A secret document indicates that Iran has conducted operations that would be key to developing a nuclear weapon, the London Times reported today (see GSN, Dec. 11).
The newspaper said it acquired intelligence notes showing that Iran intended to test a neutron initiator, which would set off the explosion in a nuclear bomb.
Operations were conducted as late as 2007, though a U.S. intelligence assessment asserted that Tehran had halted its military nuclear activities four years earlier. Iran says its nuclear program is strictly civilian in nature, a claim that has met deep skepticism in Washington and other Western capitals.
The initiator work involved uranium deuteride, according to the technical document. The material is believed to be only of use in a nuclear weapon, experts say.
“Although Iran might claim that this work is for civil purposes, there is no civil application,” said David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “This is a very strong indicator of weapons work.”
Intelligence officials in the United Kingdom and other nations have reviewed the document, which has also been provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.N. nuclear watchdog is conducting a continuing investigation of Iran's nuclear activities (see GSN, Nov. 16).
“We do not comment on intelligence, but our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are clear. Obviously this document, if authentic, raises serious questions about Iran’s intentions," according to a spokeswoman for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The document was written in Farsi, but translated into English on behalf of the Times. Scientists apparently intended to see if the neutron initiator was functional without conducting a detonation that would give off minute amounts of uranium that could be used as irrefutable evidence of Iran's plan to develop nuclear weapons.
The finding is likely to heighten calls for increased U.N. sanctions Iran, or even more forceful action, according to the Times.
“The most shattering conclusion is that, if this was an effort that began in 2007, it could be a casus belli. If Iran is working on weapons, it means there is no diplomatic solution," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“Is this the smoking gun? That’s the question people should be asking. It looks like the smoking gun. This is smoking uranium," he added (Catherine Philp, London Times, Dec. 14).
"A neutron initiator is a term of art specific to nuclear weapons design," former CIA counterproliferation official Art Keller told the Washington Post. "If they are working on a neutron initiator, as the article described, they're definitely working on bomb design."
Albright said, though, that the apparent research is not sure proof of Iranian authorities' drive to produce a nuclear weapon.
"The question is whether this is a full-blown weapons effort or just Iran getting its [research] ducks in a row," he said (Joby Warrick, Washington Post, Dec. 14).
Meanwhile, Taiwanese officials are investigating a report that companies on the island might have provided Iran with 100 or more pressure transducers, which could be used in production of highly enriched uranium, Agence France-Presse reported.
"We are looking into the matter," Hsu Chun-fang, of Taiwan's Foreign Trade Bureau, told the Taipei Times.
Tehran received 100 transducers from a Taiwanese firm after failed attempts to acquire them from Europe or the United States, according to the London Daily Telegraph. The Middle Eastern state now hopes to buy more sensitive technology from Taiwan, the newspaper reported.
Taipei requires permits for exports of sensitive technology.
"This is a serious loophole, as it enables Iran to acquire sophisticated equipment that can help it develop its nuclear program," a U.N. official told the newspaper (Agence France-Presse/Spacewar.com, Dec. 12).
Elsewhere, Iran on Saturday offered a new plan for refining its uranium in other nations, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Tehran has said it would not accept the standing U.N. plan to ship about 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium for enrichment in France and Russia. The material would then be returned for use in a medical research reactor in Tehran.
The plan would reduce immediate fears that Iran could convert its existing stockpile of uranium into material that could fuel a weapon.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said leaders would be willing to conduct three separate exchanges of 400 kilograms of low-enriched uranium for material with a higher enrichment level. The trades would occur on the Iranian island of Kish and would involve the same amount of uranium as foreseen under the U.N. proposal, he said.
U.S. officials indicated that the new offer was not acceptable and would not curtail the Obama administration's move to increase sanctions on Tehran in coming weeks if the standoff continues.
"Nothing's changed in our calculation," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
"Iran's proposal does not appear to be consistent with the fair and balanced draft agreement. ...The draft agreement reflects an extensive effort ... to respond positively to Iran's request for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. It also offers an opportunity for Iran to begin to build confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. We urge Iran not to squander this opportunity," said a high-level White House official.
Mottaki, speaking Saturday at a conference in Bahrain, said his nation requires as many as 15 nuclear power plants, Reuters reported (Raissa Kasolowsky, Reuters/Yahoo!News, Dec. 12).