Wednesday, July 13, 2005

“Iran is close to a nuclear bomb”: Iranian scientist

Iran Focus:
An interview with a defector from Iran’s secretive nuclear establishment
Alireza Assar received his Master of Science degree in high energy physics and elementary particles from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 1977, his PhD in mathematics from the University of Vienna, and studied theoretical physics at the prestigious International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. He was a professor of physics in Shahid Bahonar University in Kerman (southern Iran) and acted as a Ministry of Defence consultant on Iran's nuclear programme until the early 1990s. He left Iran in 1992, but has maintained contact with his friends and fellow scientists in the country.

Iran Focus: Many suspect Iran of secretly running a nuclear weapons programme. Iran says its nuclear programme is for entirely peaceful purposes. What is the truth?

Assar: There are two parallel nuclear programmes in Iran. The one run by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) is centred on the light water reactor in Bushehr. Ostensibly, this plant was designed to generate electricity. But the Iranian regime has developed a vast uranium enrichment programme that was hidden from the outside world until 2002, when the National Council of Resistance of Iran first exposed it. This is the military programme that was designed to produce enough highly enriched uranium to enable the regime to produce nuclear weapons. I know for certain that this programme has been in operation for at least 18 years, and it has been under the control of the Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Defence, completely separated from the AEOI. There are many experts in AEOI who have no information about the military programme.

Q: Iran’s Foreign Minister said recently that Iran has a rapidly growing population and needs nuclear power to produce electricity.

A: It’s an insult to intelligence to say that a regime that was hiding a vast uranium enrichment programme and other critical aspects of its nuclear project from the international community for 18 years was trying to produce electricity.

Q: How did you become involved in the military side of the nuclear programme?

A: They came to me. When I was teaching in the University of Kerman, the Revolutionary Guards invited me in 1985 to cooperate with them on a nuclear project. I even had two meetings in 1987 and 1988 with then-Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezai [now the secretary general of the State Expediency Council], who came with two of his senior commanders to Kerman for these meetings. We met in the office of the governor of Kerman. They were interested in neutron triggers for nuclear explosion. I suggested that the research would be cost-prohibitive. They said how much do you have in mind? I said, 100 million dollars. Rezai smiled and said, “We had allocated 800 million dollars to this. Go ahead”. This and other conversations with the top commanders of the Revolutionary Guards proved to me that they were after the nuclear bomb and that this was a state policy. Could commanders of the Revolutionary Guards act just on their own and dole out 800-million-dollar budgets? No way.READ MORE

Q: Were you alone in those meetings?

A: No. There were two other nuclear scientists, Alireza Bahrampour and Mohammad Bolourizadeh. Both of them worked for the Ministry of Defence. Bahrampour focused on the use of laser technology in missile guidance systems. The Revolutionary Guards have for long been studying the problems associated with delivery of nuclear weapons. The actual production of a crude nuclear bomb was not such a big challenge, but to make a bomb light enough and small enough to fit into the warhead of a missile was a much bigger challenge. They have been working on that for years.

Q: How soon will they have the bomb?

A: As a physicist with a lot of experience and contacts inside Iran’s nuclear establishment, I have no doubt in my mind that the regime in Tehran is not far from the nuclear bomb. They have the precursors they need, so it’s a matter of engineering and time. We mustn’t have any illusions. The current leadership in Tehran sees nuclear weapons as an indispensable part of its strategy.

Q: How does the arrival of the new ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad change things?

A: You have to understand that the nuclear weapons programme is the exclusive fief of the Revolutionary Guards. Now that you have at the head of the executive branch a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards with a track record as the one Ahmadinejad has, the nuclear weapons programme will receive a great boost. They will be able to make use of all the resources of the state without worrying about other internal factions. So Ahmadinejad’s arrival is going to make the nuclear clock in Iran tick faster. He is an obedient disciple of [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, so the nuclear talks [with the Europeans] will certainly get to nowhere.

Q: There is a big row over the question of uranium enrichment. The U.S. position is that Iran must abandon enrichment altogether. The British and the Germans agree, but France seems to be willing to allow a degree of enrichment to continue. How do you see this?

A: It’ll be a disaster to allow the Iranian regime to continue any enrichment programme. Why does the regime insist on keeping even a limited enrichment programme? The reason is that if you have thousands of centrifuge machines, which they have, then it will be very easy for them to hide a certain number of these machines in some of the many military sites.

Q: So it’s hopeless to try to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons?

A: It will certainly be hopeless to continue the cat-and-mouse game that has been going on for the past three years. The Europeans have put themselves in a hopeless position with their two agreements with Tehran. In this game, the onus is on them to find the needle in the haystack. They must find out if Iran is hiding centrifuge machines in a country three times as big as France. The mullahs have a policy of “catch me if you can”. The Iranian regime has never come forward and declared something completely unknown to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. Every single declaration by the Iranian regime has been in response to revelations by the National Council of Resistance or discoveries by the IAEA itself. Iran’s declarations are a collection of denials, changes stories, and belated admissions.

Q: What about the Iranian people? Some commentators say the majority of Iranians want the Islamic Republic to have nuclear weapons.

A: That’s just buying their propaganda at face value. The vast majority of Iranians, particularly the educated people and scientists, cannot wait to see the end of this religious dictatorship. So they see nuclear weapons in the hands of the mullahs as something that will prolong their rule. That’s why they don’t want it.

Q: What should be done?

A: If there is a will, there is a way. Stop the concessions and take the case to the Security Council and make it clear that the world will not tolerate an Islamic fundamentalist regime and state sponsor of terrorism armed with nuclear weapons
. The mullahs understand the language of force. The only way to stop them is to make the choice crystal clear to them. At the moment, they think the West is too divided and irresolute and interested in trade and oil to act with firmness.