US energy envoy Pascual to step down

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US Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs Carlos Pascual announced Friday he will step down in July, U.S. officials told the Back Channel.

The departure plans come as oil proces have spiked amid the new security crisis in Iraq, as al Qaeda-linked the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overtook the city of Mosul.

Pascual, a former US envoy to Mexico and Ukraine, stood up the new energy affairs bureau three years ago, but was never confirmed. He is expected to head next to Columbia University.

Pascual’s deputy Amos Hochstein is considered a possible nominee to succeed him.

Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

The Syrian civil war has become an “incubator of extremism” and a “magnet” for foreign fighters, and poses growing risks to U.S. interests and allies, U.S. officials told frustrated lawmakers Thursday. The three year old conflict is also likely to go on for a long time, they assessed, as it pulls in foreign fighters from both sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and both Bashar al-Assad and his opponents believe they can win.

“The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism, on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, at a hearing on the Syrian civil war that led off with the deepening US-Russian rift over Ukraine.

“We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result,” Burns said. “The risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups…the risk to the stability of our regional partners….and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.”

That grim assessment may portend the U.S. deepening its support for Syrian opposition fighters now battling both Al Qaeda-linked groups and Assad, and stepped up U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with regional partners and European allies alarmed by the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from Syria.

Syria “has become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), testified (.pdf).

US policy on Syria is to counter extremists, boost moderates, and shore up Syria’s embattled neighbors and population with aid to withstand the protracted conflict, Burns told lawmakers.

“First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria,” Burns said. “It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible.”

With the Syrian opposition battling a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it has lost some ground, reducing pressure on Assad and his patrons to make concessions on a political transition at the Geneva talks, while  seemingly increasing US willingness to coordinate increased assistance to opposition forces.

“Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists,” Burns said.

Lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration and exasperation that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so drastically over time, with some suggesting it was partly a result of over-cautiousness and inaction by the Obama administration.

“What does the administration expect to do to change the equation on the ground in Syria now that it’s become what it is,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel, asked Burns. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to him and other lawmakers at a meeting last month that the US was on the verge of announcing a more assertive US policy on Syria.

“We certainly are looking at a range of options, [some of which I] can’t discuss in this setting,” Burns said. “We are looking actively at other ways we can support the moderate opposition, [working in coordination with others]… All of us understand what’s at stake here, what we and our partners do.”

But administration statements that it is stepping up support to Syrian opposition fighters is something that some lawmakers said they had heard before, only for the conflict to intensify and the death toll to mount, while straining the fragile stability of neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

“100,000 people ago we were hearing this,” an exasperated Corker said, referring to the mounting death toll in Syria’s three year conflict, now estimated to be as high as 140,000 people.

The conflict is unlikely to end soon, the NCTC’s Olsen said, as both sides are digging in for a protracted fight.

With hostilities “between Sunni and Shia…intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries,” it increases “the likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria, as both seek military advantage,” Olsen said. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict.”

“As long as Assad exists, the civil war will get worse,” Burns said. “This is going to require an ‘all of the above’ effort.”

ISIS: Iran breakout times shortening, but ‘dash’ unlikely next year

Iran would be unlikely to “breakout” and dash to manufacture weapons grade uranium for a nuclear bomb over the next year, because it would be detected well in time and face war, according to a new report (.pdf) by the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS). However, without a confidence building measure that could reduce anxieties over Iran’s 20% enrichment activities and put time on the clock for nuclear negotiations, Iran’s trajectory could put it on a path that makes military confrontation more likely, the group warns.

It would currently take Iran at least 21 months to produce enough weapons grade uranium (WGU) for one nuclear bomb at its fortified Fordow enrichment facility, and two to four months at its above ground Natanz enrichment site.

Those timelines, plus the fact that it would be detected, would make “an Iranian decision to break out risky,” the ISIS report assesses.

However, “Iran’s current trajectory at Fordow is increasing the chance of a military confrontation,” the report warns. Continue reading

IAEA on Iran: 1000 more centrifuges installed at Fordo, but no net gain in 20% stockpile


While Iran has produced about 43 KG of 20% higher enriched uranium since May, its available “stockpile” of 20% remains almost unchanged in that time, a new UN atomic energy agency report finds. That’s because Iran has converted over half of its 20% stockpile for use in a medical reactor.

Those are among the mix of puzzling and concerning facts in the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran which show growing IAEA exasperation with Iranian stonewalling on granting inspectors access to a site where suspected military research occurred.

Iran has installed over a 1,000 more centrifuges in the fortified, underground Fordow enrichment facility near Qom–a doubling since May, the new IAEA report, released Thursday, found. But it does not appear that most of those centrifuges are yet operating. All the newly installed centrifuges are also of Iran’s first-generation, IR-1 model, less powerful than newer designs.

“Iran has not increased the number of centrifuge cascades producing 20 percent LEU at either” of its two enrichment sites, Fordow or Natanz, the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS) noted in an analysis of the new report..

As of August 2012, Iran has produced almost 190 KG of 20% enriched uranium since it began the higher level enrichment work in early 2011, the report says. However, Iran has converted over half of that total amount — about 98 KG — for use in fuel plates for a medical reactor, thus leaving only about 91 KG available that could be higher enriched to weapons grade. That represents almost no net gain in its 20% stockpile since May, arms control analysts noted.

“Although Iran has enriched additional uranium to almost 20%–a level that could be more quickly turned into weapons material–Tehran has converted much of this material to reactor fuel,” the Arms Control Association wrote in an analysis of the new IAEA report Thursday. “Thus Iran’s available stockpile of 20% enriched uranium (91 kg) is essentially unchanged from May.”

It would take about 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium to be higher enriched to “weapons grade’–90%  purity —to make enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb. However, Iran is unlikely to “break out” without enough fissile material to make two or more bombs, many  arms control experts believe.

Even if Iran may accumulate 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium, “this is only the first step to a nuclear weapon capability,” the Arms Control Association analysis continues. In addition, Iran would still need “time to produce the nuclear device itself (likely several months), which it has never done before, and then develop and probably explosively test a warhead that could fit on a ballistic missile, which would take still more time.”

What to make of the fact that there has been no net growth in Iran’s 20% stockpile since May? Is Iran demonstrating tacit restraint on the sensitive 20% front even while doubling the number of centrifuges installed, if not operating, at Fordo, to signal potential for further expanding enrichment? Is it some sort of signal from Iran towards potential flexibility on the 20% front?  (Former Iran nuclear negotiators Syed Hossein Mousavian has, for instance, proposed a “zero 20% stockpile” idea, under which there could be international supervision that Iran would produce only the amount of 20% it needs for medical purposes.)

“It is a plausible interpretation that there is a signal here,” George Perkovich, director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Monitor by email. “Nothing would be lost in seeking to explore it with the Iranians.  We needn’t guess: the involved states should try to find out.”

Other elements of the report document growing IAEA exasperation with Iranian run around and open defiance on one front. Continue reading

US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is from 2010, experts say

The last U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program was from late 2010, several Iran experts said Friday.

The question over whether there is a new NIE on Iran arose this week after Israel’s Defense Minister told Israel Radio Thursday that a new U.S. intelligence assessment shares Israel’s sense of heightened urgency about Iran’s nuclear program. A U.S. intelligence report “making the rounds” in Washington “comes comes very close to our own estimate…It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program,” Ehud Barak told Israel Radio Thursday, CBS News reported. His comments echoed a report in Israeli daily Haaretz the same day that said the more alarming American assessment was contained in a new U.S. NIE on Iran.

But current and former American officials said that the Israeli claims are unduly alarmist.

“We have eyes, we have visibility into the program, and we would know if and when Iran made what’s called a breakout move towards acquiring a weapon,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists Friday, AFP reported. Continue reading

Israeli Defense Minister publicly divulges US intelligence report


Israel’s Defense Minister raised some eyebrows in the United States when he told Israel Radio Thursday that a new, previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence assessment shares Israel’s sense of heightened urgency about Iran’s nuclear program.

Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that there is “apparently a report by American intelligence agencies – I don’t know if it’s under the title NIE or under another title – which is making the rounds of high offices,” in Washington, CBS News reported.

“As far as we know, it comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates,” Barak continued. “It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program.”

Generally, foreign leaders don’t publicly disclose allied nations’ classified intelligence reports in such a provocative manner, intelligence experts said.

“The rules of the spy game are clear,” former US Navy intelligence analyst John Schindler wrote on his blog. “When intelligence services share information, as they do every day, you don’t pass it to third parties without clearance. Ever. And if you do, eventually you will get burned and nobody will want to play marbles with you.”

A cavalcade of top American officials have traveled to Israel in recent weeks to confer on Iran, and President Obama this month signed a $70 million US military aid package for Israel. Israeli officials have expressed growing impatience with US reluctance to endorse military action on Iran at this time.

The Israeli Defense Minister’s comments followed a report in Israeli daily Haaretz Thursday which said that there was a new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. But several American former intelligence and security officials told Al-Monitor that the product is not an NIE, but a smaller, more focused report or series of reports on certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps related to suspected weapons-relevant research activity. Continue reading

Q/A with David Albright: Iran should come clean about past research

Two telexes–part of a trove of 1,600 obtained by American nuclear expert David Albright– would seem to suggest that Iran’s current foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi was aware of Iran’s efforts to acquire whole body counters to detect nuclear radiation back in the early 1990s. That is among the findings published in a new series of reports by Albright and his colleague Paul Brannan, of the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS).

Albright, in an interview Wednesday, told me that he and Salehi actually have met each other and indeed argued at some “track 2” events among nuclear experts held in New York in the 1990s.

Salehi insisted Iran “had no secret centrifuge programs,” Albright told me. “I responded that ‘based on procurements, you do.'”

“I always found Salehi pretty duplicitous,” he added. “But what surprised me in the current work we did, is he was apparently more involved than I realized.”

Salehi, a fluent English speaker who earned a PhD from MIT in 1977, served for eight years in Vienna as Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), from 1997-2005. (Born in Karbala, Iraq, Salehi is also a fluent Arabic speaker–one of the reasons he was tapped in 2010 to become Iran’s foreign minister, at a time when Arab leaders’ hostility to Iran was unusually publicly exposed, including in classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.). Some Iran experts believe Salehi may be well positioned to run for Iran’s presidency when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term expires in 2013.

Back in 1991–the year of the two Salehi-linked telexes Albright uncovered–Salehi was chancellor at Iran’s Sharif University. Albright’s report suggests that the university was, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, part of a network of academic facilities linked to Iran’s Physics Research Center (PHRC), that were used as cover to acquire dual-use materiel for secret parts of Iran’s nuclear program. American intelligence and ISIS believe that Iran halted its secret military research program in 2003.

But Albright believes it’s essential that Iran own up to past alleged weaponization research in order to come in from the cold.

“If Iran comes clean on weaponization, other things can be solved much more easily,” he told me. Continue reading