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Interview: Nuclear Expert Believes Iran Likely Wants Kazakh Uranium For Civil Purposes

Iran's heavy-water nuclear plant in Arak
Iran's heavy-water nuclear plant in Arak
David Albright is the president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution dedicated to informing the public about science and policy issues affecting international security. Correspondent Aryan Hossein of RFE/RL's Radio Farda interviewed Albright about reports that Iran has been trying to secretly buy more than 1,000 tons of uranium ore from Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL: Mr. Albright, Iran has rejected the international community's end-of-the-year deadline to accept a uranium enrichment deal. This comes as an intelligence report obtained by The Associated Press says Iran is close to a deal to import 1,350 tons of purified uranium ore from Kazakhstan. What is your assessment -- is Iran's stockpile of uranium oxide diminishing or does it have another agenda?

David Albright:
It's hard to know. I mean, first of all, we don't know what Iran was allegedly doing in Kazakhstan. The report, from what I understand, says that Iran was trying to acquire uranium yellowcake in a pretty substantial quantity. Now, under UN Security Council resolutions, it's very unlikely it could ever acquire that material legally.

Kazakhstan's government would have to check very carefully whether it could sell uranium to Iran. And so more than likely -- and this was reported in the initial AP report -- that this was kind of a black-market deal, and it was detected, and I assume it was stopped. And I would be very surprised if it could go forward at this point. Kazakhstan's government would be under enormous pressure not to allow any such deal to take place.

David Albright
Now, what does it mean? Iran does a lot of smuggling. I mean, it smuggles for its military programs. It smuggles for its uranium enrichment program. It smuggles for its reactors -- its heavy-water reactor at the Araq site. It's in the business of nuclear smuggling. And so it's not surprising that they would try to get uranium, and the reason is simple: It's that they don't have enough for what they planned for their nuclear program and so they do need uranium.

We think at ISIS that they've probably run out of usable uranium for their uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan, which takes yellowcake and turns it into this specialized material -- uranium hexafluoride -- that can then be used in an enrichment plant.

RFE/RL: It seems like Iran's production of low-enriched uranium was declining, or at best was holding steady. So do you think this attempt is due to a [production] failure or was it because of the low stockpile of uranium oxide?

For its limited enrichment program at Natanz, it has plenty of uranium hexafluoride. Iran would be trying to get this uranium for its long-term needs.

There are two possibilities. One is to try to hoard material or stockpile material for future use in an expanded civil nuclear program. The other is to secretly try to acquire uranium that could be used in a parallel, secret nuclear weapons effort. It would start from natural uranium as yellowcake, turn it into uranium hexafluoride in secret at a secret facility, enrich it at a secret site, and the use it for nuclear weapons. So there [are] two possibilities.

Uranium ore
This is a relatively large amount of uranium. It's enough, we would estimate, to make well over 100 nuclear weapons, so it's way beyond what they would need for a secret parallel nuclear weapons effort. But you never know if that was the initial reason to try to acquire this material secretly, and then they just got more, and they would buy it. Because they're smuggling so much to break sanctions, they have to deal with many laws in various countries that don't approve of many of the things Iran is buying, and so they're very committed to going out and buying things despite domestic and international laws. And if they can get something, they'll try to get a lot of it. And so, it's a natural instinct.

So again, it's hard to determine the purpose of this uranium, if the reports are true, but it could be either for civil or military purposes. But principally, I would say it would be for civil purposes.

RFE/RL: A report by IPS, the Inter Press Service Agency, quotes a former CIA counterrorism official as saying that the document published earlier this month by "The Times" of London newspaper describing a plan by Iran to experiment with a neutron initiator for a nuclear bomb is a fabrication. Have you seen the document? And if so, what's your assessment of its validity?

The issue of the authenticity of the document is very important. I've taken a position where we could not, at ISIS, authenticate it. We did analysis for "The Times" on that document -- technical analysis based on the English translation -- and we did ask many governments as we were doing this analysis, "Would this source likely fabricate a document like this?" Because the source had given it to the International Atomic Energy Agency and various governments. And we got back a message: "Not likely." But they didn't say 100 percent it wouldn't happen.

So we feel that this document does need to be authenticated, and we welcome a debate and actually a collecting [of] information from people, people who've done linguistic analysis, inside information. We think, in the end, we'd like the International Atomic Energy Agency -- which we know has the document -- to make a judgment about what this document means and not only, "Is it authentic?" Is it truly from 2007? And then how does it fit in -- if it is true and it is from 2007 -- how does it fit in with all the other information they have about Iran's effort to build nuclear weapons?