July 7, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
New intelligence continues to blast away like a sledgehammer at Iran's rocklike insistence that its nuclear program is purely peaceful and not a nuclear weapons effort as many strongly believe.
The latest evidence comes out of the United Nation's nuclear watchdog in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which released a nine-page report that casts serious doubt on Iran's purported pacifist power program.
In a dramatic change, based on new, multisource, multilateral intelligence received over time from its members, the IAEA has shifted its position from being unable to prove Iran has a nuclear weapons program to being unable to prove Iran doesn't have one.
Regrettably, the nuclear weapons shoe increasingly fits Iran's foot quite snuggly.
Based on 18 hard-copy and electronic documents provided to the IAEA, the nuclear-monitoring agency revealed in its report in late May several deeply disturbing concerns on the nature of Iran's nuclear program, especially possible military dimensions. In its first formal assessment of Iran's nuclear efforts since February, the IAEA states: "The agency is of the view that Iran may have additional information, in particular on high explosives testing and missile-related activities, which could shed more light on the nature of these alleged studies and which Iran should share with the agency."
The IAEA considers these unanswered questions on Iran's nuclear work "a matter of serious concern," because the existence of this sort of activity might indicate Tehran is secretly developing a nuclear weapon, contrary to its repeated public protestations.
Moreover, the report states: "Iran has not provided the agency with all the information, access to documents and access to individuals necessary to supports Iran's statements," despite the new intelligence, which is "detailed in content and appears to be generally consistent."
The first charge is that Iran is suspected of conducting high explosives testing. This includes work with exploding bridgewire (EBW) detonators and a detonator firing unit, which could be used for triggering a nuclear weapon; 500 EBW detonators were tested.
In addition, a five-page document described experiments for a "complex multipoint initiation system" to "detonate a substantial amount of high explosive in hemispherical geometry" that could be employed in an implosion-type nuclear device.
Tehran also is accused of developing plans for underground explosives testing, which could be used for detonating a nuclear weapon similar to the testing done by North Korea when it joined the once-exclusive nuclear club in October 2006.
The documents include a diagram for what is described as a 400-meter-deep shaft located 10 kilometers from a firing control point, showing "the placement of various electronic systems such as a control unit and a high-voltage power generator."
There is also a mysterious piece of information the IAEA calls the "uranium metal document" in its report, which is related to the "actual design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear material components of a nuclear weapon." The document reportedly involves procedures for machining highly enriched uranium metal into a hemispherical shape, key to producing the rounded pits used in modern implosion-type nuclear weapon warheads.
Strikingly, the report notes that "Pakistan has confirmed, in response to the agency's request, that an identical document exists in Pakistan" to the one found in Iran -- possibly showing connections to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.
Another IAEA concern is work on a new ballistic missile warhead, known as Project 111, for Iran's medium-range ballistic missile, the Shahab-3, which can range all of the Middle East, as well as parts of southern Europe. According to six technical documents in the IAEA's possession, Iran appears to have been involved in the redesign of the payload chamber of the current "Shahab-3 missile re-entry vehicle to accommodate a nuclear warhead."
Although not detailed in the report, Iran also is suspected to be involved in the aggressive development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, perhaps under cover of a civilian space program. In the report, the IAEA also questioned the Iranian military's seeming involvement in Tehran's civilian nuclear efforts. It seems military-related institutions are involved in suspicious procurement activities for Iran's purported nuclear power program.
There are also concerns about an unexplained letter published by the chairman of Iran's high-ranking Expediency Council in September 2006, which makes "reference to possible acquisition of nuclear weapons."
It gets worse.
Unabated Uranium Enrichment
The report also notes that Iran continues uranium enrichment, the proverbial long-pole in the tent in producing a nuclear weapon -- at least in comparison with developing a delivery platform or warhead. As the American IAEA representative, Ambassador Gregory Schulte, told the press: "At the same time that Iran is stonewalling its [IAEA] inspectors, it's moving forward in developing its enrichment capability in violation of [U.N.] Security Council resolutions."
Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz already is using at least 3,000 centrifuges. Theoretically, if operating efficiently, this line could produce enough weapons-grade fissile material to build one bomb in a year to 18 months time. The uranium enrichment process can produce fuel for a nuclear power reactor or fissile material for a nuclear weapon. To date, Iran has publicly stated enrichment rates of more than 4 percent, suitable for reactor fuel if produced in sufficient quantities; weapons-grade uranium is usually enriched to above 90 percent. Some experts say they think Iran could have as many as 6,000 centrifuges online, spinning at supersonic speed in the near future -- by, perhaps, this summer -- turning uranium hexafluoride gas into some level of enriched uranium.
Tehran has steadfastly insisted that it has the right to enrich uranium for nuclear reactor fuel as stipulated under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- ironically, an accord Iran violated by failing to declare its nuclear program to the IAEA for some 20 years.
The new IAEA report also notes the previously undisclosed development of a new generation of centrifuge. The IR-3 improves upon previous models based on the less-efficient Pakistani design procured from A.Q. Khan's nuclear proliferation network. Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, led a network of nuclear enablers that serviced not only the Iranian nuclear program with equipment and know-how, but also the North Korean and Libyan programs.
Agency inspectors also raised concerns about the fact that "substantial parts of the centrifuge components were manufactured in the workshops of the [Iranian] Defense Industries Organization," blurring the lines between Tehran's civilian and a possible military program.
The bottom-line anxiety here, besides the fact Iran didn't declare this new equipment (and capability) to the IAEA as required, is that the new, more-efficient centrifuges will allow Iran to produce more enriched uranium -- for reactors or bombs -- more quickly.
Iran, with Russian assistance, also is continuing construction of its nuclear plant at Bushehr -- its first nuclear reactor. A good deal of the reactor's fuel is already in place, having been shipped in from Russia since last December. The IAEA also is monitoring construction of an Iranian nuclear research reactor that experts are concerned could be used for experimentation on reprocessing spent nuclear reactor fuel, from a reactor such as Bushehr, into fissile material for use in nuclear weapons.
Interestingly, in all of this, Iran doesn't see an indictment of wrongdoing but, on the contrary, views the report as an exoneration of guilt. Iran's IAEA envoy, via the Iranian news service, said the report is "a vindication and reiteration of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities." In addition, Tehran officially said the IAEA documents "do not show any indication that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been working on a nuclear weapon," adding that many of the documents had been "forged" or "fabricated," especially because they were in an electronic format.
In some cases, Iran didn't quibble with the information, instead insisting that "the events and activities concerned involved civil or conventional military applications," such as the testing of detonators for use in the oil industry. Although Iran has promised to address all concerns, many of these questions are likely to remain a mystery because of Iran's regular refusal to allow the IAEA access to procurement personnel and scientists or open suspect sites to the agency's atomic sleuths.
The new IAEA report more starkly calls into relief questions about the intent of Iran's nuclear efforts, leaving Tehran's claims to a purely civilian nuclear power program increasingly in doubt. As a result, the IAEA has called upon Tehran to increase transparency by signing an Additional Protocol, which would give agency inspectors access to any facility suspected of undeclared nuclear activity. This is a fundamental requirement in a large country such as Iran (four times the size of California), where sites are numerous and sometimes well-hidden. Verification of compliance, even under the best of conditions, is difficult.
But old habits die hard. Tehran likely will continue to obfuscate and dissemble, preventing the IAEA from gaining a realistic assessment of the nature of Iran's nuclear program -- which, unfortunately, places time squarely on Tehran's side.
Key Findings of the Iran Report
1) Iran has continued to operate the original unit at the fuel enrichment plant and installation work has continued on four other units; it also has reported and installed a new gen¬eration sub-critical centrifuge.
2) As of May 12, about 11 metric tons of uranium had been produced since Feb. 3, bringing the total amount of uranium produced since March 2004 to 320 metric tons, all of which remains under IAEA containment and surveillance.
3) Iran has not agreed to IAEA's request for access to addition¬al locations related to nuclear processing.
4) Iran's alleged studies on the green salt project (converting uranium dioxide to uranium tetrafluoride, or green salt, an important component the uranium refining industry), and its alleged high explosives testing and a missile re-entry vehicle project remain of "serious concern."
5) Substantive explanations are required, but not forthcom¬ing, from Iran to support its statements on alleged studies and other information with possible military dimensions.
6) Iran has not suspended its enrichments related activities, contrary to decisions of the U.N. Security Council.
Peter Brookes is Chung Ju Yung Fellow and Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.
First appeared in the Armed Forces Journal