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    Middle East
     Mar 4, 2008
Let's talk about bombs
Matthew Bunn

Interview by Kaveh Afrasiabi

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on February 22 that Iran had not responded "adequately" to intelligence alleging it studied technology applicable to making atom bombs, but said that Tehran had defused concerns about other activities.

IAEA board governors are due to discuss the findings next week, and the outcome could have a bearing on whether the United Nations Security Council imposes a third round of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

Matthew Bunn [1], a senior research associate in the Project on

Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government, calls the IAEA report "mixed", and says that it is no means a clean bill of health from the IAEA.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: What is your reaction to the new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran?

Matthew Bunn: It's a mixed report, by no means a clean bill of health from the IAEA. On the one hand, Iran finally provided detailed explanations and documentation to the IAEA on several issues that looked suspicious in the past, and the IAEA considers those issues "no longer outstanding".

This includes procurements that looked centrifuge-related by the head of the Physics Research Center (and contamination with enriched uranium on equipment there); experiments with Polonium-210 (which can be used to start the chain reaction in a nuclear bomb); and changing administrative arrangements at the Gachine mine (which some had interpreted as an attempt to hold it aside as a secret source of unmonitored uranium). In each of these cases, the IAEA says that Iran's explanations are either "consistent with" or "not inconsistent with" the other information it has, though it wants to keep working to verify that Iran's explanations are correct.

On the other hand, the report includes troubling new information about procurement and other activities by Iran that the agency judges to be "relevant to nuclear weapon R&D [research and development]" - not just civilian enrichment. This includes "the testing of high voltage detonator firing equipment; the development of an exploding bridgewire detonator (EBW); the simultaneous firing of multiple EBW detonators [especially relevant to designing and building implosion-type nuclear weapons]; and the identification of an explosive testing arrangement that involved the use of a 400 meter shaft and a firing capability remote from the shaft by a distance of 10 kilometers".

The report also discusses procurement of "training courses on neutron calculations, the effect of shock waves on metal, enrichment/isotope separation and ballistic missiles. Efforts to procure spark gaps, shock wave software, neutron sources, special steel parts (GOV/2006/15, para 37) and radiation measurement equipment, including borehole gamma spectrometers, were also made."

The agency says that it is has assessed the ballistic missile re-entry vehicle schematic from the famous laptop [said to provide intelligence on Iran's nuclear program] as "quite likely to be able to accommodate a nuclear device". From the report and from discussions with IAEA safeguards staff, it appears that this information on procurements and the like comes from sources going well beyond the laptop.

Iran describes almost all of this as "fabricated" and "baseless," while acknowledging buying some shock-modeling software for other purposes, and some radiation detectors for radiation protection purposes. The agency also asked about particular people and organizations named in the documents, and Iran asserted that neither the people nor the organizations even exist (except for some of the organizations, which Iran says exist but have never done anything nuclear-related).

In some cases, the state that provided the information that was the basis for the agency's questions - the United States, in most cases, though the agency report pointedly refers to information from "other member states", in the plural - only allowed the IAEA to show the information to Iran days before the report was written; in those cases, therefore, it may not be surprising that Iran has not yet answered some of the questions the IAEA raised.

Given Iran's extended period of violating its safeguards agreement and making false statements to the IAEA in the past, many states will probably not accept Iran's assertion that all of the information that suggests weaponization activities is fabricated and baseless. If Iran wants to rebuild international confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, it is likely to have to explain these past activities fully.

KA: The report states that the outstanding questions have been satisfactorily resolved. Do you agree?

MB: That's not what the report says. It says that some issues are no longer outstanding, but that others, including issues that strongly suggest Iran had a nuclear weapons program in the past, are still very much open. And it makes the point that the IAEA is unable to draw the conclusion - as it has for many other countries - that there are no covert, hidden nuclear activities in Iran.

KA: In your opinion, how close, or far, is Iran to its stated objective of nuclear fuel production "on industrial scale"?

MB: Iran is a long way from being able to do enough enrichment to provide any significant fraction of the fuel for the Bushehr reactor - but unfortunately not very far from being potentially able to make enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a bomb, should it choose to do so. The information in the report on the quantity of UF6 [Uranium Hexafluoride] that has been fed into the centrifuges at Natanz so far, and the amount of product that has resulted, makes clear that these cascades are still operating far below their design capacity.

Comparing this information to the data in previous IAEA reports, it appears that this situation has not improved significantly for over a year. This may explain the widespread press reports that Iran has decided not to deploy more of the P-1 centrifuges, but to finish development of a more advanced centrifuge, the IR-2, and focus additional deployments on that type. One of the important pieces of new news in the report is that initial testing of the IR-2 centrifuges with UF6 has begun. Nevertheless, if it remains Iran's plan not to deploy more of the P-1s, then it is likely to be a substantial time before additional centrifuges are deployed in large numbers at Natanz, which would create some time for additional diplomacy to find a solution that serves Iran's national interests and those of the United States, of the other interested parties, and of the non-proliferation regime.

KA: Given the IAEA's close monitoring of Iran's uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities and the agency's ability to detect any military diversion, doesn't it make more sense for the US and its European allies to focus on nuclear transparency and the implementation of the IAEA's Additional Protocol, instead of seeking a full suspension of those activities?

MB: I believe that a negotiated solution that is acceptable to the P5+1 [US Security Council Permanent Five - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - plus Germany] will have to include both far-reaching transparency - and, ideally, actual multinational ownership and control of whatever centrifuge activities continue in Iran - and restraints on Iran's real enrichment capabilities.

The problem with Iran's view that transparency should be enough is the inherent capability of these centrifuges to produce nuclear bomb material at any time Iran chose to withdraw from the agreement and tell the inspectors to leave. Since the world already has the experience of Iran terminating its voluntary compliance with the Additional Protocol in early 2006, that is a genuine concern for the international community.

A low cap on the centrifuge capability actually in place in Iran would provide a significant time between any decision on Iran's part to leave the agreement and when Iran could produce enough nuclear material for a bomb; international ownership and control of whatever agreed centrifuge activities continue would provide additional 24/7 [24 hours a day, seven days a week] transparency and a higher political barrier to turning these activities to weapons uses. It would still allow Iran to ramp up production over a period of a few years if it ever suffered an interruption of fuel supply. [See
Iran shakes pillars of nuclear accord Asia Times Online, February, 9, 2008.]

For the present, Iran remains in violation of legally binding Security Council resolutions requiring it to suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities. I believe it would be in Iran's national interest to enter into at least a short-term suspension to get negotiations started, while pushing for those talks to be based on the same "action for action, words for words" formula as has been followed in the six-party talks with North Korea, so that for each subsequent step Iran took, it would get specific actions in return from the other parties.

KA: What is the objective of the UN Security Council's demand for the suspension of the Iranian nuclear fuel cycle, since it refers to the IAEA's similar request as a "confidence-building" measure, as opposed to a legally-binding demand for permanent suspension? What should be the duration of this suspension?

MB: The Security Council resolutions legally require Iran to suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities, with the legal authority of Article VII of the UN Charter. They are not suggestions, or voluntary requests. Given Iran's 18-year history of violating its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, given the clear capability of the centrifuge technology Iran is deploying to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, and given the continuing troubling questions that have not yet been resolved - including the new weaponization-related information in the new IAEA report - the Security Council clearly judged that Iran's refusal to suspend its enrichment activities constituted a threat to international peace and security, giving the Security Council both the right and the responsibility to act under Article VII. At the same time, the Security Council resolutions are very clear in calling for dialogue and negotiation to find a solution acceptable to all parties. The time has come to find a path by which such dialogue can succeed.

The Security Council resolutions do not specify any particular duration for the suspension they require. They say nothing about making the suspension permanent. I believe there is an opportunity for Iran - especially now that it appears to be shifting its emphasis away from the P-1 centrifuges that are now deployed, so that it has little need for large-scale enrichment activity at Natanz in any case - to enter into a suspension lasting a few months or a year (preferably the latter, so that the suspension, and the talks, could continue into the term of a new US president), to see if negotiations will be productive.

1. Matthew Bunn's current research interests include nuclear theft and terrorism; nuclear proliferation and measures to control it; and the future of nuclear energy and its fuel cycle. Bunn played a major role in US policies related to the control and disposition of weapons-usable nuclear materials in the United States and the former Soviet Union. He is the winner of the American Physical Society's Joseph A Burton Forum Award for "outstanding contributions in helping to formulate policies to decrease the risks of theft of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials", and the Federation of American Scientists' Hans Bethe Award for "science in service to a more secure world".

Bunn is the author or co-author of over a dozen books and book-length technical reports (most recently including Securing the Bomb 2007), and scores of articles, including the paper
Placing Iran's Enrichment Activities in Standby, June 2006.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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