Evidence of Iran’s nuclear arms expertise mounts

Fellows Fall 2009

By Joby Warrick

December 15, 2009

Published in The Washington Post

Long denied access to foreign technology because of sanctions, Iran has nevertheless learned how to make virtually every bolt and switch in a nuclear weapon, according to assessments by U.N. nuclear officials in internal documents, as well as Western and Middle Eastern intelligence analysts and weapons experts.

Iran's growing technical prowess has been highlighted by a secret memo, leaked to a British newspaper over the weekend, that purportedly shows Iranian scientists conducting tests on a neutron initiator, one of the final technical hurdles in making a nuclear warhead, weapons analysts said Monday.

There was no way to establish the authenticity or original source of the document, which is being assessed by officials at Western intelligence agencies and the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Even so, former intelligence officials and arms-control experts said that if it is a genuine Iranian government document, it is a worrisome indication of an ongoing, clandestine effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability. Iran has steadfastly denied seeking nuclear arms.

The accumulating evidence of Iran's nuclear momentum emerges as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded Monday that the White House has little to show for nearly a year of diplomatic engagement with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. "I don't think anyone can doubt that our outreach has produced very little in terms of any kind of a positive response from the Iranians," Clinton told reporters.

The internal documents and expert analysis point to a growing Iranian mastery of disciplines including uranium metallurgy, heavy-water production and the high-precision explosives used to trigger a nuclear detonation. Although U.S. spy agencies have thought that Iran's leaders halted research on nuclear warheads in 2003, European and Middle Eastern analysts point to evidence that Iran has continued to hone its skills, as recently as 2007.

"They're slowly weaning themselves off a reliance on importing critical technologies, in favor of being able to manufacture critical components themselves," said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a retired CIA officer and former Energy Department intelligence director. "Achieving an indigenous production capacity is right up there with mastering uranium enrichment."

Iranian scientists must still rely on outsiders for certain components and materials, such as high-strength metals used in making advanced centrifuges and longer-range missiles. But the remaining technical gaps are shrinking, according to an internal memo drafted by top Iran analysts at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Excerpts from the never-published draft were leaked to a nonprofit group in October.

"Iran has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device," the memo states.

Iran insists that it opposes nuclear weapons, and points out that the technologies that have raised suspicions in the West have peaceful uses. But Iranian officials do not conceal their pride in their ability to develop advanced technology in spite of U.N. sanctions. Ali Soltanieh, Iran's representative to the IAEA in Vienna, said in an interview with The Washington Post this fall that as Iranian engineers conquer the nuclear sciences, they will "jump hundreds of meters up in a short time," pulling even with their counterparts from the West.

"We should thank the Americans for sanctions, because they have united our country," he said.

The newly leaked Iranian memo, first published by the Times of London, purports to show a four-year plan by Iran to develop and test a neutron initiator of a type that weapons experts say has no known civilian use. The document is neither signed nor dated, but the Times, citing unnamed foreign intelligence officials, said it was written in 2007, four years after U.S. intelligence officials think Iran halted research on nuclear warheads.

The creased, two-page document in Farsi script asserts that Iran's capabilities in the field of neutron initiators already "are reasonably good." It calls on scientific teams to build on previous secret research while also maintaining a high degree of security.

While the document makes no mention of nuclear warheads, it describes work in highly specialized fields closely associated with atomic bombs, said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector who reviewed the memo and other documents.

"They are eliminating bottlenecks in the process of creating a reliable nuclear warhead," said Albright, president of the D.C.-based Institute for Science and International Security. "I have no evidence of an Iranian decision to build them. On the other hand, doing the kind of work described in this document is a far cry from the common belief that Iran stopped work on nuclear weapons in 2003 and has not restarted."

A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged there have been "serious concerns for some time about where Iran may be headed with its nuclear activities."

The leaked memo follows the disclosure in September that Iran had secretly built a small uranium plant in a mountain north of the ancient holy city of Qom.

In late October, IAEA inspectors who visited Iran for a first look at the secret plant also made a surprise discovery of 600 barrels of heavy water, a toxic liquid used in making plutonium, during a routine visit to one of Iran's lesser-known nuclear facilities near the city of Isfahan.

A recent IAEA report called on Iran to "provide information on the origin" of the heavy water.

"It was a complete surprise," said a European diplomat who agreed to talk about the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. "We assumed that the Iranians had purchased it from elsewhere, but no one really knew. No one believes they could have made it at the existing plant" -- a small facility at Khonab that has been mostly idle since it opened three years ago.

In a closed-door session of the IAEA governing board on Thanksgiving, the head of one of the Northern European delegations asked the chief Iranian nuclear official, Ali Akbar Salehi, to explain how Iran had acquired such a quantity of heavy water.

"We made it," Salehi reportedly shot back, according to two diplomats in the room.

Whether Iran's ruling clerics have decided to make a bomb is unclear. In 2003, after Iran's first uranium-enrichment plant was exposed by the National Council for Resistance in Iran, a dissident group, the country's top leaders ordered their scientists to halt research on nuclear warheads.

That command, intercepted by Western spies, appears to have applied only to teams working on the technical challenges of building a warhead and fitting it to one of Iran's longer-range missiles. The harder task of creating the uranium fuel for bomb continued and slowly accelerated; Iran now manufactures four types of centrifuges, machines that spin at supersonic speeds to create the uranium fuel used in both power plants and nuclear weapons.

There are signs suggesting to some intelligence analysts that bomb-building research resumed after 2005, the year Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the Iranian presidency. In a case cited by German government officials, Iran in 2007 bought several highly specialized devices linked to nuclear weapons testing. One was a $40,000, Russian-made camera used to record high-speed events in a laboratory. In nuclear weapons research, such cameras help calibrate the accuracy of precision-timed explosions used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction.

High-speed cameras have other industrial uses. But according to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, the model of camera bought by Iran was developed by a commercial offshoot of the All-Russia Research Institute of Experimental Physics, the premier nuclear weapons laboratory of the former Soviet Union. The spinoff company, Bifo, has co-authored research papers on explosive shock waves used in nuclear detonations.

Notably, Russian scientists with expertise in detonators have visited Iran at least as recently as 2003 to provide technical training and instructions on building triggering devices for nuclear bombs, according to Western and Middle Eastern intelligence analysts briefed on the visits.

The Washington Post's Joby Warrick traveled to the Middle East for five weeks as part of a grant from the International Reporting Project (IRP).