Iran In Brief

Time for Iran to Come Clean and Cooperate With the IAEA

Time for Iran to Come Clean and Cooperate With the IAEA photo

June 7, 2011

By David Albright and Paul Brannan

The latest safeguards report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) highlights again the issue of potential nuclear weapons work in Iran.  In addition to providing more detail on the type of weapons work contained in the information that the IAEA has received, it also repeats a statement from a September 2010 safeguards report on Iran that “there are indications that certain of these activities may have continued beyond 2004.”

This conclusion is supported by the intelligence assessments of Britain, France, and Germany that Iran is working on improving its ability to make nuclear weapons components.  Reports of the conclusions of the recent classified U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) vary, but it too appears to increasingly accept that Iran is developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons.  The assessment of the 2007 NIE that Iran had not resumed working on nuclear weapons appears increasingly outdated and potentially wrong.  Importantly, European and U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly continue to agree that there is no evidence that the Iranian regime has made a decision to make a nuclear weapon.  However, Iran appears embarked on improving its ability to make nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so.


The IAEA has assembled considerable information and assessments of nuclear weapons work by Iran before 2004, in particular Iran’s experience with high explosives, advanced neutron initiators, and detonators.  This information shows that Iran has the capability to fashion a nuclear explosive device, a finding reached by the IAEA itself.  An internal IAEA working paper stated, “The Agency assessed that Iran has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion device…”  The on-going weaponization debate now centers on whether Iran can create a reliable deliverable warhead for one of its ballistic missiles.  Most think Iran is not yet there, but the IAEA working document states it is just a matter of time.  But if Iran intended to make only a nuclear explosive device to detonate underground, the IAEA information says it can do so now.

The catch is that Iran does not have enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to build a nuclear explosive device and is not currently well positioned to produce enough HEU in 2011 or into 2012.  Although it could produce enough HEU for a weapon at the Natanz FEP in about six months, this effort cannot escape notice and would almost certainly lead to Israeli military strikes or crippling U.N. Security Council sanctions.  Thus, Iran is likely to wait and seek to develop greater centrifuge capabilities before making any move to build nuclear weapons.

The number of installed centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) has dropped, from about 9,000 to 8,000 IR-1 centrifuges.  This decrease may reflect the sanctions and other measures that have limited Iran’s ability to obtain needed goods from overseas for its centrifuge program and disrupted its operation of its existing centrifuges. In essence, the punitive measures against Iran may be imposing a freeze on the number of centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant.

Despite the positive effect of sanctions, Iran has not stopped its uranium enrichment program.  It is now enriching uranium in more of the installed centrifuges and producing an increasing quantity of low enriched uranium.  Moreover, Iran began enriching up to 19.75 percent uranium over a year ago and is slowly accumulating a stock that will soon allow for a far more rapid dash to enough HEU for a nuclear weapon.  Iran has stated its plan to install advanced centrifuges with much greater capabilities at its existing enrichment facilities.  It has stated that it will build additional centrifuge plants, and may have already started construction of one of these, all the while claiming it does not have to inform the IAEA of any such construction until the facility is nearly complete, a claim rejected by the IAEA.

These advancements provide Iran with an ever-widening array of routes to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and increase its ability to do so more quickly and secretively.  Particularly dangerous, if left unchecked, is the combination of a secret centrifuge plant with advanced centrifuges and a growing stock of 19.75 percent enriched uranium.  Such a combination would allow Iran to make enough HEU for a weapon in a matter of several weeks.  It is Iran’s further development of its uranium enrichment program that will determine how quickly it can make a nuclear weapon and to what extent it could do so in secret.

Coming Clean

The United States and its allies are right to work for more effective sanctions to slow Iran’s nuclear progress.  At the same time, they should continue to insist that Iran halt its uranium enrichment program and cooperate with the IAEA until the international community is confident that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

There continue to be calls in the United States and elsewhere that major concessions be made in negotiations with Iran that would allow for some type of limited enrichment under a strengthened safeguards agreement or supervision of Iranian enrichment by an international consortia.  Acquiescing to Iran’s demand for enrichment, whatever the level, absent confidence that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon represents a fruitless policy that has generated failure in other important cases, notably Pakistan in the 1980s and Israel in the 1960s when they both achieved their first nuclear explosive devices or weapons.  In too many proliferation cases, demands for short-term gains in diplomacy create a far more bleak long-term situation.

Without a major change in behavior, accepting Iranian enrichment merely serves as a self-defeating “red-line” that Iran could step over whenever it chose.  Iran could take seemingly minor steps to cross that line, such as insisting on a growing number of operational centrifuges, a path it has often outlined in formal negotiations with the European Union, or seeking increased levels of enrichment.  Iran could easily alter its stated interpretation of safeguards that it would agree to in a deal on enrichment.  In such a situation, the international community may not hold Iran to account for its crossing red lines.  After reaching a hard-won agreement, the international community may be hesitant to scuttle the entire agreement over infractions, and the controversy over Iran’s transgressions could soon pass.

The cases of South Africa, Libya, and Brazil, all of which abandoned nuclear weapons programs, show that international resolve backed by a combination of pressure and incentives can lead to the abandonment of nuclear weapons programs.  These successful cases show that military options or major concessions are not inevitable if sustained strategic patience and foresight are instead exercised.

What kind of changes would signal that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful?  Given the advanced state of Iran’s nuclear program, the essential ones are Iran addressing the IAEA’s long-standing concerns on the military aspects of its program and accepting truly effective inspections.  Coming clean on weaponization and cooperating with inspectors is a hallmark of the South African, Libyan, and Brazilian cases.  On the other hand, lying, stonewalling, and subterfuge marked Pakistan’s and Israel’s efforts to obtain their first nuclear weapons, along with a foreign chorus that constantly downplayed or denied their progress toward nuclear weapons.

The current Obama administration policy is right to demand that Iran suspend its enrichment program and cooperate with the IAEA.  It is up to Iran to change its behavior.  Until the Iranian regime responds positively, the United States should continue to lead an effort that builds on successful cases like South Africa and Libya and avoids the pitfalls of cases like Pakistan and Israel.

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