Iran’s Nuclear Program Never Ceased

A new IAEA report makes clear Iran’s nuclear program continues to have “military dimensions”

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.” This is show number 77.

Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are in the news again.

Back in 2004, Spectrum senior editor Bill Sweet wrote the following. “Why would Iran, a country that has some of the world's largest reserves of fossil fuels, need an extensive, multibillion-dollar program of nuclear development? Since the prerevolutionary years of the Shah, the determination of this country to build nuclear power plants has aroused wide suspicion.”

“But now”—and again, that refers to 2004—“a series of revelations and new findings during the last year has left little doubt that Iran has been secretly engaged in an extensive [weapons] program.... Indeed, the Iranians have been assembling the nuclear wherewithal with a speed and determination not seen since the heyday of Iraq’s infamous nuclear weapons program of the 1980s.”

At the time, the revelations about Iran’s nuclear R&D stunned the world and spurred the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency to put Iran on a short leash of frequent and thoroughgoing inspections and reports. Nevertheless, here it is, 2011, and once again, the world was stunned last week by a new IAEA report entitled “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Program” [PDF].

Bill Sweet retired at Spectrum a couple of years ago, but he’s as active as ever. He continues to write for us about energy and environmental matters and he blogs for the Foreign Policy Association, where he’s been diligently covering the IAEA report for the past week. He joins us by phone from Brooklyn.

Bill, welcome back to the podcast.

Bill Sweet: Thank you, Steven.

Steven Cherry: Bill, the report’s annex has been getting the bulk of the attention in the press, but as you’ve been writing, the main body of the report has some surprises as well. What did we learn last week that we didn’t know before?

Bill Sweet: Well, in this period since 2003–2004, you know, when the IAEA first blew the whistle about Iran having discovered it during the previous two or three decades, it had been engaged in a large number of activities related to the acquisition of material that could be used in an atomic bomb, that it had kept these activities secret and it had not reported them to the agency as required by the nonproliferation treaty. So prima facie, that suggested strongly that Iran was intending to develop nuclear weapons and was getting ready to do so, and this prompted the agency as you just said to greatly tighten its supervision of Iran and it ultimately prompted the United Nations to adopt quite strict sanctions against Iran, which are now in effect. But throughout this period since 2003–2004, it has been not clear and has been highly contested whether Iran was actually designing and developing a nuclear weapon itself. In other words, Is Iran just positioning itself to develop a nuclear weapon once it is in the position to actually produce the material for such a weapon? Or is it already designing a nuclear weapon so that when it has the material for a weapon it can just, so to speak, drop that material into the weapon and it’s ready to go.

Steven Cherry: It takes more than a bomb to bomb a country. You have to deliver it. According to the report, it looks like Iran has been working on that part of it as well.

Bill Sweet: Yeah. That is I think one of the most disconcerting and alarming things about this report, Steven. What the report found was that in the period up until 2003–2004, Iran had a comprehensive carefully organized program to design and develop a nuclear warhead, and not just a nuclear warhead but a nuclear warhead that could be specifically fitted to a medium-range missile it was also developing and testing. And the evidence having to do with that—the fact that the agency found considerable efforts that the weapon was being configured and sized to go atop a medium-range missile, which Iran was already well along in developing. That was a big alarm signal.

Steven Cherry: Let’s talk about the report itself for a minute. It seems largely based on information gathered by intelligence agencies of what the report calls “member states.” There were about a dozen intelligence agencies that were providing this information, and I guess, much of the information came from one intelligence agency that provided a single large report.

Bill Sweet: That’s right. The report says they got a single document of approximately 1000 pages from one member state documenting much of Iran’s activity relating to nuclear development, and then the report says that the information in that document was then corroborated to a great extent by information that they received from some 10 other countries. And then they did research of their own of various kinds—went to Iran, saw as much as they could, talked to as many people as they could, so the report shows ample evidence of very meticulous cross-checking. Of course the report does not say and can’t say who specifically they got information from; it does not contain footnotes. Nonetheless the report gives the reader a good vivid sense of what kind of procedures led to its creation, and there are many instances in the report where they will say, Well, it was asserted, lets say, in this 1000-page document provided by the one member state that the Iranians were doing such and such; we found that when we looked over at this particular activity that in fact everything that Iran was doing in that area was exactly consistent with what Iran was alleged to be doing in this other area. As I said there are many instances of that in the report, and that kind of language and that kind of care gives this report, I think, a lot of credibility.

Steven Cherry: So we should consider the report to reflect current and accurate information, I mean it’s hard not to remember that these are the same intelligence agencies that said that Saddam Hussein had an active weapons of mass destruction program a decade ago.

Bill Sweet: Well, that’s right. I think if you were to ask, Why is the report important, I think it’s because it’s not just coming from one intelligence agency or another intelligence agency. U.S. intelligence, of course, was very badly compromised by what happened in the run-up to the second gulf war. The U.S. intelligence community gave Iran a clean bill of health in 2007, but if U.S. intelligence was allowing itself to be manipulated for political purposes in one instance, why might it not be in another instance. The reputation and credibility of the IAEA has steadily improved in the last two decades. So first of all, the fact that this report represents an assessment of all the intelligence information it was able to get from many intelligence agencies gives it a kind of credibility it wouldn’t have if it were just coming from one agency that was beholden to one country’s political interests. And second, I think it’s also important to bear in mind that there was obviously a debate within the IAEA about whether to release these findings. This is because obviously there was a lot of concern that some country, Israel in particular but possibly also the United States, might take these findings to be adequate grounds for a preemptive military attack against Iran. So the fact that in the end the agency decided that it really had to release these findings testifies to how serious the agency itself considers these findings.

Steven Cherry: Bill, the Stuxnet worm was a highly directed cyberattack that successfully targeted Iran’s uranium enrichment program by disabling the centrifuges that refine the uranium. Reportedly, the Stuxnet attack set Iran’s nuclear program back two or three years, and yet even with that you wrote—I’m going to quote you again—you wrote, “although it still quite some distance from being in a position to build a bomb, Iran is undoubtedly much closer than it was in 2003–2004 when it had to start going underground in every sense.” So I guess my question here is Iran just incorrigible here? Is it like some pedophile that just can’t keep it’s nuclear ambitions under control? What is the rest of the world to do here?

Bill Sweet: Well, I’d be careful about using language like pedophile, because in a certain sense I think Iran’s attitude here is not that different from say, what the attitude of France or England was after World War II. In that period, British scientists, in particular, had been a very important ingredient in what produced the first American atomic bomb, and after the war it was just taken for granted in England that England was entitled also to have nuclear weapons. The French as a member of the wartime alliance also, as a traditional great power in Europe, also took it that they were entitled to have nuclear weapons. And when you look at the histories of the nuclear weapons programs in countries like France and England, what you find is that basically hardly anybody opposed their developing nuclear weapons. And over a period of a decade or more, there were changes of government from Labour to Conservative back to Labour in England, similar in France, that regardless of who was in power it was taken for granted that the country was entitled to have nuclear weapons and was going to get nuclear weapons. I think something of the same kind of attitude prevails in Iran. They think of themselves as a major power, if not the major power in the Middle East. They look around them and see countries like India and Pakistan having acquired nuclear weapons, and their attitude is “We count, we’re entitled to have nuclear weapons.” I think if you were to imagine a scenario where the current regime were overthrown by, let’s say, the people who have been demonstrating in the streets at times in the last years, it might very well make no difference at all on this particular issue. It might in fact be the case that no matter what government came to power in Iran, they would remain determined to at least put themselves into a position where they could acquire nuclear weapons.

Steven Cherry: Bill, you worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency as an intern back in 1974, and you’ve been writing about nuclear arms control ever since. Is the agency up to the task of keeping us apprised of Iran’s activities and letting member states know when Iran is straying from the narrow path?

Bill Sweet: Well, I think it’s doing a good job of that. There are obviously limits to how much it can get done, but those limits also tell you something. After the first gulf war in which it was discovered that Saddam had a large secret nuclear weapons program that the agency had completely missed, the agency reacted to that unpleasant news very energetically and set about acquiring for itself much more extensive powers of inspection than it had previously had. And one thing it did was start to go around the world and try to get all member countries of the nonproliferation treaty to agree to something called the “additional protocol,” which essentially gives the agency the right to demand access to facilities that it considers suspect and individuals that it considers suspect. Previously all the agency could really do was monitor declared facilities, in other words if you had a nuclear reactor, the agency visited periodically and made sure that the fuel that you put into the reactor came out of the reactor and didn’t go somewhere else—that kind of thing. Now Iran initially agreed to this additional protocol, but then when the agency started getting very aggressive, when Iran came under suspicion it stopped implementing the additional protocol and started to refuse to give the agency access to facilities and individuals it wanted to see. And in a certain sense I think that’s all you need to know. When a country starts doing that, you really have to just adopt a worst-case interpretation and assume that the only reason why a country would act that way is if its got something to hide. If it didn’t have something to hide, it wouldn’t cause itself the inconvenience of annoying the IAEA and the immense inconvenience of then seeing the United Nations impose very onerous economic sanctions. So the short answer, Steven, I think is yes they are up to the job, but of course that still leaves the rest of the world with this very intractable question of what do we do about it?

Steven Cherry: This whole thing is a disturbing development in a world that probably doesn’t much want to hear about disturbing developments. In fact, whether it’s climate change or the continuing high cost of solar energy or the nuclear threats that we can’t seem to shake two decades after the end of the Cold War, your writings consist of one disturbing development after another, Bill. For which, I think, we listeners and readers ought to at least once in a while express some grudging gratitude so…

Bill Sweet: Call me gloom and doom.

Steven Cherry: On their behalf, let me say thanks for all these disturbing development reports.

Bill Sweet: Okay, thanks, Steven.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Bill Sweet, retired senior editor at Spectrum, and still an expert reporter on nuclear weapons and policy, on Iran’s ongoing nuclear ambitions. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 16 November 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter @Spectrumpodcast

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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