ThreatsWatch.Org: PrincipalAnalysis

Is Iran Cooperating?

Any Cooperation In Iraq Is Serving Iranian Nuclear Ambitions

By Joshua Goodman

The United States government’s October 25, 2007 “Designation of Iranian Entities and Individuals for Proliferation Activities and Support for Terrorism,” was a clear indication of where the administration’s Iran policy will focus on in the near future: namely curbing the threat Iran poses to American forces in Iraq and ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons. At the center of both of these issues is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops (IRGC), the elite Iranian military organization that was singled out as a terrorist entity under Executive Order 13382. As my colleague Steve Schippert rightly noted back in August before the formal State Department designation, “the intent in the President’s Executive Order to specifically designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity may be to increase international pressure to divest from the Iranian regime and injure the elite IRGC.

The IRGC plays a central role in Iran’s activities in Iraq, where the Quds force and the Iranian-proxy Hizballah have been actively training and arming Shi’a militias, and in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as past United Nations Security Council resolutions have suggested. By targeting the IRGC, a military body whose business operations make it susceptible to economic pressure, the administration may well be trying to pressure those elements close to the source of the problem in the hopes of forcing Iran to cooperate. But will Iran cooperate?

Signs of Iranian Cooperation in Iraq

During his September visit to Washington, Ambassador Ryan Crocker bluntly stated his thoughts of Iran’s role in Iraq. “Iran's role is harmful. There are no two ways about it,” Crocker declared. General David Petraeus provided a more specific assessment during his testimony in front of the joint session of the House armed services and foreign relations committees: “It is increasingly apparent to both coalition and Iraqi leaders that Iran, through the use of this Quds Force, seeks to turn the Iraqi special groups into Hizballah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.” While Iran remains the primary obstacle to ensuring stability in Iraq, there are signs that they may be cooperating to bringing a temporary calm. This shift in strategy, however, has more to do with a desire to further its nuclear program than to build a stable Iraq.

In recent meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iran made “guarantees” to stop supplying explosively formed penetrators (EFPs). While these guarantees and those before them were met with skepticism, Major General James Simmons, the deputy commanding general of Multinational Corps-Iraq, sees reason to be optimistic: “I’m hopeful… What I see is a diplomatic effort being undertaken by the United States government – and I see a positive response from the Iranian government and that’s good.” A few weeks later, Simmons once again noted additional signs of Iranian cooperation: “We have not seen any recent evidence that weapons continue to come across the border into Iraq.” Simmons' comments echo an early November statement by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Iran was playing some role in the reduction of bombings by Shi’a militias. Gates did acknowledge, though, that it was difficult to quantify exactly how much of a positive influence Iran was playing in this matter. Nevertheless, there was a clear recognition that positive steps were being taken.

Similarly, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari noted Iran’s effort to “rein in” Shi’a militias. In a November 6 interview with Ross Colvin of Reuters, Zebari clearly stated that “Iran has been instrumental in reining in the militias and the Mehdi Army by using its influence.” As such, “Part of the security improvement was their [Iran's] control of the militias. We see this as a positive development.”

For its part, the United States is making a few overtures to Iran as a gesture of goodwill. On November 6, Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith announced that the U.S. military would release 9 of the 20 Iranians they have captured in Iraq. And while the 9 released Iranians do not include the highest ranking or “most troubling” of the detainees, the U.S. is clearly offering Iran a carrot in the hopes of continuing the cooperation.

The release of these detainees reflects a shift in policy for the U.S. as well. Among the 9 being returned are 2 of the 5 Iranians captured in a raid on an Iranian consulate in Irbil in January 2007. Last month while speaking to editors and reporters at the Washington Post, Lieutenant General Raymond T. Odierno argued that “militarily, we should hold on to them.” Thus, the release of these IRGC members indicates that America sees an opportunity to move the diplomatic process forward. The question then, is how long will this stalemate last?

Signs of More Iranian Nuclear Advancement

On the nuclear front, Iranian cooperation seems less likely.

In accordance with an August 21 deal, Iran has engaged in a series of talks with representatives from the IAEA aimed at clarifying the undeclared and disconcerting elements of Iran’s nuclear program. More specifically, the conversations have focused on Iran’s use of P-1 and P-2 centrifuge cascades for uranium enrichment. Iran prefers the latter P-2 centrifuges which are far more efficient and therefor much more useful in the production of weapons-grade uranium. At the conclusion of the discussions, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Undersecretary for International Affairs, Javad Vaeedi declared that his nation had acted in good faith and was fully cooperating with the IAEA. “We have fulfilled the request of IAEA director general (Mohamed ElBaradei) to actively and timely cooperate in implementing the modality plan, with good intentions.” Yet despite Vaeedi’s assurances, recent statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggest that Iran’s nuclear proliferation is moving ahead unabated.

Speaking on Wednesday November 7, at a rally in the South Khorasan province, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran now has 3,000 centrifuges in its underground Natanz facility. As such, Ahmadinejad concluded that, “The Iranian nation has entered the phase of industrial scale of nuclear fuel production and the train of the Iranian nation's progress is irreversible.”

Ahmadinejad and other members of the Iranian regime have also said in the past that they intend to share their technology with other “Islamic nations” once Iran masters the process. This despite supporting their defense with the IAEA that they are fully compliant with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and despite the fact that the acquired much of their current technology through the illicit A.Q. Khan proliferation network anchored in Pakistan.

The announcement of Iran's nuclear progress should not come as a surprise. Ahmadinejad made a similarly bold declaration two months earlier. At the time, the Iranian president’s comments were met with some skepticism. An IAEA report released on August 19 stated that Iran had approximately 2,000 centrifuges operating in tandem in its Natanz facility. It also noted that an additional 650 were in varying stages of installation and testing. And following Ahmadinejad’s proclamation, IAEA inspectors revisited the Natanz plant and found 325 additional centrifuges being installed, thus bringing the total very close to the magic number of 3,000.

But the IAEA report also noted that the 2,000 installed were well below capacity, and thus unable to enrich uranium highly enough to produce a weapon. Similarly, there is currently no evidence that Iran has achieved this critical capacity. In the November issue of Arms Control Today, David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, both of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, argue that “Iran likely has managed to learn how to operate individual centrifuges and cascades adequately, but it may still be struggling to operate a large number of cascades at the same time in parallel.” Moreover, Albright and Shire conclude that it will likely take Iran “several more months to get (3,000 centrifuges fully operational).” Nevertheless, they are clearly making progress while attempting to stall the diplomatic process.

The November 15 IAEA report, which was derived from the latest round of negotiations, bluntly states that Iran’s “cooperation has been reactive rather than proactive.” And while Iran answered questions regarding their joint P-1/P-2 nuclear program – they provided the P-2 centrifuge blueprints they bought in 1996 from the A.Q. Khan network – the IAEA report noted that since 2006, Iran has failed to provide the critical information “pursuant to the Additional Protocol and as a transparency measure.” Accordingly, the report concluded that “the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s current nuclear programme is diminishing.”

Iran’s Two-Faced Approach

The motives for Iran’s temporary shift in strategy with regards to Iraq are unclear, although a number of dynamics are likely to have factored into the equation. For one, with al-Qaeda in Iraq becoming weaker everyday, the focus of the U.S. military was shifting to Iran’s Shi’a network. In fact, the coalition forces have already taken a number of steps in combating the Shi’a threat with notable success – particularly in Baghdad. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that Iran’s involvement in Iraq seemed on the verge of spiraling to direct conflict with the U.S. By following through on its promise to stop the flow of weapons and fighters, Iran seems to have temporarily brought calm to an almost certain clash.

On the nuclear front, there is less pressure on Iran to change its policies despite the rhetoric. While the IAEA report clearly stated that Iran was not cooperating to the standards necessary to determine the objectives of its nuclear program, it was far from an outright condemnation. As such, Iran has clearly dogged a bullet. Though the United States, the United Kingdom, France, France, and Germany have all called for a new Security Council sanctions package, the likelihood of such a resolution passing is slim. China's reaction to the IAEA report has been lukewarm. And on November 17, it announced that it was pulling out of talks on a new set of sanctions discussions – effectively ending any chance that the issue will be resolved through the Security Council in the near future.

The IAEA report has left Iran with a certain degree of confidence. Indeed in response to the conclusions, President Ahmadinejad declared that Iran had been vindicated and was owed an apology by the international community. But how will this chain of events on the nuclear front effect Iranian policy in Iraq?

While Iran has grand ambitions for regional hegemony, it views its nuclear program as a basic necessity to achieve all ends. Iran’s support of Shi’a militias in Iraq was, for the time being, endangering its nuclear endeavors. Although Iran is currently quite secure on the nuclear issue, it is unlikely to take any action in the near future to jeopardize its current position. Thus, in the interim, Iran’s behavior in Iraq will likely continue to foil its actions on the nuclear front.