February 23 Al Jazeera and The Guardian reported leaked memos from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency to the South African intelligence agency. The memos contradicted claims of fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had recently made in his UN Speech (the one with the illustration of cartoon bomb with a burning fuse). This post mainly points to an excellent article by J.J. Goldberg in The Jewish Daily Forward (h/t Josh Marshall)
The heart of Netanyahu’s U.N. speech concerned Iran’s progress in enriching uranium to weapons-grade purity, which he said was only months away from completion. Of the three stages of enrichment — refining raw ore to 5% pure uranium, then refining it again to 20% and finally to bomb-grade 90% purity — Iran had “completed the first stage” and was “well into the second stage,” which would be finished “by next spring, at most by next summer,” meaning 2013.
“From there,” he said, “it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”
And once Iran had a bomb, he said, it would use it, because its “apocalyptic leaders” believe a nuclear holocaust would bring the rapture, when “their brand of radical Islam will rule the earth.”
The Mossad memo, dated less than a month earlier, said that “even though Iran has accumulated enough 5% enriched uranium for several bombs, and has enriched some of it to 20%, it does not appear ready to enrich it to higher levels.” For one thing, the 20% stockpile was “not increasing” because quantities were being “allocated” to the civilian-based Tehran Research Reactor.
Second, enrichment to weapons-grade, the third stage, wouldn’t be possible until work was finished on a separate facility, the IR40 heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak. “We assess,” the memo said, “that this will not happen before mid-2014” — a full year after Netanyahu said the quickie third stage would begin.
Netanyahu was taking advantage of the fact that Mossad communications to him are top secret to lie about the intelligence he was receiving. He didn’t contest Mossad’s analysis, he claimed it was different from what it was.
I just want to add some background in case someone doesn’t find “mid 2014” reassuring. Construction of the Arac IR40 heavy-water reactor has been suspended as part of the interim agreement between Iran and the group of six (UN security council permanent members plus Germany). The Mossad memo asserts that Uranium enrichment is not the path to an Iranian bomb which, if it were made, would be made with Plutonium. Also the stockpile of 20% enriched Uranium is no longer merely “not increasing” — it was reduced due to the interim agreement.
While producing the weapons grade fissionable material is the slow and difficult part of making an atomic bomb, it isn’t the only challenge — it is also necessary to develop the ability to shape the fissionable material into an extremely uniform sphere. Years ago, the US intelligence community concluded that Iran had ceased efforts to do that.
Netanyahu’s interpretation of the evidence is fundamentally different from the interpretation of the vast majority of experts. This has been clear for years. The new and important (but unsurprising) news is that he lied about what those experts were telling him.
update: minds think alike “Netanyahu’s US speech a ‘blessing’ for Iran talks? ì”