Iran has tested sophisticated nuclear warhead designs

The IAEA has asked Iran to explain evidence that it has tested a sophisticated design for a nuclear warhead. Saudi Arabia continues its assaults on Yemeni militants. The agreement that ended the Honduras political crisis has collapsed. All this and much more in today’s update.
Oliver Scanlan
6 November 2009

On Friday the Guardian reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has asked Iran to explain increasingly credible evidence, derived in part from Western intelligence agencies, that it has tested a highly sophisticated design for a nuclear warhead. In a development described by analysts as ‘breathtaking’, previously undisclosed material submitted in a single dossier by the IAEA to Tehran suggests Iranian scientists have experimented with the high explosive components of a ‘two-point implosion’ device.

The technology, once mastered, allows for the miniaturisation of warheads, which in turn makes them easier to weaponise by mounting them on ballistic missiles. The scale of the discovery was highlighted by James Acton, a British nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, when he said that ‘instead of perfecting step one, they are going straight to four or five,’ saying that the move ‘speaks of a level of technical ambition which is surprising.’

The revelations came on the same day that the Israeli deputy foreign minister told Sky News that Israel ‘was not bluffing’ in its threats to use military force to eliminate Iran’s nuclear programme. Danny Ayalon said that ‘the one who's bluffing is Iran, which is trying to play with cards they don't have’.

The ToD Verdict: The continuing standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme grew substantively more dangerous with today’s revelations. The fact that it is the IAEA pressing Iran to comment makes it very unlikely that the fresh speculations regarding warhead design are the result of ‘cooked’ intelligence or ‘dodgy dossiers’. Mohammad ElBaradei, the IAEA’s director general, has stated that the information was from multiple sources, gleaned over a substantial period of time, and is comprehensive and generally consistent; the antithesis of the Niger yellow cake accusation aimed at Saddam Hussein’s hypothetical WMD programme in the run up to the Iraq war of 2003.

With Iran continuing to prevaricate over the suggested compromise agreement which would entail it transferring all or most of its uranium arsenal abroad for processing, diplomatic options appear to be narrowing. While it is entirely possible that this hesitancy is a consequence of Tehran’s byzantine political structure and factional infighting, Israel’s interpretation was plainly elaborated by Danny Ayalon: that the delay is a cynical tactic designed to buy time.

Ha’aretz has outlined the military strategy Israel would most likely employ to cripple Iran’s nuclear programme. Based on a study by Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, the focus would be the three facilities key to the production of the uranium fuel cycle: the uranium enrichment centre at Natanz, the heavy water reactor at Arak and the nuclear research base at Esfahan. Such a limited strike would continue the IAF’s record of pre-emptive strikes against such facilities, beginning with the attack on Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981 and continuing with the bombing of Syria’s Dayr az-Zawr nuclear facility in 2007.

As the report makes clear, in view of the likely Iranian military response, it is far from certain that Israel will limit itself to these three targets. Additional strikes on command and control centres, Iran’s ballistic missile force and other targets of high value to the regime might be expected. Most damaging would be an attack on the Bushehr nuclear reactor, which would cause an ecological catastrophe at least equal to Chernobyl. Many thousands of Iranians would be killed instantly, with the total death toll that would result from the resulting radioactive cloud that would engulf the Middle East incalculable.

Such are the stakes in the current diplomatic stand off. Other potential consequences from such a pre-emptive strike can only be guessed at. But British and American sources suggest that if an urgent way cannot be found to calm the rising tensions, the date for such an attack might be as early as December.

Honduras agreement collapses 

Head of the Honduran interim government, Roberto Micheletti, announced on Thursday that a proposed unity government would not include the representatives of ousted President Manuel Zelaya. In response, a spokesman for Zelaya declared that the unity agreement had failed and that he would not recognise the results of elections planned for 29 November. Micheletti’s announcement came just as the deadline for accepting the agreement expired. The agreement, brokered with the aid of the United States, marked the end of a political impasse that had lasted for many months, beginning with the expulsion of Zelaya from Honduras on 28 June. Under terms finally agreed last week, Zelaya would be restored to power presiding over a unity government that would include several key supporters. Micheletti’s gambit on Thursday appears to be an attempt to retain his allies' control deal ahead of the November elections.

Saudi offensive against Yemen rebels to continue 

On Friday, the Saudi Arabian government announced that it would continue its heavy bombing of Yemeni rebels until it had removed them from Saudi territory. On Thursday it had been reported that Saudi forces had struck targets in North Yemen itself. Following today’s announcement, a Saudi government adviser said that operations on Friday concentrated on Yemeni rebels operating within the Kingdom itself, specifically the Jebel Dakhan region.

The recent military operations have been triggered by cross border raids mounted by Sa’dah insurgents, which reportedly led to the Yemeni militant group seizing control of Saudi territory. Saudi spokesmen have stated that the area has now been retaken and that 40 insurgents surrendered in the wake of Friday’s air strikes. The insurgents claim that, during its operation, the Saudi Arabian military has been indiscriminately attacking Yemeni villages.

Mahmoud Abbas will stand down as Palestinian President 

Speaking from his headquarters in Ramallah on Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would not be standing in presidential elections scheduled for January. Saying that 'we've pledged with Israel to reach a two-state solution but month after month we've seen nothing but complacency and procrastination,' analysts view the move as being symptomatic of Abbas’ long standing frustration with the stalled peace process.

Abbas’ decision is certain to have a profound impact on both Palestinian internal politics and the peace process. At a time when the Obama administration is looking for the Israeli government under Benyamin Netanyahu to positively engage with the Palestinians, including halting settlement construction on the West Bank, analysts are speculating that Israel will now claim they have no-one to talk to on the other side of the Green Line.

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