The IAEA report on the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program is out. It says that Iran had a coordinated program for investigating the development of a nuclear bomb until 2003, scattered experiments without a program structure until 2009, and nothing after 2009.
Here are my early observations.
The IAEA has confirmed the outlines of the program management structure it deduced for the Iranian nuclear weapons program and feels that this program was “brought to a halt” in late 2003 (paragraph 22). “Although some activities took place after 2003, they were not part of a coordinated effort” (paragraph 24).
Part of the material in what has been called the laptop of death, files more likely on a thumb drive that turned up in 2006, was about a green salt project. That name comes from UF4, one of the intermediates in producing uranium metal, which is a green salt. The IAEA seems to have verified that project. Surrogate materials (lead oxide, according to paragraph 34) were used to prevent the scattering-around of more easily detectable uranium. However,
The Agency assesses that the process design for the production of uranium salts was technically flawed and of low quality in comparison to what was available to Iran as part of its declared nuclear fuel cycle. (paragraph 30)
This suggests a couple of things: That the weapons program was operating separately from the civilian program, and that, for the future, building a parallel clandestine program poses serious problems.
“The Agency assesses that any quantity of nuclear material that may have been available to Iran under the AMAD Plan [the nuclear weapons program] would have been within the uncertainties associated with nuclear material accountancy and related measurements” (paragraph 32). This assessment is likely to be used by opponents of the JCPOA to argue that Iran can build a bomb within those uncertainties. In paragraph 31, however, that discrepancy is identified as several kilograms, far from enough for a bomb. Additionally, accounting will be stricter under the JCPOA than it was in the early 2000s.
“Based on all the information available to it, the Agency has found no indications of Iran having conducted activities which can be directly traced to the ‘uranium metal document’ or to design information for a nuclear explosive device from the clandestine nuclear supply network” (paragraph 35). The clandestine nuclear supply network is almost certainly the A.Q. Khan network. Apparently Iran used not much of their information beyond centrifuge design, although Khan made a design for a nuclear weapon and other information available.
Exploding bridgewire (EBW) detonators are particularly suited for use in nuclear weapons. Iran began developing them in 2002-2003. In section E.5, the IAEA details the rationale Iran has given for that development and finds it unconvincing. EBW detonators are used in oilfield applications, and Iran continues to develop them for that purpose. The IAEA’s implicit message is that this is an area it will continue to monitor.
Section E.6 takes on the question of multipoint detonation experiments, which would be necessary for an implosion weapon. A ‘foreign expert’ is mentioned, whose description fits that of Vyacheslav Danilenko. Again, Iran supplied information and argued that the experiments were for civilian purposes, but the IAEA sees them as also having applications to the development of nuclear explosives.
Both Marivan and Parchin have been mentioned as test sites. The report says that multipoint experiments were done at Marivan, and the experiments believed to have been done at Parchin (Section E.7) were hydrodynamic experiments. The IAEA links Danilenko to the design of an explosives containment chamber that could have accommodated such experiments. However, Iran has modified the building extensively since the IAEA first asked to inspect it, and thus
The Agency assesses that the extensive activities undertaken by Iran since February 2012 at the particular location of interest to the Agency seriously undermined the Agency’s ability to conduct effective verification. (paragraph 57)
The sampling arrangement described in paragraph 52 could be similar to what I described in my article at War on the Rocks, but there is not enough detail to be sure. I would have liked for that “floor with an unusual cross-section” to have been inspected with ground-penetrating radar (paragraph 53). That would have shown up places where a containment cylinder might have been fixed in place. The IAEA made good use of its sampling; although Iran claimed that the building was used for chemical storage, no such chemicals were found (paragraph 55). Thus the IAEA remains dubious about Iran’s claims.
The IAEA also believes that Iran did “incomplete and fragmented” calculations between 2005 and 2009 to model a nuclear explosive device (Section E.8). Iran also has capabilities to develop a neutron initiator (Section E.9). It may have done experiments to see if it could use its EBW detonators in an underground test (Section E.10). Iran may have been working to fit a nuclear device into a warhead (Section E.11), and also to develop a fuzing, arming, and firing system (Section E. 12). All of this suggests that Iran had something like a nuclear weapon design other than what was supplied by the Khan network. It is possible that the design was very preliminary.
The Agency’s overall assessment is that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003. The Agency also assesses that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities. The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009. (paragraph 85)
The Agency has found no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. (paragraph 88)
None of this is a gigantic surprise to those of us who have been following this story closely. The report fills in a number of details, particularly on EBW, multipoint initiation, and the Parchin facility. It confirms that Iran did indeed have a program directed at nuclear weapons; some commentators outside Iran have insisted that one never existed and that all evidence that one did was fabricated. That is pretty clearly not the case.
If the material covered in this report is the most of the evidence for such a program, however, it was not close to producing a bomb. The IAEA has confirmed locations of various activities, which opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have insisted on knowing. The fact that Iran ended relevant research in 2009 is significant; a number of things happened that year, including the election of Barack Obama and deeper IAEA scrutiny, to make the pursuit of a bomb less attractive.
Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA remains limited. Because Iran has insisted for so long that it has not worked and would not work on nuclear weapons, larger revelations would be a significant loss of face. Although the IAEA report is supposed to be confidential, Iran knew that it, like all the rest of the IAEA reports on Iran, would be distributed widely within hours of its official publication. So the fact that they have supported some of the IAEA’s material is positive.
Other nations that have given up nuclear weapons programs, like South Africa and South Korea, have not provided all the information on their programs, even many years after they came into compliance with the IAEA. The important thing is where we go from here. If the JCPOA is as effective as its predecessor, the Joint Plan of Action, has been for the past two years, we don’t have to worry about an Iranian bomb.