|Back to Page One|
|Anthony H. Cordesman||May 14th 2012|
Center for Strategic and International Studies
We badly need to rethink our approach to Iran’s nuclear programs. We are putting far too much emphasis on Iran’s nuclear efforts without considering how these programs fit into Iran’s over military and strategic objectives. At the same time, we are placing too much emphasis on whether Iran has revived its formal nuclear program and the current shape of its nuclear facilities. The ironic result is to put too much emphasis on both the wrong form of arms control negotiations and preventive military strikes.
To begin, it is essential to understand that Iran has moved far beyond the point where it lacked the technology base to produce nuclear weapons, or where searching through the statements of senior Iranian officials provides any meaningful picture of its progress and intentions. Iran has pursued every major area of nuclear weapons development, has carried out programs that have already given it every component of a weapon except fissile material, and there is strong evidence that it has carried out programs to integrate a nuclear warhead on to its missiles.
The threat Iran’s nuclear efforts pose are not simply a matter of its present ability to enrich uranium to 20% U-235, and efforts to control its enrichment activities will not halt its ability to move forward in many areas even if its current enrichment facilities and stocks of highly enriched uranium are fully secured.
Iran’s efforts are part of a far broader range of efforts that have already brought it to the point where it can pursue nuclear weapons development through a range of compartmented and easily concealable programs without a formal weapons program, and even if it suspends enrichment activity. These are also programs that have been examined in depth in recent reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Progress to Date
Many of the details of Iran’s efforts, and the sources of that information, have to be kept classified. The IAEA has however, issued unclassified reports based on inputs from many member countries that clearly outline just how far Iran may have gotten.
The IAEA reports for May 24, 2011 noted seven major areas of concern that covered every major aspect of a nuclear-armed missile program:
- Neutron generator and associated diagnostics: experiments involving the explosive compression of uranium deuteride to produce a short burst of neutrons.
- Uranium conversion and metallurgy: producing uranium metal from fluoride compounds and its manufacture into components relevant to a nuclear device.
- High explosives manufacture and testing: developing, manufacturing and testing of explosive components suitable for the initiation of high explosives in a converging spherical geometry.
- Exploding bridgewire (EBW) detonator studies, particularly involving applications necessitating high simultaneity: possible nuclear significance of the use of EBW detonators.
- Multipoint explosive initiation and hemispherical detonation studies involving highly instrumented experiments: integrating EBW detonators in the development of a system to initiate hemispherical high explosive charges and conducting full scale experiments, work which may have benefitted from the assistance of foreign expertise.
- High voltage firing equipment and instrumentation for explosives testing over long distances and possibly underground: conducting tests to confirm that high voltage firing equipment is suitable for the reliable firing of EBW detonators over long distances.
- Missile re-entry vehicle redesign activities for a new payload assessed as being nuclear in nature: conducting design work and modeling studies involving the removal of the conventional high explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab-3 missile and replacing it with a spherical nuclear payload.
The IAEA report for November 8, 2011 went further, and provided far more unclassified data than has been made available by any Western intelligence source or outside report. Its summary noted that, “The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured program, and that some activities may still be ongoing.”
It is the Military Annex to the November 8, 2011 report that provided the best unclassified overview of Iran’s nuclear efforts that has yet been made available. The Annex is long and complex – evidently so long and complex that some commentators on Iran’s nuclear programs never really seem to have read it. However, even a series of key excepts illustrate the scale of Iran’s military efforts, and provide an essential starting point for any assessment of Iran’s progress and intentions:
The History of Iran’s Programs
Since late 2002, the Director General has reported to the Board of Governors on the Agency’s concerns about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Such concerns coincided with the appearance in open sources of information that indicated that Iran was building a large underground nuclear related facility at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak.
Between 2003 and 2004, the Agency confirmed a number of significant failures on the part of Iran to meet its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement with respect to the reporting of nuclear material, the processing and use of undeclared nuclear material and the failure to declare facilities where the nuclear material had been received, stored and processed.
Specifically, it was discovered that, as early as the late 1970s and early 1980s, and continuing into the 1990s and 2000s, Iran had used undeclared nuclear material for testing and experimentation in several uranium conversion, enrichment, fabrication and irradiation activities, including the separation of plutonium, at undeclared locations and facilities.
….Between 2003 and early 2006, Iran submitted inventory change reports, provided design information with respect to facilities where the undeclared activities had taken place and made nuclear material available for Agency verification. Iran also acknowledged that it had utilized entities with links to the Ministry of Defence in some of its previously undeclared activities.
Iran acknowledged that it had had contacts with intermediaries of a clandestine nuclear supply network in 1987 and the early 1990s, and that, in 1987, it had received a handwritten one page document offering assistance with the development of uranium centrifuge enrichment technology, in which reference was also made to a reconversion unit with casting equipment. Iran further acknowledged that it had received a package of information related to centrifuge enrichment technology that also included a 15 page document (hereafter referred to as the “uranium metal document”) which Iran said it did not ask for and which describes, inter alia, processes for the conversion of uranium fluoride compounds into uranium metal and the production of hemispherical enriched uranium metallic components.
The Agency continued to seek clarification of issues with respect to the scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear program, particularly in light of Iran’s admissions concerning its contacts with the clandestine nuclear supply network, information provided by participants in that network and information which had been provided to the Agency by a Member State.
This last information, collectively referred to as the “alleged studies documentation”, which was made known to the Agency in 2005, indicated that Iran had been engaged in activities involving studies on a so-called green salt project, high explosives testing and the re-engineering of a missile re-entry vehicle to accommodate a new payload. All of this information, taken together, gave rise to concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.
…Between 2007 and 2010, Iran continued to conceal nuclear activities, by not informing the Agency in a timely manner of the decision to construct or to authorize construction of a new nuclear power plant at Darkhovin and a third enrichment facility near Qom (the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant). The Agency is still awaiting substantive responses from Iran to Agency requests for further information about its announcements, in 2009 and 2010 respectively, that it had decided to construct ten additional enrichment facilities (the locations for five of which had already been identified) and that it possessed laser enrichment technology.
The Agency has continued to receive, collect and evaluate information relevant to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. As additional information has become available to the Agency, the Agency has been able, notwithstanding Iran’s lack of engagement, to refine its analysis of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.
The Management of Iran’s Programs
The Agency received information from Member States which indicates that, sometime after the commencement by Iran in the late 1980s of covert procurement activities, organizational structures and administrative arrangements for an undeclared nuclear program were established and managed through the Physics Research Centre (PHRC), and were overseen, through a Scientific Committee, by the Defence Industries Education Research Institute (ERI), established to coordinate defense R&D for the Ministry of Defence Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). Iran has confirmed that the PHRC was established in 1989 at Lavisan-Shian, in Tehran. Iran has stated that the PHRC was created with the purpose of “preparedness to combat and neutralization of casualties due to nuclear attacks and accidents (nuclear defense) and also support and provide scientific advice and services to the Ministry of Defence”. Iran has stated further that those activities were stopped in 1998. In late 2003/early 2004, Iran completely cleared the site.
According to information provided by Member States, by the late 1990s or early 2000s, the PHRC activities were consolidated under the “AMAD Plan”. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (Mahabadi) was the Executive Officer of the AMAD Plan, the executive affairs of which were performed by the “Orchid Office”. Most of the activities carried out under the AMAD Plan appear to have been conducted during 2002 and 2003.
The majority of the details of the work said to have been conducted under the AMAD Plan come from the alleged studies documentation which, as indicated in paragraph 6 above, refer to studies conducted in three technical areas: the green salt project; high explosives (including the development of exploding bridgewire detonators); and re-engineering of the payload chamber of the Shahab 3 missile re-entry vehicle.
According to the Agency’s assessment of the information contained in that documentation, the green salt project (identified as Project 5.13) was part of a larger project (identified as Project 5) to provide a source of uranium suitable for use in an undisclosed enrichment program. The product of this program would be converted into metal for use in the new warhead which was the subject of the missile re-entry vehicle studies (identified as Project 111). As of May 2008, the Agency was not in a position to demonstrate to Iran the connection between Project 5 and Project 111. However, subsequently, the Agency was shown documents which established a connection between Project 5 and Project 111, and hence a link between nuclear material and a new payload development program.
Information the Agency has received from Member States indicates that, owing to growing concerns about the international security situation in Iraq and neighboring countries at that time, work on the AMAD Plan was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a “halt order” instruction issued in late 2003 by senior Iranian officials. According to that information, however, staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects. 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.
Procurement of Nuclear Materials
Under the AMAD Plan, Iran’s efforts to procure goods and services allegedly involved a number of ostensibly private companies which were able to provide cover for the real purpose of the procurements. The Agency has been informed by several Member States that, for instance, Kimia Maadan was a cover company for chemical engineering operations under the AMAD Plan while also being used to help with procurement for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).
In addition, throughout the entire timeline, instances of procurement and attempted procurement by individuals associated with the AMAD Plan of equipment, materials and services which, although having other civilian applications, would be useful in the development of a nuclear explosive device, have either been uncovered by the Agency itself or been made known to it.
Among such equipment, materials and services are: high speed electronic switches and spark gaps (useful for triggering and firing detonators); high speed cameras (useful in experimental diagnostics); neutron sources (useful for calibrating neutron measuring equipment); radiation detection and measuring equipment (useful in a nuclear material production environment); and training courses on topics relevant to nuclear explosives development (such as neutron cross section calculations and shock wave interactions/hydrodynamics).
Nuclear Material Acquisition
In 2008, the Director General informed the Board that: it had no information at that time — apart from the uranium metal document — on the actual design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear material components of a nuclear weapon or of certain other key components, such as initiators, or on related nuclear physics studies, and that it had not detected the actual use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies.
However, …information contained in the alleged studies documentation suggests that Iran was working on a project to secure 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 which was the subject of the missile re-entry vehicle studies.
…Information made available to the Agency by a Member State, which the Agency has been able to examine directly, indicates that Iran made progress with experimentation aimed at the recovery of uranium from fluoride compounds (using lead oxide as a surrogate material to avoid the possibility of uncontrolled contamination occurring in the workplace).
In addition, although now declared and currently under safeguards, a number of facilities dedicated to uranium enrichment (the Fuel Enrichment Plant and Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant near Qom) were covertly built by Iran and only declared once the Agency was made aware of their existence by sources other than Iran.
This, taken together with the past efforts by Iran to conceal activities involving nuclear material, create more concern about the possible existence of undeclared nuclear facilities and material in Iran.
Nuclear Components for an Explosive Device
For use in a nuclear device, HEU retrieved from the enrichment process is first converted to metal. The metal is then cast and machined into suitable components for a nuclear core…. Iran has acknowledged that, along with the handwritten one page document offering assistance with the development of uranium centrifuge enrichment technology, in which reference is also made to a reconversion unit with casting equipment.
Iran also received the uranium metal document which describes, inter alia, processes for the conversion of uranium compounds into uranium metal and the production of hemispherical enriched uranium metallic components.
The uranium metal document is known to have been available to the clandestine nuclear supply network that provided Iran with assistance in developing its centrifuge enrichment capability, and is also known to be part of a larger package of information which includes elements of a nuclear explosive design.
A similar package of information, which surfaced in 2003, was provided by the same network to Libya. The information in the Libyan package, which was first reviewed by Agency experts in January 2004, included details on the design and construction of, and the manufacture of components for, a nuclear explosive device.
In addition, a Member State provided the Agency experts with access to a collection of electronic files from seized computers belonging to key members of the network at different locations. That collection included documents seen in Libya, along with more recent versions of those documents, including an up-dated electronic version of the uranium metal document.
In an interview in 2007 with a member of the clandestine nuclear supply network, the Agency was told that Iran had been provided with nuclear explosive design information. From information provided to the Agency during that interview, the Agency is concerned that Iran may have obtained more advanced design information than the information identified in 2004 as having been provided to Libya by the nuclear supply network.
Additionally, a Member State provided information indicating that, during the AMAD Plan, preparatory work, not involving nuclear material, for the fabrication of natural and high enriched uranium metal components for a nuclear explosive device was carried out. As the conversion of HEU compounds into metal and the fabrication of HEU metal components suitable in size and quality are steps in the development of an HEU nuclear explosive device, clarification by Iran is needed in connection with the above.
The development of safe, fast-acting detonators, and equipment suitable for firing the detonators, is an integral part of a program to develop an implosion type nuclear device. Included among the alleged studies documentation are a number of documents relating to the development by Iran, during the period 2002–2003, of fast functioning detonators, known as “exploding bridgewire detonators” or “EBWs” as safe alternatives to the type of detonator described for use in the nuclear device design referred to in paragraph 33 above.
In 2008, Iran told the Agency that it had developed EBWs for civil and conventional military applications and had achieved a simultaneity of about one microsecond when firing two to three detonators together, and provided the Agency with a copy of a paper relating to EBW development work presented by two Iranian researchers at a conference held in Iran in 2005.
A similar paper was published by the two researchers at an international conference later in 2005. Both papers indicate that suitable high voltage firing equipment had been acquired or developed by Iran. Also in 2008, Iran told the Agency that, before the period 2002–2004, it had already achieved EBW technology.
Iran also provided the Agency with a short undated document in Farsi, understood to be the specifications for a detonator development program, and a document from a foreign source showing an example of a civilian application in which detonators are fired simultaneously. However, Iran has not explained to the Agency its own need or application for such detonators.
The Agency recognizes that there exist non-nuclear applications, albeit few, for detonators like EBWs, and of equipment suitable for firing multiple detonators with a high level of simultaneity.
Notwithstanding, given their possible application in a nuclear explosive device, and the fact that there are limited civilian and conventional military applications for such technology, Iran’s development of such detonators and equipment is a matter of concern, particularly in connection with the possible use of the multipoint initiation system referred to below.
Initiation of High Explosives and Associated Experiments
Detonators provide point source initiation of explosives, generating a naturally diverging detonation wave. In an implosion type nuclear explosive device, an additional component, known as a multipoint initiation system, can be used to reshape the detonation wave into a converging smooth implosion to ensure uniform compression of the core fissile material to supercritical density.
The Agency has shared with Iran information provided by a Member State which indicates that Iran has had access to information on the design concept of a multipoint initiation system that can be used to initiate effectively and simultaneously a high explosive charge over its surface. The Agency has been able to confirm independently that such a design concept exists and the country of origin of that design concept. Furthermore, the Agency has been informed by nuclear-weapon States that the specific multipoint initiation concept is used in some known nuclear explosive devices. In its 117 page submission to the Agency in May 2008, Iran stated that the subject was not understandable to Iran and that Iran had not conducted any activities of the type referred to in the document.
Information provided to the Agency by the same Member State referred to in the previous paragraph describes the multipoint initiation concept referred to above as being used by Iran in at least one large scale experiment in 2003 to initiate a high explosive charge in the form of a hemispherical shell.
According to that information, during that experiment, the internal hemispherical curved surface of the high explosive charge was monitored using a large number of optical fiber cables, and the light output of the explosive upon detonation was recorded with a high speed streak camera. It should be noted that the dimensions of the initiation system and the explosives used with it were consistent with the dimensions for the new payload which, according to the alleged studies documentation, were given to the engineers who were studying how to integrate the new payload into the chamber of the Shahab 3 missile re-entry vehicle (Project 111) (see Section C.11 below). Further information provided to the Agency by the same Member State indicates that the large scale high explosive experiments were conducted by Iran in the region of Marivan.
The Agency has strong indications that the development by Iran of the high explosives initiation system, and its development of the high speed diagnostic configuration used to monitor related experiments, were assisted by the work of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable in these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career with this technology in the nuclear weapon program of the country of his origin. The Agency has reviewed publications by this foreign expert and has met with him. The Agency has been able to verify through three separate routes, including the expert himself, that this person was in Iran from about 1996 to about 2002, ostensibly to assist Iran in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds (“UDDs” or “nanodiamonds”), where he also lectured on explosion physics and its applications.
Furthermore, the Agency has received information from two Member States that, after 2003, Iran engaged in experimental research involving a scaled down version of the hemispherical initiation system and high explosive charge referred to in paragraph 43 above, albeit in connection with non-nuclear applications. This work, together with other studies made known to the Agency in which the same initiation system is used in cylindrical geometry, could also be relevant to improving and optimizing the multipoint initiation design concept relevant to nuclear applications.
The Agency’s concern about the activities described in this Section derives from the fact that a multipoint initiation system, such as that described above, can be used in a nuclear explosive device. However, Iran has not been willing to engage in discussion of this topic with the Agency.
One necessary step in a nuclear weapon development program is determining whether a theoretical design of an implosion device, the behavior of which can be studied through computer simulations, will work in practice. To that end, high explosive tests referred to as “hydrodynamic experiments” are conducted in which fissile and nuclear components may be replaced with surrogate materials.
Information which the Agency has been provided by Member States, some of which the Agency has been able to examine directly, indicates that Iran has manufactured simulated nuclear explosive components using high density materials such as tungsten. These components were said to have incorporated small central cavities suitable for the insertion of capsules such as those described in Section C.9 below. The end use of such components remains unclear, although they can be linked to other information received by the Agency concerning experiments involving the use of high speed diagnostic equipment, including flash X ray, to monitor the symmetry of the compressive shock of the simulated core of a nuclear device.
Other information which the Agency has been provided by Member States indicates that Iran constructed a large explosives containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments. The explosives vessel, or chamber, is said to have been put in place at Parchin in 2000. A building was constructed at that time around a large cylindrical object at a location at the Parchin military complex. A large earth berm was subsequently constructed between the building containing the cylinder and a neighboring building, indicating the probable use of high explosives in the chamber. The Agency has obtained commercial satellite images that are consistent with this information. From independent evidence, including a publication by the foreign expert referred to in paragraph 44 above, the Agency has been able to confirm the date of construction of the cylinder and some of its design features (such as its dimensions), and that it was designed to contain the detonation of up to 70 kilograms of high explosives, which would be suitable for carrying out the type of experiments described in paragraph 43 above.
As a result of information the Agency obtained from a Member State in the early 2000s alleging that Iran was conducting high explosive testing, possibly in association with nuclear materials, at the Parchin military complex, the Agency was permitted by Iran to visit the site twice in 2005. From satellite imagery available at that time, the Agency identified a number of areas of interest, none of which, however, included the location now believed to contain the building which houses the explosives chamber mentioned above; consequently, the Agency’s visits did not uncover anything of relevance.
Hydrodynamic experiments such as those described above, which involve high explosives in conjunction with nuclear material or nuclear material surrogates, are strong indicators of possible weapon development. In addition, the use of surrogate material, and/or confinement provided by a chamber of the type indicated above, could be used to prevent contamination of the site with nuclear material. It remains for Iran to explain the rationale behind these activities.
Nuclear Weapons Modeling and Calculations
Information provided to the Agency by two Member States relating to modeling studies alleged to have been conducted in 2008 and 2009 by Iran is of particular concern to the Agency. According to that information, the studies involved the modeling of spherical geometries, consisting of components of the core of an HEU nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behavior at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield.
The information also identifies models said to have been used in those studies and the results of these calculations, which the Agency has seen. The application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the Agency. It is therefore essential that Iran engage with the Agency and provide an explanation.
The Agency obtained information in 2005 from a Member State indicating that, in 1997, representatives from Iran had met with officials from an institute in a nuclear-weapon State to request training courses in the fields of neutron cross section calculations using computer codes employing Monte Carlo methodology, and shock wave interactions with metals.
In a letter dated 14 May 2008, Iran advised the Agency that there was nothing to support this information. The Agency has also been provided with information by a Member State indicating that, in 2005, arrangements were made in Iran for setting up projects within SADAT centers (see Section C.1 and Attachment 1), inter alia, to establish a databank for “equation of state” information and a hydrodynamics calculation center.
The Agency has also been provided with information from a different Member State that, in 2005, a senior official in SADAT solicited assistance from Shahid Behesti University in connection with complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives.
Research by the Agency into scientific literature published over the past decade has revealed that Iranian workers, in particular groups of researchers at Shahid Behesti University and Amir Kabir University, have published papers relating to the generation, measurement and modeling of neutron transport.
The Agency has also found, through open source research, other Iranian publications which relate to the application of detonation shock dynamics to the modeling of detonation in high explosives, and the use of hydrodynamic codes in the modeling of jet formation with shaped (hollow) charges. Such studies are commonly used in reactor physics or conventional ordnance research, but also have applications in the development of nuclear explosives.
The Agency has information from a Member State that Iran has undertaken work to manufacture small capsules suitable for use as containers of a component containing nuclear material. The Agency was also informed by a different Member State that Iran may also have experimented with such components in order to assess their performance in generating neutrons.
Such components, if placed in the center of a nuclear core of an implosion type nuclear device and compressed, could produce a burst of neutrons suitable for initiating a fission chain reaction.
The location where the experiments were conducted was said to have been cleaned of contamination after the experiments had taken place. The design of the capsule, and the material associated with it, are consistent with the device design information which the clandestine nuclear supply network allegedly provided to Iran.
The Agency also has information from a Member State that work in this technical area may have continued in Iran after 2004, and that Iran embarked on a four year program, from around 2006 onwards, on the further validation of the design of this neutron source, including through the use of a non- nuclear material to avoid contamination.
Conducting a Nuclear Test
The Agency has information provided by a Member State that Iran may have planned and undertaken preparatory experimentation which would be useful were Iran to carry out a test of a nuclear explosive device. In particular, the Agency has information that Iran has conducted a number of practical tests to see whether its EBW firing equipment would function satisfactorily over long distances between a firing point and a test device located down a deep shaft. Additionally, among the alleged studies documentation provided by that Member State, is a document, in Farsi, which relates directly to the logistics and safety arrangements that would be necessary for conducting a nuclear test. The Agency has been informed by a different Member State that these arrangements directly reflect those which have been used in nuclear tests conducted by nuclear-weapon States.
Integration into a Missile Delivery Vehicle
The alleged studies documentation contains extensive information regarding work which is alleged to have been conducted by Iran during the period 2002 to 2003 under what was known as Project 111. From that information, the project appears to have consisted of a structured and comprehensive program of engineering studies to examine how to integrate a new spherical payload into the existing payload chamber which would be mounted in the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab 3 missile. According to that documentation, using a number of commercially available computer codes, Iran conducted computer modeling studies of at least 14 progressive design iterations of the payload chamber and its contents to examine how they would stand up to the various stresses that would be encountered on being launched and travelling on a ballistic trajectory to a target. …It should be noted that the masses and dimensions of components identified in information provided to the Agency by Member States that Iran is alleged to have been developing (see paragraphs 43 and 48 above) correspond to those assessed to have been used in Project 111 engineering studies on the new payload chamber. ….During these studies, prototype components were allegedly manufactured at workshops known to exist in Iran but which Iran refused the Agency permission to visit. The six engineering groups said to have worked under Project 111 produced many technical reports, which comprise a substantial part of the alleged studies documentation. The Agency has studied these reports extensively and finds that they are both internally consistent and consistent with other supporting information related to Project 111.
The alleged studies documentation also shows that, as part of the activities undertaken within Project 111, consideration was being given to subjecting the prototype payload and its chamber to engineering stress tests to see how well they would stand up in practice to simulated launch and flight stresses (so-called “environmental testing”). This work would have complemented the engineering modeling simulation studies referred to in paragraph 60 above. According to the information reflected in the alleged studies documentation, within Project 111, some, albeit limited, preparations were also being undertaken to enable the assembly of manufactured components.
….Iran has denied conducting the engineering studies, claiming that the documentation which the Agency has is in electronic format and so could have been manipulated, and that it would have been easy to fabricate. However, the quantity of the documentation, and the scope and contents of the work covered in the documentation, are sufficiently comprehensive and complex that, in the Agency’s view, it is not likely to have been the result of forgery or fabrication. While the activities described as those of Project 111 may be relevant to the development of a non-nuclear payload, they are highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program.
Fusing, Arming, and Firing System
The alleged studies documentation indicates that, as part of the studies carried out by the engineering groups under Project 111 to integrate the new payload into the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab 3 missile, additional work was conducted on the development of a prototype firing system that would enable the payload to explode both in the air above a target, or upon impact of the re-entry vehicle with the ground…
..The Agency, in conjunction with experts from Member States other than those which had provided the information in question, carried out an assessment of the possible nature of the new payload. As a result of that assessment, it was concluded that any payload option other than nuclear which could also be expected to have an airburst option (such as chemical weapons) could be ruled out.
Iran was asked to comment on this assessment and agreed in the course of a meeting with the Agency which took place in Tehran in May 2008 that, if the information upon which it was based were true, it would constitute a program for the development of a nuclear weapon. Attachment 2 to this Annex reproduces the results of the Agency’s assessment as it was presented by the Secretariat to the Member States in the technical briefing which took place in February 2008.
The IAEA and sources like the unclassified testimony of the US Director of National Intelligence have since provided some additional details in unclassified form. Other sources like the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) have helped document the scale of Iran’s technology base and the number of the facilities it has for nuclear and missile programs.
This reporting does not offset the need to listen carefully to what Iranian leaders and officials say, and to validate many of the reports on the details of Iran’s nuclear-weapons related programs. It does, however, make it clear that analyses which ignore the scale and nature of Iran’s material efforts over the last decade, and focus solely on its various denials, border on the absurd.
Similarly, these reports make it clear that simply controlling Iran’s fuel cycle will not stop Iran from improving every other aspect of its nuclear breakout capabilities anymore than attacking its major current enrichment activities will. Neither arms control and inspections that focus on actual enrichment, nor bombing key enrichment facilities, can now stop Iran from moving forward in many important areas. Iran has gotten too far, and its technology base is too large.
Moving Towards Nuclear Weapons Breakout Without Today’s Enrichment Facilities
The broader level of the progress outlined by the IAEA is not an argument against arms control per se, or the option of preventive strikes. But, it is a warning that both arms control and any plans for preventive strikes need to be based on dealing with Iran’s entire technology base. Simply halting today’s enrichment activity and securing or destroying major enrichment facilities would set Iran back. At the same time, Iran could move forward in every other area of nuclear weapons development and the test and evaluation of nuclear bombs and warheads.
Similarly, Iran does not need a formal nuclear weapons program. The debate over whether Iran has reactivated the program it seems to have had through 2003 has some value, but there is no need for a visible, formal Iranian program. The previous IAEA list of Iran’s known and suspect activities shows that Iran can create a compartmented series of efforts – none of which are formally tied to some central program or office – that will move it forward.
Iran can cloak each effort as an exercise in pure research or with some civil rationale, or it can disperse the others – often into very small facilities or ones with a convincing academic or industrial cover. It also can make many mobile, and put them in to trailers, truck beds, or palletized and easily separable assemblies – allowing quick cover and dispersal.
The uncertainties surrounding Iran’s possible creation of large test vessels for simulated explosions and possible preparation of a site for underground testing – the Parchin issue – are Iran’s most critical problems in concealing such progress. All of the other areas listed in the IAEA May and November 2011 reports offer some credible options for denial that the activity is weapons related – particularly if there is no record that the activity is weapons oriented – or effective concealment if Iran does not make the mistake of creating a large, formal weapons program.
Moreover, there are growing technical issues as to just how much actual testing of a fissile device is now required for a basic fissile weapon, and even to be possibly boosted to a fusion weapon. Much of the design could be carried out by testing a non-fissile bomb or warhead design using just the initiator and all of the rest of the weapon’s design components, including the explosive hemisphere or “gun.”
Using a U-238 core and certain advanced test equipment might allow Iran to move even further, and there are some reports that Pakistan has already proved the value of such techniques although scarcely that they are an adequate substitute for eventual testing of an actual weapons design. Placing a simulated warhead in a bomb and missile warhead could test shock, safety, fusing and trigger, and even reentry without a fissile event – in fact, non-destructive testing of this kind would be essential.
Only an actual nuclear weapons designer –one willing to sideline US and Western approaches and examine the kind of risks a less advanced state operating under pressure and covert conditions– can fully assess how far Iran could progress in this scenario. The fact is, however, that this is not 1950 or 1960 – or even 1990 or 2000. As the IAEA reports show, Iran has already made major progress without testing or fissile material, and it can do so even if it agrees to full inspections of all of its existing enrichment activities, or if Natanz and Fordo are totally destroyed.
The Impact of Iran’s Centrifuge Program
It is equally questionable that Iran’s enrichment efforts are now controllable or can be destroyed in a single set of attacks – although much would depend on the inspection agreement and arrangements and the scale of any such preventive attacks.
The IAEA and sources like ISIS indicate Iran has made major progress in developing far more advanced centrifuges than its “P-1” variant. These potentially could be used to produce fissile material more quickly and in far smaller and more easily concealable facilities. It is unclear just how far Iran has gotten, how efficient its 3-4 new centrifuge designs are, how well it can produce them in significant numbers, how dependent it is on imports, and how easily it could conceal the infrastructure and power sources needed for centrifuge facilities.
Moreover, no unclassified source to date has provided a credible picture of how many facilities Iran has that can be used for centrifuge production and development, and there is no way to know the present level of classified intelligence that would allow such facilities to be flagged for IAEA inspection – should Iran agree to meaningful challenge inspection – or countries like the US and Israel to target the full network of such facilities in a preventive strike.
It is clear, however, Iran has advanced centrifuge designs, is already producing some, and has test units running in facilities like Natanz and Fordo. It is also clear that imports of manufacturing technology and advances in materials science might – over time – significantly reduce the technical problems in manufacture and dependence on imports.
Assuming that Iran either agreed to controls on its current enrichment facilities – or saw them destroyed in a preventive attack – it now has two options. The first is to go on with developing more and more advanced centrifuges. This would allow Iran both improve their performance and its manufacturing base. It is not clear that Iran can be pressured into an arms control agreement that could prevent this, and it would take an amazing amount of intelligence access to prevent it from creating such programs if its existing facilities were bombed and destroyed. In short, Iran could appear to agree to arms control or appear to have had its programs destroyed and still go on creating better future enrichment capability.
It is also possible that truly advanced centrifuge designs could be efficient enough for Iran to create a wide range of small, easily dispersible, centrifuge facilities. These could be designed for rapid mobility to conceal their existence, and “implausible deniability” is a credible and important option for Iran in dealing with any international inspection regime, or in quickly eliminating a facility as a valuable target.
There would be far more risks in actually creating new centrifuge facilities than in creating improved centrifuge design and manufacturing capabilities, but this kind of “shell game” is an Iranian option that any arms control regime or plan for preventive strikes must consider. Moreover, it would potentially eliminate the need for underground facilities and ones with relatively detectable signatures for satellite imaging.
At a minimum, arms control negotiations must explicitly examine what Iran can and cannot do in terms of its future centrifuge options. Similarly, military options must examine how well this part of Iran’s industrial and R&D base can actually be targeted, and how Iran might use this option if preventive strikes took place on its existing enrichment facilities.
Iran’s Nuclear Programs in a Broader Military Context
Finally, it is equally important that assessments of Iran’s actions and intentions look beyond its nuclear programs, and is various statements about them, and consider how important its nuclear program are to its overall military efforts. Nuclear weapons are not simply some form of prestige, a deterrent to the US, or part of some effort to counterbalance or “destroy” Israel.
Iran’s emerged from the Iran-Iraq War having lost some 40-60% of its inventory of major land weapons. It had long lost access to US and European weapons and technology, and the ability to upgrade the weapons it bought under the Shah – weapons which even today dominate its holdings of aircraft, surface-to-air systems, and major surface vessels. It may have had ambitious plans to rebuild its conventional forces, but it quickly found it lacked both the money and the access to leading suppliers to do so.
Since 1989-1990 – for more than twenty years – Iran has had to rely on its ability to create less expensive forces for asymmetric warfare, “proxies,” and long-range ballistic missiles and rockets. It has developed some of the largest forces for asymmetric warfare in the world, and can pose a major threat to commercial traffic in areas like the Gulf. It is, however, a very limited power in terms of conventional forces and one that cannot compete with the Southern Gulf states in modernization or with the US in any aspect of conventional naval and air power.
Iran is building up a major long-range missile force as a way of both compensating for its conventional weakness, and deterring US and Southern Gulf pressure or escalation if Iran uses asymmetric forces. These missiles, however, are more terror weapons than serious forces as long as they are limited to conventional warheads. They have limited payloads of high explosives, poor accuracy, and low lethality compared to precision-guided bombs and air-to-surface missiles.
Iran’s nuclear efforts make far greater sense when they are considered in this context, particularly as the GCC states build up their capabilities, and Sunni and Shi’ite power struggles take on a new character in a period of acute regional; instability and unrest. Nuclear-armed missiles are far more of a deterrent, an equalizer to outside superiority in conventional forces, a way of offering more freedom of action in using asymmetric forces, and a guarantee against the risk – real or imagined – of invasion.
Again, no one should disregard the political, religious, and ideological statements of Iran’s leaders; ignore the extent to which it exploits hostility to Israel to win Arab support or tolerance, and the prestige impact of becoming a nuclear power. No assessment of Iran’s military behavior, and its level of interest in nuclear weapons, should however, ignore the fact that nuclear weapons represent a key part of its overall strategic and military goals and force posture.
Similarly, no assessment of Iran’s willingness to try to cheat on arms control, create a new nuclear program after preventive attacks, or devote resource to nuclear weapons capabilities should be based only on the assessment of nuclear weapons. Far too much of the present intelligence effort, and arms control effort, has this limitation. It is not based on a net assessment of how nuclear weapons fit into Iran’s overall strategy and military forces, and sharply understates the motivations that drive its leaders.
In the case of arms control, this again highlights the need for comprehensive control, inspection, and verification measures. It also illustrates the need for incentives strong enough to motivate Iran to give up its nuclear efforts in spite of its broader strategic and military needs. In the case of preventive strikes, it means recognizing that even a major first round of strikes is unlikely to have a lasting effect and might well push Iran into a far larger nuclear effort unless Iran realizes that any such effort would result in follow-on attacks.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at Center for Strategic and International Studies, from this article is adapted.