WASHINGTON — Iran worked for five years to develop a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile before abruptly halting the project in late 2003, and some aspects of a nuclear weapons program “may still be ongoing,” the U.N. nuclear watchdog reported Tuesday.
It's the first time that the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency said it believes that Iran pursued a nuclear weapon. The report to the 35-nation IAEA board of governors, however, contained no assessment of how much progress Iranian scientists may have made toward building a bomb.
“The report shows that after years of effort, the IAEA feels that Iran had a pretty large-scale program to build a warhead for a ballistic missile,” said David Albright, a former IAEA inspector who runs the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “We’d be in much worse shape if that program had continued.”
The report largely corroborated a 2007 U.S. intelligence estimate that said Iran had halted a nuclear weapons development program in 2003 but was keeping open the option of producing them if it decided to do so.
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The long-anticipated IAEA report expanded in unprecedented depth and detail on information used in earlier reports on what the agency calls the “military dimensions” of the nuclear program that Iran hid from U.N. inspectors for 18 years and around which it continues to drape a dense veil of secrecy.
Iran denounced the report as “a mere lie,” contending that IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, a former Japanese diplomat, relied on forged material.
The report comprises “a series of fake information added ... under U.S. political pressure,” said a commentary published by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
IRNA dismissed as “metal toilets” a massive steel containment vessel that the IAEA suspects was used for nuclear weapons-related “hydrodynamic” tests of conventional explosives at Iran's Parachin military complex.
Iran long has denied having a secret nuclear weapons effort, contending that its uranium enrichment program at Natanz and near Qom is for producing low-enriched uranium for electrical power generation. Enrichment, however, also can produce highly enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, named a succession of Iranian organizations that oversaw the project, which included the clandestine purchase of equipment and materials. It also outlined information the IAEA obtained on studies it said the Iranians had undertaken on producing a uranium bomb core and a warhead capable of being lofted atop a Shahab III ballistic missile that could hit Israel and southern Europe.
The report also said that Iran had received advice from a foreign expert, reportedly a Russian physicist; had tested sophisticated conventional explosives that can be used to compress the cores of nuclear implosion devices; had conducted computer modeling of nuclear explosions; and had made preparations for an underground test blast.
The information collected by the IAEA or provided by more than 10 member states “indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured program, and that some activities may still be ongoing,” the report said.
Those activities could include a four-year program to validate the design of a neutron initiator, a device that releases a burst of neutrons to “kick start” a nuclear chain reaction in a bomb core, the report said.
The report could create a new policy headache for President Barack Obama. He has pursued a two-track approach toward Iran of sanctions and other measures _ the United States and Israel are believed to have developed a computer virus that slowed Iran’s uranium enrichment effort _ and holding open an offer to negotiate a settlement with Tehran.
The sanctions, both international and unilateral, have seriously hurt Iran. But they have failed to force President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime into bowing to repeated U.N. demands to halt the program until Iran convinces the IAEA that it is for peaceful purposes.
With the campaign for the 2012 election intensifying, Obama could face charges by conservatives that his approach is too soft.
But while the administration maintains the option of military action against Iranian nuclear facilities remains open, the European allies and other powers firmly oppose the use of force, which could trigger a violent response and send petroleum prices soaring as the world struggles to avert an new economic crisis.
The Obama administration withheld formal comment while it studied the report. Senior administration officials conceded that they are unlikely to win the support of Russia and China _ veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council _ for a fifth round of international sanctions.
But a senior administration official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive issue, said that the United States is consulting with European allies and other countries on intensifying bilateral sanctions that have helped ground “the Iranian economy ... to a halt for the first time in decades.”
The report’s release was preceded by intense Israeli media speculation of impending Israeli airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which the Israeli government views as an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Just prior to the report’s release, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak held out the possibility of military action, saying that Iran is unlikely to bend to additional sanctions.
“We continue to recommend to our friends in the world and to ourselves not to take any option off the table,” he said, using a euphemism for military strikes.
Russia and China, which reluctantly supported four rounds of U.N. sanctions against Tehran for defying demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program, sought to delay the report’s publication, portraying it as a hindrance to international efforts to negotiate a diplomatic resolution with the Islamic republic.
Moscow called on Tuesday for time to study the new report.
"The analysis should be carried out in a calm atmosphere because it is important to figure out whether there really are new, and indeed trustworthy, facts that confirm the suspicions that there are military components in the Iranian nuclear program, or whether we're talking about the intentional and counterproductive exacerbation of emotions," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The IAEA report said that Iranian scientists launched an effort known as Project 5 that was aimed at producing “a source of uranium suitable for use in an undisclosed enrichment program. The product of this program would be converted into metal for use in a new warhead which was the subject” of studies on designing a missile “re-entry vehicle.”
“The agency has serious concerns about the military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program,” said the IAEA report. “After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the agency finds the information to be, overall, credible.”
Because of Tehran’s refusal since 2008 to cooperate in the IAEA investigation, the agency “is unable 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 for peaceful activities,” said the report.
The IAEA urged Iran “to engage substantively with the agency without delay for the purpose of providing clarifications regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”
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