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Interview: Expert Discusses Fallout Of Reported Iranian Nuclear-Weapons Work

Iran test-fired an improved Sejil-2 missile at an undisclosed location on December 16. The missile is said to have a range of over 2,000 kilometers.
In a report this week, "The Times" alleged that Iran has been secretly conducting weapons-development work. The report was based on documents obtained by the newspaper that referred to a neutron source, uranium deuteride, that can be used as a trigger for a nuclear weapon.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Sharan Tabar discusses this report with Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

RFE/RL: It seems that Iran has been exposed again, this time for a nuclear component that can be used in a nuclear warhead. How serious is this?

Mark Fitzpatrick:
I think this is very serious. If true, I think it's an indication -- a strong indication -- that Iran was working on nuclear-weapons development work as recently as 2007.

The U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that Iran had stopped such work in 2003, and had not resumed it -- at least until 2007. I think the intelligence agencies have more information now that they have to assess to determine whether, in fact, Iran has been working on weapons-development work even while they have been engaged in efforts to see if there is a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.

RFE/RL: How significant is the material in question, the uranium deuteride?

Well, I think this is a very serious development because the material in question -- the neutron source, the deuteride -- apparently has no civilian use outside of nuclear weapons.

Now, I'm not a nuclear-weapons expert myself, and if somebody can show that this has a purely civilian use then that should be taken into account. But from what I understand, so far, this doesn't have any use other than for nuclear weapons and it's a very damning indication that Iran has been working on weapons designs and development as late as two years ago.

RFE/RL: Iran has developed missile technology as well, and this device reportedly can be used as a warhead on a missile. Is that true, and how far can these missiles travel?

Yes, Iran has a very robust missile program, which exacerbates the concerns about its nuclear program. When they combine their nuclear-weapons development work with the missile development, it's very worrisome that within a few years they would be able to launch nuclear warheads with their missiles.

Their missiles today already can travel at least 1,300 kilometers. This includes Turkey, Israel, the [Persian] Gulf states, and other neighbors up to 1,300 kilometers.

Now, today Iran does not have a nuclear weapon that could fit that missile, but in a few years, if they continue this apparent weapons-development work, that will be very worrisome indeed.

Dangers Of Dual-Use

RFE/RL: If this report proves to be true, would it put an end to Iran's intention of pursuing nuclear development for civilian purposes?

I don't think it puts an end to it. I think Iran is working on both parts. I think they do have a civilian energy program -- the Bushehr reactor is obviously for nuclear energy. The nuclear-enrichment work that they are doing at Natanz looks to me to be mainly intended for military purposes but, of course, it also has civilian purposes.

The problem with this dual-use technology is that it can be used for both, and with all of these indicators -- increasing number of indicators -- that Iran is working on weapons designs, it seems clear that the uranium enrichment has to be suspended if Iran is to be able to proceed just with civilian work and to have people feel confident that it is only for civilian purposes.

RFE/RL: If this is proved, do you think it would change the West's, or the international community's policy toward Iran dramatically?

If it's proven that Iran was working on weapons designs and development as recently as 2007, this certainly will change the attitudes toward Iran.

The previous U.S. intelligence estimate that Iran had stopped that weapons-development work gave people reason to think that, "OK, we can negotiate with Iran and persuade it to accept some limits and we can accept some level of enrichment because it could be limited to civilian applications."

But if Iran has been working on weapons development, [this] really, I think, calls into question whether Iran can be trusted with any sensitive technologies if it's so clearly being used for weapons-development work.