Military Linked to Iran Nuclear Program
Elaine Sciolino and William J. Broad, The New York Times:
The International Atomic Energy Agency says it has evidence that suggests links between Iran's ostensibly peaceful nuclear program and its military work on high explosives and missiles, according to a confidential agency report provided to member countries today.
The four-page report, which officials say was based at least in part on intelligence provided by the United States, refers to a secretive Iranian entity called the "Green Salt Project," which worked on uranium processing, high explosives and a missile warhead design. The combination suggests a "military-nuclear dimension," the report said, that if true would undercut Iran's claims that its nuclear program was solely aimed at producing electrical power.
The report will be debated by the 35 countries that make up the international agency's board when they meet in emergency session on Thursday to decide whether Iran should be reported to the United Nations Security Council for its nuclear activities. READ MORE
The agency says it has repeatedly confronted Iran with the accusations, which Tehran dismissed as "baseless," adding that "it would provide further clarifications later," the report said. Iran also reiterated that all its nuclear projects were conducted under the authority of its national atomic energy agency and not the military.
More broadly, the report states that the country has not been fully cooperative on all of the outstanding nuclear issues that the agency has been raising questions for years and that formed the basis of a board resolution last fall, asserting that Iran was not complying with its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Green Salt Project derives its name from uranium tetrafluoride, known as Green Salt, which is an intermediate product in the conversion of uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride — a toxic gas that can undergo enrichment or purification into fuel for nuclear reactors or bombs.
The report suggests that the fuel project, the "high explosives" tests and the design of a "missile re-entry vehicle" would "appear to have administrative interconnections." It would seem to be the first time that the agency has publicly suggested that the fuel production — which Iran has said it purely for civilian purposes — was linked to its military programs.
The tests of high explosives are of particular concern: one of the key challenges in making a nuclear weapon is designing the ring of conventional explosives that can be used to compress the nuclear material, setting off a nuclear chain reaction.
It is highly unusual, Western experts said, for a group of uranium conversion experts ostensibly making fuel for nuclear reactors to also have administrative ties to people doing studies on explosives and re-entry vehicles, which is the technical name for missile warheads.
"The obvious technical connection is that these are all central elements of a program to develop nuclear weapons and delivery capability," said Per F. Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.
The alleged bureaucratic linkage of the various efforts would make them highly suspicious, Dr. Peterson added, as each one separately could be viewed as potentially unrelated to nuclear arms.
While the Bush administration has long argued that Iran uses its civilian program to hide ambitions to build a nuclear weapon, the agency has always steered clear of that accusation. With today's report, it has for the first time provided evidence directly suggesting that at least some of Iran's activities point to a military project.
The Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian resistance group that both the United States and the European Unions describe as a terrorist organization, has often drawn links among the Iranian military, the Revolutionary Guard Corps and Tehran's nuclear program, asserting that the separate groups were working together to gain the ability to build and deliver an atom bomb.
But Western experts said they knew of no instances in which the I.A.E.A. had pressed that accusation home. "We haven't heard this from the I.A.E.A. before," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "It's interesting that the I.A.E.A. is putting that level of credence into it. I don't believe there has previously been any I.A.E.A. reference to such interconnections."
Even though the report is confidential, copies began to surface in Vienna almost as soon as it was posted on a Web site available only to member countries of the I.A.E.A.
The Vienna-based international nuclear agency also said in its report that a 15-page document Iran had allowed it to read described procedures that would be useful only in making parts for nuclear weapons. The agency for the first time stated its own conclusions on the matter and did so quite bluntly, saying the document that Iran obtained from the black market "related to the fabrication of nuclear weapon components."
The I.A.E.A., in a report issued last November, made reference to suspicious documents that the nuclear black market had offered to Tehran. While making no reference to weaponry, the report indicated that the network had offered to help Iran shape uranium metal into "hemispherical forms," which Western arms experts at that time said suggested the making of nuclear bomb cores.
In the past, Iran had told the agency that the document was given to it — without its asking — by an international smuggling network that has been identified as run by the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, and that it has not used the information for a weapons project.
The report is a short, informal update by Olli Heinonen, the agency's deputy director of safeguards, following a request by the United States, France, Britain and other countries for an assessment of Iran's nuclear activities before Thursday's board meeting. It does not give the precise sources of its information, but American officials say that the accusations are based in part on material from a laptop computer seized in Iran.
The trigger for the meeting was a decision by Iran to reopen its uranium enrichment plant in Natanz in violation of a voluntary agreement it made with France, Germany and Britain in November 2004 that froze Iran's enrichment-related activities while it negotiated a package of economic and political incentives.
That led to a compromise on Monday under which Russia and China joined the United States and the European nations in referring Iran's nuclear activities to the United Nations Security Council.
In response, Iran lashed out today, saying there was no legal justification for such a move and that it would bring "an end to diplomacy."
"Informing the Security Council or referring the Iranian case to it will bring an end to diplomacy and that is not at all positive," said Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, who is close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Larijani also said that Iran would probably strike back. "If these countries use all their instruments to exert pressure on Iran, Iran will use its capability in the region," he said in a meeting with Armenian officials in Iran and reported by the Iranian Student News Agency.
But Iran's oil minister, Kazem Vasiri, ruled out any curb on oil imports. "We are not mixing oil with politics," he told reporters at an OPEC meeting in Vienna, according to Reuters.
The United States, France, Britain and Germany hailed the unanimous decision as a significant step forward, even though it involved a compromise, under which the Security Council would defer action until March, after the next scheduled regular session of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Elaine Sciolino reported from Vienna for this article and William J. Broad from New York. Additional reporting was contributed by David E. Sanger in Washington, and Michael Slackman and Nazila Fathi in Tehran.