course, our own assessment regarding the potential timeframes by which Iran can enrich enough uranium to develop a testable nuclear device,” she said in response to a question about the ISIS claims.

Psaki said she had no further comment on the administration’s assessment, but when asked whether she was suggesting that its assessment differs from that of the ISIS, she replied, “That’s correct.”

Experts at ISIS and the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science have been tracking the issue for several years. They estimate breakout times dependent on various factors – whether Iran converts its entire stockpile of uranium now enriched to 20 percent, or its supplies of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, or both; which of several scenarios it favors; and which centrifuges it dedicates to the assignment.

As in previous assessments, the range of times it gives – now down to as little as one month – are those it would take the Iranians to produce enough weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for one nuclear weapon, once the decision to do so was taken.

Iran would then still have to convert the WGU into weapons components and build the actual bomb. ISIS said those tasks could take some time – but could also be carried out in secret and so be difficult to detect.

“If Iran successfully produced enough WGU for a nuclear weapon, the ensuing weaponization process might not be detectable until Iran tested its nuclear device underground or otherwise revealed its acquisition of nuclear weapons,” the report said.

“Therefore, the most practical strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is to prevent it from accumulating sufficient nuclear explosive material, particularly in secret or without adequate warning.”

ISIS president David Albright briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee early this month on the assessments. At that same hearing, chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman urged Congress to hold off on a tough new sanctions bill before talks with the Iranians, then scheduled for mid-October in Geneva.

Following those talks, and with another Geneva meeting scheduled for next week, the administration is again asking Congress not to move ahead with the legislation, which the House passed by a 400-20 vote last July.

“While we understand that Congress may consider new sanctions, we think this is a time for a pause, as we asked for in the past, to see if negotiations can gain traction,” Psaki said on Friday.

She acknowledged that the pressure of sanctions is one of the main reasons Iran is talking, but said the administration had decided that a pause “would be helpful in terms of providing some flexibility while we see if these negotiations will move forward.”

“There’s always time for sanctions in the future as needed, but this is an ask we’re making to Congress now.”

On Monday Psaki confirmed that the administration was continuing its “consultations and meetings” with lawmakers over the issue.

The sanctions legislation is currently before the Senate Banking Committee, and Republicans in the Senate and the House have been applying pressure.

After the mid-October talks between Iran and the “P5+1” – the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany – Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a resolution calling for existing sanctions to remain in place, and for additional ones to be added. The measure was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Republican colleagues including Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), and Mark Kirk (Ill.) have also called for a strengthening, not an easing, of sanctions.

On Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called the latest ISIS report “extremely alarming” and said the U.S. must keep “all options, including the use of military force” on the table.

“We all want negotiations to succeed, but time is clearly running out.”

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency on Monday reported favorably on the administration’s appeal for Congress to delay movement on the sanctions, and reiterated Tehran’s stance that its nuclear activities are legitimate.

“Washington and its western allies accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear program, while they have never presented any corroborative evidence to substantiate their allegations,” it stated.

Israel denies it is isolated over enrichment demand

Fars also repeated Iran’s assertion that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gives it “the right of uranium enrichment.”

Four U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2006 have demanded that Tehran suspend “all” enrichment, but although a number of countries have nuclear energy programs without themselves enriching uranium at home, Iranian officials have repeatedly called domestic enrichment a non-negotiable.

At her Senate hearing early this month, Sherman confirmed that the administration does “not believe there is an inherent right [in the NPT], by anyone, to enrichment.”

But after the mid-month Geneva talks, Russia signaled that a deal may be on the cards that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium up to five percent.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting on Sunday that his government was sticking to its position that “Iran must dismantle its enrichment ability and its heavy water reactor as part of the process of preventing it from achieving nuclear weapons.” (The reactor he referred to, at Arak, provides Iran's likeliest potential route to a plutonium-based nuclear weapons capability.)

Netanyahu disputed the notion that Israel was isolated in that stance.

“We are not alone because most, if not all, leaders, those with whom I have spoken, agree with us,” he said. While some say so openly and others privately, “everyone understands that Iran cannot be allowed to retrain the ability to be within reach of nuclear weapons.”

The Israeli leader said that had been the focus of lengthy talks he held with Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome last week.

Addressing a Ploughshares Fund event on Monday night, Kerry said the administration welcomes the “opportunity to try to put to test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program, and will submit to the standards of the international community in the effort to prove that to the world.”

Although some had suggested there was something wrong with putting that to the test, he said, the notion that the U.S. would not explore the possibility “would be the height of irresponsibility and dangerous in itself.”

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