While the West thinks, Iran spins uranium

By Tim Marshall, March 5, 2009

The man with his finger on the button has pressed pause, but not for long. One way or another, the reckoning with Iran is approaching, and the Americans want to know how much help or hindrance the Russians will provide when the going gets tough.

President Obama has two foreign policy priorities: Afghanistan/Pakistan and Iran. He’s shown his hand on the former by surging into Afghanistan and ordering missile strikes inside Pakistan. But on the latter, he has yet to declare. He is waiting for a “Review of Iran Policy” to land on his desk by the end of the month, and then for a meeting with the Russians in early April.

Down the chain of command, officials are busy preparing everyone for an “all options are on the table” approach by the President. This week, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was asked if he thought Iran now had enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb. He did, adding: ‘“And Iran having a nuclear weapon, I’ve believed for a long time, is a very bad outcome for the region and for the world.”

This followed the International Atomic Energy Agency report that Tehran now has more than 1,000kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at its Natanz reactor. This is sufficient for “breakout capability”. If you spin this amount of LEU fast enough for long enough it will make 25kg of U235, also known as weapons grade material. Twenty-five kilos is enough to make a uranium nuclear bomb, and unlike a plutonium bomb, it is not necessary to conduct a test before one is usable.

Then came a report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, written by several senior Obama advisors, including Dennis Ross. It warned that if a Russian/Iranian deal for Tehran to buy £550 million-worth of S-300 surface to air missiles goes through, it might trigger an Israeli attack. Militarily, Israel can severely damage the Iranian nuclear programme, but once the S-300 system is in place, it is doubtful it has the air power to do the job.

The missile deal is on hold until President Obama arrives in London for the G20, where he will be met by President Medvedev, who will be wearing a grin. If the Russians are to cancel the missile deal with Iran they will want at least for the Americans to scrap their missile defence shield.

Even if this happens, Russia still has an ace to play. If America wants to stop Iran diplomatically, it will need Russia, with another price to pay for that.

Minds were concentrated this week when the Iranians finally opened the Bushehr reactor, 34 years after it was built by the Russians. The presence of Russia’s nuclear agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko at the opening added to the gloom descending upon capitals from Washington to Berlin to Riyadh.

The current thinking in Western intelligence circles is deeply pessimistic about the future. The CIA and other agencies believe that the Russians will not co-operate with the other UN permanent five members to force Iran to open up all facilities.

The Arabs are terrified of Iran getting a bomb, knowing that, if it does, several other countries in the region will join the arms race. The Israelis feel the issue is an existential threat, especially after President Ahmadinejad described Israel as a one-bomb country — meaning it would only take one bomb to wipe it off the map. The Europeans are in despair at how to get meaningful diplomatic dialogue going with Russian support.

So all eyes now are on the prospects of direct talks between Washington DC and Tehran. The big question? Is Iran bluffing in order to get an across-the-board deal with America? Or does it intend to become the regional nuclear superpower come what may?

Almost everyone is waiting for the Policy Review, including Mr Obama, the Russians, the Arabs and the EU. The only ones not waiting are the Iranians. They are busy spinning.

Tim Marshall is Sky News’ Foreign Editor

Last updated: 4:42pm, March 11 2009