There's no doubt about it - scary stories about Iran's nuclear program sell newspapers and encourage internet click-throughs. But the bubble of scary stories in advance of today's IAEA report has been unusually lurid.
Several hawkish blogs today are referencing an article from Der Spiegel magazine's science correspondent which purports to discuss a European study saying iran could have a nuclear weapon far more quickly than suggested by the recent American NIE or by the IAEA. In fact, Der Spiegel claims the study shows Iran could have a nuke by the end of the year. The key graphs:
As part of a project to improve control of nuclear materials, the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Ispra, Italy set up a detailed simulation of the centrifuges currently used by Iran in the Natanz nuclear facility to enrich uranium. The results look nothing like those reached by the US intelligence community.But there are a couple of problems with Der Spiegel's account.
For one scenario, the JRC scientists assumed the centrifuges in Natanz were operating at 100 percent efficiency. Were that the case, Iran could already have the 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium necessary for an atomic device by the end of this year. Another scenario assumed a much lower efficiency — just 25 percent. But even then, Iran would have produced enough uranium by the end of 2010.
For the purposes of the simulation, the JRC modelled each of the centrifuges individually and then hooked them together to form the kind of cascade necessary to enrich uranium. A number of variables were taken into account, including the assumption by most experts that Iran isn’t even close to operating its centrifuges at 100 percent efficiency. What is known, however, is that the Iranians are operating 18 cascades, each made up of 164 centrifuges. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself said last April that the country had 3,000 centrifuges in operation. At the time, most Western observers discounted the claim as mere propaganda. But the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Ahmadinejad’s assertion in November.
Firstly, it sidesteps entirely the IAEA surveillance and seal on Iran’s centrifuges and LEU product. The IAEA guarantees those cannot be redirected to HEU production without its knowledge. It also says that the study produces a worst case estimate based on 100% efficient centrifuges when we know from IAEA reports that Iran has never managed better than 20% efficiency. You cannot get there (enough HEU for a bomb in the timeline the study suggests) from here, so any such estimates are working from null data.
But secondly, there are reasons at the moment to doubt Der Spiegel's characterisation of this study. The JRC is committed to a promise that reports are meant "to be accessible to interested non-specialists and the media," yet I cannot find any such study on their website.
The only "project to improve control of nuclear materials" currently ongoing is one run from their Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen (IPSC), which is indeed based in Ipsa, Italy. The webpage for that program - the 4th ESARDA Nuclear Safeguards and Non Proliferation course - doesn't mention any such program either. It's described as "a chance to all students to learn more about the general background of safguards legislation, nuclear fuel cycle, verification technologies and the evolution of safguards." That doesn't exactly sound like something such a major study would be prepared for, but it's the only current program which fits Der Spiegel's description.
The nearest I can find to any study like the one Der Spiegel describes is is a reference to study papers referencing an imaginary state and based on various actual nations’ nuclear programs - intended as an exercise for students of non-proliferation techniques in preparing an inspection regime to prevent said hypothetical nation from producing a weapon. Could Der Spiegel, in a zeal to print "news" have so mischaracterised a fairly innocuous study? I've emailled the JRC asking them if they can identify and provide a copy of the study the Spiegel article referenced. If they reply, I'll let you know.
In the meantime, I noted the other day that there's been other lurid accusations over Iran's nuclear program in the past week. At the UNSC, unaligned nations want to take the IAEA report into consideration before drafting the UNSC's next resolution on Iran's program, but the US and European nations have already drafted the resolution they want voted on before seeing the IAEA's report. It may well be that this rash of accusations is part of a PR program to gain US and European public acceptance for such a move.
The IAEA's report itself is pretty much as expected. It says that Iran has been co-operating more fully but not fully enough and that questions still remain. However, it also says - yet again - that no smoking gun or even damp squib has been found. The report doesn't seem to be available online just yet but El Baradei's statement is.
"Our task in Iran is to make sure that the Iranian nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes. We are at it for the last five years. In the last four months, in particular, we have made quite good progress in clarifying the outstanding issues that had to do with Iran´s past nuclear activities, with the exception of one issue, and that is the alleged weaponization studies that supposedly Iran has conducted in the past. We have managed to clarify all the remaining outstanding issues, including the most important issue, which is the scope and nature of Iran´s enrichment programme. We have made good progress, with still one issue on our agenda and I call on Iran to act as actively as possible, as fast as possible, for me to be able (to ensure) that all issues, that have to do with Iran´s past nuclear activities, have been clarified.Those alleged weaponization activities are the ones contained on the dodgy laptop US intelligence gained when an Iranian walked in with it, after supposedly getting it from a burglar. That, according to El Baradei, is pretty much all that's left available to those who continue to demonise Iran.
"In addition to our work, to clarify Iran´s past nuclear activities, we have to make sure, naturally, that Iran´s current activities are also exclusively for peace purposes and for that we have been asking Iran to conclude the so called Additional Protocol, which gives us the additional authority to visit places, additional authority to have additional documents, to be able to provide assurance, not only that Iran´s declared activities are for peaceful purposes but that there are no undeclared nuclear activities. On that score, Iran in the last few months has provided us with visits to many places, that enable us to have a clearer picture of Iran´s current programme. However, that is not, in my view, sufficient. We need Iran to implement the Additional Protocol. We need to have that authority as a matter of law.
David "Judy In Drag" Sanger at the NYT describes that information as having "strongly suggested the country had experimented with technology to make a nuclear weapon". But other reports are more sceptical.
The newest U.S nuclear information, including some intelligence declassified for sharing with the agency, was handed over to IAEA Deputy Director Oli Heinonen last Friday, just a few weeks after a first batch of material was forwarded by the U.S., said the diplomats.One has to wonder whether that Iranian refusal points to skullduggery or just to Iranian hardliners being stupidly hardline. I'd suggest the latter simply on the basis of Occam's Razor.
But much of it shed little new light on what the U.S. says have been attempts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons. "It's not the amount but the quality that counts," said one of the diplomats who was dismissive of the new U.S. file.
Another diplomat said senior agency officials also had dismissed the information as relatively insignificant and coming too late.
Several of the diplomats suggested the U.S. was disingenuous in providing such a large amount of what they described as questionable information just days before ElBaradei was to complete his report. But a diplomat familiar with the U.S. position said Washington was acting in good faith and trying to help the agency.
For its part, Iran did not respond to an invitation issued by Heinonen to its experts to look at some of the information the U.S. approved for sharing with Tehran, despite earlier pledges to do so.
Update Andy Grotto at The Arms Control Wonk has kindly provided a link to a PDF copy of the IAEA report. Andy's take is worth a read, as are the comments to his post.
I want to flag up what for me were key graphs in the report, though.
54. The one major remaining issue relevant to the nature of Iran’s nuclear programme is the alleged studies on the green salt project, high explosives testing and the missile re-entry vehicle. This is a matter of serious concern and critical to an assessment of a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme. The Agency was able to show some relevant documentation to Iran on 3–5 February 2008 and is still examining the allegations made and the statements provided by Iran in response. Iran has maintained that these allegations are baseless and that the data have been fabricated. The Agency’s overall assessment requires, inter alia, an understanding of the role of the uranium metal document, and clarifications concerning the procurement activities of some military related institutions still not provided by Iran. The Agency only received authorization to show some further material to Iran on 15 February 2008. Iran has not yet responded to the Agency’s request of that same date for Iran to view this additional documentation on the alleged studies. In light of the above, the Agency is not yet in a position to determine the full nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. However, it should be noted that the Agency has not detected the use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies, nor does it have credible information in this regard. The Director General has urged Iran to engage actively with the Agency in a more detailed examination of the documents available about the alleged studies which the Agency has been authorized to show to Iran. [Emphasis Mine - C]I'm going to suggest something a bit off the wall here - the infamous smoking laptop contains details of Iran's old weapons program, the one the NIE said had been shut down in 2003. It's been doctored by those who "donated" it to US intelligence to make it appear more contemporary and relevant. The pre-2003 program never got further than the beginnings of on-paper studies (for instance, the re-entry vehicle wouldn't actually work), which is why the IAEA have found no use of nuclear material which could be associated with these allegations. The Iranians, knowing all this, are now willing to play hardball because they know there are no new damaging revelations going to come out of investigations of the laptop data, even by accident - and so the hardliners have decided to be hardliners and cock a snook at the US. It's a theory that seems to fit the data and squares the circle between US and Iranian allegation and denial cycles.
If so, then at this point the hardliners in both camps need to climb down out of their trees. As Andy Grotto writes:
I can’t imagine Iran ever coming fully clean—or adopting the kinds of transparency measures needed to verify the peaceful nature of its program, such as the IAEA Additional Protocol—unless it is given a face-saving way out of this mess. Such a pathway cannot emerge until the United States gets serious about meaningful multilateral diplomacy with Iran that includes credible incentives to accompany the sanctions.I'd only add that both camps need a face-saving way out of the corners they've painted themselves into - US hawks are just as unlikely to ever come clean about the ways they've spun the anti-Iran narrative or back off their insistence that Iran's program isn't now peaceful without one. That's probably going to take someone high up with the courage to change the game.