Iran hasn’t a nuclear weapons programme

says US intelligence


Iran hasn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme today.  That is the considered opinion of US intelligence in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s “nuclear intentions and capabilities”, the key judgments of which were published in December 2007 [1].


The NIE’s principal conclusion was that Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in the autumn of 2003 and hasn’t restarted its programme since.


This differs markedly from a US intelligence assessment of May 2005, which judged that “Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure”.


The US administration’s reaction to this dramatic shift has been to say that nothing much has changed, that Iran may not have an active nuclear weapons programme any more, but it has the knowledge to make nuclear weapons, in particular, it knows how to enrich uranium.


However, try as he might, President Bush will have difficulty convincing the world that an Iran that halted a nuclear weapons programme four years ago is as threatening as an Iran with an active nuclear weapons programme today – which was the previous story from US intelligence.


What the IAEA has found

It must be emphasised that the IAEA has found no evidence that Iran ever had a nuclear weapons programme.  The IAEA’s Director General, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN on 28 October 2007.  Blitzer asked:


“Do you believe there is a clandestine, secret nuclear weapons program right now under way in Iran?” [2]


ElBaradei replied:


“We haven’t seen any concrete evidence to that effect, Wolf. We haven’t received any information there is a parallel ongoing, active nuclear weapon program.


Later in the interview he said:


“But have we seen Iran having the nuclear material that can readily be used into a weapon? No. Have we seen an active weaponization program? No.”


An IAEA statement on 4 December 2007 in response to the NIE said:


“IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei received with great interest the new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear program which concludes that there has been no on-going nuclear weapons program in Iran since the fall of 2003. He notes in particular that the Estimate tallies with the Agency´s consistent statements over the last few years that, although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the Agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran.” [3]


It should be emphasised that the IAEA has found no evidence of an earlier programme either.


Of course, Iran has uranium conversion and enrichment facilities (at Isfahan and Natanz).  This is Iran’s right as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) so long as these facilities are for peaceful purposes and are under IAEA supervision.  Remember, Article IV(1) of the Treaty states:


“Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.” [4]


These facilities could, in principle, be used to produce highly enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons.  But these, and other, nuclear facilities in Iran are subject to IAEA monitoring.  Central to this monitoring is the tracking of nuclear material through Iran’s nuclear facilities to make sure that none is diverted, possibly for military purposes.  Dr ElBaradei’s latest report (15 November 2007) concluded:


“The Agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran. Iran has provided the Agency with access to declared nuclear material, and has provided the required nuclear material accountancy reports in connection with declared nuclear material and activities.” (paragraph 39) [5]


In other words, no nuclear material has gone missing in the course of processing through the nuclear facilities declared by Iran to the IAEA.


What is more, the highest enrichment level detected by the IAEA in the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz is about 4% (see paragraph 21 of Dr ElBaradei’s latest report), which is consistent with the relatively low level of enrichment required for reactor fuel.  An enrichment level of 90% or more is needed for weapons grade uranium.


Covert programme

According to the NIE, the “nuclear weapons programme” that Iran was allegedly operating until the autumn of 2003 did not involve the overt uranium conversion and enrichment facilities at Istfahan and Natanz.  In a footnote, it says:


“For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”


So, according to the NIE, up to the autumn of 2003, Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and enrichment activities for weapons purposes that it didn’t declare to the IAEA – in addition to the declared activities at Istfahan and Natanz.


It follows from this that halting Iran’s declared uranium conversion and enrichment activities would not have halted Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.  Yet, the US has led the way over recent years in demanding that Iran halt its declared uranium conversion and enrichment activity and has persuaded the Security Council to support this demand and to impose economic sanctions on Iran in order to persuade Iran to comply.  This makes no sense.


Leave the NPT

It is conceivable that Iran had a weapons programme in the past (though the IAEA has found no evidence of this).  It is also conceivable that at some time in the future Iran will withdraw from the NPT.  In that event, like Israel, India and Pakistan that have never signed the NPT, it would not be breaking any international treaty obligations by developing nuclear weapons.  Like Israel, India and Pakistan, it would not be obliged by international treaty to declare its nuclear facilities to the IAEA.  Like Israel, India and Pakistan, it would be free to engage in whatever nuclear activities it wished free from the prying eyes of the IAEA.  Then, for example, it could adapt its facilities at Natanz to enrich uranium to weapons grade without breaking any international treaty obligations.


By any objective standard, Iran would be within its rights under the NPT to withdraw from the NPT – because, since it signed the Treaty in 1968, Israel (and Pakistan and India) have acquired nuclear weapons.  Article IX of the Treaty states:


“Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.” [4]


There could hardly be a better example of “extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty”, which have jeopardized Iran’s supreme interests, than the fact that it is now a target for Israeli nuclear weapons – which it wasn’t in 1968 when it signed the Treaty.


Obviously, for Iran to withdraw from the NPT any time soon, with the clear implication that it intended to develop nuclear weapons, would risk terrible havoc from the US and/or Israel.  The only sensible course of action for Iran, or any other non-nuclear state that wishes to develop nuclear weapons, is to do it secretly and, like India and Pakistan, make an announcement about it only after success has been achieved – and retribution by other nuclear states is impossible.


UK example

If Iran is seeking a respectable reason for acquiring nuclear weapons, it could do worse than read the British Government’s White Paper The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent, published in December 2006, paragraph 3-4 of which states that Britain must have nuclear weapons


to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means.” [6]


If Britain has to have nuclear weapons when no state is threatening it, how can Britain argue against Iran acquiring them, when the US and Israel threaten military action against it every day in life?


David Morrison

10 January 2008