Munich and Iran Nuclear Ambitions

Let us now talk about Iran and nuclear weapons. Why? How about because the annual Munich Security Conference got started today and will run through the weekend, and, from a European perspective at least, that is currently the leading security issue.

But wait . . . here’s maybe a better reason to talk about Iran: the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung is now reporting that that country has a design ready for atomic warheads. The newspaper hints heavily that this revelation is its exclusive scoop; according to information it has managed to obtain, the key to Iran’s efforts was a certain Russian nuclear expert, present in that country from the mid-nineties to the year 2000 (or maybe all the way to 2002), and whose work in developing a certain high-speed camera process was crucial to the Iranians being able to fashion a so-called two-point implosion system for setting off the nuclear explosion. Now the Iranians have the blueprints they need to develop bombs that in fact would be small enough to fit comfortably on the medium-range Shahab-3 missiles they possess. Supposedly, inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency know about this new development and concede that the warhead design would certainly work. (It was in fact an IAEA document that was the source for the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s revelations.)

Alright. But we still have that Munich Conference; maybe the world leaders and experts there can take note of this dangerous new situation and start thinking about how to deal with it. Instead, the Conference seems to be the target of some sort of Iranian charm offensive, according to an account in the Financial Times Deutschland (Security conference: Iran causes turmoil in Munich). You see, we first had at the beginning of this week the surprise mention by Iranian President Ahmadi-nejad in an interview that it should be OK to actually take the West up on its standing offer to take Iranian uranium and process it on the Iranians’ behalf, but only to purity-levels consistent with power-generation and not weaponry, before returning it. Now the Munich Conference has received the pleasant surprise of an announced intention to attend it from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. (Apparently it has been difficult for quite a while to get any Iranian foreign minister to show up, or in fact even to decline the invitation without adding some gratuitous comment casting doubt on the Holocaust.)

This is important. Mere declarations from Ahmadi-nejad in some interview have long since lost their ability to inspire confidence in other world capitals, but now the officials attending the Munich conference (including many foreign ministers and even some heads of state, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel) will have a chance to collar Mottaki (in a nice, diplomatic way, of course) to see whether Iran really means what its President just said. Mottaki has already declared that it does – sort of, in that he does intend to negotiate for higher levels of enrichment for that Iranian uranium than what was envisioned in the original Western offer. In any case, all this conveniently can occur just as the UN Security Council is preparing a new resolution imposing tougher economic sanctions on Iran, and also as public statements from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicate that Russia is even ready to change its previous position and support the resolution. (Lavrov made these en route to Munich; also attending will be Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, although there’s no indication from him or any other Chinese official that they are likewise willing to reverse their previous position and accept such sanctions, and that’s a problem.)

In the meantime, away from Munich, the US Department of State announced today a conference-call, initiated by Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns, the Department’s #3 official, between officials at analogous level to Secretary Burns at the other countries of the “Group of Six” presenting a common front against Iran (namely the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China). This is reported in France’s Nouvel Observateur (The Group of Six discussed a nuclear Iran). Naturally, this event was likely prompted, not by the Munich conference, but at least by the sanctions resolution coming near completion in the Security Council, and probably also by a combination of Ahmadi-nejad’s pronouncement and the far more ominous news, uncovered by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, of Iran’s nuclear weapons progress. Again, the key country to bring around is China, which could simply veto the Security Council resolution, and the Nouvel Observateur reports that, this time, the Chinese at least did make available for this conference-call the counterpart in their Foreign Ministry to Secretary Burns. The last time there was a “Group of Six” meeting – last month in New York – they had only a lower-ranking official attend. (Those readers really on-the-ball will recall that this “send a lower-ranking guy to show disrespect” tactic was also one they used at various occasions during the COP15 climate-change conference in Copenhagen in December.) Such is progress.

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