On November 9, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on Iran. The assessment, which included a 13-page annex with key technical descriptions of suspect technology development and procurement by Tehran, says that the IAEA "has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program." However, the report stopped short of claiming that Tehran is determined to acquire atomic weapons, nor does it argue that the Middle East state is on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power.
On November 10, one day after the IAEA rapport was published, Russia dismissed the document as “a compilation of well-known facts that have intentionally been given a politicized intonation.” IAEA officials rely in the document on “assumptions and suspicions, and juggle information with the purpose of creating the impression that the Iranian nuclear program has a military component,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in released comments.
According to most commentators and blogers there is something a little phony about all the sound and fury about the latest IAEA Iran report. There is nothing in the report that was not previously known by the major powers. The West and Israel supplied most of the original tip-offs for the annex on weapons development, while Russia was briefed and no doubt knew one of its own scientists had been lecturing the Iranians on how to make explosive implosion devices (ostensibly for making tiny diamonds).
The bulk of the report is historical, referring to the years leading up to 2003. Its interpretation depends largely on whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty sort of person. On the one hand, the IAEA is confirming beyond reasonable doubt that there was a centralized, heavily funded, program: codenamed Amad and run by a man called Mohsen Fahkrizadeh.
On the other hand, the report is also adamant that Amad was halted in 2003.
After that, the report offers evidence of lower-key computer modeling of nuclear detonations in a more diffuse, scattered manner, albeit by some of the same people. But the evidence for this is sketchier, and it is clear the UN inspectors are less confident about making assertions about the more recent period: some of the activities associated with the effort "may still be ongoing"
So again, its significance is somewhat in the eye of the beholder.
The bottom line is it is not this report or the debate over weaponization that is driving the current sense of urgency on the global stage. It is Iran's accumulation of enriched uranium, which is the potential fuel for a nuclear arsenal. The IAEA report estimated Iran now has nearly five metric tons of low enriched uranium (LEU) easily enough for four bombs, if it was further enriched to weapons grade. It also has 73 kg of 20% enriched uranium - a fraction of what would needed for one warhead but it could be turned into weapons grade much faster.
Furthermore, the Iranians are moving more and more of its enrichment work into a chamber dug under a mountain at a military base at Fordow, where it would be far harder to get at. There are now about two and half 'cascades' of 174 centrifuges there and a large cylinder of (3.5% enriched) LEU has been moved there with the intention of turning it into 20% uranium.
So Iran has the raw materials and the skills necessary to make a small arsenal, perhaps in a few months, if it decided to "break out", which means leave the NPT and throw out the IAEA which is monitoring its uranium stocks and its enrichment activities. But that would be a huge step to take, and a step the current regime has shown it has no appetite for. Rightly so, as it would be seen by many of its neighbors as a declaration of war and simultaneously a short window of vulnerability before Iran put its bomb together and tests it.
So the "break out" scenario is not the biggest threat. Far more worrisome is the possibility that Iran has a parallel, covert program underground somewhere, silently spinning away while the world and its inspectors keep eagle eyes on Natanz and Qom etc. This is very hard to pull off as the whole fuel cycle has to be kept under wraps from the moment the uranium ore comes out of the ground. There is evidence that Iran has tried to do this, but also evidence that the international community has had success thwarting those efforts.
What it should tell us is that it shows very clearly how the existence of a civilian nuclear power industry makes it easy for nations to develop nuclear weapons expertise under a peaceful camouflage. Experts in nuclear weapons construction can maintain that they are merely giving technical advice for commercial nuclear power developments. Factories built to enrich uranium can be portrayed as part of the civilian nuclear fuel chain. Even separating and stockpiling plutonium can be excused as an exercise in planning for eventual use of "advanced fuel cycles".
Thoughtful persons everywhere should reflect on the fact that, in the absence of a civilian nuclear power industry, none of these activities could be portrayed as anything but an overt attempt to develop nuclear weapons. If the world turns away from nuclear power and closes the door on this dangerous technology, the early detection and prevention of attempts to construct a nuclear weapons arsenal would be much easier, and the world would become correspondingly much safer. The IAEA-report: "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran" is available at http://iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iaeairan/bog112011-65.pdf
Sources: Gordon Edwards, email, 6 November 2011 / Guardian (UK), 9 November 2011 / Global Security Newswire, 9 November 2011