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March 30, 2012

How do we know Iran isn’t moving to weapons?

With the alarmist rhetoric for military action against Iran, there seems to be significant confusion about the status of Iran’s nuclear program.  Numerous U.S. officials and intelligence assessments have reiterated that Iran has not made the decision to build a nuclear weapon.  This includes the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates, and statements by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.  Israeli intelligence, despite statements by political leaders, reportedly agree.
So why do some on the hawkish side of the debate dispense with assessments that an Iranian nuclear weapon is by no means imminent and instead wrongly assume Iran is racing invariably towards a weapon?
This assumption fundamentally misunderstands that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) maintains inspections in Iran. While secret intelligence sources are a big part of the assessments of Iran’s program, the other main component is from the IAEA monitoring and inspections of over 15 declared facilities and locations, which are conducted regularly on the ground.The logistical and technical reality is that, despite U.N. Security Council Resolutions telling Iran to suspend enrichment and to fully comply with the IAEA, Agency safeguards measures are still largely in place. There are disagreements on what level of information Iran must provide and what version of safeguard provisions are relevant but safeguards and inspections are clearly in place.
IAEA safeguards generally entail verification through the surveillance and containment of nuclear material and declared nuclear facilities plus nuclear material accountancy.
Because round-the-clock human surveillance is prohibitively expensive, a range of optical surveillance systems (types of cameras) are used to monitor safeguarded materials. Nowadays these digital cameras transmit either the direct images or data about the camera’s operation to the IAEA. Containment refers to tamper-indicating seals, which can be used on both specific safeguarded materials/devices and IAEA equipment. These seals are not meant to physically prevent the unauthorized access to something, but merely to provide easy evidence of such attempts.
Nuclear material accountancy means the IAEA checks the host country’s accounting record of materials, measurements, measuring calibrations, and takes independent samples. These efforts are enhanced by three sets of inspections: ad hoc, routine, and special. Ad hoc inspections verify a country’s initial report of nuclear materials or changes to them as well (and nuclear material involved in international transfers). Routine inspections, the most common, may be carried out according to a schedule (the number is based on the amount of safeguarded material) or can be unannounced/short-notice. These inspections are limited to locations in a facility containing nuclear material. Finally, special inspections are carried out under separate defined procedures. Special inspections may occur if the IAEA considers the information from the state government not adequate to fulfill the Agency’s responsibilities under the country’s Safeguards Agreement.
Despite these consistently applied measures, the IAEA does have concerns about “possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program” and intelligence partially provided by several member states indicates Iran carried out “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” However, as the Arms Control Association explains, this is not new information, but provides greater detail than previous public reports. According to experts, Iran is unlikely to attempt to break-out at its declared facilities because with the safeguards it would almost certainly be exposed. Additionally, the United States and its allies have been adept at detecting significantly smaller clandestine nuclear sites that are more likely to be used for a potential break out scenario, like Fordow. Therefore, the international community would have a long lead time between detecting Iranian moves towards a weapon and any eventual production. Even using the largest facilities as Natanz, it would take Iran upwards of one year to produce enough bomb-grade material for one weapon and begin to install it in an explosive device. It would take several more years to combine a completed device with Iranian missiles.
There is also the issue of Iran pushing back against inspections at the Parchin facility, but there are a few issues to consider. Iran isn’t keen on any inspections at the facility because it is ostensibly a conventional military site, not a declared nuclear facility that the IAEA has access to under the Safeguards Agreement. Also, Iran previously permitted the Agency to visit Parchin in 2005 as a “measure of transparency.” At the time, the IAEA was allowed to visit any one of four areas of concern and within that area they had unfettered access to five buildings. This limitation and negotiation on what can be inspected is familiar to those who understand the history of arms control inspections. The United States, Russia, and others have used these kinds of ad hoc negotiations for decades.
A report later noted no unusual activities were found and “environmental samples did not indicate the presence of nuclear material.” Presently, the IAEA would like to visit a different part of the facility because of suspicions (from foreign intelligence services) these sites may have had a large containment chamber used for hydrodynamic tests. In a nutshell, this kind of testing involves exploding a sphere of explosives to see if the arrangement has the desired effect on a dense metal core, as in testing the conventional explosives that help drive an implosion-type nuclear weapon. However, some doubt an inspection could even find anything incriminating even if this activity did go on at all.
Considering Parchin is a very large military complex with no declared nuclear activities taking place, few countries would allow the IAEA to have access to such a facility. But safeguards shortcomings, such as concerns about Parchin and other locations, certainly do exist and need to be addressed by expanding safeguards to undeclared facilities which could host a clandestine enrichment program. Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists, has explained possible steps to enhance this and assure the international community that Iran is not pursuing a weapons capability. One especially important component is getting Iran to ratify an Additional Protocol with the IAEA. Signed, but not yet ratified, this addition to the Safeguards Agreement gives the Agency access to inspect undeclared nuclear facilities on short notice.
All of this points to the conclusion that although the IAEA has had issues trying to inspect potential weapons-relevant research at the Parchin facility plus in the past Iran has been found to be in non-compliance of specific safeguards issues, this is not indicative that Iran is on the cusp of gaining nuclear weapons. The Agency’s presence severely limits Iran’s most likely avenues for cheating and secretly producing nuclear weapons. Even if the safeguarded facilities would not be used, intelligence agencies and analysts do not see an easy, quick route towards weapons. Once you understand these factors at play, there is no reason to advocate for a military strike. If a real, concerted effort at diplomacy is given a chance, there are options to resolve the nuclear issue which can satisfy all parties.

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