IRAN: Nuclear weapons and Iran
Paul Leventhal

Press conference by Paul Leventhal, Founding President of the Nuclear Control Institute (, at the National Press Club, Washington DC, November 21, 2005

In the run-up to the anticipated showdown with Iran later this week at the International Atomic Energy Agency`s governing board meeting in Vienna, the United States has joined its European partners, the EU-3, in endorsing Russias proposal to defuse the crisis by allowing Iran to enrich its own uranium, so long as the enrichment is done in Russia.

But in agreeing to this approach, the United States has stepped onto a slippery slope by conceding Irans asserted right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to operate a civilian uranium processing technology -- the conversion of uranium into a gas. Uranium conversion provides the feed that can be used in enrichment plants to produce bomb-grade fuel for nuclear weapons. The U.S. now seems confident that Iran will not be able to use the gas for weapons if Iran agrees to ship the gas to Russia. There it would be enriched into low-grade fuel that is suitable for civilian power reactors like the one Russia is now completing for Iran at Bushehr.

But it is safe for the U.S. to go down this path only if we can be confident that Iran is not constructing one or more covert uranium enrichment lines and that Iran is incapable of secretly diverting gas to such hidden operations. Given Irans proven, longstanding record of concealment and deception, its acknowledged current practice of moving scientists and equipment to undisclosed locations, and the difficulties being faced by the U.S. in obtaining good intelligence and by the IAEA in conducting effective inspections inside Iran, this is an approach that invites serious trouble for the future.

Theres a danger for the United States in seeking to avoid an immediate confrontation with Iran by going along with Russian and European efforts to manage Irans nuclear cycle rather than leading the way to prevent Iran from conducting any fuel-cycle activities that would permit it to become nuclear capable. The danger is in the confrontation that will come when Iran does become nuclear capable. That is precisely situation we face today with North Korea. The problem with kicking the can down the road is what awaits you at the end of the road.

Iran has chosen to play hardball in seeking to avoid being referred to the UN Security Council, where it could face imposition of economic sanctions and more intrusive inspection authority for the IAEA. It has rejected the Russian offer, and its parliament yesterday voted to resume uranium enrichment and to curtail access for IAEA inspectors if the IAEA board decides to refer Iran to the Security Council. Thus, the stage is set for Iran to accept the Russian offer, to resume talks with the EU-3 and to withdraw its threatened actions in return for no referral to the Security Council.

But is this the best outcome, given the time it will buy Iran to continue its nuclear weapon and missile work at secret military sites? There is mounting evidence that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon even as it proclaims, as it did in a full-page New York Times ad last week, that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.

The latest evidence comes from Iran itself when it recently handed over to the IAEA information it had received from the A.Q. Khan black-market network on how to cast uranium metal into hemispheric forms. The only known application for such technology is for producing the pit, or spherical core, of a nuclear weapon. This perhaps explains Irans explanation that the information was provided to Iran as part a black-market offer rather than having been solicited by Iran. However, Iranian scientists did not return the forbidden information with a Thanks, but no thanks.

There is continuing concern that Iran received from the Khan network the complete design of a successfully tested nuclear weapon that was originally provided to Pakistan by China and sold to Libya by the Khan network. Libya turned over the blueprints to the United States when it decided to give up all elements of its undeclared nuclear fuel-cycle and weapons program that had been procured from Khans network. It is hard to believe that Kahn would not have offered this design for a tested weapon to Iran, as well; it takes a leap of faith in Irans good intentions to believe Iran would not have accepted it, if offered.

The most compelling, albeit indirect, evidence that Iran is working on an implosion-design nuclear weapon -- the same type Khan provided to Libya and perhaps to North Korea, as well -- takes the form of missile-design information that the United States says it obtained from a laptop computer stolen inside Iran. That information includes computer simulations and other design work to achieve a payload for a Shahab missile that includes a sphere of detonators and a heavy ball and that will detonate at an altitude of 2,000 feet -- all signature specifications for an implosion fission warhead.

Some analysts speculate that the laptop and its contents are bogus even though U.S. government intelligence and weapons experts have done exhaustive analysis that persuades them and their counterparts among U.S. allies that the find is genuine. Other analysts are skeptical because Kahns fission-weapon design is for a warhead larger than can be fitted into a Shahab payload or because the laptops contents could be the work of a rogue design team operating without the knowledge of the Iranian regime.

Such criticism, however, does not take into account well-understood advance fission-weapon design principals that permit size and weight of a warhead to be reduced correspondingly to fit into a missile -- the very work Iranian scientists would be doing if the Kahn weapon design or another first-generation nuclear weapon design was their baseline. Nor does the notion of a rogue design team, even if true, provide much comfort, given the example of A.Q. Kahn himself. The Pakistani government insists that he and his colleagues had set up and operated their multinational nuclear black market network without the governments knowledge. Preventing such entrepreneurship by Iranian scientists is further reason to block any resumption of fuel-cycle work in known facilities and to empower the IAEA to search out and gain prompt access into secret military sites where fuel-cycle work and weapons-design work are allegedly taking place.

Although no direct evidence of warhead design and fabrication has yet been uncovered, it is extremely risky to allow any fuel cycle work, including uranium conversion, to resume in Iran on grounds that the proverbial smoking gun has not been found. If we have to await the smoking gun before confronting Iran, it may well be a nuclear-capable Iran we will be confronting.

Today, at this press conference sponsored by the Iran Policy Committee, further information obtained by the Iranian opposition, alleging an extensive underground industrial site run by a military unit with both nuclear-weapon and missile-development responsibilities, is being released by the oppositions former Washington spokesman, Alireza Jafarzadeh. This is the 24th such allegation since the summer of 2002 when Mr. Jafarzadeh, then spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), disclosed the existence of Irans secret uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and its secret heavy-water production plant at Arak. These disclosures were soon confirmed by IAEA inspectors and triggered the Agencys thee-year investigation of Iran. In September 2005, the IAEA Board, finally found Iran to be in longstanding noncompliance with its NPT obligations and subject to referral to the UN Security Council.

As I have noted, the IAEA Board is to consider this week whether actually to follow through with a referral of Iran to the Security Council. A good reason for doing so is to allow the Security Council to strengthen the IAEAs hand in Iran, even if the votes are lacking to authorize economic sanctions against Iran.

The IAEAs current mandate is limited and insufficient to root out nuclear weaponization work in Iran. The best authority on this is the Agencys Nobel Laureate director general, Mohammed ElBaradei. Here`s how he described the problem in a recent internet telecast interview with New York Times correspondent David Sanger:

The agency`s focus is to make sure that all nuclear material in a country is under agency verification. We do not really have the jurisdiction to go all over the place -- to see whether a country is doing weaponization activities. Our mandate with regard to weaponization activities -- short of a nexus with nuclear material -- is very limited. So, what I have said before, that we have not seen nuclear material in Iran that has been diverted to nuclear to nuclear weapons -mind you, nuclear material is a chokepoint for nuclear weapons. If we are satisfied that all nuclear material in the country is under safeguards, is for peaceful purposes, then the country does not have a nuclear weapons program. Whether they are doing weaponization activities somewhere in the country, unfortunately I do not have the mandate to determine whether they are adjusting a missile, whether they are doing any detonation tests. If there are any links to nuclear material, then of course I have the right and the obligation to do that.

Mr. ElBaradei was alluding to limitations imposed by the IAEAs own statute and by procedures imposed by the IAEA Board which, in essence, limit the agencys inspection authority to searching and accounting for nuclear materials and constrains its access to military sites without special authorization by the Board. In the case of Iran, the IAEA Board specifically rejected a U.S. proposal in November 2004 to authorize IAEA inspectors to conduct anyplace/anytime inspections at suspected sites, including military ones. This was consistent with the Boards longstanding policy not to authorize so-called special inspections except under exceptional circumstances.

Iran is well aware of these constraints on the inspectors authority and has routinely delayed or barred access to military sites where the Iranian opposition alleges the Revolutionary Guard is overseeing secret nuclear fuel-cycle and weaponization work. At the one military site, Parchin, where Iranian authorities have granted access, two inspections have taken place many months after information alleging secret fuel-cycle and weaponization work was obtained by the agency, thereby allowing Iran ample time to conceal or remove evidence.

Another important case in point is the so-called Lavisan II military site where NCRI alleges that uranium enrichment activities and work on developing a nuclear warhead trigger had been moved from the nearby Lavisan-Shian site in Tehran. That site, the subject of earlier NCRI allegations, had been razed and swept clean by Iran, purportedly to make room for a municipal park. ElBaradei, in his latest confidential report to the Board last week, indicated that inspectors still have not gained access to Lavisan---a full year since the Iranian opposition first released information alleging secret transfers from Lavisan-Shian to Lavisan II. Lavisan was one of the cases cited by ElBaradei in reporting to the Board last week that Irans full transparency is indispensable and overdue.

Prior to a press conference last September, I joined with Raymond Tanter, co-chair of the Iran Policy Committee, in sending a letter to Mr. ElBaradei. We transmitted an analysis prepared by Mr. Jafarzadeh for the press conference providing a complete list of all 22 allegations made previously by the Iranian opposition and summarizing actions taken and not taken by the IAEA to investigate them. Following the press conference, we sent Mr. ElBaradei a separate letter transmitting new information from Mr. Jafarzadeh alleging an extensive tunnel network in and around Parchin where nuclear and missile projects were hidden. We noted that 15 of the 22 allegations remained partially or entirely unresolved and requested that he present Mr. Jafarzadehs analysis to the Board and report to Board members on the status of the Iranian oppositions allegations that remain unresolved.

We have since been advised that the director general did not have the authority to transmit the Iranian oppositions analysis to the Board because only member states could make such a transmittal. We also were advised that the director general could not respond to us on the status of inspections prompted by information from the Iranian opposition because of safeguards confidentiality that applies to all inspections conducted by the agency. At the same time, we were assured that the IAEA Department of Safeguards reviews all allegations made by the Iranian opposition and pursues those it considers worth pursuing.

Given the remarkable accuracy of the Iranian oppositions initial disclosures and a number of others that followed, I believe information provided by NCRI is worthy of special consideration by the agency. Much of the information alleging secret fuel cycle and weapons activities contains actionable intelligence---names of Iranian officials, specific locations of buildings, names of foreign companies and executives engaging in illicit transfers to Iran, etc.---that are subject to investigation and verification. I am not in a position to vouch for the accuracy of the allegations, nor do I. I simply call upon the IAEA to treat these allegations with the seriousness they deserve because of the accuracy of information that allowed the IAEA to crack open 18 years of Iranian noncompliance with NPT obligations---and because of the high regional and global security stakes involved in the prospect of nuclear weapons coming into the hands of a fanatical regime.

At the very least, the IAEA should not be the source of statements in the media and by analysts (all invariably unsourced) that some recent NCRI information has been inaccurate, unless the agency is prepared to go on record as to how it came to such a conclusion. In particular, the agency should state how many weeks or months passed before Iran allowed access to sites identified by NCRI and the likelihood that incriminating evidence had been removed or swept clean.

Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a report, IAEA Has Strengthened its Safeguards and Nuclear Security Program, but Weaknesses Need to be Addressed. Its principal finding is worth pondering, especially in the context of Iran:

IAEA has taken steps to strengthen safeguards by more aggressively seeking assurances that countries have not engaged in clandestine nuclear activities, but the agency still cannot be certain that countries are not developing secret weapons programs.IAEAs former Deputy Director General for Safeguards and a group of safeguards experts cautioned that a determined country can still conceal a nuclear weapons program.