According to Olli Heinonen, the former top nuclear inspector for Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran’s nuclear program is plagued by technical problems. Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility “is only operating at 60 percent of its design capacity. This indicates that there is a problem.”
Heinonen joined experts at a briefing hosted by the Arms Control Association (ACA) to discuss “The Status of Iran’s Nuclear and Missile Programs.” Also on the panel were missile expert Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Paul Pillar, who served for three decades in the CIA and as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. The ACA’s Greg Thielmann, a former top State Department intelligence official and arms control expert, moderated the discussion.
A report released by the IAEA this week confirmed that Iran temporarily halted their centrifuges machines needed to refine uranium in mid-November. The problem with the centrifuges facility can stem from a variety of sources, said Heinonen. Recently, Iranian government officials have claimed that Stuxnet, a computer virus leaked into Iran’s nuclear program software, has not upset growth in their nuclear enrichment program. Heinonen argued that although Stuxnet may have caused setbacks to the Iran’s nuclear program, there is no proof of damage. He adds that Natanz’s centrifuge facility had been facing setbacks long before the Stuxnet virus was discovered.
The more likely cause for the Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities failing to operate at full capacity, stated Heinonen, is from lack of raw materials needed to operate the centrifuges and from poor design quality based on decades-old Dutch-based centrifuge design.
Heinonen said that because “Iran does not provide information on construction or design of their nuclear facilities and does not comply with IAEA requirements,” it is hard to gauge Iran’s future nuclear weapons capability. “Everything is indigenously produced, making it difficult for intelligence to find out what happened. We must use reverse engineering.”
Michael Elleman explained that the worst case scenarios regarding Iran’s missile capabilities have thus far not proven true. Perhaps in the future Iran’s ballistic missile capability could be “problematic,” but its current missile program is weak. While Iran has “created the knowledge to make solid propellant missiles,” Elleman said that applying “this knowledge to make long range missiles will take time.” Iranian ballistic missiles lack the capability to hit fixed targets, and such capabilities are not on the near horizon. Furthermore, Elleman said, Iran has not demonstrated intentions to develop missile capabilities against Europe and current capabilities to target Israel remain limited.
Paul Pillar said that suggestions that Persian Gulf countries would support a military attack against Iran are false, though he did say those states have concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, he said, a nuclear arms race in the region is not likely, even if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons. “Fears about such a development are overblown,” Pillar said.
Pillar emphasized that we should be “cautious on the role of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program… at best intelligence can provide a snap-shot – fragmentary and incomplete.” He stressed that intelligence cannot answer, “what are the costs and risks and what are the best strategies” for the US regarding Iran’s nuclear program.