Report says Iran nuclear weapons work continued til 2009

A new International Atomic Energy Agency report found that Iran's nuclear program included weapons-related work at least until 2009, much more recent than earlier believed.

By , Staff writer

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    In this 2008 photo released by the Iranian President's Office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility some 200 miles south of Tehran. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Tuesday for the first time that Iran had conducted nuclear-weapons-related experiments as recently as 2009.
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Iran has worked for years on activities related to nuclear weapons design, according to a new UN report released today that publicly reveals what it calls "credible" information about Iranian clandestine efforts. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the bulk of the work – on a host of activities that could be weapons-related, and were part of a "structured program" – was halted abruptly in late 2003.

The IAEA said a "particular concern" was information that some modeling and other critical design work continued at least until 2009.

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"The application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the Agency," the IAEA said, in a 14-page annex to its usual report on Iran's nuclear progress. "It is therefore essential that Iran engage with the Agency and provide an explanation."

The IAEA conclusions in some ways match those of the two US National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on Iran in 2007 and earlier this year, which found that Iran had halted a weapons program in late 2003, and had made no decision to go for a bomb.

Iran has consistently rejected accusations that its nuclear power program masks a weapons effort, and has dismissed the intelligence which underlies the IAEA report – much of it first provided to the IAEA by the US six years ago – as "fabricated."

 Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, said the report "is unbalanced, unprofessional and politically motivated."

IAEA conclusions

The IAEA reached a similar conclusion in a previous report, in which it registered "serious concerns" about "possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program."

Iran's failure to address outstanding issues presented by the intelligence documents, aside from a 117-page explanation in May 2008, meant that Iran was scolded, as in the past, for "not providing the necessary cooperation."

As a result, the IAEA stated that again it is "unable to provide credible assurance... that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."

Unlike any previous IAEA document, however, the "restricted distribution" report issued today spells out for the first time the precise nature of Iranian activities that have raised such concern in Vienna.

The IAEA report states that the original tranche of more than 1,000 pages of documentation, files, presentations and videos – of a "technically complex and interconnected nature, showing research, development and testing activities over time" – has in recent years been corroborated by data from ten member states and IAEA investigations and interviews.

The initial documentation – which is known to have come largely from a laptop said by the US to have been spirited out of Iran in 2004 – involved studies that focused on a so-called green salt project, high-explosive testing, and re-engineering the warhead of a Shahab-3 missile to fit a specific payload.

In the six years that the IAEA has had access to the original data, the report stated, it has found that the green salt project was part of a larger project "to provide a source of uranium suitable for use in an undisclosed enrichment program," the product of which would be converted into metal "for use in the new warhead" design of the missile re-entry studies.

After 2008, the IAEA said it acquired more documents which established a link "between nuclear material and [the] new payload" development program.

The structured work "was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a 'halt order' instruction issued in late 2003 by senior Iranian officials," the IAEA reports. 

Cleaning

But staff remained in place to document their work and "subsequently, equipment and work places were either cleaned or disposed of so that there would be little to identify the sensitive nature of the work which had been undertaken."

The IAEA also charted the procurement of specialty parts, from high-speed electronic switches and high-speed cameras, to units used to trigger and fire detonators, which all have civilian applications, but "would be useful in the development of a nuclear explosive device."

The IAEA also noted that Iran has received a "similar package of information" from the illegal nuclear network of Pakistani A. Q. Khan that had been given to Libya. That information, seen in Libya by the IAEA in 2004, "included details on the design and construction of, and the manufacture of components for, a nuclear explosive device."

In 2007, the IAEA said it interviewed a member of that "clandestine" network – presumably from Pakistan, though it is not stated – who said that "Iran had been provided with nuclear explosive design information." The IAEA said it believes Iran may have received even more advanced information.

Iran also experimented with fast-acting detonators and far more sophisticated multipoint initiation systems. Iran said in 2008 that "the subject was not understandable to Iran" and no experiments had been carried, the IAEA reported. But then it listed details of just such activities that had been conducted in 2003.

In that test, the IAEA noted, the dimensions of the initiation system and explosives uses "were consistent with the dimensions for the new payload" being engineered for the Shahab-3 missile.

Such a system "can be used in a nuclear explosive device," the IAEA said, but "Iran has not been willing to engage in discussion of this topic with the Agency."

Parchin complex

The IAEA states that Iran also "has manufactured simulated nuclear explosive components using high density materials such as tungsten."

An explosives containment vessel was also created – this information confirmed by commercial satellites, and a foreign scientist reported elsewhere as a Russian – at the Parchin military complex.

Such experiments, the IAEA said, "which involve high explosives in conjunction with nuclear material or nuclear material surrogates, are strong indicators of possible weapon development."

Among other data, the IAEA described preparatory work for testing a nuclear explosive device down a deep shaft, including a document in Farsi "which relates directly to the logistics and safety arrangements that would be necessary for conducting a nuclear test."

Likewise, Iran conducted computer modeling studies of "at least 14 progressive design iterations" of the payload for the missile. Iran "refused the Agency permission to visit" the places of manufacturing the prototype parts. 

While the engineering work "may be relevant" to a non-nuclear payload, the IAEA concluded, they are "highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program."

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