In a new report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggests for the first time that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear-weapons capability.
Shannon Kile, a senior nonproliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, discussed the report and the tougher mood at the UN watchdog agency with RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel.RFE/RL: The new IAEA report is the first issued since the agency's new chief, Yukiya Amano, took over from his predecessor Muhammad el-Baradei. The report presents new evidence to suggest for the first time that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear-weapons capability. Do you detect a tougher tone developing toward Tehran?
Obviously there had been a lot of curiosity about how [Amano's] reporting would compare to that of the former director-general, Muhammad el-Baradei. I must confess I am a bit surprised. The language of the report is franker, it is more direct, it uses less of the circumlocutions that we had perhaps come to expect with Muhammad el-Baradei.
I think that actually puts the Iranians in a difficult position in terms of being able to find a positive spin on what is in the contents of the new report.
I think it actually reflects an increasing suspicion at the IAEA about the possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program. I think there is a greater sense of urgency and also a greater sense of concern about some of the activities that Iran has been known to be engaged in and they still haven't been proactively cooperating with the agency in trying to resolve those issues.RFE/RL: What's most striking about this report, of course, is the statement that Iran seems to have continued beyond 2004 parts of its research work into how to explode fissile material and deliver payloads with missiles. Why exactly is that so significant, and what more has the IAEA learned about this work?
That's what's new about this report, that the IAEA seems to be suggesting that Iran may have an active program to at least develop a nuclear-weapon capability. And that does contradict the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate of 2007, which concluded that Iran had actually stopped these activities sometime in the autumn of 2003.
The specific issues that the latest IAEA report takes up, most of them are well-known. I mean, it has to do with the design work on a nuclear warhead that has to fit into - or some sort of payload we should say -- that could fit into a ballistic missile, it has to do with work on high-explosives testing.
But what strikes me as new this time is that there are very specific references to a neutron initiation system that would be necessary to actually start a nuclear explosion and [there also are references to] work on the wiring systems that would be needed for a high-explosives implosion device, and that is specifically mentioned in this report but hasn't been mentioned in previous reports, at least not with such specificity.Medical Reactor Needs
RFE/RL: The report also confirms that Iran has produced its first batch of enriched uranium to 20 percent, which Tehran did by further enriching some of its current stock of 3.5 percent-enriched uranium. Iran says it is doing this further enrichment in order to produce fuel assemblies that can be used in its Tehran research reactor to produce medical isotopes. But does Iran in fact have the whole chain of highly specialized technology needed to domestically produce these isotopes? Is it a realistic program?
As far as we know, Iran does not have the ability to fabricate the fuel assemblies. It can certainly enrich the uranium to 19.75 percent, which is what is required for the fuel assemblies, but actually fabricating that into something that would be useful for the Tehran research reactor, there is no evidence that suggests Iran has the ability to do that, at least today.
RFE/RL: Equally, Iran is reported to have moved its entire stock of 3.5 percent-enriched uranium to its enrichment facility at Natanz, suggesting that all of it will be involved in this "upgrade" effort to produce isotopes. Does Iran need to enrich that much material to a 20 percent level?
Iran's uranium-enrichment complex at Natanz in central Iran
Assuming that's true that they have moved all 1,950 kilograms, that is much, much, much more than the Tehran research reactor would ever need for nuclear fuel.Technical Issues
RFE/RL: What are some of the other surprises in the new IAEA report?
Now we know, for example, that the Iranians are opening production lines in Isfahan to put the low-enriched uranium into metallic form -- this is the other main point that comes out of the latest IAEA reports. There are some civilian applications for [low-enriched uranium in metallic form] but I think everyone also understands that is an essential step towards making uranium into a form that is usable in a nuclear weapon. So, it is a dual-use capability and I think that is also one of the big concerns that is driving this new tone behind the IAEA report.RFE/RL: There is certainly enough in the new IAEA report to suggest Iran is moving ahead energetically with its nuclear program -- which it claims is for peaceful purposes. But the report also mentions the Iranian enrichment program appears to continue to struggle with technical problems, for example, the mechanical problems of keeping hundreds of mostly 1970s-designed centrifuges running in unison. How do you assess the difficulties?
One of the consoling points of the IAEA report is that it does indicate Iran is having a lot of problems with the centrifuge cascades at Natanz, they actually have fewer centrifuges running today than they did, say, a year or year and a half ago. [But] at the same time the centrifuges that are running, the so-called P-1s, the first generation, are actually running more efficiently than they were before, so it is a mixed picture.
I think the problem is that if Iran were looking for a breakout capability to manufacture a nuclear weapon, you don't need to have all the centrifuges that are already in place, you could do that with some subset of those centrifuges, assuming that they operate efficiently.