IAEA nuclear report strengthens case against Iran

IAEA (file photo) The latest IAEA report on Iran goes further than ever before

The words are dry and cautious. But Tuesday's report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - the UN's nuclear watchdog - represents a serious indictment of Iran's nuclear activities.

At the very least, Tehran has a troubling case to answer.

"Since 2002", the agency says, it has become increasingly concerned about "the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organisations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."

The phraseology is ponderous but the message is clear. Iran, the IAEA believes, may well have been working on research for a nuclear bomb to arm one of its long-range missiles. This subject has long been a source of charge and counter-charge. Iran, of course, insists that it has no military nuclear programme; its nuclear activities it says are solely for civil purposes.

But the IAEA fears otherwise. "The Agency", this report says, "has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme." The IAEA believes that its information is "credible" and it seeks to explain both the sources of its information and why it believes it to be true - a point I will come back to in a moment.

"Iran", it says, "has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device." Prior to 2003, this was part of a structured programme and the Agency asserts that "some activities may still be ongoing".

Unprecedented detail

The real meat of this report resides in a 12-page annexe. Never before has the IAEA set out the case against Iran in such detail. First, there is an historical overview chronicling the agency's concerns since 2002. There is, too, a detailed discussion of the various agencies and organisations alleged to have been in charge of this work before 2003.

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The agency's case against Iran has to be seen as, if you like, a composite indictment”

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Then, in a section entitled "Credibility of Information", the agency seeks to explain what material has come into its possession and where this material has came from. In addition to a trove of documents thought to have come from the US in 2005 dealing with explosive testing and the design of a re-entry vehicle for a ballistic missile warhead, the agency says it has received information from more than 10 member states.

This has ranged from procurement data; information on key individuals' international travel; financial records; health and safety documentation and so on. The agency says that this "reinforces and tends to corroborate" the 2005 material and also that it "relates to activities substantially beyond those identified in that documentation".

In addition, the agency says that it has acquired information of its own, from satellite imagery, open source research and of course material provided by the Iranians themselves during the agency's routine work.

The agency says that Iran's responses to questions about its concerns "have been imprecise and/or incomplete" and that information has been "slow in coming and sometimes contradictory". Overall, Iran's behaviour has "tended to increase the agency's concerns, rather than dispel them".

Warhead clues

So what exactly is it alleged that the Iranians have been doing? Well, just as there is a fuel cycle in civilian nuclear matters - mining of uranium ore; its conversion into material that can be handled in the laboratory; enrichment; fuel fabrication and so on - so there is a cycle of activities needed if you want to develop and build a nuclear bomb.

First, you have to master the intricacies of nuclear bomb technology and develop the capacity to make the specialised components involved. Then you have to be able to turn your bomb into a weapon - a warhead that can be mounted on a missile.

The IAEA says that Iran has been conducting research in all of these areas. It identifies Iranian efforts to secure uranium outside its civil programme that the agency believes would have been converted into metal for a weapon. Iran, the agency says, has designs for a bomb and also has access to information on how to fabricate the necessary components for a warhead.

Much of the annexe deals with Iranian research on actually setting off a nuclear weapon - creating the initial explosive forces that initiate a nuclear chain reaction.

  • How an implosion device could trigger a nuclear bomb
  • Cross section of implosion device
  • 1. Detonators triggered
  • 2. Explosives create shock- waves and compress core
  • 3. Initiator kick-starts the fission process
  • 4. Compressed fissile core (of uranium or plutonium) becomes unstable and starts nuclear chain reaction
  • 5. Tamper layer contains neutrons and expansion briefly, to maximise fission

Iran is said to have pursued hydrodynamic experiments enabling the use of simulated bomb components to test out their functionality. The agency says it has evidence of Iranian computer modelling and calculations relating to the behaviour of a nuclear device.

So much for studying the physics and geometry of a nuclear device. The agency also sets out details of Iranian weaponisation work - the crucial processes by which a viable device might be adapted and hardened to fit into the nose-section of a missile.

Documents provided to the IAEA also discuss the fusing, arming and detonation of such a warhead.

'Weapon-specific'

So overall what is the impact of this document? Many of these allegations are indeed old and have been outlined in previous IAEA reports, though there are some new areas like the details on computer modelling. The agency report is detailed up to 2003, much less so for the recent period despite its assertion that some of this work may be continuing.

What is compelling about this report, though, is both the detail and the fact that the agency decided to set out its evidence in this way. The agency's case against Iran has to be seen as, if you like, a composite indictment.

The IAEA acknowledges that some of the activities set out in its annexe may have civilian as well as military applications, but it says that "others are specific to nuclear weapons."

So the agency's grounds for concern are not that Iran conducted "this" activity or had documents on "that" process. The question it is posing is that if Iran's research effort really touched on all these areas, then what else could it have been doing but attempting to develop a bomb?

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