Albright: Inflexible U.S. Policy Could Spur Iran to Accelerate Nuclear Arms Program

September 12, 2003

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former weapons inspector at the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says Iran is secretly developing a capability to build nuclear weapons and that it could produce them by 2005. But he says that there is still room for the IAEA to fashion an arrangement that would allow Iran to pursue peaceful uses of atomic energy— if U.S. negotiators adopt a more flexible approach. “I worry mostly that the United States isn’t really up to this serious challenge that Iran poses and the next results could be that United States policy actually speeds up the day that Iran has nuclear weapons, rather than the other way around.”

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Albright was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on September 12, 2003.

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The IAEA board today called on Iran to be more cooperative and to sign an additional protocol by the end of October on its nuclear program. What is the significance of this?

I think the IAEA is trying to understand Iran’s nuclear program, and it’s encountering difficulties. Iran is not being fully transparent about all of its nuclear activities, and the IAEA worries that Iran has done things that are in violation of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And so it has to be very careful to systematically investigate Iranian statements and then integrate [what it gleans from those statements] with information it has from other countries or open sources. And I think the IAEA feels that this isn’t open-ended. It can’t just be that Iran over the next several years answers these questions. There has to be an actual deadline.

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Moreover, member states of the IAEA, particularly the United States and countries in Europe, want this process to reach a conclusion. The IAEA would either say that Iran is cooperating, it’s answering our questions, it has turned a corner, or that Iran is not going to cooperate and it’s time for the board of governors to rule that Iran is in noncompliance and then push the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

The first words of an article that you and Corey Hinderstein wrote for the current issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are: “Iran has been secretly developing the capability to make nuclear weapons.” Is that still your view?

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Definitely. This whole issue is that Iran has been uncovered having a wide range of secret nuclear activities, most of which are focused on gaining the capability and know-how to make nuclear explosive material, namely highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium. Iran denies that and says, “Well, we did this in secret, but all the output of these facilities, once they are finished, will be for civilian purposes.” And so, for example, they will say, “We will not produce highly enriched uranium that can be used in nuclear weapons. We would produce well-enriched uranium that could be used as fuel.”

We carefully said in our article that Iran is secretly developing a “capability.” We don’t have direct evidence that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program right now.

How quickly could Iran have nuclear weapons?

In a worst-case assessment, Iran could make enough highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons by the end of 2005. If Iran decided to launch a crash program to make nuclear weapons, it certainly could reach that deadline. So, you don’t want this crisis with Iran to get out of control, so that Iran just says, “Okay, we’ve had it, throw the IAEA out. We know the United States has it in for us. So we’re going to go all-out to get nuclear weapons because that’s our best defense.”

Iran reportedly has a new missile, the Shahab-3, that apparently can carry nuclear warheads.

Yes, they’ve deployed it. It can carry a 2,200-pound payload as far as 900 miles. It’s been interpreted for a long time as a system that would really deliver nuclear or biological weapons. It’s not a system that would really deliver conventional weaponry. So it is seen as a strategic weapon and is viewed in a very threatening manner.

What is motivating the Iranians? With the Iraqi threat gone, are the Iranians concerned that the United States will be on its borders?

I think their security concerns are multi-faceted and they certainly change with time. In my assessment, most of the indications are that, around the late 1990s, Iran recommitted itself to developing a nuclear weapons capability. At that time, Iran had to be very worried about Iraq, because Iraq had thrown the U.N. inspectors out. Iran did not want to be the last country to have nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

The Iraq threat is clearly gone now. Iran certainly feels a threat from the United States and a threat from Israel. It also feels that a lot of countries in the area— India, Pakistan, and Israel— have nuclear weapons, so why shouldn’t they.

If you look at the situation from what we know, it is hard to determine if Iran is now in the throes of a debate. [If it is] one side [may be] saying, “We’re going to cheat, we’ll never change, we want nuclear weapons, and all we do with the IAEA stalls the inevitable conflict.” The other side [may be considering] whether to give up these nuclear weapons capabilities. I don’t think we can tell from the information available.

What is the purpose of the new protocol the IAEA wants Iran to sign?

The purpose of the protocol is to allow the IAEA to do more things [in Iran]; to give it more places to do inspections, to take environmental samples that are aimed at detecting minute traces of nuclear material that may have been produced in secret. It requires Iran to declare much more about its nuclear activities. What you have is greater access for the IAEA and more openness on the part of Iran.

Is it likely that, if Iran refuses to cooperate with the IAEA, Israel might be tempted to attack its nuclear plants, as it did in 1981 when it destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak?

You’ve already seen stories in the media in that direction. I think Israel, based on statements of its own officials, feels that there is a clock ticking, in the sense that if the Iranians get a certain distance, or accomplish certain things on building these facilities, there’ll be no stopping them. I don’t think it is very realistic. I disagree with those who think it was a big success to knock out the Osirak reactor. In the Iranian case, we have seen a great deal of evidence that they understand the dispersion of their program is probably the best way they have to survive military strikes. You can wound the program, but it is very unlikely you could stop Iran from building facilities in secret to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, and building them very rapidly.

One of the big stories of the 1970s was the U.S. agreement to provide Shah Reza Pahlavi’s government in Iran with nuclear capabilities for peaceful uses. Was that the start of Iran’s program?

Certainly, the United States, through its Atoms for Peace program, helped educate Iranians on a lot of nuclear subjects. And the Shah did launch a nuclear weapons program, a rather small one. The United States had a very naive view of things. It woke up in the 1970s, first in the Ford administration, and then in the Carter administration and realized that providing peaceful nuclear technologies and facilities could cut both ways— and started to back away from [the program].

Who stepped in to replace the United States?

First Germany, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Germany stopped because of the Iran-Iraq war and never picked it up again, partly under pressure from the United States but partly because the Germans went through some transformations and realized that this was dangerous activity. At that point, Russia stepped in, and China has been willing to step in, too.

Russia’s role is crucial now, isn’t it?

For the nuclear power reactor at Bushehr, yes. Russia is making a lot of money. It wants to finish the deal. Interestingly, however, Russia has started doing things to indicate it is beginning to get worried that Iran perhaps is not being sufficiently transparent with the IAEA. The Russians are slowing down a bit. For instance, one of the conditions that Russia demanded from Iran, because of proliferation concerns, is that when the reactor discharges spent fuel, which contains plutonium made in the reactor, Iran has to send that spent fuel to Russia for ultimate disposal. It can’t stockpile it and in essence have a plutonium stock growing.

Have the Iranians agreed to that?

The Iranians agreed. The deal was supposed to be signed in September but now Iran has imposed conditions and the Russians have said, “Sorry, we just can’t agree to do this now. We can’t sign it.” So it is going to be delayed. I wouldn’t expect Iran to stop work at Bushehr, but if Iran [does not make its procedures more transparent], Russia may just start to slow down the process.

Explain the dispute over Natanz.

Natanz is a site that was being built by Iran in secret. The Iranians were putting together a capability using gas centrifuges to enrich uranium. It is a very large facility [but] it was not that easy to find. An Iranian opposition group helped everybody, including intelligence agencies, by identifying the secret Natanz site. Then Iran started to admit what it really was. It had sort of implied some things to the IAEA last summer, but by February 2003 it was willing to acknowledge that this was a very large gas centrifuge facility under construction, and they had some centrifuges there. In fact, when Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, went there in February, he was actually surprised by the sophistication of the centrifuges. Iran accomplished a lot in secret.

Is this the most likely place the Iranians might try to develop nuclear weapons?

It’s the most likely place they could make enriched uranium and they could make a decision to make highly enriched uranium there. But one of the issues is there may be other places we don’t even know anything about. If this thing turns bad relatively rapidly, the Iranians could turn to building secret facilities that we’d have very little chance of discovering.

What’s your prognosis?

My main worry, to be honest, is not so much what Iran may do. I think that if this is worked properly, Iran can be steered away from a nuclear weapons program. The problem I see is that the United States is not in a good position to do anything but confront Iran. In essence, the United States says Iran is bad, it is part of the “axis of evil,” and it needs to be stopped, so let’s go at it and let’s kick this thing out to the Security Council and impose harsh sanctions against Iran.

Maybe sanctions like that can work and turn Iran around. But often they do not work, and I don’t see the United States having a very good policy that includes threatening punishment and carrying out punishments, but also producing change from positive inducements. I think the United States is not very flexible; the Iran policy suffers from the same kind of internal fights that have plagued the Iraq policy and the North Korea policy.

And so I worry mostly that the United States isn’t really up to this serious challenge that Iran poses and the next results could be that United States policy actually speeds up the day that Iran has nuclear weapons, rather than the other way around.

Is the United States opposed to even a peaceful nuclear program in Iran?

Yes. Some United States officials have said that the Bushehr reactor is more of a threat than Natanz. I think that is not true. Their argument is that Bushehr can make plutonium, and you can take the plutonium from the spent fuel and then you have plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. It’s theoretically possible but not very probable, and it is much more threatening that Iran could build a gas centrifuge facility that would be well-hidden, not involve that many centrifuges, and be capable of producing highly enriched uranium. And we wouldn’t even know they were doing it until it was done. And the time frames aren’t that much different.

One thing is good and clear. Iran should not have a peaceful nuclear program unless it is fully transparent to the IAEA. Even Russia, at least on paper, agrees with that.

Why did France and Germany support the United States so enthusiastically on the Iran issue?

It shows that there is much better evidence that Iran— compared with Iraq— may be up to something aimed at getting nuclear weapons. There is genuine concern about Iran and there is a method to proceed, through Iran coming into compliance with all its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA. The problem— and here there will be a division— is this: Under the NPT, Iran can have Natanz, so long as it is safeguarded or inspected and committed to peaceful uses. I and others feel that Iran shouldn’t have Natanz. It is too dangerous. There is a weakness in the NPT that allows countries to have facilities like Natanz that, once they are finished, could produce enough highly enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons in a few days.

The line I would draw is that you could live with the Busehehr power reactor under certain conditions [that] would demonstrate over time that Iran has backed away from an intention to build nuclear weapons. There is room for compromise. I would prefer that there be no Bushehr, but I also know that Iran in secret could build a gas centrifuge plant if it destroys Natanz, and we may not find it. So we have to live with a certain amount of risk, but we can manage that risk and find a solution with Iran. But right now, the United States is not even entertaining the idea of letting Bushehr continue, and if the United States doesn’t change, there may not be any solution other than having this go to some major confrontation.


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