Tehran pushes the limits of obfuscation
The Iranian elections, stirring up protests and a crackdown, have been dominating the recent news about that nation on the international scene, shifting attention from Tehran’s nuclear program.Yet, the evidence continues to grow that Tehran’s nuclear activities are proceeding apace, with possible military applications.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won a second term in the disputed election, has ruled out negotiations on his country’s nuclear program. The U.S. and Israel in particular suspect Iran of using that program to develop atomic weapons. Tehran insists the technology is designed only for peaceful use.
Queries from IAEA
A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), published in late August, says the evidence of Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapon design research “is sufficiently comprehensive and detailed.” Tehran maintains that the evidence is forged, and the agency has demanded substantiation of that claim.
The information cited by the IAEA includes computer files and other records provided by Western nations on Iranian nuclear-weapon research. The evidence reportedly reveals that Tehran has carried out high-explosive (HE) experiments relevant to the complex detonation sequence of a nuclear weapon.
At least as significant is evidence concerning Iranian efforts to modify its Shahab missile so it can carry a nuclear warhead payload.
The IAEA continues to urge Tehran to provide more “substantive responses” to the dispute, specifically seeking access to Iran’s nuclear records. Tehran has persistently failed to implement the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol” – a legal document complementing safeguard agreements – which would allow agency inspectors extended access to Iran’s nuclear sites on short notice.
This is pertinent since the latest report had to be based on evidence supplied not from actual inspections but from other sources. This makes it more difficult to assess the true capabilities of the alleged Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. Iran’s tendency to lean towards non-compliance attracts even more suspicions about its nuclear activities.
The latest international watchdog report has been hindered by the lack of inspection evidence. Nevertheless, according to Philip Parham, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, the latest IAEA report “catalogues a litany of Iranian obfuscation and obstruction” and “makes clear that Iran continues willfully to fail to meet its legally binding international obligations.”
Iran’s Warhead Design
The HE design issue is uppermost in this “obfuscation.” Iran has admitted that it has experimented with the civil application of simultaneously functioning multiple detonators. This design element would be vital to a plutonium weapon, which detonates through implosion of carefully constructed, perfectly symmetrical high-explosive “lenses.”
The agency is still waiting for Iranian confirmation that such work is solely for civil and non-nuclear military purposes. The IAEA also wants clarification about the purpose of a visit by a foreign explosives expert.
Other aspects of Iran’s program with possible military applications also need to be explained. At issue in this regard are the procurement and research and development activities of Iran’s military related institutes and companies that could be nuclear-related, and the production of nuclear-related equipment and components by Iranian defense companies.
Enrichment and Heavy Water
In short, Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities or its work on heavy-water-related projects as required by the U.N. Security Council.
Yet, while the design issue remains disputed and enrichment progresses, the IAEA report does acknowledge that Iran has shown a degree of cooperation on its enrichment and processing activities, some of which are still under observation by the international watchdog. This is consistent with Iran’s strategy of cooperation mixed with obfuscation.
Although Iran has increased the capacity of its Natanz enrichment site, the number of operational centrifuges has fallen by around 400 from the 5,000 or so previously in use.
The IAEA says that Iran’s adding 1,000 centrifuges – bringing the Natanz total to 8,308 – has not increased uranium enrichment since those centrifuges are off-line, being repaired or upgraded. The production rate is said to remain at about 50 percent capacity.
Between November 2008 and the end of July, Iran put through the enrichment centrifuges 7,940 kg of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). This is the material processed out of uranium ore as a vital preliminary stage before enrichment. This yielded 670 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU). Small amounts of UF6 were also fed into two experimental high-speed centrifuge cascades and – of considerable interest for the future of the enrichment program – into experimental next-generation machines.
Also of interest is Tehran’s late notification to the agency of the construction of new facilities – such as requested preliminary design information for a new plant to be built in Darkhovin – and design changes of existing facilities.
Weapons-design developments potentially hinge on progress in producing plutonium for warheads, which require a more complex design. After repeated IAEA requests, Iran permitted access to the IR-40 reactor at Arak. When that site is up and running, it will be able to produce deuterium oxide, or heavy water, which is vital for plutonium production. The plant is scheduled to become fully operational in 2011. It is now around 60 percent completed, with no reactor yet in operation.
Iran is still required to provide updated and more detailed design information about the nuclear fuel characteristics, fuel-handling and transfer equipment. It also is supposed to provide details on the nuclear material accountancy and control system, which has been a noted area of past non-compliance. In the absence of inspections, the IAEA has used satellite imagery to monitor the status of the heavy-water production plant.
There is little doubt that Iranian missile development is well advanced. The international watchdog wants to inspect civilian workshops that have been involved in the production of model prototypes of a new payload chamber for a missile re-entry vehicle. This is likely intended for the Shahab-3 missile, which has an intended range of around 1,000 miles (1,600 km).
Iran has yet to confirm or deny if the redesign engineering and modelling studies for the chamber are for a nuclear payload.
Some information on the Iranian nuclear program has been supplied by opposition groups. When this generated IAEA questions, Tehran generally has provided limited answers or simple denials.
In May 2009, Iran test-fired a Sajjil-2 surface-to-surface solid-fuel missile in Semnan province in northern Iran, claiming it landed “precisely on target.” An earlier version was tested in November 2008. The claimed range of about 1,250 miles (2,000 km) would make the Sajjil-2 capable of reaching Israel or U.S. bases in the Middle East. That missile, said the Iranians, was equipped with a new navigation system as well as precise and sophisticated sensors.
Iran’s missile efforts have been focused on the medium-range Shahab-3, a single-stage, liquid-propellant ballistic missile. A solid-fueled ballistic missile needs highly sophisticated technology, but may be more accurate and less vulnerable to attack during fuelling.
The Next Step
Just before an early September international meeting aimed at assessing joint policy towards Iran, Tehran said it had a new proposal to offer the group, known in diplomatic jargon as the E3+3. The group consists of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Tehran called for further talks, repeating its pattern when faced with more sanctions.
The E3+3 put forward a “freeze for freeze” proposal, stipulating that the international community would stop extending sanctions if Iran ceased expanding its Natanz enrichment facility. More time was allowed for Iran’s response, which was delayed by the bloody aftermath of the Iranian presidential elections.
The next deadline for Iran is in late September. Though Tehran seems to believe otherwise, deadlines cannot be extended endlessly and patience is wearing thin in some quarters. That proved to be the case in September 2007 when Israeli aircraft attacked what was apparently a North Korean-supplied plutonium reactor in Al Kibar, Syria.
Author: Andy Oppenheimer
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