For years specialists debated about the nature of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. If the evidence presented by the International Atomic Energy Agency on November 8 is accurate, there is little doubt about Iran’s intention. It is continuing efforts to master the skills needed to produce nuclear weapons, while simultaneously accumulating stocks of partially enriched uranium. Before long, that combination could allow Iran to sprint to a small nuclear arsenal and pose a serious challenge to the security and stability of the Middle East security.
With UN sanctions and other international efforts having so far failed to curb the Iranian nuclear program and overt military intervention viewed as a very high-cost option, attention is likely to turn to unconventional means. Those seeking to deter Iran might resort to clandestine operations, including cyber warfare and sabotage, to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and check its nuclear progress.
According to the IAEA report, Iran has engaged in numerous activities directly related to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Iran, it states, received a nuclear weapon design from a “clandestine nuclear supply network,” which supplied a similar design to Libya – a clear reference to the network operated by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. In simplified form, the design consists of a set of hollow spheres nested into another.
The outermost sphere consists of specially shaped high explosive “lenses,” which, when detonated, implode to crush a hollow sphere of highly enriched uranium nesting inside. Mastering the design and manufacture of the lenses is one of the most difficult aspects of constructing a nuclear device. Among other challenges, all the lenses must fire simultaneously.
The IAEA report goes into considerable detail regarding how Iran worked on mastering this implosion technique, aided by “a foreign expert… who worked for much of his career in the nuclear weapon program of his country of origin,” identified in press accounts as the Soviet Union. Satellite images also revealed that Iran had built a special chamber for conducting explosive experiments, the IAEA reported.
The agency also detailed how Iran also obtained technical information on machining highly enriched uranium metal – the fuel for a nuclear detonation – into hemispheres and conducted related experiments. The only known use for such items is in nuclear weapons.
A third sphere at the centre of the bomb, known as an initiator, is used to provide a shower of neutrons to ignite a nuclear chain reaction. The IAEA found evidence of Iranian research and experimentation on this bomb component as well.
The agency also determined that Iran investigated the practical aspects of conducting a nuclear test and did extensive modelling studies on adapting a nuclear device to serve as a warhead for its Shahab-3 intermediate range missile. – including “at least 14 progressive design iterations.”
The IAEA report states that the agency relied on information provided by 10 member states – much of it likely from the United States – and the agency’s own investigations, which included interviews, examination of published sources and use of commercial satellite imagery.
The report does not estimate how much progress Iran has made in various areas of “weaponisation.” Nonetheless, Iran worked on these matters for more than two decades and could well have mastered many of them.
The agency found that Iran dismantled a centralized program to develop nuclear-weapon production techniques in 2003, as indicated in a 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate. However, the agency determined that some important activities continued thereafter, dispersed to a variety of Iranian research centers.
The weaponisation work, the report notes, began at a time when Iran was secretly constructing two uranium enrichment plants at Natanz. The program was exposed by an Iranian opposition group in mid-2002 and is now under IAEA monitoring. Iran, however, shortly began the secret construction of a third uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom. Iran publicly acknowledged the facility in late 2009, after it learned that it had been discovered by Western intelligence agencies. It, too, is now subject to inspection.
Iran, which claims the facilities will supply fuel for existing and future nuclear reactors, has been slowly accumulating a stockpile of uranium enriched to between 3 and 5 percent, suitable for nuclear power reactor fuel. If the material were to be further enriched to the 80 to 90 percent level used in weapons, however, it could provide fuel for roughly for four nuclear devices. Iran is also enriching smaller amounts of uranium to 19.9 percent, considerably closer to the weapons level. It claims this material will be used to fuel a research reactor in Tehran, but Iran is accumulating far more 19.9 percent fuel than the facility needs and has announced plans to expand production.
The growing stocks of this material, together with Iran’s weaponisation work to date could give it the ability to build a small arsenal in three years, according to most estimates, and possibly sooner. It is this emerging “breakout” capability that the United States, Israel and others find most menacing.
The international community, with the United States and Israel in the lead, had worked strenuously to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities and pressure the country to curtail its nuclear program. UN sanctions have banned all nuclear trade with Iran, frozen the assets of Iranian organizations and individuals linked to its nuclear program, called for the inspection of air and sea shipments to the country that might include nuclear contraband, and barred related financial transactions.
The United States, the European Union and others like-minded states have greatly expanded the list of sanctioned entities and persons, restricted port access for Iranian vessels, and denied many Iranian banks access to the Western banking system, making it difficult for Iran to conduct business internationally. The United States has also prohibited sales of refined oil products to Iran and threatened to deny access to US markets to any US or foreign company that continues to do so.
It is also widely understood that the United States and Israel jointly developed a computer worm –Stuxnet – that led to the destruction of a portion of Iran’s centrifuges at Natanz. And, several Iranian nuclear specialists have been assassinated by unknown assailants.
While Russia and China are likely to block an expansion of existing UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran, Washington is considering what could be a devastating unilateral measure: denying the Central Bank of Iran access to the Western banking system. It will also press for stricter implementation of sanctions cutting off gasoline sales to Tehran and increased inspection of vessels with Iran-bound cargoes.
Given Iran’s apparent ability to continue its weaponisation work and expand its stocks of enriched uranium despite existing nonproliferation efforts, external opponents of its nuclear bid are also undoubtedly developing new clandestine measures to check Tehran’s progress. Cyber warfare, intimidation of individuals and companies, and terrorist-style attacks on “soft” nuclear targets, such as research centres, could be on the list.
Indeed, given the steadily shrinking timeline before Iran acquires its breakout capability and the wise reluctance to apply overt military force, Washington and its allies may have few other options for preventing a nuclear Iran. That means clandestine operations may soon take centre stage in the ongoing war of nerves with Tehran.
Leonard S. Spector directs the Washington, DC, office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Rights: Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online