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Albright: Next U.S. President Must Deal Quickly with Iran Nuclear Program

Interviewee: David Albright, President, Institute for Science and International Security
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 3, 2008

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David Albright, a well-known expert on Iran’s nuclear program, says Iran seems determined to press ahead with its uranium-enrichment program, despite continued pressure from the UN Security Council to suspend its work. The latest report from the UN’s nuclear agency, the IAEA, indicates Iran is pressing ahead with its program. Albright doubts the Bush administration can come up with a diplomatic formula to halt Iran, and the new U.S. president “is going to face an Iran with a growing nuclear capability, and will have to move quickly, thinking more creatively and broadly about how to put together a diplomatic strategy.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] issued its latest report on Iran’s nuclear situation last week. What does it tell us, now, about where Iran is standing in relation to developing the capacity to build nuclear weapons if the Iranians choose to do so?

The report says (PDF) that Iran is moving relatively slowly on enriching uranium. Uranium is being enriched in three thousand of the so-called P1 centrifuges that are at the underground Natanz enrichment plant. But the report also talks about a new generation of centrifuges, called a “modified P2,” that is now being tested at the Natanz pilot plant. It’s about two and a half times more powerful than the P1 centrifuge and is generally a better centrifuge. The P1 was produced and used in Pakistan [therefore the letter “P”]. Pakistanis, as quickly as possible, moved to the P2. So Iran is following the natural path, which is to try to move beyond the P1 and get to a next-generation machine.

Did Iran buy these from Pakistan? Or did they make them themselves?

Iran bought the designs from Pakistan for the P2, but it’s not building an exact replica of the P2. It’s made some modifications in the one it’s testing in Natanz right now, and made it simpler to build, because Iranian capabilities aren’t the greatest. And without access to further Pakistani assistance, they are more or less on their own.

We seem to go back and forth on whether Iran is going ahead at a high rate or not. What is the actual situation? You say they’ve slowed down actually?

They’re operating three thousand P1 centrifuges. But they’re not operating these centrifuges anywhere near the level they could operate at. Their machines have barely been enriching uranium. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be seeking to establish as many “facts” on the ground as possible. And the most important “fact” has been getting three thousand P1 centrifuges installed and up and running. In doing so, they’ve likely made a fair number of mistakes. And they’re paying a cost now for that rapid installation. They’re enriching uranium at a very low level, and are having technical problems that they’re going to have to overcome before their machines can reach optimal outputs of enriched uranium.

What else did the report say?

The report focuses extensively on a work plan negotiated between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency last summer on getting answers to a series of questions that have been outstanding for a couple of years about Iran’s past nuclear program. This report states that the IAEA has made progress on answering a number of these questions. The IAEA is not, however, saying “They’ve answered all our questions, we have confidence that they’re truthful and complete answers.” Rather, the agency is using language like, “Well, the information from Iran is consistent with what we know.” Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, uses the term “clarifies” in describing Iran’s answers to their questions. But the information isn’t sufficient for the IAEA to say it is confident that Iranhas revealed its entire past nuclear activities. You have a situation where people are free to make political statements about this information. ElBaradei puts a positive cast on the situation by saying in effect that Iran “clarified” the questions so we can now move on. We have Iran saying essentially, “We’ve answered the questions—case closed. We’re not going to answer any more questions in these areas or provide any more information.” And the technical-safeguards people at the IAEA are saying, “The information is consistent or not inconsistent with what we know, but we don’t know if it’s the complete information, and we will need to do more work to find out if it’s the whole truth.”

Please talk about the other aspects of the report, dealing with the so-called laptop documents. What are they actually?

One of the issues for the IAEA is: Did Iran have a nuclear weaponization program at some time in the past? And Iran says: “Absolutely not. We never even thought about getting nuclear weapons. And all our nuclear activities have been exclusively peaceful.” Two and a half years ago, the United States provided the IAEA a set of documents that were on a laptop that had been taken out of Iran secretly. These documents contained information about making a reentry vehicle large enough to hold what looks to be a nuclear warhead, as well as experiments with explosives that are related to making nuclear weapons. The documents also show some work on building a deep shaft underground that could be related to a nuclear test shaft for an underground explosion. And there is some information about uranium-conversion activities, which have a name called the Green Salt Project.

If Iran achieves a nuclear-weapons capability, it can decide to build nuclear weapons and may be able to do it relatively quickly. And there would be few options that could stop them short of war.

The United States, in doing its National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, gathered some new information that allowed the intelligence community to look back at information, like the laptop documents and other information they had acquired, and say, “Well, we now think this was part of a nuclear weapons program.” Assessing all of this information, they concluded with “high confidence” that there was a nuclear weapons program in the past. In addition, other states have since provided the IAEA with information that also points to a nuclear weaponization effort.

The IAEA has asked Tehran to explain this information, and Iran has taken the position that there’s nothing to any of it, explaining it away as related either to conventional weaponry or outright forgeries. The IAEA reported last week that it’s been unable to get an answer from Iran on this outstanding question in the workplan. ElBaradei has said that they are still working with Iran to address these issues and hope to get the information they seek soon.

Part of the reason this issue involving the laptop documents has gone on so long is that the IAEA understandably felt it couldn’t really press Iran until they could share some of the evidence from the laptop documents. The United States only recently gave approval for the IAEA to do that.

The notes of a confidential IAEA briefing for member states on the alleged studies become available this week, summarizing a two-hour briefing by the deputy director of safeguards, Olli Heinonen, in Vienna on February 25, 2008. Heinonen laid out the contents of the laptop documents and information from other member states about what looks to be part of the work related to producing a deliverable nuclear weapon. 

Heinonen did not accuse Iran of having had a nuclear-weapons effort. He said the IAEA had more work to do before it could reach that conclusion.  The briefing included information on the development of a reentry vehicle designed to carry a “spherical warhead” that looks like a nuclear warhead, although this information does not mention the word nuclear or nuclear weapon. The information shows that the missile reentry vehicle and its warhead would explode at six hundred meters. According to the notes, Heinonen said that this altitude excludes the hypothesis of conventional explosives as well as chemical or biological charges. To conclude the briefing Heinonen showed a video that showed elements of the reentry vehicle from all angles and its assembly andpreparation for laboratory testing.

When the new president of the United States takes over next year, what is he or she going to be faced with?

The Iranian nuclear engineers and scientists are pretty capable, and what they’re focusing on now are two things. One is getting the three thousand P1 centrifuges to work better, and learning how to make modified P2 centrifuges that can then eventually replace the P1. You have an Iranian nuclear program that’s just as determined as ever to enrich large amounts of enriched uranium, which would allow Iranto arrive at a point where it has a nuclear weapons capability. So I worry that the new president will be faced with an Iran that has moved further down that path, toward a nuclear weapons capability, and will have to take creative diplomatic action to halt Iran ’s activities.

Do you get any sense from the Iranians that they might be more flexible if the United States and its allies dropped its demand that the Iranians suspend their enrichment for negotiations to take place, and instead, just opened negotiations without preconditions?

I don’t think it would make a difference in the Bush administration. For one thing, I’m not sure the Bush administration could decide to make that offer. Two, I’m not sure the Iranians would view it as enough. We may have to wait for the next administration, which will have the advantage of approaching its relationship with Iran with a clean slate. I would say that the goal should remain suspension. From a nonproliferation perspective, it is difficult to live with three thousand centrifuges, even P1 centrifuges, in Iran. If it achieves a nuclear- weapons capability, Iran can decide to build nuclear weapons and may be able to do it relatively quickly. And there would be few options that could stop them short of war. So it’s critical that the goal remains suspension of the Iranian enrichment program until confidence is achieved that Iran isn’t going to try to build weapons. It’s not acceptable to say, “Ok, we’ll permit a freeze,” where three thousand machines continue to operate and Iran continues to learn how to operate the machines better. The United States is going to have to start to link the settlement of this nuclear issue to security assurances from the United States. A new administration will have the freedom to do that.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, uses the term “clarifies” in describing Iran’s answers to their questions. But the information isn’t sufficient for the IAEA to say it is confident that Iran has revealed its entire past nuclear activities.

There is a need to find a diplomatic strategy whereby both sides get what they want. One way to try to achieve this is through interim negotiations that have no preconditions where issues can be put on the table, and then each side can start to produce what the other needs for an agreement. The Bush administration appears to me to be unwilling to pursue that kind of diplomatic strategy.

A new administration could launch that kind of negotiation. And if it wanted to broaden the negotiation to other areas, such as terrorism, the Middle East, or Israel-Palestinian peace issues, or Iraq, it could do so without disrupting the central nuclear negotiations. A new president is going to face an Iran with a growing nuclear capability, and will have to move quickly, thinking more creatively and broadly about how to put together a diplomatic strategy. If he or she doesn’t, the United States will quickly be in a similar position to the Bush administration. There is also the issue of Israel, which is extremely upset that a country like Iran is moving towards a nuclear-weapons capability. Israel views Iran as posing an existential threat to its security; it could also attack Iran militarily, regardless of the consequences. In the end, Israel may calculate that an Iran with nuclear weapons could destroy Israel, and so is willing to accept the many risks of an attack.

And then what does the United States do? In the Bush administration, there was some support for the United States to attack instead, on grounds that we would be seen as supporting it regardless. The United States can launch a much more devastating attack, destroying both nuclear and conventional facilities, making retaliation much more difficult. The next administration, if it doesn’t solve this problem diplomatically, could find itself in a similar position. Its members may be less sympathetic to military action, but they might be driven toward that end by Israel. To avoid this, it will be important for the next administration to act quickly to put together a new diplomatic strategy that engages and deters Iran.

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