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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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The Search for a ‘Smoking Gun’ on Iran

Filed under: Iran, Nuclear Warfare, U.S. Policy
Publication: Dore Gold Articles

Israel Hayom

The dramatic November report from the International Atomic Energy Agency comes after years in which it has come close to concluding that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons without saying so explicitly. Since the Iranian nuclear program was first disclosed to the public in 2002, there have been growing suspicions that it has a military purpose, but no one could offer any definitive proof.

Many analysts asked why Iran, which has huge oil and gas reserves, needed to invest in a program to produce electricity from nuclear reactors. They also asked why Iran needed to build a huge infrastructure to enrich uranium by itself for nuclear reactors that it didn’t even have; after all, Russia had promised to supply enriched uranium for its only reactor at Bushehr, which was constructed specifically for the purpose of producing electricity. 

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Moreover, many countries with nuclear reactors like Finland, South Korea, Spain, and Sweden all import enriched uranium. Why was Iran building an expensive uranium enrichment industry by itself? The limited size of the deposits in Iran’s uranium mines were too small for producing nuclear fuel for all of Iran’s electricity needs; Iran would have to import uranium in the future in any case. Finally, the question remained: Why did it keep this industry secret if it only had civilian applications?

While France already in 2006 accused Iran of developing a nuclear weapons program, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would always demand that his colleagues at the U.N. Security Council provide him with the proof. In the meantime, Russia and China always defended Iran in the Security Council and sought to water down the six resolutions it adopted against Tehran.

The U.S. apparently discovered the proof of the Iranian nuclear program already back in 2004. Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton describes in his memoirs how then Secretary of State Colin Powell decided to reveal that he had seen new American intelligence about Iranian efforts to fit a nuclear weapon into the warhead of a missile. But in the years that followed the credibility of the U.S. to convince the world that Iran indeed wanted nuclear weapons was badly impaired when the Bush administration argued that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and none were found by inspectors after the U.S. invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

The importance of the International Atomic Energy Agency reports grew partly because of the damaged reputation of the U.S. after the Iraq War. In the case of Iraq, the agency argued right up to 2003 that Saddam no longer had no weapons of mass destruction. If the IAEA, which was dovish on Iraq, would give hawkish assessments on Iran, then the world might listen. A critical turning point in the IAEA’s attitude toward Iran occurred in February 2008 when its deputy director-general, Olli Heinonen, decided to give a highly classified briefing to representatives of more than 100 states.

According to a description of the meeting reported by David Sanger of The New York Times, Heinonen displayed original Iranian documents that he stressed came from several member states of the IAEA, and not just from the U.S. In June 2010, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the material came from a joint operation by German and American intelligence agencies. The IAEA had the international standing to authenticate U.S. intelligence reports for those who doubted their veracity. When the IAEA said they were true, many more states were willing to accept them. Sanger wrote that he believed Heinonen hoped his classified briefing would be leaked — and it was.

The Iranian documents detailed how to design a warhead for the Shahab-3 missile, which has been operational in the Iranian armed forces since 2003. While the Iranian documents made no reference to a nuclear warhead, they did show the arc of a missile’s flight and that the warhead of the missile had to be detonated at an altitude of 600 meters. To the IAEA experts, a conventional explosion at that altitude would have no effect on the ground below. But 600 meters was the ideal altitude for a nuclear explosion over a city. As Sanger points out, it was in fact the height of the Hiroshima explosion. Despite the substance of his presentation, Heinonen did not yet say that the Iranians were producing nuclear weapons, but he left his audience in Vienna with many questions they had not asked before.

By May this year, the IAEA became far more explicit in its report on Iran than Heinonen had been. It raised concerns about the “possible existence” of seven areas of military research in the Iranian nuclear program, the last of which was the most alarming: “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 IAEA was not ready to say it had reached any conclusions. It only sought “clarifications” about its suspicions.

The new report proves to be important in a number of ways. First, it showed that the IAEA no longer had “suspicions” about the Iranian weaponization program — it had what it called “credible” intelligence. The appendix of the report, moreover, devotes a whole section to the “credibility of information.” It was not relying on the Iranian laptop that was at the heart of Heinonen’s 2008 presentation, but also on a much larger volume of documentation. The report states that the agency has more than 1,000 pages of material to substantiate its claims. In case there were suspicions that this material came from U.S. intelligence agencies alone, the report makes sure to clarify that the sources involved “more than 10 member states.”

Second, the material that the IAEA presented pointed clearly to the fact that Iran wanted to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon. There was documentation in Farsi detailing the safety arrangements that would have to be put in place for conducting an actual nuclear test. The Iranians had also sought to obtain uranium for a secret enrichment program that would not be under IAEA safeguards. The uranium that would come out of this clandestine program would be further processed to produce the uranium metal required for a nuclear warhead. The planned warhead design also underwent studies that investigated how it would operate if it was part of a missile re-entry vehicle and had to stand up to the stress of a missile launch and flying in a ballistic trajectory to its target. The IAEA concluded that “work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components” had been executed by the Iranians. That “indigenous design,” however, required external help. The IAEA report discloses that aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons “design concept” came from a foreign country, presumably from a state that possesses nuclear weapons.

Third, the IAEA report provided further proof that Iran’s inventory of enriched uranium, which the agency monitored, was continuing to grow despite the reported damage caused to Iran’s centrifuges. Lately, it has been suggested that Iran’s centrifuges are operating less efficiently. If Iran had 839 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, according to the June 2009 IAEA report, it had 2,427 kg according to the May 2010 IAEA report. In September this year, the IAEA report stated that Iran had 4,543 kg of low-enriched uranium. The November report put that number at 4,922 kg. If all Iran requires is a little over 900 kg. of low-enriched uranium to produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb, then Iran already has enough uranium on hand for at least four or five nuclear bombs, should it decide to further enrich its stock of low-enriched uranium. Iran’s smaller stock of 20 percent-enriched uranium also continued to grow, albeit in smaller quantities.

Finally, it is important to recall when reviewing this information that at the end of 2007, the U.S. published the “key judgments” of its National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. That document asserted with “high confidence” that Iran had halted the weaponization component of its nuclear program back in 2003. The release of that declassified summary caused enormous diplomatic damage at the time, undercutting the effort to pressure Iran. The latest report shows how wrong the 2007 document was. The new report specifically says, “Some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may be ongoing.” The IAEA also reports on “modeling studies” that were undertaken by the Iranians in 2008 and 2009 that investigated how a high-enriched uranium nuclear device would respond to “shock compression.” They also looked at the “nuclear explosive yield” of these devices during this period. In conclusion, the latest report provides the details for what the agency has long suspected — that Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to target. As the report’s summary states: “The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”