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Iran Studied Advanced Nuke Trigger, IAEA Findings Suggest

November 7, 2009

A continuing U.N. analysis of Iran’s nuclear capabilities suggests the Middle Eastern state might have tested explosive elements of a “two-point implosion” technology that could be used in producing smaller nuclear warheads, the London Guardian reported yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 5).

The design, which uses explosives to simultaneously compress two ends of a football-shaped fissile “pit,” is “a more elegant” means of detonating a nuclear bomb than primitive triggers that can rely on dozens of compression points, said one diplomat with knowledge of the undisclosed International Atomic Energy Agency report (see GSN, Oct. 5). If successfully incorporated, the technology would help produce warheads more easily fitted on missiles.

Tehran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and has defended its high-explosives research as a strictly civilian effort; still, the nation has failed to specify the nonmilitary purpose behind the studies.

“It is breathtaking that Iran could be working on this sort of material,” said one European official specializing in nuclear matters.

“It’s remarkable that, before perfecting step one, they are going straight to step four or five,” added James Acton, an nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “To start with more sophisticated designs speaks of [a] level of technical ambition that is surprising.”

It is uncertain how Iran acquired the advanced implosion technology, a Western expert on Iran’s nuclear program said: “Did [Abdul Qadeer] Khan (a Pakistani scientist who confessed in 2004 to running a nuclear smuggling ring) have access to this, or is it another player?” (see GSN, Oct. 5; Julian Borger, London Guardian, Nov. 5).

Meanwhile, Iran has called on world powers to provide the entire supply of nuclear fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran before it surrenders any of its own uranium under a proposed U.N. agreement, the Washington Post reported today.

At talks early last month with the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany, Iran tentatively agreed to terms intended to defer its ability to fuel a nuclear weapon with material produced from its low-enriched uranium stockpile. France, Russia and the United States indicated their support for a version of the proposal put forward by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, but Iran appeared to balk last week at the plan’s call for the rapid transfer of much of its uranium.

The debate over ElBaradei’s proposal has “paralyzed the decision-making process in Tehran,” said a high-level European diplomat. “It is a battle over who is tougher or who is more anti-American, and we are in a situation so ridiculous that (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad is in the middle.”

“We keep using the Russians to pass tough messages every day, saying: ‘This is a good deal. Take it,'” the official added (Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, Nov. 6).

Iran today indicated it would soon address the U.N. proposal in greater detail and seek additional negotiations with world powers, Agence France-Presse reported.

“We have some more details which we have to give to the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, according to state media.

“We have three options — enrich the fuel ourselves, buy it directly or exchange our uranium for fuel,” Mottaki said. “They (the IAEA and the major powers) have to choose from these options. Given the need of Iran to have the fuel, my view is that they will accept another round of discussions.”

Washington, though, indicated that ElBaradei’s plan would not be subject to further negotiation.

“As I have said, this is a pivotal moment for Iran, and we urge Iran to accept the agreement as proposed,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “We will not alter it, and we will not wait forever” (Agence France-Presse I/Spacewar.com, Nov. 6).

Possible options for saving the deal are under consideration, ElBaradei said in remarks published yesterday by the New York Times.

“There are a lot of ideas,” he said. “One is to send the material — Iran’s uranium — to a third country, which could be a friendly country to Iran, and it stays there. Park it in another state, then later bring in the fuel. The issue is to get it out, and so create the time and space to start building trust” (Roger Cohen, New York Times, Nov. 5).

Elsewhere, the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s 35-nation governing board is expected to rule later this month on whether Iran violated its safeguards commitments through its work on the recently disclosed and still-unfinished Qum uranium enrichment facility (see GSN, Sept. 25).

A positive decision by the board might prompt its members to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for possible punitive action. The Security Council has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear activities (Kessler, Washington Post).

An IAEA inspection team found no evidence of nuclear-weapon activities during a visit to the site late last month, ElBaradei said.

The inspectors uncovered “nothing to be worried about,” he said. “The idea was to use it as a bunker under the mountain to protect things. It’s a hole in a mountain” (Cohen, New York Times).

Satellite photos suggest that construction of the Qum facility began at some point between February 2006 and May 2007, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security concluded in an analysis (Institute for Science and International Security release, Nov. 5).

In Washington, the U.S. Treasury Department yesterday imposed new financial penalties on the Malaysian branch of an Iranian bank as well as the bank’s manager, AFP reported.

Iran’s Bank Mellat “has facilitated the movement of millions of dollars for Iran’s nuclear program,” the department said in a statement.

Bank Mellat Chairman Ali Divandari, the individual targeted by the latest sanctions, “plays a significant role” in the institution’s “activities and decision-making process,” according to the press release.

The department’s action was permitted by an executive order that “freezes the assets of designated proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their supporters and prohibits U.S. persons from engaging in any transaction with them,” the statement says.

Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey said the bank is “an institution that has supported Iran’s nuclear program in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions” (Agence France-Presse II/Spacewar.com, Nov 5).

In Prague, a proposal has moved forward in the Czech parliament to permit sales of equipment and services in support of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Czech News Agency reported. The plant is scheduled to begin operation this year (Czech News Agency, Nov. 5).

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 7, 2009 10:03 AM

    A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks

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