Iran has carried out extensive development of nuclear weapons, including work on a warhead for its medium-range Shahab-3 missile and preparations for an underground test, the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed in an internal report Tuesday.
The nuclear watchdog group stated that many aspects of Iran’s secret weapons development went on past the 2003 date that U.S. intelligence agencies claimed in an assessment four years ago that Iran had halted all nuclear arms work. The report said information it received indicates the weapons program is continuing, and it called on Iran to explain the covert activities.
The 25-page report provides the most extensive listing to date of what the nuclear agency said in the past were unanswered questions about the military aspects of Iran’s “nuclear explosive-device” development program.
“Iran has been working on research and development to build a nuclear weapon,” said a Western diplomat in Vienna, Austria, who commented on the report.
The report provides “a good level of detail to explain why the IAEA is concerned that Iran has engaged in secret nuclear activities related to the development of a nuclear weapon,” the diplomat said.
The report was disclosed as Israel’s government continued to signal its readiness to take military action against Iran to try to neutralize the weapons program.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday that Israel has not ruled out the military option. He told Israel Radio that he did not think additional U.N. sanctions on Iran will dissuade Tehran from ignoring its obligation to declare fully all nuclear activities.
News reports from Israel indicated that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was taking steps in recent weeks to shore up support within his Cabinet for military action.
The IAEA said Iranian activities of concern include the procurement of nuclear-related and dual civilian-military use equipment and materials, efforts to create a covert nuclear-material production system, the acquisition of data and documents on nuclear arms development through clandestine supplier networks, and “work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components.”
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the report is a sign that responsible nations need to take decisive action to stop Iran’s arms program.
“We are close to running out of time,” she said. “And yet, for years, successive administrations have refused to fully implement the [anti-Iran] laws already on the books.”
In Tehran, the state-controlled IRNA news agency criticized the IAEA report for what it said are “worthless comments and pictures” provided by intelligence services.
The IAEA, the Vienna-based nuclear-monitoring group, identified some of the Iranian military nuclear activities in earlier reports.
However, the report, dated Nov. 8 and labeled “restricted,” includes an annex on the arms effort with charts showing specific Iranian nuclear organizations and government departments involved in the program after 2003.
According to the report, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s government ordered work stopped on its nuclear arms program code-named the AMAD Plan.
The new report, however, says “the agency has other information from member states which indicates that some activities previously carried out under the AMAD Plan were resumed later.”
Two new organizations were set up for the weapons work under Iran’s defense ministry and at technical schools.
One of the groups, the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, carried out work after 2003 that the IAEA said “would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program.”
The report is further evidence that a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate partially made public in 2007 was wrong in stating that Iran halted all nuclear weapons work in 2003. The estimate, a consensus of 16 spy agencies, has been widely criticized for failing to properly assess Iran’s nuclear program.
Regarding missile warhead development, the new report said Iran used a code-named unit called Project 111 that created 14 warhead designs in 2002 and 2003 to test whether a payload could survive a ballistic-missile launch.
“While the activities described as those of Project 111 may be relevant to the development of a non-nuclear payload, they are highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program,” the report says.
The engineering work appeared to be for “a new spherical payload into the existing payload chamber which would be mounted in the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab 3 missile,” the report said.
Iran also used Project 111 engineers to build a prototype firing system “that would enable the payload to explode both in the air above a target, or upon impact of the re-entry vehicle with the ground.”
Iran’s government denied the effort and told the IAEA that the studies were part of a video “animation game,” the report said.
A chart in the report assessed that the warhead was not likely to be for a chemical, biological or conventional explosive warhead for a satellite.
However, it judged that all the various characteristics of the warhead were “likely” for use with a nuclear device.
The report said two member states gave the IAEA information on nuclear-arms modeling studies by Iran in 2008 and 2009, something described as “of particular concern to the agency.”
The computer modeling involved spheres like those in the core of a nuclear bomb, including a highly enriched uranium pit that is subjected to conventional explosive pressure and the resulting nuclear explosion.
“The application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the Agency,” the report said, noting that it is “essential that Iran engage with the agency and provide an explanation.”
Iran’s government insists it is not involved in nuclear weapons development, only the production of nuclear-powered electrical generating capabilities.
Another disclosure in the report sheds light on Iranian efforts to construct small capsules used as containers for a component that has nuclear material.
These “neutron initiators” are “components, [that] if placed in the center of a nuclear core of an implosion type nuclear device and compressed, could produce a burst of neutrons suitable for initiating a fission chain reaction” - a step in creating a nuclear blast.
The design work appeared to have been provided to Iran through the covert Pakistani nuclear supplier group headed by A.Q. Khan.
The agency believes “work in this technical area may have continued in Iran after 2004 and that Iran embarked on a four-year program, from around 2006 onwards, on the further validation of the design of this neutron source ….
“Given the importance of neutron generation and transport, and their effect on geometries containing fissile materials in the context of an implosion device, Iran needs to explain to the Agency its objectives and capabilities in this field.”
Iran also made preparations for an underground nuclear test, the report said. The preparations included detonators that would fire if triggered electrically over long distances to a “test device located down a deep shaft,” according to the report.
Farsi-language documents also discussed logistics and safety measures for conducting an underground nuclear test, considered an essential step before a state can declare itself a nuclear weapons power.
“The Agency has been informed by a different member state that these arrangements directly reflect those which have been used in nuclear tests conducted by nuclear-weapon states,” the report said.
Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said the IAEA report shifts the focus on Tehran’s arms program to perfecting a nuclear missile warhead.
“It’s not clear if this report will encourage those that want to bomb Iran or resign them to having to live with an Iran that now will forever be on the verge of acquiring a bomb,” he said.
“The only thing that’s crystal now is that barring regime change, we are all in for a rough ride.”