The UN’s nuclear watchdog on Tuesday expressed “serious concerns” that Iran had been carrying out research work on the construction of a nuclear warhead, and said the effort could still be underway.
In its report on Iran’s nuclear programme, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had accumulated more than 1,000 pages of documentation that had let it to believe that suspected nuclear weapons work was done under a “structured programme” up to 2003, and that “some may still be ongoing”.
The IAEA notes that some of the key officials, including Mohsen Fakhrikzadeh, portrayed in the west as the mastermind behind the weapon project, had moved to a series of other institutions but appeared to be pursuing similar work.
“The agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme,” the report says.
The agency has previously stated concern about the “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian programme, but this report is notable for its level of detail and the agency’s judgment that information from 10 member states appeared credible.
“What is striking is the totality and breadth of the information. Virtually every component of warhead research has been pursued by Iran,” said a source close to the IAEA. “The agency has very, very, high confidence in its analysis. It did not want to make a mistake, and it was aware it had a very high threshold of credibility to meet. So it would not be published unless they had that high level of confidence.”
However, Russia criticised the IAEA for releasing so much information, questioning whether it was “whipping up emotions” that would reduce hopes of a dialogue. Moscow’s immediate critical response indicated that the new report was unlikely to alter the Russian government’s mind over its opposition to new sanctions being placed on Iran.
The report says that Iran was steadily installing more equipment, for enriching uranium, at a highly fortified site dug under a mountain at Fordow. It said that 412 centrifuges had been installed in an underground chamber, and “a large cylinder” of low enriched uranium had also been transferred to the site, where Iran had said it intended to pursue higher levels of enrichment.
The IAEA said its assessment was that Iran had been involved in an effort to develop a covert source of enrichment of uranium, not subject to the agency’s monitoring and safeguards.
The operation, known as the “green salt project”, involved an alternative method of enrichment to the centrifuges used in IAEA-monitored facilities. The agency said the project was intended “to provide a source of uranium suitable for use in an undisclosed enrichment programme”.
The report says: “The product of this programme would be converted into metal for use in the new warhead which was the subject of the missile re-entry vehicle studies.”
It adds that over the past three years UN inspectors have been able to confirm a link between the green salt project and a separate project to design a missile warhead.
The significance of the finding is that it points to the possibility of a covert, parallel programme to produce fissile material for a missile warhead, beyond the reach of the IAEA’s mandate to monitor declared stockpiles of enriched uranium, and ore.
The IAEA report says the suspected weapons project, known as the Amad plan, was stopped rather abruptly by Tehran in late 2003. Afterwards, however, the agency said it had information that “staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects”. It adds: “Subsequently, equipment and work places were either cleaned or disposed of so that there would be little to identify the sensitive nature of the work which had been undertaken.”
IAEA inspectors had been given information from member states, the agency said, that indicated “that some activities previously carried out under the Amad plan were resumed later”. The evidence suggested that the alleged head of the Amad project, Fakhrizadeh “retained the principal organisational role”.
The report says that Fakhrizadeh moved to a new organisation, known as the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies, which continued to report to the same defence ministry armed forces logistics unit that oversaw the Amad plan up to 2003. Then, in mid-2008, the IAEA says, Fakhrizadeh became head of the Malek Ashtar University of Technology (MUT) in Tehran, and then, according to one member state, in February 2011 to yet another organisation, next door to MUT, called the Organisation of Defensive Innovation and Research.
The report adds that the research work carried out by these at various bodies would be highly relevant to designing a warhead.
IAEA’s report goes into more detail about evidence that Iran did preliminary work for a nuclear test. A 2008 document noted a blueprint for a 400-metre shaft, about six miles from a “firing control point”. The new report says it acquired another document in Farsi “which relates directly to the logistics and safety arrangements … necessary for conducting a nuclear test”.
The new report also repeats earlier IAEA concerns about the aims of Project 111, between 2002 and 2003, which looked at fitting a spherical payload into the nose cone of one Iran’s Shahab 3 missiles. Iran had contested the authenticity of the evidence saying the supporting computer documents had been manipulated. However, the new report judges that “the quantity of the documentation, and the scope and contents of the work covered in the documentation, are sufficiently comprehensive and complex that, in the agency’s view, it is not likely to have been the result of forgery or fabrication”.
A western diplomat said the report represented new ground for the agency and for its director general, Yukiya Amano.
“Instead of just going through the motions, repeating that the IAEA had asked Iran for information but sadly it had not been forthcoming, Amano is offering some kind of judgment on the quality and volume of the evidence. He feels on solid ground, and is offering a riposte to Iran and its sympathisers, who claim it is all fabricated,” the diplomat said.