US awaits IAEA report to hang Iran

An imminent report by UN weapons inspectors includes the strongest evidence yet that Iran has worked in recent years on a kind of sophisticated explosives technology that is primarily used to trigger a nuclear weapon, according to western officials who have been briefed on the intelligence.

But the case is hardly conclusive. Iran’s restrictions on inspectors have muddied the picture. And however suggestive the evidence about what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) calls ‘possible military dimensions’ of Iran’s programme turns out to be, the only sure bet is that the mix of sleuthing, logic and intuition by nuclear investigators will be endlessly compared with the US intelligence agencies’ huge mistakes in Iraq in 2003.

Just as it was eight years ago, the IAEA, which was conceived as a purely technical organisation insulated from politics, is about to be sucked into the political whirlpool about how the world should respond to murky weapons intelligence. Except this time everything is backward: It is the IAEA, which punched holes in the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s nuclear progress, that today is escalating the case that Iran has resumed work on bomb-related technology, after years of frustration over questions that have gone unanswered by Iran.

International sanctions
For its part, the Obama administration, acutely aware of how what happened in Iraq undercut US credibility, is deliberately taking a back seat, eager to make the conclusions appear to be entirely the IAEA’s, even as it continues to press for more international sanctions against Iran. When the director of the agency, Yukia Amano, came to the White House 11 days ago to meet top officials of the National Security Council about the coming report, the administration declined to even confirm he had ever walked into the building.

The final touches are still being put on the report and its critical annex, where some of the investigative details will be laid out, which may be released as early as Wednesday. But already Russia and China have sent a diplomatic protest to Amano, urging him to not to make details of the evidence public. “Russia and China are of the opinion that such kind of report will only drive Iran into a corner,” they wrote in the note, in a rare instance of those countries commenting jointly.

One of the crucial pieces of intelligence information that officials say the IAEA is weighing for the report concerns activity at a military base called Parchin. The officials briefed on the intelligence, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the experts identified a structure there that some believe is a testing capsule for what is called an ‘implosion device.’ Such devices use the detonation of a sphere of conventional explosives to create a blast wave that compresses a central ball of nuclear fuel into an incredibly dense mass, starting a chain reaction that ends in a nuclear explosion.

Iran has admitted in the past that it works on explosives at Parchin, and seven years ago it briefly allowed IAEA inspectors into the site to look around. “We took environmental samples, saw equipment, and didn’t notice any nuclear signatures at that stage,” said Olli Heinonen, former chief inspector at the agency, who is now at Harvard. “Most of the high-explosive test installations we saw were still under construction.”

But something has changed in the ensuing years. The new Parchin intelligence emerged from a series of satellite photographs, documents, records of equipment sales and interviews with defectors and outside experts whom the Iranians appeared to have consulted. Some of that information came from the US, Israel and Europe; the agency says it is publishing only information it could confirm.

But such accusations are always risky. Secretary of State Colin L Powell came to regret the case he made about mobile biological weapons labs and other suspected sites in Iraq, and that is one reason the Obama administration wants the IAEA to take the lead. It has credibility that Washington does not.

But the question is whether the agency has identified evidence that such work has resumed. News reports published from the agency’s Vienna headquarters and Europe say the IAEA document will cite evidence that Iran has built a large steel container for testing high explosives applicable to the development of nuclear arms.

Parchin is important because it would be hard for Iran to explain a ‘peaceful’ use for implosion experiments. Weapons based on implosion are considered advanced models compared with the bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima. In 2009, senior staff members of the IAEA warned that Iran had sufficient information to be able to design and build an implosion device.

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