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Analysis: Twelve Questions Iran Refuses To Answer About Its Nuclear Weapons Research

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has questions about twelve aspects of Iran’s past nuclear weapons research that the Islamic Republic has failed to satisfactorily answer, according to an analysis that appeared in The New York Times on Sunday.

These twelve areas of past Iranian research include computer simulations, detonation experiments, and delivery systems for nuclear warheads. While the analysis lists one of the areas of questions as having been discussed and two as “being on the table,” the other nine have not been discussed at all.

The one listed as having been discussed was research into electrically-fired detonators, which Iran explained as having applications for peaceful mining purposes. But experiments involving such detonators are believed to have taken place in the military base at Parchin, and Iran has not allowed a thorough investigation of the site. It has also paved over areas where the experiments are believed to have taken place.

According to the analysis, there is an ongoing debate among Western negotiators over how much weight to give to Iran’s failure to abide by past agreements (including the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action ) and come clean about its illicit military nuclear program.

That inner debate, as one European official in the midst of the negotiations put it, turns on “whether to force Iran to explain its past” — especially before 2003, when American intelligence officials believe Iran operated a full-scale equivalent of the Manhattan Project — “or whether to focus on the future.”

American officials are vague when pressed on how fully Iran will have to answer questions it has avoided for years from United Nations inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna. To date, Iran has dodged all but one of the agency’s dozen sharp questions on bomb design.

“Iran’s most serious verification shortcoming,” Olli Heinonen, the former chief inspector, now at Harvard, said recently, “remains its unwillingness to address concerns about the past and possibly ongoing military dimensions of its nuclear program.”

The questions cited by the analysis were prompted by documentation accumulated by the IAEA raising questions about the nature of Iran’s nuclear research. Yukiya Amano, the director general of the IAEA, dismissed Iranian charges that the incriminating documents were forged, “saying the inspectors had confirmed the documents by consulting other sources.”

The analysis zeroes in on the fundamental question raised by the incriminating documents:

The problem is that the documents, if real, would undercut Iran’s argument that its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful, centering on the production of radioisotopes for medicine and electrical power for economic growth.

Expertise in warhead design, as opposed to atomic fuel production, is far more ephemeral and hard to track. It can also be less ambiguous. Some nuclear parts have application only to making weapons, such as neutron spark plugs at the core of some atom bombs. In contrast, uranium can fuel both nuclear arms and reactors that make electricity — it can light cities or annihilate them.

Without full knowledge of Iran’s past nuclear research—some of which could be ongoing secretly—there is no way to verify that Iran’s nuclear program is only for civilian purposes. As Omri Ceren, The Israel Project’s managing director for press and strategy, explained for The Tower last October, establishing the full extent of Iran’s past nuclear research is essential to establishing a baseline for effective verification that Iran has no military nuclear program. The Israel Project publishes The Tower.

At stake are international concerns over the so-called possible military dimensions (PMDs) of the Iranian nuclear program, the central significance of which has sometimes been underplayed by voices within the foreign policy community. While the P5+1 is charged with negotiating over Iran’s uranium work, its plutonium work, and its ballistic missile work – all of which the Iranians are obligated by half a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions to roll back – the IAEA seeks to establish the scope of Iran’s overall atomic program, including in those three more specific areas.

The mandate stretches beyond full-blown weaponization work, and into military involvement in uranium mining, centrifuge construction, and so on. Full Iranian disclosure is considered a minimum to establishing a robust verification regime: The IAEA can’t verify that Iran has met its obligations to limit uranium work, for instance, unless it knows the full scope of the uranium work that’s being done. PMD-related transparency is seen as not just another issue – say, one that Iran could refuse to trade away by making concessions in other areas – but as a prerequisite to verifying Iranian compliance across all issues.

Acknowledging the full extent of its past nuclear research and current secret research is essential for Iran to show that it has no hidden military nuclear program. But as a former administration official told The New York Times at the time the Joint Plan of Action was signed:

There is no evidence of those facilities now, but, as a former senior Obama administration official said recently, speaking anonymously to discuss intelligence, “there has never been a time in the past 15 years or so when Iran didn’t have a hidden facility in construction.”

Additionally, the The New York Times reported last November:

The American officials are highly attuned to the findings of a once-classified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran ended its headlong race for a bomb in late 2003. But it also concluded that smaller-scale activity continued, and warned that “Iran probably would use covert facilities — rather than its declared nuclear sites — for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.”

This underscores the significance of Amano’s declaration in late January (and repeated last week by the IAEA):

As far as Iran is concerned, the Agency is able to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material declared to us by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement.

But we are not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

 [Photo: EurasiaNet / YouTube ]