Commentary: The Hanoi Summit: What Kim Did Wrong and What Trump Is Doing Right

US President Donald Trump (left) and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un (right). Before the Hanoi Summit, Trump insisted that if he became unsatisfied with the meeting’s progress, he would walk away from the table. That was precisely what he did. It is not easy to comprehend what might have impelled Kim’s decision not reach a common understanding with Trump in order to create a denuclearization agreement. Yet, regardless of what drove Kim, the question of what will come of all the diplomatic work done to this point remains. Of particular interest might be how Trump might assess Kim’s actions and intentions in Hanoi’s aftermath.

The strains placed on both US President Donald Trump and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Chairman Kim Jong-un in their February 27-28, 2019 meeting in Hanoi were quite significant. The intended outcome of the meeting, that primarily being an agreement on denuclearization and North Korea’s economic rejuvenation, would have been positive for both sides. Before Hanoi, Trump put considerable energy into considering the type of partnership with Kim that would be largely economic, and certainly serve the interests of the US and its regional allies. He remained optimistic despite being bombarded by the voices of pessimism heard from naysayers and dream killers of all political stripes. For Kim, moving North Korea along a path toward the economic miracle that Trump proposed would require a well-planned, monumental project to restructure the only world he and his people have known. Surely, it was worth the candle for both Trump.and Kim to make a go at it. However, it may very well be that Kim did not fully understand that everything North Korea is, and everuthing it has, was actually at stake. To that extent, North Korea may not have been properly invested in the move toward denuclearization. It appears even Kim’s purported percipience of Trump and US foreign and national security policy making was also lacking. (Perhaps that knowledge was simply not being properly applied in practice.) .

Trump insisted before the Hanoi Summit, much as he had before negotiations with other national leaders on agreements, that if he became unsatisfied the meeting’s progress, he would walk away from the table. That is precisely what he did. It is not easy to comprehend what might have impelled Kim’s decision not to reach a common understanding with Trump and create a denuclearization agreement. Given Kim’s human rights record, some might suggest may have been influenced by ingenious telepathy from Hell. Sardonics aside, the talk’s outcome provides indicia to support a few reasonable theories. Thinking outside of the box in order to find causality for Kim’s decision, one might conclude on a basic level, that the whole negotiation soon became too rich for his blood and rather than take a giant step forward and risk making the wrong choice, he held pat on his position. On higher tier, one might assess that there may have been senior advisers in Pyongyang who convinced Kim that he could get Trump to eat out of his hand, and in a leap of faith, he tossed everything into an effort to twist Trump’s tail and get him to accept a deal shaped by North Korea’s terms. Additionally, there is the possibility that some self-doubt might have found a place in Kim’s thinking. Despite his leadership through iron rule, one might also politely conclude that Kim possesses a sort of 50-50 mentality. That would mean that Kim can see the potential of all arguments, even those made by the US. From that, it might be considered that he would typically need more time to reach a decision that would best suit North Korea long-term. In whatever way Kim may have been driven, the question now is what will come of all the diplomatic work done to this point. Of particular interest might be how Trump might assess Kim’s actions and intentions in the aftermath of Hanoi. Having apparently gotten things mixed up in Hanoi, hopefully Kim will not mess things up from this point on with Trump. Si sapis, alterum alteri misce: nec speraveris sine desperatione nec desperaveris sine spe. (If you are wise, mingle these two elements: do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.)

Is Kim Missing the Bigger Picture?

Right on the heels of the summit’s closing, Trump held a unilateral press conference in Hanoi on February 28, 2019, essentially to explain why an agreement could not be reached. Trump told reporters that the crux of the matter was sanctions. In summarizing the situation, Trump stated Kim wanted sanctions lifted to a degree in which they would be rendered ineffective. In exchange, Kim would be willing to denuclearize portions of critical areas. Yet, Trump said those testing areas Kim was willing to break down were not the ones the US wanted. They were hardly enough to elicit the cessation of sanctions. Since Kim held firm to that position, Trump explained that there was little choice but to walk away from that proposal. However, Trump never indicated the conversation on the denuclearization had been exhausted.

Indeed, Trump expressed the belief, “I think we’ll end up being very good friends with Chairman Kim and with North Korea, and I think they have tremendous potential.” He insisted that the US despite the outcome has not “given up on anything.” His sense that progress on denuclearization was bolstered by the fact that Kim even had an interest in closing down parts of the nuclear program. Additionally, Trump reminded that, “There’s no more testing. And one of the things, importantly, that Chairman Kim promised me last night is, regardless, he’s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear. Not going to do testing.  So, you know, I trust him, and I take him at his word.  I hope that’s true.” As for how the parties might move forward with the diplomatic process following Hanoi, Trump explained: “In the meantime, we’ll be talking. Mike [Pompeo, US Secretary of State] will be speaking with his people. He’s also developed a very good relationship with the people — really, the people representing North Korea. I haven’t spoken to Prime Minister Abe yet. I haven’t spoken to President Moon of South Korea.  But we will, and we’ll tell them it’s a process and it’s moving along.”

There was no legitimate cause for any confusion in Pyongyang as to what Trump wants in return for a prospective partnership is the same prize that was at the root of his decision to talk with Kim: denuclearization, the end of long-range missile development, the continued return of US remains from the Korean War, and dependability. As one can see, progress made on some of these matters was mentioned by Trump during his Hanoi press conference. In exchange, Kim would be assured that economic pressure, sanctions, would be mitigated, and a robust path toward economic renewal, backed by the experience of Trump and the largess of the US would be initiated.

The Trump administration officials, particularly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have sought to engage in very open, honest, and frank communications with their DPRK counterparts. That would include making inquiries regarding what is happening within the chambers of decision making of North Korea. From that information, the administration has been able to proceed with a good idea of whether success is possible. There have also been letters from Kim to Trump that have provided a sense of where things stand in North Korea regarding denuclearization. There was also no ambiguity over the fact that the Trump administration certainly does not want to give up the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies. Those ties that bind allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with China. Alas, at the table, the maximum that Kim could possibly collect about Trump, in order to make a good decision on the deal offered, was put before him, for all answers concerning the US position, concept and intent, ultimately resided in Trump, himself. Kim and his aides and advisers in Pyongyang could not reasonably ask for anything more.

It would say much if Kim could not see that real empathy may have come from Trump, understanding how heavy a burden such a decision might be for the young leader. Previous deals with North Korea of great significance were last reached with his father, Kim Jong-un, and they crumbled under the insistent strain within North Korea, in Kim regime to pursue the goal of his father and grandfather, Kim Il-sung of developing nuclear weapons. That goal has been achieved.  There may still be the strain within Kim to ignite an economic development akin, or even beyond, the Chollima Movement, as initiated by Kim’s grandfather and hero, Kim Il-sung. There is much that needs to done in North Korea, and as Trump has repeated, great potential exists within its workforce.

Trump’s critics and detractors insisted that Trump was out of court to even attempt to reach agreement with Kim that would meet the requirement of serving the interests of the US and its allies in the region. Surely, the Trump administration would never surrender  the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies. Those ties that bind allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with China. Those critics and detractors, upon discovering that Trump was unfazed by their persistent negative voices and was going to make the effort anyway, eventually turned to the standby criticism concerning any of Trump’s efforts on foreign and national security policy: he is unqualified. Further, they would also insist that behind everything Kim has done was a hostile DPRK plot, a “Red plot”, to lure Trump and the US to destruction.

The Snare of Insufficient Analysis

Attacks by critics and detractors of Trump have manifested more than elementary cynicism. The dark shadows of their machinations gathered as the Hanoi Summit came near. Their efforts did more more than serve to tear those in the US public who are supportive of Trump away from him. Despite claims from Trump’s political adversaries, and the usual critics and detractors that what was happening in Washington had no impact on what occurred in Hanoi, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it would seem that Pyongyang, unfortunately chose to do what was expedient. That meant believing Trump was stressed from the potential release of a final report of the Special Counsel to Investigate Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election and Related Matters. There have been repeated insinuation that Trump faced the threat of investigations by the Deputy US Attorney for Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General. Pyongyang might have believed that Trump, caught in the wave of excitement concerning the 2020 US Presidential Campaign, mystifying reports of supposed gains by Democrats in polls versus Trump, and the reported mayhem that exists within the mainstream political parties. There may have been the belief that Kim could capitalize on some forecasted by the intelligence services on the impatience on the part of Trump. Reports commentaries, and opinion pieces in the US news media surely would have rung a bell for Kim’s aides and advisers and analysts in North Korea’s intelligence services. From that, it would follow that Trump’s political difficulties at home would likely distract him. If any of this was the case, it may explain why Pyongyang seemingly went all in on an effort to force Trump’s hand.

What Trump confidently knew, but Kim and his aides and advisers in Pyongyang would have unlikely been able to discern clearly, was that the hearings of the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives and in camera testimony before the Intelligence Committee of the US House of Representatives in which Trump’s erstwhile attorney Michael Cohen testified, in essence amounted to vanity projects undertaken by political opponents of Trump in his rival Democratic Party. Although the hearings grabbed headlines in the US news media while Trump met with Kim in Hanoi, the new information gained from them was for the most part already widely known. As it has been repeatedly counseled by greatcharlie, reacting, and much worse, inferring how Trump’s mind moves on an issue from stories, iniquitous commentaries, and opinion pieces in the US news media. For the most part, US news media houses have done a complete job presenting themselves as Trump’s adversary, not simply critics and detractors. In either case, they are not playing the impartial watchdog role in which the fourth estate is supposed to serve.

Leaders often take unimaginable risks under stress. One could surmise that Kim must have been under some stress at home. Indeed, looking at Kim objectively, the question would be whether Kim was being ambitious or desperate in Hanoi. There is the possibility that in the intelligence services or the Workers’ Party of Korea, it may have posited that Trump could be manipulated into accepting a deal far less than he originally wanted. Lending support for the idea would be that Kim managed to secure a second meeting and that Kim was the actual master at the negotiation table with Trump, and he could take US President down whatever path he wanted. Although it may all sound like daylight madness, it is actually the sort of colorization of policy with delusional notions of an all powerful supreme leader that has underpinned many prior ham-handed decisions by Pyongyang. Nam qui peccare se nescit, corrigi non vult. (If one doesn’t know his mistakes, he won’t want to correct them.)

Kim’s 50-50 Personality?

One might theorize that Kim’s failure to return home with a constructive answer may not have driven as much by politics but by the possibility that he possesses a 50-50 personality. This is not intended as a disparagement or an affront. It is not to suggest that Kim is a mixed bag, or worse, indecisive. It does not mean Kim is regularly afflicted by the paralysis of analysis. The 50-50 personality is the one able to see beyond black and white to the grey areas of significance. Kim cannot be pegged as one extreme or the other. Kim’s trained ability to project calmness and authority in all circumstances publicly has little relation to what might be stirring within. In private, he may in reality be as much the introvert as the extrovert, he may entertain his sense of things as much as use a honed intuition. He may try to feel through issues and situations coupled with thinking them through ad infinitum. He may be willing to use his perception of matters taking into account his experience and much as making calibrated judgments based on available facts and methods of analysis.

New Problems or a Curious Attempt to Ignite Further Talks?

Kim has created an additional problem himself at this point. Reportedly, he has sought to reconstruct a disassembled testing facility for long range rockets at Tongchang-ri. On first blush, it certainly does seem there is nefarious purpose behind his actions. It is hard to see how anyone could view Kim as anything but an aggressor. Trump has invested in diplomacy to resolve matters in contention: North Korea’s nuclear program and its long range delivery systems. Tactical moves must have payoffs or they are useless exertions, often opening the door for opponent to act. Kim, having met Trump, should not be under any illusion that Trump would not respond fiercely to moves he might find aggressive and or threatening. Kim does not need to extrapolate and infer anything from overt or covert sources that his intelligence services may be relying upon to understand and predict Trump’s moves. The suspension of military exercises should not have signalled to Kim that Trump is not interested in a military option. As he indicated in words he has since set aside in the spirit of negotiating some resolution, North Korea’s aggression would met with “ fire and fury the world has never known!” Pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, but military exercises with conventional forces would hold less significance on the North Korea front if an attack conceived by Trump would include the use of scores of nuclear weapons.

Does Kim Really Know What Is Best for North Korea?

Even with the notion that he has a type of 50-50 mentality, and with all of his revolutionary zeal and his commitment to the Communist movement taken into consideration, Kim must realize that Trump’s deal was too good to pass on. Nevertheless, he did so. Looking at the matter purely from the perspective of an external observer, Kim made a big mistake. As a national leader concerned with his people’s real future and being much more than a functionary within the system, logic should have driven him toward it. One stands on shaky ground saying anything positive about Kim given the sensitivity of government agencies in the US to such comments, nonetheless, failing to engage Trump for a bit longer in Hanoi on the development of a fitting agreement for both parties was not a surprising error for a national leader who is new to such high stakes diplomacy. Errant consilia nostra, quia non habent quo derigantur; ignoranti quem portum petat nullus suus ventus est. (Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.)

A logical next step for Kim and his aides and advisers, if they are truly interested in, and dedicated to, this important diplomatic process, might be to try to get the toothpaste back into the tube. A sign that such an effort could already be underway might be official statements by the foreign ministry of North Korea insisting that there was a desire in Pyongyang for a partial denuclearization. Indeed, on February 28, 2019 in Hanoi, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho explained that Kim’s regime sought only “partial” sanctions relief in return for dismantling the North’s main enrichment capabilities for fissile material. As for continued negotiations, Ri stated, “It is difficult to say whether there might be a better agreement than the one based on our proposal at current stage.” He continued authoritatively, “Our principal stance will remain invariable and our proposal will never be changed, even though US proposes negotiation again in the future.” Ri also confirmed that the North would be willing to “permanently dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities” at the main Yongbyon nuclear site and allow U.S. nuclear experts to observe. He went on to complain that North Korea had sought an end to “sanctions that hamper the civilian economy, and the livelihood of all people in particular,” citing five out of 11 sanctions packages imposed by the UN Security Council. As mentioned earlier, sanctions relief along those lines would have amounted to a significant easing of the pressure on North Korea.

Although some somber and astute analysts might reach the conclusion that the foreign ministry’s bold, inaccurate statements, with their familiar antagonistic cadence, was simply a pretension, one more dramatic expression of Pyongyang. The odd hope of it all would appear to be influencing opinion among senior officials of the Workers Party of Korea and other elites of business circles of the society that Trump was not sincere about sanctions relief and he failed to respond to what is likely extolled in Pyongyang as Kim’s “generous offer”. It may very well have been the case that Pyongyang had the foreign ministry’s statement “locked and cocked” even before Kim left by train for Hanoi in the event that Trump would not accept the terms he planned to offer him.

The Agony of Negotiating with North Korea

It is interesting how North Korean officials have spoken so obstinately of Trump’s openhandedness toward their country. Perhaps Pyongyang has forgotten that Kim is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. (That is unlikely something anyone in Pyongyang would ever say in Kim’s presence.) Among industrialized countries, ruling out the Russian Federation and China, few governments hold a favorable opinion of North Korea. Pyongyang should rest assured that a number of capable US allies have likely suggested in confidence that Trump should move on from diplomacy and simply use military force on North Korea and indicated the willingness to join that effort. Trump, the one that North Korean Foreign Ministry officials now criticize, is the national leader who truly has the military power to destroy North Korea, yet he has given it a chance to prove its positive intentions to the world. Trump has sought to create the circumstances in which the entire world could begin to think well of North Korea and consider ways to work well with it. Trump’s description of his contacts and communications with Kim and public statements about his friendship and chemistry with him, have made him far less the threat that deservedly made headlines with angry words and aggressive moves in 2017 when the administration began. Trump kept his promise to work directly with Kim on the diplomacy, although it would unlikely have gone any other way as he has become the administration’s talisman on bilateral diplomacy, trade talks, essentially every kind of dealmaking. More than half way through his term as of this writing, Trump has amassed a record of making things happen; getting things done.

Not under any circumstances would the reconstruction of the testing site fall under the category of a benign act. It would hard to see where Pyongyang, having had two bites at the diplomacy apple, might hope to have some understanding of its move to reconstruct it’s long-range rocket testing site in a positive way in Washington or anywhere in the US for that matter. In reconstructing the testing site, Kim is doing precisely what Trump said he did not want North Korea to do. Nonetheless, taking a second look purely out of academic interest and with a dose of optimism at the matter of Kim’s move to reconstruct the testing site from another angle, one could say that the effort, albeit poorly conceived, was designed to create a position of perceived strength and encourage Trump to talk with Kim again. After all, that step was less threatening than other available options to garner immediate attention, create urgency. Kim could have begun reconstruction on a shuttered nuclear facility or begun building a new one. Kim could have made unsubstantiated public claims of possessing new nuclear technologies to enrich uranium for weapons such as the ability to separate isotopes through laser excitation (“SILEX”). (Note, this is just a hypothetical. There is no effort here to suggest that North Korea possesses such capabilities.) For Pyongyang, the danger in engaging in such tricky stuff is that the wrong signal may be sent to Washington. By and large, Pyongyang has asked the Trump administration to be patient and to recognize that on the world stage, North Korea is going to display a lack of sophistication, savoir faire, and present itself as the isolated, authoritarian “hermit kingdom” it has always been. While it may have hoped to move things in a specific way, it is possible that what might be intended through such moves could be lost in the labyrinth. Perhaps even unknowingly, Pyongyang has placed its best hope in Trump’s willingness to interpret its moves in a somewhat positive way and view the diplomatic effort as being worth the trouble.

It is apparent that Trump along with those foreign and national security policy officials who were optimistic about a deal being reached on denuclearization with North Korea, reasoned that it would be worth giving Kim the benefit of doubt.  However, one could never be completely clear on how denuclearization would fit into the worldview of the Workers’ Party of Korea or Kim’s inner thinking. Shots have not been fired at anger across the border. There has been no testing over nuclear devices and no testing of long-range or short-range rockets. If a chance might be taken in the name of finding a peaceful agreement, right now is certainly the time to take them. It certainly would be a ashame if the positive spirit which had been discern in the White House from Kim’s thoughts, words, and deeds from Singapore until Hanoi, was simply imputed by the administration to greater degree than warranted. Admittedly, it is hard to understand why Pyongyang would at this point, hope for peace while reconstructing a testing facility for long-range rockets.

It is worth noting that in a more forceful, less grateful statement than Ri’s on February 28, 2019, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, explained: “The impression I got observing this summit from the side was that our chairman seems to have difficulty understanding the US way of reckoning.” Choe, offering her own assessment, declared: “I felt that our chairman has lost the will to engage in dealmaking, with the US saying that even a partial lifting of sanctions for the civilian economy is hard.” Conditions surely will not change through diplomacy if Pyongyang refuses to negotiate. If anything positive could be gleaned from Choe’s statement, itself, it is the fact that the harshest words were delivered by a vice foreign minister, not Kim or a very senior Workers’ Party of Korea official. That may have left the door open for Kim or a senior officials to walk back from those words, making diplomacy with the hope that cobbling together a denuclearization agreement might still be viable. Apparently, Trump mercifully brushed off pretentious statements by DPRK’s officials on their country’s power relative to that of the US, and the great disproportion between them with reality. It is difficult to determine how long Trump’s patience will last though. Given a third chance, Kim might goof again.

Trump certainly has not indicated that he feels the time has come to tie things off. It may be that Trump is more concerned with the prospect of millions of lives being lost if he does not give it every chance. When asked in Hanoi whether the bridge could be gapped between Kim’s desire to have all or a significant portion of sanctions removed and his desire to more significant denuclearization, he responded: “With time.  It’ll be bridged, I think, at a certain point.  But there is a gap.  We have to have sanctions.  And he wants to denuke, but he wants to just do areas that are less important than the areas that we want.  We know that — we know the country very well, believe it or not.  We know every inch of that country.  And we have to get what we have to get, because that’s a big — that’s a big give.” Oculis de homine non credo, habeo melius et certius lumen quo a falsis uera diiudicem: animi bonum animus inueniat. (I do not trust my eyes to tell me what a man is: I have a better and more trustworthy light by which I can distinguish what is true from what is false: let the mind find out what is good for the mind.)

Iran, Powers Make Limited Progress at Nuclear Talks; Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Remains Focus, But Lasers May Bring Iran the Bomb

The construction of new facilities at the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center, once an undeclared laser uranium enrichment site, has allowed Iran to engage in more advanced laser work. The notated Google Earth photo of Lashkar Ab’ad, above, is from the Institute for Science and International Security. Laser uranium enrichment is a subtle aspect of the nuclear talks. Iran has pledged to forgo laser enrichment activity, but if it is still engaged in that work secretly, detecting it will be difficult.

According to a January 18, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Iran, Powers Make ‘Limited’ Progress at Nuclear Talks, To Meet in February”, five days of diplomacy in Geneva and Paris between the P5+1 (US, United Kingdom, France, Russia China, and Germany) and Iran ended without an agreement. It included meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Hope remains among diplomats that a political understanding can be reached by the end of March and a comprehensive deal can be reached by June 30, 2015. Reuters quoted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and negotiator Abbas Araqchi stated the discussions were “good” and “extensive.” French negotiator Nicholas de la Riviere was quoted as saying “the mood was good,” but he also said, “I do not think we made a lot of progress.”

The later view expressed by de la Riviere perhaps best described the situation. The January meeting’s outcome was disappointing given hopes raised in December 2014 that the talks would progress faster and more smoothly. In December, negotiators even created a catalog outlining areas of potential accord and differing approaches to remaining disputes. Among the catalog’s requirements, much of Iran’s enriched uranium would be shipped out of the country. The administration of US President Barack Obama wanted to reduce Tehran’s ability to make nuclear arms by committing it to ship to Russia much of the enriched uranium needed for weapons. However, diplomats are now debating how much enriched uranium to leave Iran. Iran has a stockpile for several bombs, and the US wants cuts well below that level. Other issues being debated apparently include the size of Iran’s future enrichment output. The US wants it cut in half, leaving Tehran with about 4,500 of its existing uranium enrichment centrifuges, or less if it replaces them with advanced models. Tehran is ready for a reduction of around 20%, or about 8,000 machines. Issues remaining to be resolved include action on Iran’s underground Fordow (Shahid Alimohammadi) Fuel Enrichment Plant and its incomplete Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor (IR-40). The P5+1 wants Fordow repurposed to a non-enrichment function. Fordow is allegedly impervious to airstrikes. The P5+1 wants Arak re-engineered from a model by which it could yearly produce plutonium for several nuclear bombs to a less proliferation-prone one.

In the meantime, Iran is still complying with restrictions on research and development required under the November 24, 2014 extension. According to documents outlining the extension, these provisions are designed to resolve ambiguities regarding permitted and prohibited research activities, and especially “limit research and development on advanced centrifuges that move the machines to the next level of development.” Iran agreed not to test the IR-5 centrifuge with uranium hexafluoride gas. Iran also agreed not to pursue testing of the IR-6 centrifuge on a cascade level with uranium gas, or semi-industrial scale testing of the IR-2M. Iran also agreed not to complete installation of the IR-8 centrifuge, which is only partially installed at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. The IAEA will also have greater access to Iran’s centrifuge production sites under the extension. According to the terms, the agency’s inspections visits will double and be conducted with very little notice. The goal of limiting research and development and creating regular access to monitor centrifuge production facilities was to prevent Iran from refining and mass-producing efficient machines that would allow it to rapidly enrich material for bombs.

Discussing the November 24, 2014 extension, US Secretary of State John Kerry said “We would be fools to walk away from a situation where the breakout time [for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon] has already been expanded rather than narrowed and the world is safer because the program is in place.” He noted skeptics who predicted the interim agreement [Joint Plan of Action] would collapse and Iran would break its promises were proven wrong. He further stated “Guess what? The interim agreement wasn’t violated, Iran has held up its end of the bargain, and the sanctions regime has remained intact.” Through the nuclear negotiation process, the US and its P5+1 partners have focused most on centrifuge uranium enrichment. However, Iran’s nuclear program does not fit into a single, very clear and well defined picture of centrifuge enrichment. Iran has the technological know-how and the human resources to take its nuclear program in many different directions. It puts into the question the choice not to give added attention to other paths to uranium enrichment. Iran has a proven capability to engage in uranium enrichment using laser isotope separation. If Iran’s work with lasers is not properly addressed before the end of the negotiation process, the world may soon face a very advanced, nuclear capable Iran.

On Centrifugal Uranium Enrichment, Iran Is Compliant

What best supports the argument proffered by Kerry and others that Tehran’s intentions on the nuclear issue may be positive is the significant effort Iran has made to comply with its agreements on centrifugal uranium enrichment. Reviewing that compliance, one would discover that the January 20, 2014 IAEA Report stated Iran halted production of near-20% enriched uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) and ceased operating its interconnected centrifuges that were enriching to 20% UF6. The February 20, 2014 IAEA Report said Iran was using the four cascades at Fordow to enrich uranium to only 5%. Regarding its stockpile of enriched uranium, in the July 20, 2014 IAEA Report, it was explained Iran completed the process of converting half of its stockpile of 20% enriched UF6 gas (~104 kg) to uranium oxide powder. Iran’s dilution of half of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium was confirmed in the April 2014 IAEA Report.

With respect to research and development, in the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report, it was verified that Iran was continuing its safeguarded research and development practices at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and was not using the research to accumulate uranium as it tested advanced models. Iran submitted details on site selection for 16 nuclear power plants to the IAEA, its initial plans for 10 future enrichment sites, and a light water reactor. Those plans included: descriptions of buildings located on nuclear sites, the scale of operations for each location, and information on uranium mines and mills.

On source materials, a May 23, 2014 IAEA Report explained that Iran granted the agency access to the Gchine Mine, the Saghand Mine and the Ardakan Uranium Production Plant. Iran provided the IAEA with information about source material on April 20, according to the May 23, 2014 IAEA Report. Iran also submitted an updated Design Information Questionnaire for the reactor at Arak (IR-40) on February 12, 2014, according to the IAEA’s February 20, 2014 Report. On May 5, 2014, IAEA and Iranian officials met to discuss a safeguards approach with the IAEA for the Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor, and according to the IAEA’s June 20, 2014 Report, Iran reached an agreement with the agency on the safeguards.

Regarding IAEA access and monitoring, the requirement for Iran was to allow daily IAEA inspector access at Fordow and Natanz, including scheduled and unannounced inspections and access to surveillance information daily. As of its February 20, 2014 Report, the IAEA installed surveillance measures at Natanz and Fordow to facilitate daily monitoring and reached an agreement on facilitating daily access. (Prior to the Joint Plan of Action, the IAEA had visited Fordow on a weekly basis, and Natanz on a biweekly basis.) The February 20, 2014 Report noted the IAEA made its first monthly visit to the Arak Heavy Water Reactor on February 12, 2014. It visited Arak between February 3, 2014 and February 7, 2014, to inspect the centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production and workshops, and storage facilities.

Issues concerning mines and mills were covered by May 23, 2014 IAEA Report. It explained that Iran granted the IAEA access to the Gchine and Saghand Uranium Mines and the Arkadan Milling Facility. While Iran was required to provide figures that would allow the IAEA to verify that centrifuge production will be dedicated to the replacement of damaged machines, the IAEA was granted access to Iran’s centrifuge workshops and facilities, allowing it to collect such data firsthand. Regarding the capping of Iran’s 5% enriched UF6 stockpile, the November 24, 2014 IAEA Report on implementation of the Joint Plan of Action indicated that Iran’s stockpile of UF6 gas was 7,400 kg, below January’s level of 7,560 kg.

Iran has complied with agreements to refrain from certain actions with its program. In a January 18, 2014 letter to the IAEA, Iran pledged not to engage in reprocessing or build a reprocessing facility over the six months of the deal. Then, the January 20, 2014 IAEA Report confirmed reprocessing was not taking place at the Tehran Research Reactor or the Iodine and Xenon Radioisotope Production Facility (MIX Facility). The January 20, 2014 IAEA Report confirmed Iran also has not installed a reconversion line to reconvert uranium oxide powder to 20% UF6.

With regard to Natanz, Iran has refrained from making any further advances of its activities there. According to a February 20, 2014 IAEA Report, Iran had not installed any new centrifuges and was not feeding UF6 into the roughly half the centrifuges at Natanz that were already installed but were not engaged in uranium enrichment.

Concerning Fordow, Iran has also refrained from further advancing the plant’s activities. The February 20, 2014 IAEA verified that Iran has not installed any new centrifuges, and is not feeding UF6 into the three quarters at Fordow that have also been installed but not engaged in uranium enrichment. Additionally, the cascades have not been interconnected. To the extent Iran has replaced centrifuges, the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report indicated that Iran limited itself to replacing existing centrifuges with centrifuges of the same type. The report made clear that surveillance has been set up to monitor any changes.

On Arak, the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report said Iran had not commissioned the reactor and had not conducted any activities to further it. Iran, as promised, according to the report, has refrained from transferring fuel or heavy water to the Arak reactor. Iran has also refrained from testing additional fuel or producing more fuel. Indeed, the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report said that Iran had not manufactured or tested any reactor fuel, and the number of fuel rods produced remains at 11. Iran has refrained from installing any additional reactor components at the Arak site. Centrifuge production has been limited to those needed to replace damaged machines. That has been confirmed by the IAEA’s regular managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops.

Regarding the construction of any new locations for enrichment, in a January 18, 2014 letter to the IAEA, Tehran said it would not pursue any new uranium enrichment sites during the six months of the agreement which has now been extended. Iran also agreed to forgo uranium enrichment using other methods, including laser enrichment. While it is unlikely that Iran could move quickly to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels using these alternative methods, the commitment to refrain from testing any of these methods is positive and should mitigate concerns about covert enrichment activities involving such technologies. Iran is known to have experimented with laser enrichment in the past, and as part of its agreement to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation into inconsistencies with its nuclear declaration and alleged activities with past military dimensions, Iran provided the agency with information about its laser enrichment activities. Iran also gave the IAEA access to the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center on March 12, 2014.

Laser Uranium Enrichment: A Genuine Concern

A number of laser enrichment processes have been developed. One process is molecular laser isotope separation, conceived at Los Alamos Laboratories in 1971. Under that process, carefully formed photons, from an infra-red laser system, operating near the 16mm wavelength, irradiate UF6. The lasers selectively excite the molecules of 235 UF6, not the molecules of 238 UF6. The molecules of the excited 235 UF6 then become easier to differentiate from those of the 238 UF6. Photons from a second laser system selectively dissociates the excited 235 UF6 to form 235 UF5 and free fluorine atoms. The 235 UF5 formed from the dissociation precipitates from the gas as a powder that can be filtered from the gas stream. An advanced laser enrichment technology known as separation of isotopes by laser excitation (SILEX) was developed in Australia by Michael Goldsworthy and Horst Struve. Details of SILEX are classified under the US Atomic Energy Act. In 2006, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy signed an agreement with Silex Systems Ltd. Of Australia and eventually built a SILEX demonstration loop. In September 2012, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board granted GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) a license to build a first-of-its-kind laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. The license allows GLE to produce up to 6 million single work units per year. Silex has completed the Phase 1 Test Loop Program the facility. GLE promotes laser enrichment as a less costly, less energy-intensive enrichment process.

Nonproliferation analysts and specialists for year have expressed concern over the proliferation threat posed by laser enrichment. If properly engineered, it has the potential to dramatically advance the capabilities of countries to secretly enrich uranium. Princeton University atomic expert Scott Kemp noted that a number of countries already have a workforce specialized in laser technologies. He stated further, “That expertise does not exist for centrifuges, which are a bit esoteric.” Although enriching uranium with lasers on a production-scale appears extremely complicated, laser uranium enrichment is as a potential way for a country to acquire significant quantities of highly enriched uranium. A covert laser uranium enrichment facility might escape detection by the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies because of the relatively small size and few external indicators of such plants. Further, several required research and development activities of laser uranium enrichment can be conducted under a non-nuclear cover.

While visiting an exhibition sponsored by Iran’s National Center for Laser Science and Technology in February 2010, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (center) made a public statement about Iran’s laser uranium enrichment capability that troubled the international community. Ahmadinejad indicated that Iran possessed an advanced and effective laser uranium enrichment capability. Since then, the IAEA has sought data on Iran’s laser work.

Iran has far more than a pilot laser enrichment program. It has developed advanced lasers suitable for isotope separation and highly enriched uranium production. In February 2010, then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a public statement about Iran’s laser uranium enrichment capability. At an exhibition sponsored by Iran’s National Center for Laser Science and Technology, Ahmadinejad stated “Today, we are capable of enriching uranium with lasers. It is now possible to do this using the same devices which are on display here at the exhibition” and that “using the laser technology for enriching uranium would lead to carrying out the enrichment process with higher quality, accuracy, and speed.” He further stated “Iranian scientists have acquired the laser-operating, uranium enrichment know-how, but would put the technology on the shelf for now.” New facilities recently constructed at the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center, once undeclared as a laser enrichment site, have supported Iran’s advanced laser efforts.

The IAEA, itself, has displayed concern over Iran’s laser enrichment capability. On February 8 and 9, 2014, the IAEA and Iran held technical meetings under the terms of the November 2013 Framework for Cooperation. As a result, Iran and the IAEA reached an agreement on seven practical measures that Iran had to implement by May 15, 2014, including one provision where Iran agreed to provide “mutually agreed relevant information and arranging for a technical visit to Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center.” That agreement reinforced the terms of the Framework for Cooperation in November 2013. Iran agreed to further clarify Ahmadinejad’s 2010 statement on laser enrichment also, but the February 2014 IAEA Report stated Iran only partially explained it.

Would Iran Seek Breakout Capacity Through Laser Enrichment?

Many US allies still fear Iran’s diplomatic initiative is a delaying tactic designed to allow other Iranian government elements to bring the nuclear program to breakout capacity, which means acquiring the knowledge and means to develop a nuclear weapon without actually doing so.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the idea that Iran’s diplomatic efforts were legitimate, and rebuffed Obama for even entertaining Iranian overtures.  When the talks began, the Wall Street Journal quoted Israel’s Minister of Intelligence and International Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, as saying, “Israel is interested in a diplomatic solution, like anyone else. But we don’t want to cheat ourselves.” Steinitz went on to state, “Some people are willing to be cheated.”

To put into perspective the possibility that Iran might be conducting an effective laser enrichment program in secret, consider strides made by Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan to revamp and enhance Iran’s advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iranian defense industrial base will greatly enhance Iran’s warfighting capabilities presently and into the future.  Iran has already made great strides in satellite technology, drone, and stealth technology.  The application of those new technologies was evident in the reverse engineering of a US stealth drone, the advent of a new anti-ship system and other naval technologies, and Iran’s greatly enhanced cyber capabilities. Per aspera ad astra! (Through difficulties to the stars!)

Dehghan is an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Air Force brigadier general (Sartip). He is fearless, devout, dedicated to the Islamic Revolution and sworn to defend the Islamic Republic. His efforts on the Expediency Council helped it best advise Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on conventional and unconventional ways Iran could use its military to accomplish political goals in the face of US and Western opposition. Dehghan’s descent to Rouhani’s cabinet, after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, did not occur because his administrative skills were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was selected in order to manage projects of such importance to Iran’s security that only someone as capable and reliable as him could be counted on to direct.

On January 7, 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made it clear he was no longer concerned about ending sanctions through the nuclear talks, and warned the government that “efforts must be made to immunize Iran against the sanctions” so that “the people will not be hurt.”

Maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich was the requirement Khamenei gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he released him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and consequently, Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei saw the negotiation process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology. While occasionally supportive of government efforts in the nuclear talks, he often expressed some skepticism about them. On January 7, 2014, Khamenei made it clear that he was no longer as concerned about ending sanctions through the nuclear talks, and warned the government that “efforts must be made to immunize Iran against the sanctions” so that “the people will not be hurt.”  He went on to state: “No one should imagine that the enemy may stop its enmity and maliciousness.” He then said, “Once you forget and trust the enemy, then the enemy finds the chance to pursue his goals in the country. But if you identify the enemy and you are strong, ready, arrogance [US] will inevitably stop its enmity.”

The Way Forward

The first successful attempt at gas centrifuge process of uranium enrichment, over which the P5+1 and Iran have primarily been negotiating, was performed in 1934 at the University of Virginia. The work was based on a 1919 proposal. Two chlorine isotopes were separated through a vacuum ultracentrifuge. It was the first process utilized in the renowned Manhattan Project of World War II, but abandoned because the process would unlikely allow for the production of material for a bomb rapidly enough. Electromagnetic separation, initiated at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee facility and eventually, gaseous diffusion, were pursued instead. The Soviet Union successfully used the gas centrifuge process in its nuclear program and during the Cold War, it was the most effective supplier of enriched uranium. Since those years, the gas centrifuge has been considered an economical means for separating uranium-235 from uranium-238 compared to gaseous diffusion. To achieve high degrees of separation of these isotopes, several individual centrifuges must be arranged in cascade to achieve higher concentrations.

Although little is said about it publicly, it sounds exotic, and details on it are relatively obscure, laser enrichment is certainly real. The details are not embellished here. Over eighty years after the first successful attempt gas separation by centrifuge, laser separation has become a viable means for countries to engage in uranium enrichment. It is also a less costly and less energy-intensive process for enriching uranium to fuel atomic energy reactors and making nuclear bombs. Iran’s scientific and technological prowess makes cogent the idea that Iran might be engaged in an advanced laser enrichment effort while negotiating over centrifuges. When decision was made to keep Iran away from nuclear weapons, the international community believed that it would monitor and eventually halt Iran’s centrifugal uranium enrichment, the path taken by countries that had already acquired a nuclear capability. It now appears that line of thinking is driven more by nostalgia than realism. While none of the current nuclear powers may have reached their nuclear capability with lasers, Iran certainly could. Visionaries might be able to provide hints about what Iran is doing. Only divine vision knows for sure.