Watchdog Pulls Back Curtain On Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program
Just over a decade ago, Iran had a multi-faceted research program to develop a nuclear warhead that would fit on top of a ballistic missile. That's the bottom line of a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The coordinated program ended in 2003, but some sporadic work continued until 2009, the new report says.
The report is the strongest statement yet from the nuclear watchdog agency on Iran's past weapons work. Iran is now in the process of scaling back its current, civilian nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions by the U.S. and other world powers.
The report is a test of the new agreement. But some observers say the findings, which echo numerous earlier reports from the U.S. and the IAEA , are unlikely to upend the deal.
"It's not really surprising," says Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. "It more-or-less says what everybody thought."
In fact, it's because of Iran's suspected work in the past that the current agreement heavily restricts Iran's present-day program, Lewis says. The agreement requires Iran to shrink it's uranium stockpile and scale back its facilities in ways that would make it difficult for Iran to get the material it would needs to build a bomb, even if it tried. The IAEA also has broad authority to inspect Iranian facilities.
Similar Reports In The Past
Allegations of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program go back years.
In a 2007 intelligence report, the U.S. government said that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until the fall of 2003. The IAEA raised similar concerns in a 2011 report, which laid out numerous steps Iran appeared to have taken towards getting the bomb. The agency said the evidence suggested that Iran was working towards developing a small nuclear warhead that could fit on top of one of its missiles.
Iran steadfastly denies those allegations, and in the new report, it claims that the apparent weapons work had other explanations. For example, Iran says some suspicious work with explosives was being done to help its oil industry, rather than for the development of a nuke.
Iran's failure to confess has disappointed some.
"If Iran came clean, I think it would build tremendous trust in the deal," says David Albright, president of the Institute of Science and International Security.
But others say hopes that Iran would cooperate with the investigation into its past weapons work was unrealistic.
"A confession was never in the cards," says Ali Vaez, an Iran expert with the International Crisis Group. That's because Iranian leaders have maintained that the development is against Islam. "Any admittance to the fact that there were such studies basically discredits these leaders," Vaez says.
Vaez hopes the current nuclear deal will go forward now that the IAEA has delivered its verdict on the weapons program.
Possible Impact On The Nuclear Deal
But Albright says the report could still cause problems. Iran has said it will not carry out some of the measures in the deal unless the IAEA closes its investigation into past activities. And Albright says the report clearly leaves some questions unanswered.
"I think this report could be real trouble," he says.
Later this month, the IAEA's board of governors will decide whether the IAEA's findings should be the final word on Iran's past weapons work.
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