Why the Iran threat assessment may be easing – for now

Iran's unexpectedly slow missile progress, a dialed down 'covert war,' and uranium enrichment changes may yield more room for diplomacy over the country's nuclear program.

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP/File
An anti-aircraft gun position is seen at Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran, in this September 2007 file photo. Iran today announced that it had begun to install a new, more efficient generation of centrifuge, though Iranian media reports quoted officials saying it was specifically for low-level, non-weapon enrichment.

Analysts are toning down threat assessments on Iran as several developments coincide to lower the drumbeat of fears about Iran's nuclear intentions.

From slower-than-expected missile progress, to resumed conversion of Iran's most sensitive enriched uranium stockpile, along with the apparent easing of a years-long, Israel-led covert war against Iran, they signal a partial deescalation that could yield more room for diplomacy.

On the surface it may appear to be business as usual: United Nations nuclear inspectors arrived in Iran for discussions to access suspect sites; nuclear talks with six world powers are to resume on Feb. 26. There are few expectations of any breakthroughs.

And in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two days ago repeated demands that crippling sanctions on Iran be tightened further, along with a "credible military threat."

"Nothing else will do the job, and it's getting closer," Mr. Netanyahu warned.

Such escalating tension has been a geopolitical constant between Iran and the US, Israel, and their European allies over Iran's nuclear program, especially in the past two years. But for the moment, that escalation may be more holding pattern than headlong rush.

Reduced uranium stores

Iran confirmed reports yesterday that it has resumed converting small amounts of its higher-grade enriched uranium into reactor fuel, essentially removing that material from the mix that can be enriched further into bomb-grade uranium.

The scale of how much it converted is not yet clear, but the process lowers the stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium that has been at the heart of nuclear talks. Israel has said its "red line" is Iran's accumulation of 240 kilograms of it – enough to potentially make a single bomb if enriched further. Iran has kept below that figure. US and British officials have reportedly rejected Israel's "red line" number, and some experts estimate that 375 kgs would be needed for that purpose.

The red-line precedent was set last year, when Iran converted 100 kgs of its stockpile of nearly 233 kgs of 20-percent enriched uranium, a sizable portion that Israel's then-defense chief Ehud Barak said in October had delayed a military strike decision by eight to 10 months.

That process has now resumed, although the speed of that resumption won't be known until later this month, when the next report on Iran by the UN's international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is due. Iran today announced that it had begun to install a new, more efficient generation of centrifuge, though Iranian media reports quoted officials saying it was specifically for low-level, non-weapon enrichment.

"My interpretation is Iran knows exactly what it is doing," says Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). "If it has any sense, it is using this as a safety valve, and will continue to do so."

If Iran quietly keeps below the 240 kg line through the spring, "that is a really good sign, and I think diplomats are recognizing that as a good sign," says Mr. Joshi.

'Covert war' eases

The "covert war" waged against Iran, with assassinations of nuclear scientists, unexplained explosions, espionage, and computer viruses such as Stuxnet – all of which Iran blames on Israel and the US, backed up by some news reports – also appears to have eased in recent months.

Iran's reaction – which some believe took the form of an 2011 assassination plot against the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, and attacks a year ago in Georgia, Thailand, and India – also appears to have gone quiet in recent months.

Iranian officials frequently brought up the killing of the scientists at three rounds of nuclear talks last spring. Whenever Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili addressed the press, it was beside portraits of the dead scientists, hung with black strips of cloth.

Time magazine quoted senior Israeli security officials last March saying that Israeli intelligence services were scaling back covert operations in Iran by "dozens of percent."

The reduction was across a "wide spectrum" of operations, Time reported, "cutting back not only alleged high-profile missions such as assassinations and detonations at Iranian missile bases, but also efforts to gather firsthand on-the-ground intelligence and recruit spies inside the Iranian program."

Reasons for the apparent easing of covert action may include Iran boosting security for key officials and bases and its claim to have broken at least two spy networks, meaning perhaps "all the low-hanging fruit" has been targeted, says Joshi, author of "The Permanent Crisis: Iran's Nuclear Trajectory."

"But I lean toward the view that a conscious choice has been made in Israel to turn this down," says Joshi. The US may have pushed for it, he suggests, "because it was rightly being seen as hindering negotiations, creating bad faith, and actually only achieving temporary gains that weren't worth the diplomatic costs."

Slowed missile progress

Also part of the new strategic mix: Iran has made little discernible progress on the type of longer-range ballistic missiles that would carry a nuclear warhead to Europe and beyond –  if the Islamic Republic were to decide to make such a weapon.

Iran says it rejects nuclear weapons as un-Islamic, and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stated so repeatedly, even issuing a fatwa forbidding making, stockpiling, and using such weapons. Both US and Israeli intelligence says Iran has not yet made a decision to make an atomic bomb, much less one small enough to fit into a missile nosecone.

In 2012 there was no flight test of any of Iran's longer-range ballistic missiles, though Iran claimed progress on short- and medium-range missiles.

"Iran's strategic missiles are emerging much more slowly than previously projected, if they are emerging at all," notes an assessment last week by the Arms Control Association (ACA) in Washington.

It concluded that the US should suspend plans to deploy strategic missile defenses in Europe until there were "indications" of an actual Iranian inter-continental ballistic missile threat.

Iran's missile program was set back by an unexplained explosion in November 2011, which destroyed a large missile facility west of Tehran and killed the head of Iran's missile program, Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam.

Iran's long-range missiles "did not achieve anticipated milestones in 2012," notes the ACA report.

"There was also no change in the assertions of Iranian political and military leaders, who deny any intention of or political-military requirement for developing either nuclear weapons or long-range missiles," adds the report.

"Although such policy statements are hardly determinative of actual intentions, they do stand in stark contrast to the declaratory polices of other[s]...such as North Korea or Pakistan."

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