Just last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s declared nuclear facilities, issued its latest report. As in previous reports, Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium from all its nuclear facilities together continues to grow — it is now understood to be at 14,174 kilograms (31,248 pounds).
The report does not say this, but a quick calculation leads to the following disturbing conclusion: The roughly 8,000 kilograms (17,637 pounds) of that amount that are already in a gaseous form and can be injected into centrifuges for further enrichment are sufficient for at least seven atomic bombs. The speed with which the Iranians could do this largely depends on the number of centrifuges any future agreement will allow them to keep.
But the most disturbing part of the new report has to do with the ongoing concern of the IAEA with what it calls “the possible military dimensions” of the Iranian nuclear program. It refers to “undisclosed nuclear related activities,” which involve military-related organizations. According to the report, these activities include “the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” In other words, Iranian work on a nuclear warhead.
The IAEA refers to a detailed study it presented a few years ago in 2011 on this subject. At that time the IAEA disclosed that the Iranians were working on “the removal of the conventional high explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab 3 missile and replacing it with a spherical nuclear payload.” The Shahab 3 missile, which became operational in the Iranian armed forces in 2003, has a range of 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) and can reach Israel even when launched from Iranian territory.
The Shahab 3 has also been regularly displayed in Iranian military parades. On the missile carrier, on which it is transported, there is usually a sign attached stating that “Israel must be wiped off the map” (as was the case in 2004) or that “Israel must be destroyed ” (as in 2013).
By presenting the data it possessed on the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, the IAEA completely contradicted Iran’s claim that it is only enriching uranium for civilian purposes, like the production of electricity from nuclear reactors. In 2011, the IAEA carefully checked the sensitive information it acquired about “a nuclear explosive device” and concluded it was “credible.” Now in its latest 2015 report, the IAEA added that it had since that time received more information that “further corroborated the analysis” from 2011.
Yet according to the latest IAEA report from last week, Iran was still hiding its military program. It refused to provide any details about the concerns raised in past IAEA reports. It also refused to give the IAEA access to its Parchin weapons facility, which the West had repeatedly requested.
Instead, Tehran tampered with the site making verification of any work on nuclear weapons more difficult for inspectors in the future: The Iranians poured asphalt on large areas inside of the Parchin complex, making soil samples for checking the presence of radioactivity hard to obtain. With no baseline on how far the Iranians have progressed in their weapons work, there is no way the new agreement can cover the whole issue of weaponization, leaving a huge hole in any agreement.
Iran dismissively stated that all these issues related to its military program were “mere allegations and do not merit consideration.”
Unfortunately, the P5+1 did not put the clarification by Iran of its past military activities as a requirement in its interim agreement with Iran in 2013. Originally, when the interim agreement was reached, the White House put out a “fact sheet” stating that the U.S. understood that Iran would have to address the military dimensions of its nuclear program, including the Parchin issue.
But that did not happen and nonetheless the P5+1 progressed with Iran nonetheless, focusing mainly on uranium enrichment, and here only partly. A senior U.S. official, who preferred to remain anonymous, stressed in a February 2014 press conference in Vienna, that this important issue of Iran’s past military activities was between the IAEA and Iran but was not part of the understandings between the P5+1 and Iran. Parchin illustrated the Iranian tendency to hide facilities from the West that were later discovered. It showed why it was so difficult to trust the Iranians to keep their written agreements.
Indeed, Parchin was not the only problem. This Tuesday, on Feb. 24, the MEK — the Iranian opposition group that disclosed in the past many of Iran’s secret facilities, like Natantz and Arak — made yet another revelation about the Iranian nuclear program during a press conference in Washington. It uncovered an underground facility near Tehran called Lavizan-3, where Iran was secretly developing a new generations of centrifuges that could enrich uranium at much greater speeds.
The U.S. has known for years about faster Iranian centrifuges, but the question that arises from this latest revelation is why Iran was determined to keep the production of these fast centrifuges a secret. Perhaps, the facility was part of a parallel nuclear program which would allow Iran to break out of any limitations that were instituted by the international community in the future.
The new agreement between Iran and the P5+1 that is presently being completed will leave Iran’s massive nuclear infrastructure largely intact. But if Parchin teaches the West any lesson, it is that Iran has not put its weaponization efforts on the negotiating table, nor will it. Neither has it agreed to allow its huge ballistic missile forces to become a subject of discussion. For that reason, Israeli spokespeople have been saying that Iran will be at the threshold of having nuclear weapons, and can be described as a threshold nuclear power. Undoubtedly, there are those in the West who are convinced that if Iran violates its agreement and crosses the threshold to assemble a nuclear weapon it would immediately face a strong reaction which could include the use of force.
There is an enormous problem for anyone who thinks that this last stage of assembling a nuclear weapon can be reliably detected. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made this point on April 11, 2010, when he appeared on the American news show “Meet the Press.” He stated: “If their policy is to go to the threshold but not assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell they have not assembled? I don’t know how you would verify that.” Gates understood how intelligence collection worked since he was head of the CIA in the 1990s.
The former head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, reached a similar conclusion in testimony he gave before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Nov. 20, 2014. He told the Congressmen bluntly: “Absent an invasive inspection regime, with freedom to visit all sites on short notice, American intelligence cannot provide adequate warning of Iranian nuclear developments.”
In short, Iran could acquire nuclear weapons without being detected unless a future agreement gave the West the right to move all over Iran with little notification. Given the struggle over Parchin and other sites, there is no indication that the West will have an inspection regime of this sort.