Before the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program dropped today, neoconservative hawks were already using its findings — available to them only through often anonymous second-hand accounts in the media — to declare that “Iran is now on the brink of nuclear capability.” They decried “how poor our intelligence is” and how the report showed “just how derelict” U.S. assessments were. But for all the hype, and all the rich detail in the technical annex of the report, the U.S. intelligence estimates about Iran’s nuclear program seem to be holding up.
ThinkProgress reported yesterday that the new evidence introduced in the IAEA report wouldn’t necessarily contradict previous U.S. intelligence estimates. Today, after the IAEA report was widely circulated, the Obama administration re-affirmed those estimates. The National Journal quoted a senior administration official on background saying:
The IAEA does not assert that Iran has resumed a full scale nuclear weapons program nor does it have a program [sic] about how advanced the programs really are.
The new IAEA report upgraded the level of “concern” expressed by the international nuclear watchdog. The last report, released in September, said the IAEA was “increasingly concerned” about Iran’s program. The report released today says:
The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information 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 programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.
While the report found aspects of the Iranian program that is “specific to nuclear weapons,” the broad outline in the IAEA’s latest report on the military dimensions of Iran’s program is not new. Rather, the report provides greater detail regarding weapons-related activities outlined in previous pubic reports,” wrote nuclear expert Daryl Kimball on the Arms Control Association’s website.
For example, the report’s description of “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosion device” refers to work on items like containment facilities for testing smaller explosions and work on detonators. In the latter case, the IAEA writes that it “recognizes that there exist non-nuclear applications, albeit few, for detonators” and that Iran says the devices are “for civil and conventional military applications,” though it “has not explained to the Agency its own need or application for such detonators.”
Another case of that sort of work identified by the IAEA was “at least one large scale experiment in 2003 to initiate a high explosive charge in the form of a hemispherical shell.” Results from the experiment were shared with “the engineers who were studying how to integrate the new payload into the chamber of the Shahab 3 missile re-entry vehicle,” but the military dimensions of the experiment itself remain unclear.
The IAEA showed a particular interest in a Russian scientist who assisted in the design of a high explosive initiation system during the 1990s. The IAEA spoke with the scientist who explained that he assisted Iranian scientists in the development of explosive techniques for creating industrial-use diamonds. Indeed, similar technology can be used for a nuclear initiation system but the IAEA verified that the scientist’s work in Iran was ostensibly to assist in manufacturing ultra-dispersed diamonds (“UDDs” or “nanodiamonds”). In fact, in 2009, the Mythbusters television show used similar technology, albeit in a New Mexico lab, to make diamonds. Watch it:
The IAEA’s report offers plenty of concerning facts about Iran’s nuclear program, but in the broad strokes come as little surprise: Iran has been developing dual-use technology, a key component of a “breakout capability.” How some of the studies relate to, as the IAEA put it, “anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear.” But none of the revelations concretely contradict the U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran has not made a final decision to pursue a nuclear weapon.