Radio Farda: Could you explain the new satellite pictures that your institute published on April 14? You write about two new tunnels at Isfahan nuclear facilities. What do you think these tunnels are for?
David Albright: The tunnel complex at Isfahan, according to the Iranians, is to set up some production equipment and to store critical items. It was first discovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] a year or two ago, and then the Iranians admitted to creating this tunnel complex. What’s in the new photo is evidence of another tunnel entrance, and we don’t know if it’s into the same facility, whether it represents another entrance into that facility, whether it represents an enlargement of the existing facility or something new. You just can’t tell from the satellite imagery. But what stood out to us is that it shows that Iran continues to build plants or facilities underground, and you have to think that that’s in anticipation of an attack by somebody. So we think Iran is preparing for the day when it can be attacked and is trying to create a set of underground facilities where it could protect its vital nuclear assets.
Radio Farda: Do the inspectors have access to these tunnels? Can the IAEA inspectors just go there and ask to visit?
Albright: Not so easily anymore. Iran decided to act as though the additional protocol were not enforced. Now if Iran puts nuclear material in there or intends to put nuclear material in there, then the IAEA can ask to visit. But just because it’s a tunnel entrance into a mountainside, they can’t ask without the additional safeguards.
Radio Farda: How do you interpret the Arak satellite pictures?
Albright: The Arak site is continuing to be constructed. Iran has been asked by the IAEA board of governors, by the [UN] Security Council, to stop constructing the Arak heavy-water reactor, and the pictures show that construction continues, and Iran is in fact making steady progress toward finishing the reactor. Iranian officials said recently that they are going to try to finish it by 2009. If they manage to do that, then by 2010 Iran will be producing enough plutonium for one or two bombs a year. So it's a pathway to nuclear weapons that is not receiving very much attention right now, but nonetheless, if Iran doesn't cease these activities, they could provide it with an additional way to make nuclear weapons.
We know from our experience with Iraq that intelligence communities and particularly members of the administration [of U.S. President George W. Bush] tend to start believe worst-case estimates as facts. And so there's a real worry that as the IAEA loses information about ongoing nuclear activities in Iran, the IAEA is unsuccessful at getting answers to outstanding questions about Iranians' past activities, then U.S. intelligence agencies and, more importantly, senior U.S. officials will start to think that Iran has more than it actually does.
Radio Farda: Is the IAEA monitoring activity at Arak?
Albright: Yes, they are. I don't know how often they go anymore, but certainly they look at it through commercial satellite imagery. Periodically their people will visit it or discuss construction progress with the Iranians. But the inspection effort is getting worse and worse. Iran is refusing to cooperate on more and more issues. And particularly the president of Iran seems to want to feed this confrontation with the rest of the world. It appears that he can basically order his people not to discuss things with the IAEA. So I think the IAEA and the member states of the IAEA are going to start losing more and more information about Iran's nuclear activities, and that's unfortunate because these crises can feed on themselves.
We know from our experience with Iraq that intelligence communities and particularly members of the administration [of U.S. President George W. Bush] tend to start believe worst-case estimates as facts. And so there's a real worry that as the IAEA loses information about ongoing nuclear activities in Iran, the IAEA is unsuccessful at getting answers to outstanding questions about Iranians' past activities, then U.S. intelligence agencies and, more importantly, senior U.S. officials will start to think that Iran has more than it actually does. And it will feed into these worst-case estimates, and you're already seeing some evidence of that.
Two conservative elements of the administration, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and [Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Robert] Joseph, came out last week and kind of implied that Iran is closer to the bomb than the intelligence community thinks, that Iran has accelerated its nuclear effort, when in fact the evidence doesn't support that. But nonetheless, as this confrontation grows, that kind of worst-case thinking will become more prevalent.
Radio Farda: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on April 25 that Iran would share the nuclear know-how and technology with other countries. Does that give you more concern?
Albright: Certainly. That's always been one of the concerns about the regime getting enrichment technology and developing it to the point where it could then transfer it. You worry that it will not be done in a responsible manner. What you would like is for all countries to agree not to transfer uranium-enrichment technology anymore. And so more and more countries have adopted that, at least provisionally, though it's not a universal norm by any means.
In the case of Iran, you worry about state-to-state transfer of nuclear-weapons-capable items, and you worry about the illicit transfer from Iranian businesses that are in the nuclear industry or make nuclear parts, or agents of Iran that work in their smuggling networks and may see an opportunity to make some additional money. Iran is not a monolithic state, and so you worry not only about state-to-state proliferation but also about illegal proliferation that would violate Iranian laws but nonetheless, with the level of corruption in Iran, could actually take place. So, yes, it's troubling.
Economic sanctions could further undermine Iran's already shaky economy (Fars)
MOVING TOWARD SANCTIONS: If the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, domestic support for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will wane, according to ALEX VATANKA, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group.
Vatanka told a February 24 RFE/RL briefing that "economic sanctions will hurt the average Iranian" and, consequently, many "will blame the ruling clerics" for making life difficult and "impairing the country's long term development."
Vatanka said sanctions would be a serious challenge to the Iranian government. If harsh economic sanctions were imposed, Iran's poorest population will be hurt the hardest -- and might react "as they did in the 1970s and protest in the streets." Sanctions on travel, Vatanka said, would hurt a many Iranians because "Iran is a nation of small traders" who depend on the ability to travel to earn an income. According to Vatanka, unemployment in Iran is estimated at 30 percent, "so small trading is essential to survival." Although current U.S. sanctions "haven't worked," he said, "Iranians fear an oil embargo." He stressed that "oil revenues are a major part of the economy, so it is critical to look at this sector."
Should negotiations with the European Union and the UN fail, Vatanka believes that Iran would follow a "North Korea model," since Ahmadinejad's base of support among the "Islamist militias" has been "urging withdrawal from the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]." The Iranian government's "tactic" so far, Vatanka said, is governed by the belief that "by shouting the loudest, you'll get concessions [from the West]."
Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
CHRONOLOGY An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.